Notes of our pilgrimage to India
It’s a humid, lethargic morning here in Auroville, after a sudden rain and a brilliant, solitary flash of lightening passed over rapidly in the night. Like a slowly settling blanket, the heat descends every morning in Southern India, until the cloud-cover breaks and the sun beams through. Finally a breeze begins to arise, cooling the layer of sweat that coats your body day and night.
In this gently forested compound we have stayed for a week, in a community called Verite, just one of the many dedicated to their chosen expression of the over-arching goal of Auroville: an experiment in human unity, and a buzzing hive of visionary controversy and activity.
Whereas economic social structures tend to be centrifugal, and will cast you into the outer darkness if you do not constantly tend and renew your relationship with them, Auroville is centripetal. From our first casual conversation with a young Indian entrepreneur while seeking directions to a guest house, we’ve found a near claim being staked upon us. “You belong” is the message. We feel nearly entwined, as if a thousand stealthy tendrils now lightly hold us – tendrils elastic enough to span continents and years.
Let’s paint the portrait a little further. Auroville was born of a barren landscape, denuded of jungle a century before to dislocate tigers, on a plain outside of the old, elegant French city of Pondicherry, situated upon the Bay of Bengal. Early pioneers, inspired by the visionary activity of Sri Aurobindo’s shakti, a French woman called everywhere the Mother, began roughing it among the scorpions and serpents, creating a community of the future where human unity would be achieved not only on a social/economic level, but primary in a higher consciousness. “Man is a transitional being,” Sri Aurobindo wrote, and the Mother declared Auroville to be an alchemical vessel, an experiment in man’s next steps in evolution.
Fittingly, in the center of the maze of dirt roads, wandering cows, bicycling tourists and villagers walking balancing stacks of firewood upon their heads, is the Matrimandir. At first appearance, I must confess it looked a little post-modern tacky. Designed by the French architect Roger Anger (pronounced Anjay), the Matrimandir looks like a slightly flattened golden golf ball from the distance, sitting on a squat tee, waiting for Krishna to putt it into outer space. It is concrete raised to an artform – a gigantic sphere upon which are mounted hundreds of disks, each disk covered with hundreds of specially fired tiles containing gold. It is, therefore, akin to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, in its unique way.
The Matrimandir is the soul of Auroville. You especially get this upon finally gaining entrance, when any idea of tacky post-modernism falls away and you enter a futuristic, meticulously crafted realm of glowing lights, finely cut stone, and a structure designed to contain an immense centripetal energy, as if a Gothic cathedral had been cast into some Einsteinian matter-bending time-space warp and ended up with all its edges curved inward. Descending in appropriate awe up spiraling walkways, you enter the crown chakra of the space, a white-tiled chamber with mercilessly echoing acoustics, dark except for a single ray of adamantine light falling directly upon a huge crystal sitting enthroned in the center of the room, pillars of milky white rising into the whiteness above your head encircling Her.
That’s the conclusion you reach after a few days, at any rate.
As you can imagine, this place is pretty seductive. Soon after arrival, Susana began trekking about, knocking at the door of communities and introducing herself, and soon settled into an apprenticeship at a beading factory. Fifteen Tamil women, wreathed in smiles, greeted her upon her arrival and then two of them graciously tried, over several days, to train her hands to work as quickly and precisely as theirs. An ambitious goal from both sides. Yet, how much fun! Susana’s non-verbal communication improved lots and she shared many smiles and much laughter as she tried to find her way through the art of beading.
In that strange way the Auroville seems to lie in wait, Susana was detected by Aurovillians interested in her skills as a Holotropic Breathwork facilatator, and she will lead one this afternoon. As if planned by a higher eye, Aurelio, a music therapist in residence at of Verite, had made copies of Susana’s highly specialized HB CD’s five years ago, under the agreement he wouldn’t use them for breathwork. Today, they have resurfaced to fulfill their original purpose.
We’ve been drawn into discussions on the creation of university extension here at Auroville, and the possibilities of getting in at the inception of such a project, mucked out among the dirt, insects, local Tamil villagers, and cantankerous pioneering Aurovillians with their now entrenched corrupt ruling Brahmins, has nearly gotten us packing up our cats and hitting the road for Mother India. You can say each person you encounter here is an entire wealth of a planet: anarchism, the 60’s, mysticism, creativity, crazy personal stories, all in one place. Yes, we belong in some way to this type of tribe and this recognition is such a relief.
But finally, let’s really step back and attempt to give you some news.
We saw little of the exotic color of the country at first. Arriving in the airport after a 24 hour transit to New Delhi, we quickly learned that if we were to travel by train to Chennai, the old Madras, from where we would catch a bus to “Pondy,” we would have to leave that evening, so our dreams of getting a good night’s sleep evaporated as we purchased our tickets for another 30 hour transit.
Our glimpse India’s most populated city was mainly of weaving traffic, us gasping and exhaling in relief as if we were on a rollercoaster, and then of the legendary, teeming crowds of the city, cows wandering placidly in their midst. We lay on our backs looking at the fan rotating on the ceiling of our concrete hotel room until the moment came to find our train and board. We made it to the station only to find the teeming humanity seemed even more concentrated there, and upon entering our train found the section without air conditioning, where we would have a single padded pallet without sheets or pillow to sleep upon, similarly jammed. That evening out of Delhi people slept on the floor. We ate nothing and drank little, fearing stomach ailments in a cramped space. We did begin learning quickly about the character of the Indian people, how they through simple gestures transformed their environment into a place of love. The husband who sat up all night carefully laid out a single, clean cloth upon the floor for his wife to rest upon (Susana ended up sleeping with her baby boy at her feet). As the landscape chugged by, the train emptied gradually and we came to realize maybe our choice hadn’t been as bad as we’d feared. Immediate immersion has its benefits. A tip: only buy sleeper train tickets if you earnestly love physical contact, community sharing, heat, plain wind in your face, Indian squat toilets, and mixing it up day and night with everybody else. Otherwise, first class is the right choice.
Arriving in Chennai, our auto-rickshaw driver maneuvered us into renting a ridiculously expensive room for the evening and then asked for additional “happy money” for his services – we showed him the road instead, and found a traditional eatery to finally make an offering to our stomachs.
Having traveled through many different environments, and heard many stories of the unsanitary conditions of India, Robert faced his first banana frond piled with food with trepidation. Now was the moment of gastro-intestinal truth. Would he get laid out with diarrhea and fever like he had in Mexico and Amazonian frontier towns? Instead, the food was so good his stomach chanted grateful thanks for hours afterwards, a warm glow of happiness arising from his midriff.
Chennai led to our first goal via bus: Pondicherry, where the ashram of Sri Aurobindo is located. There we planned to spend a few days exploring before leaving for Auroville. It was stepping out of this whirl of travel in Pondy where Robert finally felt received, and he’s convinced he was welcomed by the elephant in front of the temple of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god which is ubiquitous in the homes, restaurants, schools, vehicles and temples of India. Painted with the same geometric patterns of blessing we had found on the sidewalks before temples, the great beast seemed marvelously compact with its massive, rounding arch of a back, nestled golden eyes in wrinkled pachyderm hide, great snaking trunk gently receiving coins and giving blessings in return. Kindness personified.
He reflected that day that the people of Pondy have something of that same ponderous gentleness, and will actually bless you at the end of halting conversations, accompanied by much head-wagging, just as if a big humid trunk had given you a quick caress.
“How could you not love a country that has elephants ready to give you a blessing in front of its temples?” he asked himself as we continued wandering the street from temple to temple.
These temples are entered through huge gates, surmounted by densely populated roofs of technicolor deities, which open into large courtyards with numerous subtemples. In the center of the temple to Shiva, a lingam sat enthroned in a dark marble chamber, the piped in mantra of the god sounding endlessly. The swamis, as servants of the god, wear only wraps around their waists and move about in an endless choreographed dance of bathing, feeding, massaging, giving to drink, smoking, offering upon damp, aromatic altar stones, festooning, bejeweling and transporting the god in his innumerable representations within the compound throughout the day. Meanwhile, on the ceiling a mechanical drum and horn machine pounds and blares out exotic triumphal marches. The swamis are splendid characters – physical, hairy, masculine, a touch wild in ways that Christian priests are most distinctly not.
Yet at the same time watching the people, the Tamil, at moments we realize that we haven’t a clue what is going on in their minds. Dark enigmas, a completely different people, a truly ancient race whose kingdom was so developed it awed the Roman merchants when they first arrived in 80 b.c.e. Susana sat watching a young local, fancily dressed with cell phone, in a restaurant overlooking the sea, bewildered by the proper usage of a knife wrapped in a napkin: as fork and knife had come to the table wrapped in a napkin, he might have thought it was rather elegant to keep the cover on the knife while eating – locals eat with their fingers, after all. He left his plate unfinished. It was a bewilderment that puzzled her soul. A quietly vertiginous abyss revealed, over which there was no bridge between cultures.
Pondy is a beach town, and our ashram’s guest house was on the third floor of a simple edifice, facing an expanse of ocean patrolled by the local variety of raven, more streamlined than his Northern relatives and with blue-hued wings, fittingly called “craak” in hindi. Almost every day we went for sadhana meditation in the ashram, which offered a contrast to the brassy worship of the gods in the various temples. Each late afternoon, pilgrims and locals line up to approach the white marble tombs of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo and kneel in prayer, their arms extended over the tightly woven tapestries of flowers adorning the saints’ resting place, and then silently arrange themselves to practice unity in consciousness beneath the spreading limbs of the emerald green jacaranda tree that shelters the courtyard. Like the sand paintings of the Tibetans, the flowers on the tombs are a graceful expression of beauty and impermanence which reappear in a new design each day.
There we will leave you, then: standing, hands folded and head slightly bowed, before the tomb of Pondicherry’s premier saints. Until next time, we send you our love from Mother India, Robert and Susana