“Auroville – a universal town of humanity with its quiet spiritual experience is a must-see in Pondicherry,” pointed a website during my research.
I desperately needed a break from routine and when a friend from Chennai agreed to join, we headed to Auroville. My minimal research included highlighting a couple of options for accommodation, the must see/do which points to ‘meditation in Matri Mandir’.
Journey is pretty easy. There are frequent buses from Chennai to Pondicherry (prefer the ECR route) and a rickshaw from Pondicherry to Auroville takes less than half hour.
The red rustic roads surrounded by greenery was instantly soothing. Visitor center with it’s large trees, wooden wind chimes, red brick building has a very natural grounded character. It housed a cafe that you could laze at for hours, and a few boutique shops that sold clothes, books, bags, incense and a lot more. Although a concrete white building as visitor information center seemed quite out of place amidst the natural surroundings.
We learnt that to meditate at “matri mandir,” the following day, we should get entry passes which are provided until 3.30 pm; and for that, we must watch a video. No, it’s not optional. Video provides information on Auroville, the community’s philosophy, charter, the mother, her vision, “matri mandir” etc. All very useful information no doubt, but it seemed like a corporate marketing video; and I would have preferred a booklet, so I could read in my own time.
Entry passes in hand for 8.30 am following day, we head to the visitor information center.
In the blissful moment of successfully getting the passes, we didn’t pay attention to where we were supposed to arrive at 8.30 am. I ask the gentleman sitting behind a desk at the information center. He could have been from US given his accent, but I am no expert. His response “Didn’t they tell you. They are supposed to tell you”. Either he gets too many questions or he thinks people should be accountable or he was just having a bad day. Whatever the reason, he was terribly annoyed with my question. My inner voice seemed to scream “didn’t I read this place is a universal town of humanity”…but the mind is quick to admonish me not to judge.
Actively discouraged from asking anymore questions, we move on to find accommodation. The room we are pointed to for information on accommodation, bikes on hire etc is closed.
There are two reasons I don’t book accommodation ahead in India. 1. I don’t trust pictures on websites; 2. I trust the opinion of locals. And so far, this approach hasn’t failed me!
But the locals here point us to the closed room. So we decide on trying my backup choice of listings. It was so hot and humid that there was no way we could walk without passing out in 12 minutes, so we hire a rickshaw. I go into short detail about our experience with finding accommodation; although it may not be the most interesting read, there is a point.
First shortlist…Rs 3500 a night. When we thought it was expensive, we were gently reminded that the money goes to build the community.
Second option….We find the reception area and the entire site devoid of human presence! The only person I see is a foreigner working on her computer in office behind the reception. I knock to get her attention, she sees us, turns and continues with her work. I knock again and she ignores.
Third…. Watchman informs us that reception staff left for the day. Even though rooms are available, we can’t call on anyone because it’s Sunday. We’ve learnt not to let the rickshaw go, although his price keeps changing based on our desperation.
Another place needs minimum of 3 nights. I started wondering if Auroville was in India. If you’ve ever traveled in India, you know that anything is possible in India.
Another couple of hours of disappointments later, traveling 8 kms into the town and back, our prayers and phone call were answered. We ended up in a beautiful guesthouse within 5 minutes walking distance from visitor center. Of the many people we asked, no one pointed this place that was at arms length distance. It baffled me.
The next day, after a basic breakfast and some stale tea at guest house, we head to meditate. Or so I thought!
A group of maybe 30 people reach the visitor center at 8.30 am and are escorted to ‘matri mandir site.’ After lodging our meager belongings, we wait again. The smug gentleman from yesterday comes over, this time with a smile on his face. He was our guide to the site and starts off with repeating information from yesterday’s video and adds a lot more detail i.e architecture of matri mandir site, information on the architect, why pure 24 carat gold is used, significance of number 12, reads out names of 12 gardens, 12 petals from post it notes and more. No, I don’t recall much of it.
It’s been a couple of hours since I arrived to meditate and it took a lot of restraint to not say “can I just go and meditate.”
We then head to the bottom of this golden sphere and wait. Soothing sound of water coupled with cool breeze was a welcome change from the information overload. We are then escorted into the meditation center. It was ‘White’, and I was reminded of the movie “The Island.” Yes, I am one of the few who watched the movie and remembers too. Wearing white socks, walking on white carpeted ramp, walking past people from various nationalities standing 3 mts apart, I try to take note of every detail. This apparently is referred to as “a place to find one’s consciousness”, so I don’t take it lightly.
Despite my intentions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I am going to meditate for spiritual enlightenment in an over the top fantasy sci-fi building.
We enter the inner chamber which is the main meditation area. There are white pillars, white cushions and a beautiful crystal in the center with a beam of light on it. That certainly should help focusing even my wildly untamed mind. Or so I thought again!
People are asked to stay as quite as possible, withholding coughing or leaving the room to avoid disturbing others. The echo makes every small movement prominent. And they were right! You could most possibly hear bowel movements of your neighbor if there were any. Trying to ignore the sounds, I try to concentrate. 15 minutes later, long before I managed to focus, the light blinks twice telling us it’s time to leave! Sigh! At this rate, finding my consciousness would need a miracle.
Second time visitors have the promise of quicker registration process to enter one of the petals (rooms attached to inner chamber). I might just choose a banyan tree though.
A debrief and Q & A session later, we head back. I try to shop at the boutique shops in the visitor center to lift my spirits. But the ridiculous prices meant I stick to buying some herbal supplements.
Returning from Auroville, I tried to gather my thoughts on how I felt about it. There are lot of people volunteering in this place and I am sure they wouldn’t be staying if they absolutely didn’t love it. So whatever conclusions I draw are solely from this experience.
The accommodation at Atiti Griha guesthouse had a beautiful charm to it. I could easily stay in this beautiful setting, reading, writing, listening to music etc, if only they served some decent tea.
Other than that, I left feeling that I attended an offsite corporate workshop. Admittedly, I only spent 2 nights, but did I have the inclination to stay longer? I doubted it!
Auroville makes it clear that its’ not a tourist destination, which certainly was ‘not’ what I wanted. But was it a spiritual community. In my experience, it was too governed by rules to be humane, let alone spiritual.
And I don’t prefer volunteering or spending money on a community where millions of dollars are spent on building a meditation center obsessively using gold and carl ziess crystal. Surprisingly, for all the information overload, nothing was mentioned about cost of building the matri mandir and at whose expense. Out of brief curiosity I checked online and found only one reference in this blog, although I can’t vouch for it’s content. https://nandhivarman.wordpress.com/2008/06/12/probe-aurovilles-matrimandir-scam/
Although not any closer to enlightenment, I hadn’t in my wildest dreams saw myself meditating in a building surrounded with pure gold. If that doesn’t make one happy, I don’t know what else will!