Auroville, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

by Katinka Hesselink on September 6, 2010

One of the options for my trip was starting at the Theosophical compound in Adyar, Madras. However, I have good reason to think I’m not welcome there. Instead a theosophical friend suggested they might be able to get me a volunteer position in Auroville. Despite it not being in North India – where my intuition told me I needed to go (vague as that was) – I still liked the idea. So I did what I do when I want to know more about something, I ordered three books about the tradition of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Because it’s in their tradition that Auroville has been founded. I already knew that much, but not much more.

As wikipedia says:

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an “experimental” township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (since her definitive settling in India called “The Mother”) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.

The first of the three books I read was the biography of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs. I liked it and admired the man described. However, when I made my online review of the book, I found out there was heated debate in India over this book. One state has even banned it! Those who know me in theosophical circles know I’ve had my share of controversy. So my first response to this was: well, if they want me to do volunteer work there, despite my review, who am I to say no to the opportunity?

However, I soon changed my mind. It’s one thing to be in the thick of controversy in a tradition that’s your spiritual home base as it were: theosophy. Quite another to come into an ashram that’s teeming with controversy, as an outsider to the tradition. And yet, I have a firm opinion, and I’m hardly one to quietly go about my business. In short I was like: who am I to but in on this? And how can I avoid butting in, being who I am?

So, I decided NOT to go to the Auroville Ashram.

Still, the story of Auroville is quite interesting. Let’s start with the official aims of Auroville, as The Mother formulated them:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

The main architectural sight is the Matrimandir at the center of town.

However, despite The Mother’s warnings against it, Auroville is now owned and controlled by the Indian Government, following a long conflict between Aurovilians and the Sri Aurobindo Society.

Auroville has it’s own ‘currency’, several businesses on the estate and of course a website and even an affiliate program for their products (so those selling them online can make a bit for themselves as well).

Auroville is an interesting experiment, but not for me right now. I’m pretty much decided to go to Dharamsala in North India, and also perhaps to Rishikesh, also on the foothills of the Himalayas. Both places are likely to be cool enough for my health, and are touristy enough that I can continue doing my online work while I’m there. In Dharamsala I plan to study Tibetan Buddhism. In Rishikesh yoga and The Yoga Sutras. I may even take up formal meditation.

If someone can advise a good yoga teacher in Rishikesh, I’d love to hear it. I know some Sanskrit, and have studied the Yoga Sutras in theosophical circles, so I’m not starting completely from scratch.

Notes on names

In India all things have old names and new ones, and various spellings to confuse things even more.

  • The town of Pondicherry is called Puducherry right now. It’s south of Chennai, formerly called Madras, in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. Puducherry is in the disctrict of Viluppuram, also known as Villupuram and Vizhupuram.
  • Sri Aurobindo’s name has such alternative spellings as: Aravind, Arabinda, Aurobindo, Arvind, Aravindhar, Aurobindo Ghosh, Shri Aurobindo etc. His last name is usually spelled Ghoshe or Ghosh.

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Map India - Dharamsala, dharmsala, McLeodGanj

Dalai Lama home: McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala

by Katinka Hesselink on March 8, 2010

One of the places many spiritual Westerners go to in India is Dharamsala, which is the home of the Dalai Lama. Wikitravel says:

Dharamsala (pronounced Dharamshala) is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, famed for its large Tibetan community centered around the Dalai Lama.

Understand

The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back into the 8th century, although most of the local population long since reverted to (and remains) Hindu. “Dharamsala” literally means an “inn attached to a temple”, and it was so until the district headquarters in Kangra became too crowded and the British moved 2 of their regiments in the late 1840s to what is now Dharamsala. This over the years grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the very location is now known as the Police Lines.

Dharamsala was mooted to be the summer capital of India. But this was not to be, as much of the town was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 4th April 1905, which killed over 10,000 people in this sparsely populated area.

After falling into obscurity in the early days of Indian independence, Dharamsala regained some social standing in 1959 with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile . Currently, it is a very popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism. Indeed, it is now perhaps a little too popular – many would say the town (esp. McLeod Ganj) is little more than a backpacker ghetto. Don’t come here expecting calm and tranquility.

Orientation

The town is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a ten minute (9 km.) bus/jeep ride: Dharamsala itself (or Lower Dharamsala), a typical small Indian town that, other than for the bus station, is of little interest to tourists, and Upper Dharamsala, known more commonly as McLeod Ganj (named after David McLeod, once the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab). It is this upper district that is home to the Tibetan community and the center of tourist activity. Unless specifically stated, all listings in this article refer to McLeod Ganj.

Other villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala, Bhagsu (2 km north), already a commercialized warren of concrete, and Dharamkot, the flavor of the month. For a really quiet (and basic) experience, try Naddi (3 km) or Talnu (11 km).

Lower Dharamsala consists of most of the government offices, Schools, Zonal Hospital, and commercial areas. It also has a few tea gardens. One in the area of Chilgari and another just beyond Dari. One can enjoy the view while driving through.

Climate

Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1400m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1750m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C, and the monsoon season from July to September is very wet indeed. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy you will still need a heavy winter coat, but these can be purchased at reasonable prices in town.

This makes it understandable why a native of the place would wish foreigners to stay away. Certainly one of the reasons I don’t expect to spend too much time in Tibetan Buddhist refugee camps is that Tibet has such a good international PR thing going, that there is bound to be too much attention going that way. At the expense of ‘normal’ India and other suffering people worldwide.

On the other hand there must be something to a place where spiritual people from all over the world gather to learn about (Tibetan) Buddhism and put their hands to helping out others.

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Spiritual travelers as intruders in India?

Fellow traveler Cryptic Fragments is living in Dharamsala when I’m still in my comfortable Dutch home. She wrote a post that sounded somewhat homesick on her blog and got the following as a response from a Tibetan or Indian reader: PLEASE do my country a favor of not returning back! Leave those monks alone because […]

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