The Dharma Buddies of Auroville
Story and photos by Camille Cusumano



A sanctuary in southern India is perfect ground for old and new spiritual friends from around the world to reunite and flow together like the water.


Festival of Auroville

The water comes in from every state in India, from all corners of the earth, from as far as Siberia, even from nations on hostile terms, like the U.S. and Iran. It seeks its own level in a wide shallow basin where the procession marchers pour each precious vial, a peaceful solution.

The Water Ceremony is the crowning celebration of the Golden Anniversary of Auroville, an intentional community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Along with hundreds of others from near and far, I have gathered in the dark before dawn, as people have on this date for 50 years. We sit on clay-red steps of an amphitheater. The scuff and rasp of bare feet and saris settle into breath-filled silence. Each of us meditates on what feels like impossibly unanimous goodwill.

Water ceremony of Auroville

With first light, a choir of voices elevates that feeling a few decibels. My eyes tear, gooseflesh raises. A roaring bonfire in the round reflects off the gold-leafed globe of the nearby Matrimandir, Sanskrit for “Temple of the Mother.” I recall spiraling up its dim chamber on Merino wool carpet to a shaft of natural light illuminating a large solid crystal.

For the next hour, the water bearers, founders and their offspring, transport flasks. After each pouring, they insert blue teardrop-shaped placards into a grooved circle to reveal the water source. Next to the basin rises a lotus-shaped marble urn that contains soil from 124 nations, carried to Auroville’s inauguration in 1968.

50 Years of Enlightenment

If it’s true that water holds memory, then this blending of the universal solvent perhaps will seep into world consciousness that once harmony reigned on our planet. That is my lofty idea as I marvel at this choreography of hope onstage. I think of the mingled sweat and sheer muscle power of the hundreds who shaped Auroville out of barren land in 1968, that watershed year. The Tower of Babel has nothing on this enterprise. Perhaps the thriving village with enlightened education, holistic healthcare, renewable energy projects, and sustainable farming is a microcosm of what can exist on a bigger scale.

For a month here, I avoid the news that indicates otherwise. There is something patently special in this hallowed ground, the inspiration of one French Mirra Alfassa, spiritual collaborator of philosopher Sri Aurobindo. Their images abound in every corner, from the Town Hall to the visitor center to the grocery store. Referred to with reverence as the Mother, Alfassa joined forces with Aurobindo in the 1920s at the ashram in nearby Pondicherry where they lived and taught his defining belief: How we humans will evolve into “supra-mental” beings.

Founders envisioned a populace of 50,000, but—many are called, few are chosen—Aurovillians today number a steadfast 2,500, representing some fifty countries, almost half of them Indian residents. Despite a dwindled vision, India and UNESCO have recognized this cultural treasure, offering financial support. To much pomp and ceremony, Prime Minister Modi even made a rare visit for the 50th anniversary, paying homage to the community’s endurance.

To me the village feels like a giant free-form ashram, preferable to those where bells and gongs insist on strict schedule adherence. Many tranquil corners spread out from the central Peace Park where silence is observed. One evening under the waxing moon, as devotees embraced a giant banyan, a resident enchanted us playing her Tibetan bells. The sound waves floated like haloes over the Matrimandir that rises round and golden from twelve lotus petals (containing smaller meditation rooms).

Enlightened Capitalism and Sharing in Auroville

I tool around the mostly unpaved network of roads and trails on an electric bicycle, taking advantage of yoga classes, Ayurvedic massage, and frequent cultural events in the various pavilions and communes. Many events are free to all and everything is cheap. Food, lodging, and all business owners give a third or more of their profits to the town coffer in what seems a respectable compromise with capitalism. For about $17 a night, I lodge at Avision guest house among acacia and neem trees. My host works daily on his vision: a hydroponic greenhouse, soon to supply the town with organic leafy greens.

My primary reason for coming to Auroville has been to connect with good friends Oga and Carsten. They live in Berlin and come here often to escape their harsh winters. We have known each other since the 1990s when we became dharma buddies at the San Francisco Zen Center. We all support the noble aspirations of the colony—“human unity in diversity.”

Vegetarian food in India

But Oga is the one who puts her actions where our beliefs are. She volunteers her services, as visitors are encouraged to do while here. Gardens, farms, education, food service, and city maintenance can all use help. Korean by birth, Oga assists Wonja, owner of Goyo (meaning inner stillness), a Korean restaurant in the commune Luminosité. Oga helps cook and translate the daily menu into English, the local lingua franca.

Twice during my stay, I have the honor of being one of only fifteen diners who sit around Goyo’s long table, eating in silence. The vegetarian meal served buffet style is delicious and copious. The second time we eat at Goyo, do-gooder Oga has invited a dozen Indian women from Life Education Center, where she also volunteers with its director, Devi, another dharma buddy (and native Indian who lived in Berkeley for years).

Local women in India sitting on a wall

The young women are shy but smile as I take photos of them, bedazzled by their swaying rainbow of saris. Although they come from neighboring Kottakarai, their home life is a distant cry from this utopia. It does not value a daughter’s education. When I see the intricate quilts, garments, and other textile work, that Devi guides them in making, I wonder if they know how skilled they are. I purchase a quilted purple and gold tapestried laptop case to support their handiwork (way underpriced). I admire that Auroville is no cloister but open-armed and outreaching to its disadvantaged neighbors. The boosted self-confidence of these few women is worth a thousand acts of diplomacy.




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Read this article online at: The Dharma Buddies of Auroville

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.


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