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Local concerns over Indian utopia

Some call The Matrimandir, the giant golden golf ball.

Auroville sounds like a throwback to the 60s, advocating no rules and leaders and promising peace and harmony, but Rachel Wright hears claims of exploitation and abuse at the southern Indian community.

Some call it the giant golden golf ball, and the description is just right. The Matrimandir - literally the temple of the Mother - is a huge eight-sided almost-spherical building.

It is surrounded by carefully manicured lawns, something of an achievement in arid southern India, and visitors are allowed in only by special appointment.

I joined a group of tourists, mainly Indians, who were being shown around by a middle-aged Frenchman called Gilles. It struck me as a little strange that a European was showing Indians round a town in their own country.

But then Auroville is a strange place. Gilles, who has lived there since the early 1980s had helped build the Matrimandir.

He enthused about the symbolism, about the symmetry, and about a woman known as the mother, while we stood under an enormous banyan tree, sheltering from the blistering south Indian sun.

The mother was a French woman called Mirra Alfassa, who lived in nearby Pondicherry, a former French colony.

She was a disciple of a well-known Indian philosopher called Shri Aurobindo, who had moved to the town after he was imprisoned under the British Raj.

Pixie dust

Shri Aurobindo believed that evolution was not at an end. The mother decided that Auroville would be where that evolution could continue, a universal town where people from around the world could live together in harmony and unity, without having to worry about food and shelter.

A place where there were no rules, no leaders and no money.

She proclaimed that at its centre would be the Matrimandir, the soul of Auroville. It was only finished this year, in time for the 40th anniversary.

Gilles took us inside. Everything was completely white; the carpets on the floor, the marble on the walls, even the socks we were given to wear so we would not dirty the floors.

Auroville

We ascended a walkway to the upper chamber, and opened the door to see what was said to be the largest crystal in the world, lit by a single shaft of sunlight.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, specks of fluff rose up from the carpet twinkling like pixie dust.

We all sat down on mats in front of white pillars that did not actually connect to the ceiling.

Cushions were handed out to protect the columns from being marked when we lent against them. We sat in silence for 15 minutes.

The idea is not necessarily to pray, but rather to be quiet in a holy place.

As we walked out into a wall of heat, Gilles explained that the building of the universal town was going very slowly.

When they began in 1968 the plan had been for a city for 50,000, 40 years later there are only 2,000 people living there, two thirds of them Westerners.

I asked my French guide whether he thought the ideals of the mother had been realised.

Ideal society?

"For an ideal society," he replied, "you have to have ideal people, and we don't have ideal people."

"So how do you make them ideal?" I asked.

Well, the answer is, according to the philosophy of Auroville, through practising yoga. Later I asked Gilles whether there were some residents here less ideal than others.

"I'd get rid of half of them," he told me conspiratorially.

Auroville [Photo: Rachel Wright]
Around 4,000 people are employed at Auroville

Aurovillians receive a small maintenance grant, partly funded by the Indian government. In exchange they are supposed to volunteer for a few hours work every day, "the rest of the time they are seeking the divine", supposedly.

Actually, they are also in the business of making money, there are at least 120 commercial enterprises operating here, making incense, clothes, silk paintings and so on.

Under the rules, they can keep two-thirds of the profits and pay no tax.

The locals think it is not fair. They are the ones who work full-time, and often for less than the Aurovillians get in maintenance grants.

"I feel like a slave," one of them told me.

It's like being back in the days of the British Raj
Worker at Auroville

"Of course they do provide us with jobs," he said, "but it's very difficult for us local Tamils to become members."

"It's like being back in the days of the British Raj," said another.

Abuse claims

"They are allowed to get away with whatever they like, including paying our children to have sex with them, and we are powerless to complain."

To be fair Auroville does do a great deal for the local community; it employs 4000 people, runs schools for local children and has reforested an enormous area that was once a barren landscape.

But even the Aurovillian authorities admit that the community did in the mid-90s include a convicted paedophile.

They say they have strict procedures in place to deal with any incidents that might arise in the future.

Auroville is certainly a strange sort of place, but some way short, I would say, of being an ideal society.

Watch a full investigation by BBC Two's Newsnight into Auroville which includes a detailed response to the allegations from Carel Thieme of the Auroville Working Committee.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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