As I attempted to clamber into the tiny rickshaw I winced in agony. My spine complained painfully at what I was asking of it, each vertebrae sulking from carrying the burden of two weighty rucksacks down an uneven colonial staircase. As I struggled into the diminutive cab, Andrew looked on unsympathetically. A damn cheek I thought, seeing as it was him that had dragged me into the massage parlour that had caused the said lumbar damage.
The previous day, on one of our sweaty promenades through Pondicherry, the fierce temperature had proved to much to bare for my husband, who, like the sun, was also fighting with a hot temper. The remainder of his nicotine habit leaching from his body in poisonous rivulets. We dived into the welcome air conditioning of a very ‘local’ establishment in order to partake of a foot massage. However, once Andrew’s balls were being tickled, I was informed that there was no-one available to play with mine, and therefore would I like to plump for an Indian Head Massage instead? I agreed, and joined Mr Kennedy in a small room, where I was prepared for my therapy, as he groaned in satisfaction whilst already undergoing his.
A friendly young Tamil chap proceeded to rub thick scented oil into my scalp, whilst pulling roughly at my curls. When he came to a knot, he yanked a little harder until the hair came apart, and then parted company with my scalp. After ten minutes he’d pulled at least three handfuls out, and deposited each clump on the small plastic table beside me.
Alarmed, I gave a slight yelp. Andrew chuckled beside me.
I’ve never enjoyed the hairdressers, but this was akin to a cat fight in Holloway Prison, and certainly not the calming experience for which I’d been hoping.
After relieving me of at least a third of my follicular activity, the little git punched me all over the head, taking in my temples, ears, and jawline. I thought I might cry.
He then slapped me repeatedly, a la ‘The Benny Hill Show’, so hard upon my crown that I felt my spine contract under the pressure.
It was one of the most hair-raising experiences of my life.
To cap it all, little Vidal then shampooed me five times with an acidic herbal concoction, and applied intense heat whilst he dragged a plastic comb through my unconditioned barnet.
When we hit the pavement again I looked like Phylis Diller!
Oh just have a cigarette I thought, but didn’t say it.
He is,after all, doing so well.
And so, with my aching back, and Andrew squashed beneath a pile of already far too heavy hand-luggage, we rattled away from the sophistication of ‘Pondy’ towards the hippy utopia known as ‘Auroville’.
We bumped painfully over speed humps and swerved to miss the wildlife, as we left the town and skidded across red dirt roads into the forest of the 1960s township.
An ideal pioneered by a Frenchwoman known as ‘The Mother’ during the age of flower power.
A city where all citizens of the world, despite their creed or nationality could come and live and work together, searching for the universal truth. No religion, no politics and no cash.
‘Eight hundred rupees’ our driver informed us, when we eventually found our guest house.
‘We were told three to four hundred’ I objected.
‘It’s far in Auroville’ he countered, ‘very far!’
‘We’re not paying you that’, Andrew said, his patience light without a Marlboro Light, and knowing the journey was well overpriced. ‘I’ll give you five hundred.’
The driver accepted the amount readily, and drove off rapidly, leaving us to squeeze around the locked gates of the ‘Joy Community Guest House’, throwing our luggage before us onto the rusty dusty ground.
There was not a soul to meet us.
As we headed further into the steamy compound, several scruffy dogs suddenly came at us howling in a most unfriendly fashion. Andrew and I, having a moody mutt of of own, and being quite aware of these canine tricks took no notice. The hounds realised they were barking up the wrong rucksacks and backed off. We eventually came to a seating area and dropped our heavy baggage on the floor both perspiring heavily, with my spine still complaining. A glum faced Indian asked us if we had a booking and I answered in the affirmative.
‘Someone comes soon’ he snarled.
‘Thanks’ I smiled. He glared back.
So far this place had a distinct lack of joy, and there was certainly no community. At least, not one in which I wanted to commune!
After a sweaty quarter of an hour, a young, attractive Tamil woman arrived and asked us to follow her. We struggled across the gravel behind her, laden with bags, and came to a small shack like affair, which she then informed us was named ‘Progress’! Perhaps this was because it didn’t look as though it had finished being built, but I said nothing, and asked Andrew to do the same. When the lady eventually found the correct key she let us in to our home for the next few nights, and then immediately asked one of us to accompany her to the office with our passports.
‘Oh. You go babe’, whined Mr Kennedy, ‘I’m not having a good day!’
I followed our hostess into a small room which contained nothing more than a desk, two seats on either side, and some books stacked in an untidy pile near an archaic looking router.
‘Passport’, she said, without a smile.
I gave the passports and then had to complete the most inordinate amount of paperwork. When I’d finished, she asked me to fetch Andrew to come and do the same. I duly did this, he was not best pleased.
After the formalities were over I asked if we could meet ‘Sara’ the girl with whom I had made the booking.
‘No. Sara only here in morning’ she replied. ‘But you pay me now. In full.’
I did as I’d been told and then asked if there happened to be a shop nearby at which to grab some essentials. Our landlady replied in the affirmative and gave Andrew and I directions to the ‘Ganesh Bakery’, a ‘ten minute walk’ away.
After three quarters of an hour trudging through scorching red earth, in and out of the sticky forest canopy, there was still no sign of any retail business. Only thick woods, unpleasant geriatric hippies on motorbikes and signs directing us to places called, ‘Certitude’, ‘Aspiration’, ‘Sincerity’ and ”Fulfilment’. Overheating and beginning to dehydrate, I was sincerely losing all aspiration and sure that if we didn’t get any liquid fulfilment soon, one of us would certainly be certified!
Finally we arrived at the the ‘Plaza’, a scruffy corner consisting of a bakery and a grocers. After imbibing two flat lime sodas and a couple of vegan samosas at the former, we made our way into the ‘minimart’ to get supplies.
No-one was very friendly. The other ‘Aurovillians’ went about their business in the most uptight of manners. Disconnected and disgusted that any visitor should have the affront to be sharing their sacred space. I threw some manky organic veg into the basket , a bag of rice, and a little sack of spice, Andrew added a packet of Nescafé and a lump of cheese. The most bad tempered Indian we’d yet come across, weighed every pepper, potato and pea-pod individually and then gave us a bill that would have raised eyebrows in the food hall at ‘Harrods’. We were both shocked. So far the only thing spiritual about this place was the fact we were both getting crucified!
That night I made us a strange curry in the communal kitchen which we shared with a charming set of Brazilian twins, definitely the friendliest guys we had come across yet in this most closed of ungated communities. They possessed much more of the spirit of peace, love, harmony and understanding we were expecting of the place.
‘Auroville’, was to have been an inspirational city where those who wanted to live outside the bounds of ego, status and greed could come and join together in an egalitarian unity.
A large piece of barren earth was purchased on the scorched south-east Indian plain and idealistic volunteers from across the world proceeded to create a green and pleasant land on what was once an eroded and infertile desert. Millions of trees were planted, innovative architecture built and the people began to come. There was to be free schooling and free healthcare for all. But not quite as many residents as expected made the move to ‘Auroville’. In a city that was designed for a population of fifty thousand people, only two and a half thousand residents now reside in the town.
The next morning, Andrew and I rose early. Mainly due to the fact that we had spent the night in a tandoori oven. Our tiny room, for which we were paying three times as much as anywhere else in India,( a significant contribution going to the ‘Auroville’ community), had been built out of brick, in a manner of which ‘The Three Little Pigs’ would have highly approved. The temperature must have hit ‘cremate’ at one point and I awoke to find Andrew almost ‘Tikka’d’!
We fled into the cooler forty odd degrees of the wooded grounds outside in an attempt to look for the elusive ‘Sara’. She was still non-existent. A Holy Ghost, as it were! I managed to get what information I could muster from the Indian help, and was advised that we should head to The Visitors’Centre if we wanted to explore the new age town. This we did, as we were keen to get into the vibe of the place.
Feel the energy man. We were both especially excited about visiting ‘The Matrimandir’, a gigantic golden globe at the centre of the sprawling community, which purported to be the spiritual heart of the conurbation.
On reaching The Visitors’ Centre we were both dripping, the forest was more than hot, and the lack of air conditioning and cold water in our shack of a room had taken it’s toll.
I approached a terribly genteel sareed westerner to purchase tickets to enter the spiritual dome.
‘I can give you a pass to the viewing site’ she intoned softly, ‘but if you want to go inside ‘The Matrimandir’ you will need to go upstairs and speak to someone else’.
I thanked her, pocketed our entry passes for the viewing site, and made my way up to another incredibly modern building in order to gain entry to the giant meditation capsule, which was now becoming more intriguing than ever.
I was beckoned forward and asked to complete a yellow card in order that I may enter the special sphere. I was told that if Andrew wanted to do the same he would have to come and apply in person himself, it was the same rule for everyone. A kind of vetting process. I suppose, if they didn’t like the look of you, they could bar you from the ball. Luckily we fooled them, and were both granted entry. Just like the ugly sisters!
However, we were told we could only view ‘The Matrimandir’ first and then return the following day at 8.45am so that we may be escorted into it’s inner chamber.
That afternoon we made our way through the immaculately manicured grounds towards ‘The Matrimandir’. A place where all people can go to raise their consciousness and get in touch with their higher selves – apparently. This used to be a club in South London, but since ‘The Mother’ had her vision, the place for such communion was now here in southern India.
We learnt that, late in her life, she had dreamt of a round building which contained a twelve sided meditation chamber. She had described it as having a white interior and being surrounded by twelve rooms, each a different colour pertaining to a unique quality on which to meditate. ‘Creativity’, ‘Peace’ etc.
As ‘The Mother’ wished, so the meditation centre was built, with the help of thousands of people and millions of pounds. Began in the early seventies the building was only completed in 2008.
And there is still more to do.
On first sighting the glowing orb, I was reminded of a huge metal ball that had fallen from the sky after a galactic round of golf. It looked unnatural, unappealing and most unwanted.
Groups of Indian day trippers were having their pictures taken in front of the spherical monstrosity as if it were ‘Stonehenge’ or ‘The Pyramids Of Giza’. I felt perplexed. Confused. It appeared nothing more to me than something one might find at ‘Disney World’ or ‘The Epcot Centre’. But I reserved judgment – I hadn’t been inside yet!
That was to come!
After ‘viewing’ ‘The Matrimandir’, Andrew and I managed to fumble our way through steaming fields and land at an organic farm, where we were served a wonderfully fresh vegan thali, consisting of mysteriously coloured vegetables.
A blue drink made from a little known flower and a large jug of ‘dynamised’ water. It was delicious, yet when we got back to our sauna of a room, it flew out of me quicker than Concorde as a truly supersonic diarrhoea! Conversely, for Andrew it lingered inwardly like a sluggish Lancaster bomber.
It took him two days to empty his payload!
He was still rumbling the following day when we were eventually allowed to enter ‘The Matrimandir’. We had been given strict instructions on what to do. No cameras, phones or bags were allowed inside the hallowed space. There was no speaking, coughing or any yoga positions allowed either.
We followed our guide into the grounds, an elderly chap with one eye looking at you and the other to see where you’d been. He sat us beneath a tree and explained how we should behave. During his Q & A session, two Indian gardeners who had the temerity to stroll past our tour group in jaunty conversation, were given a sign to be silent and cease their merriment. Then in a serious manner we were lead towards the globe.
As we descended the walkway to the west entrance, we were asked to remove our footwear. We were then lead to a small circular pool and requested to sit. For ten minutes, Andrew and I, plus the forty or so Indian day-trippers, were left to gaze into the cascading pool of water, as ‘Aurovillians’ sat behind us at various points behind signs such as ‘humility’, each in the Lotus position, all in a deep trance-like state. No doubt meditating on the state of our souls – God help the poor sod sat behind Andrew and I. He definitely had his work cut out. Especially with humility as his buzz word!
At the end of this session there was a low beeping noise and we were beckoned by our boss-eyed host to move on into the giant golf ball. As we entered, in total silence, I was immediately struck by the cool interior, the air conditioning made no sound as we strode slowly upwards along a spiral walkway into the bottom chamber. Here we were each asked to stop in pairs, sit on a white bench and put on clean white socks which were piled high in large baskets next to each seating area. When this was done, an ‘Aurovillian’ bade each couple to continue upward along the walkway.
The whole interior reminded me very much of an airport, or a seventies shopping arcade. All grey concrete, white plastics and smooth lines. The cavernous size of a cathedral yet without any of the innate spirit such a structure usually possesses. When we reached the top we were silently led into a large circular hall containing a large crystal ball in the centre and surrounded by twelve white marble pillars. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the centre of the ceiling like a lit shard and bounced from the crystal beneath diffusing a soft light around the entire space. A thick, white carpet muffled our steps, yet the domed ceiling amplified any other sounds we happened to make.
One was afraid to even swallow.
As we all sat around the glass ball, cross legged and silent, there was a definite feeling of what should we do next. As nobody had any idea we all sat and just stared. Awaiting enlightenment. There was an incredibly loud rumble from beside me. I knew at once it was the organic salad Andrew and I had consumed the previous day. I tried to ignore it. Stifling my immature giggles I looked at the ill-fitted carpet in order distract my attention from Andrew’s ill fitting!
I also fantasised about standing and attempting to kick the crystal ball off of it’s plinth just to see if it would smash. I imagined many scenarios in that long fifteen minutes – none of them particularly pretty. I certainly didn’t feel cleansed – it was the longest quarter of an hour of my life!
When our time was up, a light in the chamber flashed twice, and a wizened woman with long lank grey hair in a light green kaftan came forward and made a sign for us to leave. We all stood quietly, and like lemmings followed one another out of the room and back down the carpeted corkscrew to the lower level. We removed the socks and placed them in special laundry baskets and then exited ‘The Matrimandir’ collecting our shoes as we went.
‘Well. What a load of bollocks’, I said to Andrew, once we’d reached the safety of the fresh air. ‘What a waste of fucking money!’
‘I know’ replied Andrew, ‘and all that concrete – what was that about?’
We were not impressed. The only thing that had really been moved was Andrew’s lower bowel.
Quite appropriate I thought.
If this was meant to be a spiritual escapade. One designed to help mankind, surely the cash would have been better spent on feeding, clothing and educating the poor men who lived on the borders of this daft folly. Not to mention the women and children who just about existed in the villages scattered amongst the rich homes of these idealistic ‘Aurovillians’ with their idea of a perfect society. Perfect for whom?
True, this idiotic idea provides some employment for the poor Tamil people who are trapped within it’s environs, but this seems to consist mainly of the more ‘downstairs’ duties. Those rich westerners who can afford to live within this city definitely exist ‘upstairs’.
Astonishingly, The Indian Government donate a fortune to this project via grants each year. Millions of rupees to help with ‘Aurovillian’ education, amongst other crackpot schemes, when millions of the country’s other kids cannot afford to go to school. Or even dream of a school dinner! Mamma Mia Mother India !!!
In fact, to become an ‘Aurovillian’ takes a complex two years, and proof of a decent financial standing is a prerequisite to becoming a member of this equal opportunities society. Surely this is not what was meant by ‘The Mother’ when she extolled her vision of a place for all, where money was not an issue.
On leaving the giant ball, we were then taken to a magnificent Banyan Tree – the original centre of ‘Auroville’, before ‘The Matrimandir’ had even been conceived. It’s regal branches more spiritual and powerful than any gold-clad artificial environment. It’s cool shade providing the perfect spot for contemplation, and its dappled space open to all. And so much more economical. Had the ‘Aurovillian’ elders made this their place of spirit and used its timeless wisdom to raise their consciousness, they’d have had some money left over to help raise the living standards of the poor bastards who strive to eat outside the realms of their spiritual bubble.
What a load of golden balls!
I know which one I’d rather be inside!
Mean spirited, and a little crude perhaps. But nothing when compared to building a giant bollock in the middle of one of the poorest parts of India and using up a fortune to do so. That is truly obscene.
The next day I spent hours discussing ‘The Matrimandir’ and ‘Auroville’ with those I’d met here. Most agreed that the forest is an exceptional example of what man can do to change his environment for the better. It is a brilliant example of nature being resurrected.
Planet Earth resuscitated.
When one hears the birds sing and sees the myriad of green leaves waft against the deep red soil it truly inspires. But the plight of those who have been sidelined in order to create a perfect haven for those who can afford to sideline themselves,does not.
There is a dark side to ‘Auroville’. Stories of rape by villagers on the outskirts, and reports of violent murders involving land disputes are brushed aside to maintain the facade of a perfect way of life.
The clash between the indigenous population and those who have come to live amongst, yet not alongside them, is palpable. I have definitely witnessed some of the most morose inhabitants of the subcontinent I have ever encountered amid the winding paths of the wood here.
There is an uneasy mix of yoga and yearning. ‘Auroville’ has become a spiritual supermarket where the rich can dip in for a touch of tofu and escape the reality of the real India that lies in the next clearing.
The silence here is golden – just like inside ‘The Matrimandir’!
But I miss the cacophony of India.
The horns, the music, the screeching brakes of a dodgy bus, the babies bawling, the drunks brawling, the women laughing. And each, rubbing along side one another with a colourful friction that is so human, and full of spirit.
Andrew and I make our escape from ‘Horrorville’ today. I, for one, shall not miss it.
Get us back to India!