Unlike many other cities, Auroville was built on an idea: the idea of a universal city, a city with all nationalities, all religions, a city that belongs to all of humanity but no one in particular. Auroville is an example of a different kind of community, a place of ongoing learning, constant progress, and youth that never ages. So it is written in the founding charter, and this is what came out of my research before my departure. The city really interested me, but even up to the last moment before arriving, I could not imagine the kinds of images I would find there. Auroville lies in southeastern India, near Chennai, direct on the coast. It was nighttime when I arrived, but the air was still hot. I stayed at a hostel situated a bit outside the city. The sea was so loud I couldn’t sleep, and I asked myself what I was actually doing there. In recent years I had worked a great deal, always on commission, and Auroville was my first independent project in a long time. Suddenly I was afraid that I would find nothing there when I went into the city the next day.
At the heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir, a building with a golden dome where the inhabitants come together to have some peace and to meditate. In the center, there is a large crystal ball onto which sunlight is reflected from the ceiling. Matrimandir means “temple of the mother,” and it represents the principle of life that tries to raise people above their limitations. It goes back to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, an Indian man and a French woman. They directed the ashram out of which Auroville was born. When the city was founded in 1968, representatives from over a hundred countries came and brought earth from their homelands. The earth was filled into marble urns and buried next to the Matrimandir, on the site that is now the communal gathering place. Auroville was conceived for fifty thousand inhabitants; two thousand live there now. Most are Indian, and the rest come from France, Germany, Russia, Israel, America, and many other countries. They live in settlements that spread out from the center in a spiral, and during the day everyone does their job. The city tries to supply itself. There are fields, factories, bakeries, a solar-powered canteen kitchen, as well as schools, cinemas, a choir, and a newspaper. All decisions are prepared by study groups and made by majority vote. There is no mayor; the inhabitants constantly have to reconfigure their common business, and this can take a long time. Whoever wishes to move to Auroville has a year’s “trial period,” at the end of which the individual, and also the city, can reverse the decision. Individuals must buy the house they plan to live in, and they remain the owner as long they reside in it. All inhabitants who work for Auroville receive a uniform salary of around ninety euros. There are many young families, many creative types, painters, architects, doctors, and scientists. They adhere to the notion that here they are part of an experiment for humanity. Life in Auroville is different, but not easier. There are no distractions; you cannot avoid people. You must confront yourself and be able to withstand this confrontation. Many who come as couples end up separating. In the beginning I didn’t know anyone in the city, but as soon as I made one contact I was passed from one person to the next. There are no cars in Auroville except for delivery taxis. Everyone drives a moped, so I also learned to drive a moped, and in the mornings around seven, when the heat was not yet so oppressive and the light was still soft, I drove to visit people. I often talked with them for a long time before I took a picture. They were very open and more balanced than I am used to, and I soon felt very comfortable among them. It is not that I would like to live differently than I do. But if I did, then I would go here, to Auroville.