Auroville – Utopia or Cult?

I remember first hearing about Auroville when watching a documentary online, showing this allegedly perfect city. It described Auroville as a 3000 inhabitants experimental township, where people from 50+ different nationalities live, where no garbage is produced, everything is homegrown or sourced ethically, people focus on self development and on a lot of stuff I consider healthy and important, such as meditation and yoga. A city where education doesn’t have the same flaws as in the west, where welfare and healthcare are free and guaranteed to everyone and where money doesn’t exist. Other people called it a “Burning Man in real life”.

The documentary kept going: Aurovillans have been planting trees for the past decades and now there’s a forest, this changed the microclimate: Aurovillans have the luck to enjoy lower temperatures than the scorching ones of the surrounding areas. It sounded so good that I remember thinking: “Hey, it wouldn’t be bad to become Aurovillan and move there when I retire.”

But is it all really that good? Has Auroville really achieved what they set out to be their vision or is it just a cult?

A Brief History of Auroville

Auroville wants 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.

Mirra Alfassa

These are the words Mirra Alfassa used to describe her project. Mirra Alfassa is known as “The Mother” and founder of Auroville, frames with her portraits are hanging on most Auroville units and shops, some of these are named after her. She decided to build the experimental town to realise the vision for humanity that Sri Aurobindo, an Indian Guru, had. “The Mother” wanted Auroville to function as a role model for the rest of humanity. A lot of people and Aurobindo followers loved the idea, so a site nearby the city of Pondicherry was chosen to lay the foundations for the City of Peace and Human Unity.

In 1968 124 people from different nations gathered at the site and brought soil from their lands. The soil was stored inside a marble urn to be kept in the Matrimandir, a huge spherical building, which was going to be the heart of Auroville, where people could go and meditate, surrounded by a big green area where silence was to be observed. The Mother herself was choosing who could join Auroville and who couldn’t based on their “energy” (a word you’ll hear a lot there).

It all sounds lovely and poetic, part of this vision worked out very well. There really is a huge forest around Auroville, the Matrimandir is there and it’s a majestic building: Its roof is covered in 56 KG of gold and the insides are made of white marble. Not bad for a moneyless society…

The Matrimandir and its 56 KG of real gold cover.

A Closer Look at Auroville.

I arrived at Auroville late at night. The ride there wasn’t an easy one. My Taxi had to go through very dark roads, and after being blocked twice by the local police that was stopping traffic in and out from 2 roads, I managed to make my way to the hostel, through dark, dusty, bumpy streets in the middle of the forest.

My host welcomed me warmly and showed me the bamboo hut where my dorm was. I could just hear the sounds of the forest while falling asleep and I couldn’t wait to wake up in paradise the next morning. The first thing I did upon waking up was to go outside and talk to the other 2 guests that are staying in my hostel, I couldn’t wait to hear about Auroville.

When I asked the first guy: “So, how’s Auroville?” the reply was way different than expected: “Oh it’s shit man“.
“What do you mean it’s shit?” I asked.
He kept going:
“Some stuff that they planned is working alright: Free Education and Healthcare, It’s eco friendly but people don’t seem to be happy here or to have much choice. I spoke to this woman who’s told me she wants to leave and go back home in Europe but she can’t. She’s explained me that she has to work a lot for the community, she get paid very little and can’t even use that little to buy flights or manage to go away cause it’s all in Aurocash. She’s trapped
That didn’t sound quite right to me, so I had to ask more: “Wait, getting paid? What do you mean by that? Isn’t this a moneyless society?
“No, you get paid with their currency, called Aurocash. You can’t exchange it outside so you can’t really leave, since you have no money at all if you do.”
“What if you have money in your bank account?”
“That’s the thing, if you decide to join Auroville, they ‘encourage’ you to link all your current accounts and assets to your Aurocard. Once you do that, it goes to the community and the organisation, and you can’t really get it back, even if you leave.”

That sounded way different than the ideal society described in documentaries and newspaper articles. The “perfect city” started to sound to me as a sort of cult. I didn’t want to take the word of another random dude who’s there as a guest though, so I went on and asked the guy who runs the hostel about Auroville.

“So, are you Aurovillan?”
Fuck no, man.” He said, while rolling a spliff. Something that also surprised me as I was told you can’t bring alcohol or drugs inside Auroville.
“Why? Is it because it’s too complicated to become one?”
“Is not that hard really, you just fucking pay bro. I am not Aurovillan because these people are trapped here. They have no way out and I don’t like that.”
“What you mean just pay? I thought you had to prove you could be a good addition to the community, work and all that”
“Hahaha no man, look around. There are a lot of mansions around here. There are a lot of rich people who decide to become Aurovillan for a number of reasons.”
“Well, some of them just give Auroville a lot of money, get some land, build a mansion so they have a nice place to stay. It’s lovely to live here. Some others had to escape the law and live here, so they don’t have to worry about escaping anymore.”
“Oh wow.. really?”
“Yeah, some of the people here have done really good or really bad things back in their countries and the police or other people are looking for them. They can’t catch them here though.”
“But your hostel is in Auroville, can you open a business here even though you’re not Aurovillan??”
“Oh yeah, it’s hella easy. The good thing about Auroville is that it’s easier to open a business compared to the rest of India, for foreigners and Indians alike. However, I’m renting Auroville land and I have to pay them 33% of my earnings…”
“33%?? That’s a lot!”
“Yeah, they make a lot of money and no one really knows who handles it and where it goes.”
“So how come you decided to open your business here?”
“Oh man, there are a lot of people looking for me in India. I was a political activist, an anarchist. I’m safe here.”
“It’s beautiful here. Life in Auroville is good if you are not Aurovillan. And even for Aurovillans, if you’re happy to stay forever you can have a really good life. Some people here live in mansions, source their own food, produce no garbage and are at total peace with themselves and the world around them.”

I decided to go check out the city myself. I rented a bike and explored around the city. I really loved it. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, hostels and communities around Auroville. I checked out the board of one of the local cafes and found hundreds of flyers, all with incredibly cool stuff to do. Workshops on Yoga, Meditation, Reiki, Tai chi, Aikido, Cooking, Permaculture, Sustainable living. You name it. You can learn a lot of stuff in Auroville, especially around self improvement and being eco conscious.

I later found out that all these workshops and cafes are ran by outsiders. That “Auroville, lets you see what they want you to see” as another of the local business owners told me.

“They [Aurovillans] live too deep in the forest. It’s hard to find out where their houses are, they don’t really mingle with non-Aurovillans. Apparently they have a really good life, especially the ones who’ve been here for a while and managed to build their sustainable mansions.” He added.
“I like to stay on the outside. I love democracy and transparency. I wouldn’t be happy without knowing where all the money they make goes. Auroville is really powerful you know? They can issue their own visas and plates for cars.”

The Three Aurovilles.

The more I walked around the more I understood and accepted the fact that there are 3 Aurovilles

  1. The inner circle, cult-ish, Auroville. A city that was meant to have a population of 50.000 people and still has just about 3000. Where people who join have to give up everything and be ok with the fact that if they leave, they’ll be broke with no money to spend on the outside. Where outsiders on the waiting lists who bought the dream have to spend 9 months of the year, before going back home to work 3 months and save up to give their “contribution” hoping to be accepted.
  2. The part that looked like Disneyland aka “What Auroville lets you see” There’s a visitor centre, where you are encouraged to watch a video about Auroville and an exhibition. Youthen have to follow a path, visit the viewpoint overlooking the majestic Matrimandir, the dome of peace, backdrop of hundreds of selfies taken by tourists.
  3. The “Outside Auroville” The miles and miles of communities, shops, cafes, restaurants, ran by outsiders. Where all the workshops and courses are taught, where the meditation and yoga retreats are held, where all the delicious, organic, locally sourced food is served and where you meet a huge number of very inspiring, amazing people. Ready to teach you how to build a sustainable bamboo house, how to grow your own veggies and how to share unconditionally and wholeheartedly, be it a coffee, knowledge, life experiences or whatever may add value to a human interaction.

Conclusion, Should You Go?

Hell Yes. Go to Auroville, find a nice volunteering project in one of the communities around it or just stay in a hostel if you have savings and want more free time. Rent a scooter, wander around, find some cool workshop, learn new skills that you wouldn’t learn as easily in other places. Connect with some really inspiring individuals, learn from them, share your knowledge, be inspired, inspire, create.

Do I still feel like I would like to become Aurovillan and live the dream described by the media and their very organised visitors center? No. I think you can find other quiet places and eco-communities where you don’t have to give up all your belongings and risk to stay there forever. Some of these are right at the doorstep of the secluded, secret parts of Auroville that you won’t see as an outsider, they really welcome all people and are definitely worth checking out.

Have you been to Auroville? Would you like to? Have you heard of it? Leave a comment if you have something to say or want more info 🙂


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