Auroville is an experimental township inhabited by an international community sharing the same ideals of human and spiritual progress. It was created according to a vision of an early 20th-century yogi guru and turned into reality in the 60s. Auroville can be visited, but you could also stay there long-term as a volunteer in one of many non-profit projects. Auroville is just a short distance from Puducherry, which makes visiting both places really convenient.
A short visit to Tamil Nadu
Our visit to Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state right across the sea from Sri Lanka, was a natural extension of our stay on the island. It allowed us to spend the time constructively before the wedding we had to attend in Kolkata. Having just 6 days to dispose of, we decided to take it slow and visit only two locations nearest to Chennai: Puducherry and Mamallapuram.
Visiting Auroville – on a budget
If you have just one day for Auroville, your experience will be quite limited. Most importantly, you would’t be able to get inside Matrimandir, an iconic golden-sphere shape meditation space. You have to apply for a permit, which would be granted after two days at the earliest (waiting time is up to a week). You can book the visit only in person at the Visitor Centre between 10- 11 am and 2 -3 pm (except Tuesday).
The accommodation options within Auroville itself are limited, therefore require advance booking. They aren’t cheap! Although the fee to be paid to the Auroville board is just 150 INR, guesthouses charge from 1000 INR upwards! Many of the guesthouses have a ‘minimum stay’ of 5 days. Also, meals within Auroville are more expensive than in the villages around. Solar Kitchen charges 250 INR for lunch! Using accredited accommodation gives access to bicycle rental and generally makes life easier, though.
As we didn’t plan our visit much in advance, we decided to search for a Couch Surfer to host us. A man from Kuilapalayam village (located just 4 km from Auroville) responded to our request, saying he’d be happy to meet us but couldn’t offer a place to stay. When I asked if he could recommend some budget accommodation, he invited us to stay at his guesthouse at a discounted rate. We ended up in a very comfortable, super- clean room at a house in a peaceful locality. All that just for 600 INR. Although our host was very busy, he spent two evenings with us, introducing us to the concept of Auroville.
If you are planning to come to Auroville as a volunteer, you need a lot of time in your hands and you have to plan well in advance. The minimum period of stay is 6 months (used to be 28 days, but the visa regulations changed). The special visa could take a few months to obtain. The accommodation should be arranged many weeks before, too. You could apply to participate in a project in: ‘alternative healthcare, ecological practices, building maintenance, renewable energy, primary and secondary education, village outreach, architecture, organic farming, animal care, etc.’ Note, you need money to be a volunteer! You’d need to pay for your food and accommodation.
What is Auroville and how does it work?
Auroville is an ‘ideal township’. It’s a utopian community of people from various background, who live according to their values and ideals. It is a brainchild of The Mother, a French disciple of an influential Bengali guru and philosopher, Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo is a founder of Integral Yoga, which principal purpose is spiritual evolution. The idea sprouted in the 1930s but came to fruition in the 1960s, when 20 sq km of arid land was turned into Auroville township. Thanks to an intense forestation, it is now a green area (surrounded by a 1.5km wide green belt). It is divided into 4 zones: residential, industrial, educational and international. Although designed for 50 000 people, only over 2 000 live there permanently. Two-thirds of Aurovillans are foreigners, predominantly from France and Germany. Permanent residents receive special citizenship from the board. The first step to becoming an Aurovillan is to become a volunteer living within the city. If you want to settle, you have to apply for a grant covering some 70% of the budget of their project, which must be aligned with the principles of Integral Yoga. Some of those projects (like Sadhana Forest) are non-profit. Businesses should be ethical. Business profits, along with donations, are sources of revenues to keep Auroville going.
One-day visit to Auroville
We set off to Auroville knowing we want to see the Matrimandir, the heart of the city, at least from a distance and visit Sadhana Forest which was the recommendation of our host.
It was actually almost 4 km to the heart of Auroville. Our host misiformed us regarding the cycle hire options in Auroville. We were hoping to hire one from Aurovelo or from the Visitors Centre. As it turned out, the first one was just a cycle shop and the second didn’t rent bicycles to one-day visitors. It wasn’t much of a problem, though, as we walked for the whole day in the shade of the trees and later relied on a free bus shuttle to take us to Forest Sadhana.
Walking towards the heart of Auroville, we noticed that all foreigners passing by on motorbikes or bicycles were modestly dressed. It wasn’t a place for tourists but people who really soaked in the Indian culture. Unlike with other destinations full of foreign visitors, there weren’t many ‘fancy’ places, apart from vegan restaurants and organic stores. We had our breakfast in a village at a very simple eatery for just 25 rupees each. We walked through the Industrial Zone of Auroville which didn’t look that much different from the rest of India. The main difference was the presence of recycling bins, the buildings were more scattered and everyone was offering help without any gain in mind.
Auroville Visitors Centre and Matrimandir viewpoint
Having discovered there would be no bicycles for us, we got a lift from two Indians who came here to volunteer long term. They dropped us off in front of an electric bus whose driver gave us a free lift to the Visitors Centre. There was a wonderfully made exhibition at the centre, shedding more light on the vision of Mother in creating a perfect society and complying with the ideals of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. Yoga in Aurobindo’s vision is all about improving consciousness and doing karma yoga, or selfless action. After watching a short movie on building Matrimandir, the free passes for the Matrimandir Viewpoint were granted.
We walked one kilometre along a shady path which took us past an old banyan tree under which children had a class to the point with a clear view at the Matrimandir. From the movie, it sounded like the mandir is a really unique and impressive construction worth seeing. It’s a shame we didn’t have enough time to wait for the entrance access.
The Sadhana Forest free tour wouldn’t start until 4 pm, so we had to find another place to visit nearby. We went to see Savitri Bhavan– a museum and an education centre focusing on the works and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. We started watching an exhibition where Aurobindo’s epic was accompanied by artists illustrations. We had to deposit mobile phones, cameras and bags at the entrance. We didn’t have time to see the rest of the building as we had to rush to catch a bus to Sadhana Forest.
As it turned out, Sadhana Forest tours were conducted every Friday. It was our luck to arrive on that day. Without going to the Sadhana Forest, it would be just a tourist visit. This tour allowed us to see how Aurovillans live and what they do. There were almost a hundred people at the parking lot who managed to squeeze into two small buses. It was quite a long drive as the Sadhana Forest is located slightly outside Auroville.
We were given a tour by two long-term volunteers. Sadhana Forest was a brainchild of an Israeli couple who arrived at Auroville to quit the material lifestyle. They wanted to create a self-sufficient, zero-waste community that brings a positive impact to the world. They decided to turn the desert into a forest. Impressively, they succeeded within just a couple of years. All because of simple but effective water conservation ideas.
The volunteers live in simple, almost spartan conditions. The ‘dry toilets’ are strictly separated barrels of urine and faeces. Faeces eventually turns into a harmless fertiliser, while urine is used straight away. The water used for washing or cleaning is hand-pumped, which ensures everybody uses minimum. The community is vegan. They don’t grow food but source it from local, organic farms around Auroville. As they need to buy food and also as they want to avoid volunteers who are just looking for a free guest house, they expect 500 rupees a day contribution to cover food expenses. The volunteers work just a few hours a day, mostly planting trees in a method resembling natural processes.
The children belonging to the community grow up according to ‘unschooling’ ideals- they decide what and when they want to learn. They go to formal school only if they wish so. Adults, unlike children, have many more duties and regulations to follow. They are not allowed to use any addictive substances, for example. There is also a cow sanctuary at the Sadhana Forest for the cows which escaped the slaughter. No chemical cosmetics nor detergents are allowed at Sadhana Forest. Food waste is given to the dogs and cows, while the rest is recycled or upcycled.
The whole tour was fascinating, and for many people who had little exposure to ideas such as permaculture, gift economy or un-schooling, it would be very illuminating, though undoubtedly eccentric and exotic. The tour was followed by a weekly projection of an environmental documentary. Finally, at 8.30 pm, we were invited to have a vegan meal. The main goal of Sadhana Forest tours is to promote a less wasteful lifestyle and search for new volunteers.
Volunteering at Sadhana Forest
The minimum volunteering time of 28 days for foreign nationals now increased to 6 months. Singles stay in a large dorm, couples and families can get their own cottage. Those who are willing to stay for one year, would be exempt from 500 rupees a day food contribution.
We were encouraged to stay after the dinner and chat with long-term volunteers, but it was getting late and we had a long way back home. We caught the first bus back to the Solar Kitchen and asked to be dropped off at the road leading to our village. Auroville doesn’t waste electricity, so there are no street lights there. That meant we walked 3 km in complete darkness. Thankfully I rememebered to take a headtorch with me to be visible to the vehicles. We reached the homestay by 9.30 pm.
How to get to Auroville?
Auroville is just slightly off the main coastal road from Chennai down to Ramanathapuram. It is also just 10km from Puducherry. It makes it very convenient to visit. If you take a bus from Chennai (3.5 hours), or Mamallapuram (over 2h), you’d need to get off at Periyamudaliyar Chavadi. There is no public transport for the remaining 7 km to Auroville. There are just two buses daily from Pondy New Bus Stand in Puducherry to Visitors Parking in Auroville. Puducherry is just 30 min ride away.
How to get around Auroville?
If you’re staying outside Auroville in a non-affiliated guesthouse, eg. in Kuilapalayam village, and don’t have your own transportation, moving around could be tricky. We relied on a shuttle bus, hitch-hiking (you can bet on it as the Aurovillans are very helpful) and simply walked a lot. Bear in mind that bike hire is available only for the volunteers or official guests (staying in one of the affiliated accommodations)!
A free shuttle bus to Sadhana Forest leaves every Friday at 4 pm from the Solar Kitchen, located near Matrimandir. It returns to the same location around 9 pm, which means returning to the accommodation at such a late hour might be a challenge.
Prices [in Indian rupees as of February 2019]:
600 discounted accommodation at the high standard homestay in Kuilapalayam near Auroville
180 public bus from Chennai to Puducherry (160 km)
92 bus from Periyamudaliyar Chavadi (near stop to Auroville) to Mamallapuram (90 km)
50 meal at a simple eatery by the main Chennai-Puducherry road
40 metro from Chennai airport to Guendi (bus station)
30 bunch of bananas
25 breakfast (sambar-idli) at a rudimentary roadside eatery in a village near Auroville
10 shampo sachette and a mini-toothpaste
10 bus from Periyamudaliyar Chavadi (nearest stop to Auroville) to White Town in Puducherry (8 km)
5 one bhaji (fried snack)
*all attractions and shuttle buses within Auroville FREE*