SPECIAL REPORT Auroville: an experiment in sustainable living

Posted: 29 March 2004

Author: John Rowley

On February 28, 1968, a remarkable experiment in what might now be called 'sustainable living' began on a hot, dry, deforested and eroded plateau on the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu in South India. Children from 124 countries brought soil from each of their lands as a symbol of international unity and to mark the founding of the future 'city' of Auroville. Here, people from all nations and religions would come to live in harmony with each other and with the natural environment. Both the Indian Government and the United Nations gave their blessing. This year, John Rowley was invited to see how this utopian experiment is progressing. He arrived as 1,800 Aurovilians and their guests, gathered by starlight to celebrate the city's 36th birthday. This is his report.

After the heat and dust of Chennai, not to mention the choking chaos and din of the city that many still call Madras, evening in Auroville was a blessing. It was a tropical night 'of cloudless climes and starry skies'. A new moon and a brilliant Venus lit the darkness as we walked towards the amphitheatre, which surrounds the Matrimandir, or 'mother's place', a golden dome at the centre of the new 'city' (in fact a collection of small settlements scattered over the now wooded plateau). The scene was straight out of Star Wars. The dome, brilliant with a thousand discs of light, glowed in the darkness below, like a vast spaceship. Circles of light, interspersed with flaring fires, surrounded it and illuminated the sacred mound where soil from the world's nations is kept.

The Matrimandir, or the 'Mother's Place' at Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India.
The Matrimandir, or the 'Mother's Place' at Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India.
The Matrimandir, or the 'Mother's Place', a centre for meditation and comtemplation at Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India.

In the centre of this circle childish figures (the next generation of Aurovilians) moved to the serene music of bells and the sweet chanting by Joy Chowdhury of the Sanskrit poetry of Sri Aurobindo. He was the Indian patriot and sage whose ideas of humanity's long path to evolutionary growth inspired 'the Mother', his French-born follower, to propose the founding of Auroville. It was to be as an experiment in 'human unity in diversity', where productive work without the rewards of wealth and wasteful consumption would replace the baser human passions, and bring its practitioners nearer to the Divine Consciousness.

The Dome itself was built, on the Mother's instructions, near a sacred banyan tree whose spreading branches still provide a cool resting place for visitors to Auroville. Within the inner sanctum of the Dome, housed in a white marble hall, is a perfect crystal ball, 80 cms across, catching the light of the sun from mirrors controlled by solar powered electricity, channelling a beam of light through the building. This 'soul of Auroville' is a place of peace and meditation for Aurovilians and of one-hour daily pilgrimage for thousands of, mainly Indian, visitors.

Chequered history For the visitor, a few days are not enough to see, or weigh up, all that Auroville has achieved - or failed to achieve. It is, essentially, an experiment in progress. The original concept of a city of 50,000 is still a long way off - and some would argue no longer a sustainable goal on the fragile environmental base, which this relatively barren water-short environment can sustain. The present 1,800 inhabitants come from 35 countries, with strong representation from several European countries and the United States, but also from India, which provides over 500 residents, the majority from Tamil Nadu. It has overcome some major challenges, not least in creating a green oasis from the largely treeless, red, gully-slashed laterite landscape which confronted the early settlers. More critically, it has also overcome a political clash between the project managing society in Pondicherry who wanted to control the development of Auroville and the inhabitants who wished to maintain their own idiosyncratic running of the place. The Aurovilians eventually won that battle, but only by agreeing to the broad oversight of the Indian government over their activities.

These cover a baffling array of social and environmental enterprises, carried out in Auroville and the 70 surrounding villages that make up what some refer to as the 'Auroville bioregion'. These range from afforestation to organic agriculture, education, health, village development, craft enterprises, intermediate technology, green energy and sustainable architecture. Some of these activities, especially the craft enterprises, which provide work for many local villagers, help to fund the city services, as do grants from aid agencies and Auroville support groups around the world.

The Solar kitchen, Auroville, India.
The Solar kitchen, Auroville, India.
Auroville's 'Solar Kitchen' caters for all Aurovilians and their guests. It also delivers around 1000 low-cost meals to its schools, units and to outlying communities.

The Aurovillians are themselves, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the project. They can be seen casually cycling or scootering about the track roads of the 'city' (which is in fact more like an extended village), or eating organic meals at a simple restaurant whose huge thermal dish turns the sun's rays into steam for cooking and can provide meals for a thousand. They live in largely self-build houses, which they do not own, and they receive only a small subsistence wage for their work. They seem, as far as one can tell, deeply contented. To find out more, I spent some time with three long-time Aurovilians, all of whom are having a big impact on the local environment. All three are men (two Europeans and one Australian), but that is no reflection on the women of Auroville, who make up nearly half the city's inhabitants. Many of these are working with women's groups and as teachers in Auroville schools, where some girls from the surrounding villages are getting not only an education but practical skills and much-needed advice and counselling. Women make up most of the 4,000 villagers who find work in Auroville enterprises.

Making Gaia's garden

The first of the three Aurovilians is Kireet, a tall Dutchman who found his way here as a young man, living in a hut in the 'red desert', and working in the early days of the city in the nurseries. He returned home to work as a teacher and environmentalist, and to raise a family. But he was drawn back to Auroville for two years in the mid-'seventies and again in the 1985 when he was astonished to see how the forest had spread. He raised funds for a school in the Auroville area and tree planting, and finally came back to settle in 1994. He set about planting a tropical garden in two acres of scrubland, eventually creating what he calls Gaia's Garden, a wonderful flowering sanctuary, complete with a solar powered, water-efficient home for himself and environmentally-friendly guest houses for visitors, all of which belong to Auroville. He searched sacred groves for seeds of the old flora and became increasingly concerned about the local water shortage.

Kireet pointing to a check dam. Photo: John Rowley
Kireet pointing to a check dam. Photo: John Rowley
Kireet pointing to one of the many check dams built to prevent the monsoon waters draining into the sea.© John Rowley

He noted that the coastal sea was stained red, during the monsoon season, with top soil scoured from the gullies and 'canyons' that scar the plateau. And he saw the government check dams, built to stem the monsoon flows, were broken or washed away. He began the task of repairing and rebuilding them.

With some of his own money, and that from friends, he first repaired nine check dams and built a new one, using reinforced concrete and granite rocks. He then went on to raise more money and has worked on 50 or 60 dams since 1996.

Damming the flood

The aim is to check the monsoon floods and allow the water building up behind the dams to soak into the ground, recharging the underground aquifers and encouraging new vegetation to take hold. This has clearly succeeded. In one 5 km canyon there are now 20 dams between Auroville and the sea, creating a green corridor where once the annual torrent tore ever-deeper craters into the earth. A second series of dams has succeeded in improving the local water table, to the benefit of rice and coconut farmers. And the sweet water is clearly pushing out some of the salt water which has been infiltrating the porous limestone rocks.

Unfortunately, the effort to replenish the underground water has not always been helped by the availability of free government electricity to the local farmers who tend to over-pump the water and waste it on highly polluting, but immediately-lucrative, shrimp farms.

Kireet is now turning his attention to the various efforts to extend care for the aquifers across the Auroville bioregion. He is also trying to convince the various working groups under a general Auroville Plan and Development Council about the crucial importance of water harvesting from the Auroville rooftops. The Council deals with issues such as housing, business, farming, energy, finance and village action, which - without imposing a rigid bureaucracy - can, at least, provide some framework for future development. He has now been asked to help in the planting of the long-planned Matrimandir gardens, a central feature of the city of the future. It is, he says, "a terrifyng task" but one he clearly relishes.

Doctor turned farmer

My second meeting was with a German doctor turned farmer, who I found among his carefully cherished cashew trees in Auroville's agricultural zone. Dr Lucas Dengel, or just 'Lucas' as he is universally known, is a spare, lean man, with a sensitive face behind silver-rimmed spectacles. As a doctor in Auroville for 10 years, he all too often saw the results of illnesses caused by the regular use of freshly mixed urban garbage (including medical waste) as a mulch by local farmers. This waste is only 60 per cent biodegradable and flies frequently spread typhoid and other diseases to the local people.

Lucas tending to his cashew nut plants. Photo: John Rowley
Lucas tending to his cashew nut plants. Photo: John Rowley
Lucas tending to his cashew nut plants grown organically with biologically-enriched compost.© John Rowley

He began to wonder if he might not be better employed showing how properly controlled organic farming might increase the quality and yields of cashew nuts and other crops and avoid the ill effects of untreated waste and chemical pesticides on people and the environment. In 1998 he managed to find a 14-acre piece of land at the end of one of the Auroville orchards, and began a demonstration cashew plantation.

As he explains, cashew cultivation was introduced to the area around Auroville 30 years ago, and has become a popular crop with local farmers because it suits the red laterite soil well, is less labour intensive than other crops and has a good cash value.

At first local farmers were sceptical, feeling safer with the chemical pesticides and fertilisers which the government recommended. More recently, however, there has been some official interest because exports of some cashews and cotton have been rejected as contaminated by pesticides.

Selling organic nuts

"Early efforts to produce a local compost failed" says Lucas, "so I looked around for an organic fertiliser to supplement manure." The result was EM, or Effective Micro-organisms. Using a formula developed by Professor Teruo Higa in Japan, EM contains a mixture of many different micro-organisms, including lactobacilli, yeast, photosynthetic bacteria and actinomycetes (as found in good soil) in a liquid culture. When applied to the soil, the micro-organisms function co-operatively to break down organic matter and enhance soil quality by producing vitamins, enzymes and antibiotics.

"The breakthrough of EM consists in the sourcing of bacteria from nature, the discovery that jointly, the organisms exert so much more benefit than individually, and the development of a culture medium which provides shelf life to the product and makes it marketable," he says. "We are activating all kinds of compost using rice husk and rice bran and other sources of organic matter. We make an EM bokashi (a Japanese word for anything fermented) to enrich the soil. This gives a kick-start to microbial life in the topsoil. And by adding Neem seeds to the mixture it also acts as an insect repellent."

Indeed, EM seems to be something of a magic formula, since it is even being used at Auroville to kill harmful pathogens in waste water as well as hastening the composting process.

So far the results of Lucas' work have been encouraging. Some pests still attack the cashew crop, but not overwhelmingly so. Yields are growing and Lucas believes they will continue to do so as his cashew trees mature. He is already acting as a distributor for EM mixture. He hopes to build a market for organic cashews that will attract local growers to follow suit.

Lucas has a lot more planting and composting to do, not only of cashews but also of companion crops, including fruit trees and leguminous vegetables. It's hot back-breaking work, but this doctor and his colleague in the project, Mawite, from North India, seem to thrive on the Auroville spirit.

Restoring the forest

Joss, Auroville, India. Photo: John Rowley
Joss, Auroville, India. Photo: John Rowley
A lifetime Aurovilian, Joss has restored a tropical, dry, evergreen forest and worked to strengthen the practice of herbal medicine in the villages of the bioregion.© John Rowley

Another pioneer, who has been at Auroville from the start is (like all Aurovillians) known simply by one name, in this case 'Joss'. A tough, wiry, Australian in a battered hat and flowered shirt, his interests range from forest restoration, to medicinal plants and village education.

One of his great achievements has been to replant one of the very few blocks of tropical dry evergreen forest which can still be found in Tamil Nadu. This is a biodiverse ecosystem which once covered much of the Coromandel coastal belt but is now almost extinct.

It has taken him 30 years to search out indigenous trees and plants to create a 60-acre forest at Pitchandikulam as part of the Auroville green belt. This is a rare achievement, but one which he hopes will be repeated elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, drawing on botanical surveys of sacred groves and looking for common land areas to replant.

The restored forest is now a place of rare beauty with a wealth of wildlife, not only 600 species of indigenous plants and 94 species of birds, but local animals such as civet cats, monitor lizards, mongooses and jackals. There are even peacocks, as their wild screeching proves, which have escaped into the forest and bred successfully. (Peacocks are not new to Tamil Nadu, featuring as they do in many temple sculptures from the 10th century onwards.)

Joss calls this an 'ethno-medicinal forest' because it also contains a wealth of medicinal plants which he hopes will help to revive the local traditional health system.

Bullock cart village

Indeed, when I met Joss he was standing in the hot sun in the remote, very dry and dusty village of Vendipalaiyman (bullock cart village) where he has set up a herbal clinic and demonstration garden with 175 species of healing plants.

The village is out beyond the dried up prawn fisheries, which dot this area and have polluted the soil and sucked up much of the ground water. Joss travels the 30 kilometres, much of it over bumpy track roads, from Auroville, on most days of the week to check progress on this and other projects.

The health clinic employs a doctor of Siddha medicine, Dr J. Jaganathan. This system, according to Joss, provides an even wider range of herbal remedies than traditional Ayuverdic medicine. His work is linked to the Bangalore-based network of traditional health and medicinal plant research centres, known as the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT).

Planting herbs in the medicinal garden
Planting herbs in the medicinal garden
Planting herbs in the medicinal garden

"Our work in traditional healing touches on about 60 villages," says Joss, "though we work closely with only five or ten." Most are supplied with herbal seedlings from Auroville's Medicinal Plant Conservation Park at Pitchandikulam, which is among 16 research gardens in South India.

In the last six months, the project has also started to build a new environmental education training centre at the local rural high school, developing programmes that create eco-clubs, with green corners in schools in and around Pondicherry. The children of Vendipalaiyman, proudly showed me their own green corner: an impressive display of items from their organic vegetable garden and other items made or collected from the local environment.

There are now 20 organic vegetable gardens in local villages, including organically grown medicinal plants which the project is happy to buy back for sale in Bangalore and elsewhere. The gardens use EM composting, vermiculture and other organic techniques.

Improving country life

Children from the villages are encouraged to learn about their environment.</
Children from the villages are encouraged to learn about their environment.
Children from the villages are encouraged to learn about their environment.

But Joss' work in the village has gone further, building on the existence of an active youth club with energetic local leaders. At the new solar-powered community centre there are rooms for children to do their homework and receive tuition, and classes in tailoring, typing and dance.

And on the village outskirts, the local school which was no more than a dusty one-roomed building with no furniture, is being rebuilt and extended, with government help. It will have new playing fields, a wooded garden, and 16 new teachers.

"We have to try and give quality back to country life" says Joss, "or localconditions will become more and more difficult for the next generation".

So, in some respects, Auroville is fighting the clock, as the local villages increasingly turn their back on old farming ways for quick returns and young people desert the countryside for the city. It is also up against political constraints as some village interests (with the backing of local politicians) see themselves at odds with Auroville's environmental and social concerns. There have been some violent incidents in recent months, which are causing concern.

But in other respects, Auroville has achieved a new harmony, and after so much struggle will continue as a valuable demonstration of what can be achieved in a place where 'market forces' are set aside in the quest for a higher purpose in human life.

John Rowley is Editor-in-Chief of this website.

Related links:

Auroville website

Auroville International website

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