European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia
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European Dreams, Tamil Land:
Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia

From the spiritual point of view, India is the foremost country in the world. Her mission is to set the example of spirituality. Sri Aurobindo came on earth to teach this to the world. This fact is so obvious that a simple and ignorant peasant here is, in his heart, closer to the divine than the intellectuals of Europe. All those who want to become Aurovilians must know this and behave accordingly; otherwise they are unworthy of Auroville.

The Mother, 8 February 19721

India had been free from British colonial rule for over twenty years, from French colonial rule for only six, when the caravans began to arrive on an empty stretch of land 10 km outside of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, on the morning of 28 February 1968.2 The buses were filled with a variety of people, from European and American tourists who had heard about the construction of this utopian experiment while blazing the hippie trail through India, to residents of the nearby Aurobindo Ashram, to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officials who traveled to the south of India to give this new "international township" their bureaucratic blessing.3 An air of internationalism pervaded the ceremony as delegations from around the world arrived carrying the soil of 124 different nations, specially flown to Madras [End Page 59] courtesy of Air France.4 As participants made a circle around a container holding the imported earth, the Charter of Auroville was read in 16 different languages and broadcast over speakers to reach the burgeoning crowd, beginning with French and English, followed by Tamil (the language of the local population), Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tibetan. The program handed out at the ceremony read, "Greetings from Auroville to all men of good will. Are invited to Auroville all those who thirst for progress and aspire to a higher life."5

Although most of the people in attendance had traveled from afar to witness this inauguration, one Western Aurovilian remembered that "A section had been reserved for the people from the nearby villages, and although it was a large enclosure already you could see it was going to be inadequate. You could see people coming from every direction across the fields."6 As Europeans and Indians from the north descended on this Tamil land to embark on a self-proclaimed utopian experiment, which espoused a new age mixture of socialism, biological evolutionism, and spirituality, the people who lived on the land were kept together behind a barrier, invited to witness the ceremony as long as they stayed in their designated space distant from the international participants.

The initial plans for Auroville, designed primarily by the French architect Roger Anger (1923-2008) in consultation with the Mother (Mira Alfassa, the matriarch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry), called for facilities to accommodate eventually 50,000 people. Auroville quickly took on "other-worldly" qualities, the village taking the shape of a galaxy.7 The village was divided into four sectors, one to house a significant industrial zone, another devoted to cultural institutions, another to residential areas, and lastly an international zone, dedicated to pavilions representing the different nations of the world.8 When the first stone was laid in 1968, approximately 150 people were working on the construction of Auroville—a project that is still in progress today, maintaining a steady population of between 1,800 and 2,000 residents. Unlike many intentional communities constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, Auroville remains a functioning, and expanding, project. Over the past 40 years, Aurovilians have created schools, communal dining rooms, health care centers, libraries, and dozens of small businesses producing incense, jewelry, clothes, art, and books, amongst other goods, [End Page 60] for export. Thousands of tourists visit Auroville every year, staying in the many guesthouses run by Aurovilians and participating in the life of the community in various capacities. The many sectors of Auroville are today a success story of small business and tourism.

Despite the many successes of Auroville, there remains a sharp divide...