June 24, 2000
Steve's motorcycle carried us down a smooth dirt road through a dense, young South Indian forest. "On our left is the greenbelt," he told me, "and on the right is the main city." I saw nothing but green in every direction. Was this man delusional?
Years ago, when Steve moved from California to Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India, I'm sure his friends and family feared just that. Auroville is an experiment in international community living started by a 20th century guru named Sri Aurobindo (the same man who inspired the Aurovind eye clinic that Jasmine visited) and one of his disciples, known as the Mother. Their vision was, and still is, to create a city of 50,000 people from all over the world, with a greenbelt around it, and a center called the Matrimandir (Mother's temple) for meditation and quiet reflection. It is to be "a testing ground and laboratory for the next step in human evolution," celebrating "unity in diversity," where all cultures and languages come together to live and learn from each other.
For the next hour, Steve drove me around the "city center," looking at small settlements in the forest. Some are groups of individual houses, others are tall apartment buildings; most have windmills or solar panels for electricity, and are built with innovative, low cost, environmentally friendly materials. Steve works at Auroville's Center for Scientific Research, and he tells me all about their experiments with new building technologies, renewable energy such as solar and bio-gas, and wastewater treatment ponds, and he shows me several houses that he's built himself! Things like wastewater treatment and electricity may not seem that exciting, but if you're planning to build a city, you've got to think long and hard about these things!
Today, 32 years after it was founded, Auroville is home to 1,500 people from nearly 30 different countries. About one-third of them are Indians, mostly from Tamil Nadu. Aurovillians live in 80 settlements of varying sizes, and are still learning, growing, and purchasing the land necessary to make this dream a reality. I just spent a week here, cruising around on the back of motorcycles and mopeds or on a bicycle I rented, meeting Aurovillians. I am still amazed that such a place exists and is growing strong!
Unlike Steve, Selvaraj grew up with Auroville. He was born and raised in one of the 13 native Tamil villages that are basically being surrounded by this growing community. (Auroville has no intention of buying the village or temple land within its sphere). He went to the first schools the local children ever had, which were started by Auroville in its early days. When his school closed for lack of funding, Selvaraj and several of his friends went around asking people to teach them, and eventually the schools were started up again.
As we sat outside his modern house, he pointed east. "Before Auroville started, you could see from here, several kilometers to the ocean" he tells me. "The land was completely dry and barren in every direction." Because the locals used wood for cooking and building, and cleared the land for agriculture, the native forest had been completely destroyed. One of the first things that the original pioneers of Auroville did was plant lots and lots of trees. Today, the difference is amazing. The temperature here is several degrees cooler than in the nearby town, because the ground is shaded and holds moisture now. The land is more fertile, and the water table is rising.
My first thought, upon learning about Auroville, was "what do the locals think?" How would you feel if a bunch of outsiders started buying up land around your home for a huge social experiment? Selvaraj is intelligent, realistic, and someone who straddles the two worlds, so I asked him. "Everyone in all the villages would say that they are glad that Auroville is here," he told me. Auroville has improved the environment, brought schools and health clinics, and trained local adults in small industries, handicrafts, and first aid. They directly employ 4-5,000 locals, and directly feed the equivalent of over 3,500 US dollars into the local economy every day (which, in India, is a lot!).
Still he admits that the relations between the Aurovillians and the villagers are not without problems. There is still a great disparity of wealth, and sometimes prejudices and misunderstandings arise. Instead of complaining about them, though, Selvaraj is working to change them. He has helped start a high school for local students, and organizes scholarship opportunities to take them abroad. He also works to bring groups of Aurovillian students and local students together.
Like Selvaraj, Lila was born and raised at Auroville, but as the daughter of two Aurovillians of French descent. I met her at "the pyramid," an art building at the Auroville high school where she was working on a glass sculpture. At 21, she's had quite a different education than most people. The Mother, on whose principles Auroville was founded, believed in what she called "joyful learning," where each child decided what and how long he or she would study.
Lila is a fantastic artist! She devotes most of her time and energy these days to her artistic pursuits. But it wasn't always that way, and the experiment in education had some flaws. "Eight-year-olds don't know what they want to study!" she told me as we sat drinking tea. Her early years of school sound like they were pretty chaotic, unfocused, and unproductive as far as really learning anything useful. This is an experiment in human interactions and culture. But it wasn't until I met Lila that I fully realized the implications of "social experiments."
Lila has turned out great! She is fun, interesting, intelligent and full of life. She speaks English and French fluently, and is trying to learn the Tamil language with the help of her Tamil boyfriend. Although she may not have had the best education as far as going out in the world to get a 9 to 5 job, some things have gone right, and she is one of the first products of this "human experiment," crossing cultures and choosing her own path.
What will happen as the city grows? How can people from so many diverse cultures and backgrounds make effective decisions in a group with no leader? Is there an end to this experiment? Is this just a small example to show what will slowly be happening to the rest of the world, as globalization continues? Auroville has given me a lot of new friends and a lot of big questions. What do you think about Auroville?
For more info, check Auroville's website at: http://www.auroville-india.org/
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...email@example.com
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