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Build a new city or new humans? A Utopia in India fights over future

Before her death in 1973, the Mother had commissioned French architect Roger Anger to develop a design for a city of 50,000, about 15 times the current population. Anger conceived of a galactic form: spiraling concentric circles around the Matrimandir — a circular golden meditation chamber — with 12 radial roads.

By: New York Times |
Updated: March 6, 2022 1:19:41 pm
The Matrimandir, a place for meditation, in Auroville, India, a spiritual commune founded in the state of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, Feb. 2, 2022. Backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the new leadership of Auroville wants to create a model city. In the way stand trees, tree houses and a take-it-slow tradition. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)

Written by Emily Schmall

The bulldozer arrived one night in December, shaking Ganga Park awake in her treehouse and sending her scurrying down the trunk.

When its operator paused the menacing machine, which was there to clear a path through the surrounding forest, Park clung to it. Their standoff continued until the driver gave up and turned back.

When the bulldozer returned a few days later, Park confronted it again, but this time she was joined by dozens of her neighbors in the south Indian arcadia of Auroville.

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They linked arms around the bulldozer, chanting “Om Namo Bhagavate,” a popular Hindu mantra that roughly translates to “Obeisance to the Almighty.” They remained until they won at least a temporary victory: a stay order from an environmental tribunal, forcing the demolition work to stop.

“It was super instinctive,” Park, 20, said of her leap into action. “If there’s an intruder, you immediately protect and defend.”

The intruder, in this case, was the government of Auroville, an idealistic community founded in 1968 with the goal of realizing human unity by putting the divine at the center of all things.

That unity, however, has recently frayed.

A bitter dispute has arisen between Auroville’s government, which has revived a long-delayed plan to vastly expand the community, and those residents who want to protect the thriving forest they have cultivated from the barren stretch of land where their social experiment began more than 50 years ago.

The community was founded by a French writer, Mirra Alfassa, better known to her followers simply as the Mother, who believed that a change of consciousness and aspiration to the divine in Auroville would ripple out to the rest of the world.

Before her death in 1973, the Mother had commissioned French architect Roger Anger to develop a design for a city of 50,000, about 15 times the current population. Anger conceived of a galactic form: spiraling concentric circles around the Matrimandir — a circular golden meditation chamber — with 12 radial roads.

But without the money or manpower over the decades to carry out the plan, the community’s residents, or Aurovilians, built something different.

They dug wells and built thatched-roof huts. And they planted trees. A lot of them. Under the cool forest canopy, civets, jackals, peacocks and other creatures roam, and muriel bushes release a sweet, heady fragrance.

The divide between those Aurovilians who want to follow the Mother’s urban development plans — known as constructivists — and those who want to let the community continue developing on its own — organicists — has long existed.

But the struggle took on a heightened pitch in July, when the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a new secretary, Jayanti Ravi, to head the township’s governing board.

Ravi had been the health secretary in Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Earlier, she was a district magistrate under Modi, then the state’s top official, when he faced near-universal condemnation for failing to control two months of religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead.

The government’s new interest in enacting Anger’s design reflects Modi’s penchant for ambitious construction projects to foster tourism around Hindu or nationalist sites. His Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a social organization devoted to making India an explicitly Hindu state.

Although Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman, she was the disciple of Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual teacher and a freedom fighter for India’s independence. The planned redesign of Auroville is being done before Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birth anniversary in August — for which Modi is planning a big celebration.

“Part of Narendra Modi’s agenda is to appropriate all religious and spiritual figures into the fold of the BJP,” said Navroz Mody, the resident who filed the petition to pause the development project.

Ravi promised to infuse the project with millions of dollars in federal funding. The development would start by paving a perfectly circular road, part of a broader, pedestrianized beltway that would connect Auroville’s four distinct zones. But in the way stand Auroville’s youth center, a water catchment area and hundreds of trees.

Sindhuja Jagadeesh, a spokesperson for the local government, said it was a kind of “decadence” for Auroville’s approximately 3,300 people — about half Indian, and half foreigners — to live on 3,000 acres of land in a country as densely populated as India.

“Many people have become attached to their comfort in the greenery, but we are supposed to experiment and evolve,” said Jagadeesh, who is also an architect and an Aurovilian.

The stance of those opposed to the development, Jagadeesh added, clashes sharply with the Mother’s vision for a model city of the future that would be replicated around the world.

“We are here for human unity, but also to build a city,” she said.

The proponents of the development plan, which ultimately envisions a high-density, self-sustained city with a bustling economy and experimental architecture, deride the Auroville of today as an eco-village where a visitor can get a good cappuccino but not the change in consciousness its founder hoped for.

“It’s not just a city plan. It’s meant to hold an experiment,” said Shrimoyi Rosegger, a resident who approves of the development and has a deep faith in the transformative power of the Mother’s plan. “We believe it is an intelligence which is beyond us,” she added, “that if we follow her guidelines, something will be revealed to us.”

Leaning against a motorcycle outside the community’s free clothing store and food co-op, Auroson Bystrom, 51, among the first children born in Auroville, said he opposes Ravi’s plans but thinks the intense debate has energized the community.

“Aurobindo is all about evolution,” Bystrom said, referring to Sri Aurobindo. “And for the last 35 years, Auroville hasn’t felt all that evolutionary.”

Some opponents of the plan say that the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was not as much about building a new city as it was building a new human. And that takes time.

“How we urbanize is more important than how fast we urbanize,” said Suhasini Ayer, an architect whose mixed-use development in Auroville recently won a design award at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The community’s small population, opponents of the development say, owes more to the unusual conditions for residency than to the lack of the ring road that the government wants to plow through trees.

Those wishing to live here must undergo a year of vetting — and must invest their own money into homes that will remain town property.

Auroville receives some funding from the government but drums up most of its budget internally, from private enterprise and donations.

Residents purify their own water, grow their own grains and make their own paper. Those who work for Auroville’s public services receive a meager salary known as “maintenance.”

“These people want to be pragmatic,” Renu Neogy, a lifelong Aurovilian, said of Ravi and her supporters. “But this is not a pragmatic place. This is utopia.”

Some foreign residents said they feared that Ravi could deprive them of the sponsorship they need to continue living in India if they fail to get on board with her plans.

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