The sky was dark but the ocean breeze brought the smell of the coming sunrise. The birds were singing, waiting in anticipation for the warmth and light of a new day. 7 hours ago I was in India and now I felt like I had transported to a 19th century French town. The surprisingly empty streets of Pondicherry gave me the feeling that I was no longer in one of the most populated countries on Earth. As the sun came out of hiding, I greeted the Bay of Bengal with a beachfront meditation then wandered through the small alleyways in search of breakfast.
I quickly discovered that all of the Hindi and Sanskrit phrases I had been learning for the past 3 weeks were useless in Tamil Nadu, the southeastern-most state of India. My preconceived notion that Hindi would be understood throughout all of India likely arose from my experience of living in China, a country in which almost everyone understands the common language despite the multifarious sub-cultures and dialects.
Hence, the futility of Hindi in this seaside town coupled with the French architecture and divergent local culture gave me the impression that I had taken an overnight bus to an entirely different country. After a hearty dosa breakfast I left Pondicherry by taxi to my potential final destination: Auroville.
I had come to India thinking I would complete my MA research project in the North, at the foothills of the Himalayas, but after encountering visa complications, my Restricted Area Permit was denied and I had to change my plans quickly if I was to have a chance at graduating and having a meaningful experience.
I had never heard of Auroville until my stay in Thailand in January but considering that it is an experimental township & aspiring sustainable community, it seemed like a promising location to conduct my research on sustainable community design.
My first impression of Auroville was confusion. We were driving through a labyrinth of red earth roads that traversed barren deserts and lush forests. I asked the taxi driver how near we were to Auroville and he responded “It’s all around you.” As we drove endlessly inside of Auroville I wondered how an aspiring sustainable community of this caliber should, theoretically, be a leading example in walkable design. To my disappointment, however, the roads were littered with motor vehicles and the pedestrians were few and far between.
Despite the far distances, I was lucky to have booked a hostel right next door to the Bamboo Centre, the place I planned to inquire about interning for the following two months. Arriving at the hostel, I paid the inflated taxi rate to the driver and thought about how this expensive price was probably a norm in a community that is mostly European and only 40% local people. My suspicions were confirmed when I decided to rent a bicycle for the day, which turned out to be more expensive than renting a motorcycle.
Economics aside, I was eager to start learning. I immediately visited the Bamboo Centre and by the following day, I had committed to stay for two months. My new home was a bamboo hut, which offered a convenient commute to the construction and furniture design workshop a few meters away. My new adventure seemed to be running smoothly until I was suddenly afflicted by a weeklong case of nausea and diarrhea due to a not-so-clean lukewarm curry from a nearby village.
Note to self: if the food is not hot, do not eat it.
Despite the intestinal misery that ensued, I still had energy to ponder about my first impressions of this professed sustainable community.
If the state of Tamil Nadu seems like a different country, then Auroville is certainly a different planet. On top of the Tamil language, I am surrounded by the sounds of French, English, German and Italian. I am in a place where forest pizzerias are as common as samosa stands and East-West-fusion musical ensembles are everyday affairs.
“Indeed, it is a peculiar place,” I thought as I lay in my bamboo bed, clutching my organs and longing for freedom from the gut-wrenching discomfort. To combat the stomach pain, I quickly occupied my mind with the layout of Auroville that I had seen on my map.
Its circular boundaries span approximately 3km in diameter in the City Area and 5km in total diameter including the Green Belt. It takes 1hr 15min simply to walk from one end of the City Area to another and about 2 hours to walk the diameter of Auroville, a feat that most people would not partake in daily, especially with the scorching south-Indian sun beating down on you.
To add to the relatively long distances, the problem becomes more apparent when one observes the distorted pricing schemes of transportation modes. As mentioned before, motorbikes are relatively cheaper and much more prevalent than bicycles. Although, they are cheaper for the individual in the short-term, its affects are much more costly on a long-term scale.
“Motor vehicles’ convenience and price is excellent for my wallet’s health this month, but seriously damaging to the long-term viability and health of the people, the environment, and inevitably, the economy.”
The biggest challenge with societal problems such as this is to shift our awareness & concern from an individual/nuclear family level, to a larger sphere of influence that includes all people, places and things.
On top of pollution and fossil fuel dependence, the speed and ubiquity of motor vehicles in Auroville causes mini dust storms on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, according to a 1970s documentary, the founding fathers and architects of Auroville envisioned a place in which no one would own a personal motorized vehicle and everyone would be able to travel effortlessly using bicycles and an underground metro system. Today, the community’s transportation pattern is the antithesis of this vision.
Of course, with anything in life, there are many challenges and obstacles to overcome and Auroville is simply one of numerous communities that are striving to achieve its vision amidst incessant hardships.
One notable achievement I noticed is their remarkable reforestation effort, which began when the community was founded back in 1968. At that time, it was a desolate red desert with only one sign of life: an old banyan tree (which is now the center point of the community). Today, the area is covered in an expansive forest that is wonderfully therapeutic and serves as a safe habitat for a myriad of different plants and animals.
Besides reforestation, there are a multitude of projects dealing with permaculture, natural building, architecture, urban planning, agroforestry, community building, natural medicine, holistic health and so much more. There are many things to learn and many hidden gems to discover in this strange South-Indian intentional community.
Although during my first week I developed a rough idea of the city layout and transportation infrastructure, I have yet to explore the countless dynamics that make up an aspiring sustainable community.