History is important for Auroville – it holds within it the time of the pioneers, the time of the almost barren plateau, and the time of the Mother. Like the rest of India, Auroville has changed immensely over the past 50+ years. Rural ways have turned cosmopolitan, bullock-carts have been traded in for tractors, and industry and prosperity have risen hand in hand. Old images of the City of Dawn are hard to reconcile with our current reality and the changes are sometimes tough to digest for those who know Auroville from its early days.
This Brief History will share with you some of the key turning points of our colourful past, to give some context to how Auroville has evolved. If you are more of a visual person, also check out our Changes over the Years – In Pictures.
A City for the New Man
Mother had already had the idea of an ‘ideal town’ during Sri Aurobindo’s lifetime, which would have Sri Aurobindo living at the centre. This place would be the physical environment for those striving for individual transformation through union with the Divine. For a while, there was talk of bringing this town to life close to Hyderabad, where the Nizam was prepared to donate a substantial area of land. After Sri Aurobindo left his body in 1950, the Mother lost interest in the project for a few years, until a new spark came. In 1954, Mother recorded a Dream that she had for the world, one that ends with the statement: “The earth is certainly not ready to realise such an ideal […] That is why I call it a dream. Yet, this dream is on the way of becoming a reality.” This high aspiration of the Mother became the basis of the Auroville experiment.
While Mother was clear that she would not live in Auroville – as her place was in the Ashram in Pondicherry, close to Sri Aurobindo’s samadhi – several attempts were made to find a place for what later would become Auroville. In January 1967, Roger Anger brought her a map of the area north of Pondicherry asking her to point at the centre of the future town. Mother concentrated and pointed to a particular location. Roger Anger drove to the area and found an almost completely barren plateau with a lone, large banyan tree. Mother was happy to hear of the presence of this sacred tree, and designated it the geographical centre of the future town.
Mother then vested the already existing Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS), of which she was the President, with the responsibility to acquire funding, support, and land for the project. The SAS managed to get the support of the Government of India, and later, through Roger Anger and Kailash Jhaveri, secured endorsements by UNESCO, which considered it ‘a project of importance to humanity’. In the meantime, Mother prepared and endorsed key documents on what Auroville was aiming to be, both in its physical form – through town planning – and its aims and ideals – especially through the creation of the Auroville Charter. All these efforts, finally, led to the day that we now celebrate yearly as the birthday of Auroville, the day of the inauguration ceremony – 28 February 1968.
The Inauguration of Auroville
For the Inauguration, Mother envisioned a grand event with attendees from all over the world, to drive home the sense that Auroville was to be a “universal township”. Close to the banyan tree, she asked her disciple Nata to manifest Roger Anger’s design for an amphitheatre that would hold an urn at its centre, with enough space for 2,000 people to sit on the steps, and space for 10,000 more to sit on mats around. It was a tremendous work that had to be completed within one month, as the date was fixed on the 28th of February. Excavations and brickwork were done 24 hours a day, in 8-hour shifts, aided in the night by huge petrol lamps. Finally, thanks to a great force of labourers from the villages, Nata’s team completed their task on the 25th of February.
The day of the Inauguration dawned. The amount of people that showed up was greater than what had been expected, and though estimates vary, what is sure is that 15.000 lunch packets prepared by the Ashram Dining Room staff were eaten by the attendees. At 10.30 am, the Mother’s voice resounded over the surrounding area, as she read out, from her room at the Ashram, the Auroville Charter via a telephone line into the loudspeakers placed all around the amphitheatre connecting to India’s Doordarshan which broadcast it throughout India. It was followed by readings of the Charter in 16 Indian and other foreign languages. Pairs of youth – one boy and one girl – representing 24 Indian states and 124 nations came and poured a handful of soil from their native land into the central urn. First came the earth from the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo, and finally, it was Nolini’da, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo who had been imprisoned with him in the Alipore jail 60 years earlier, who closed and sealed the urn.
In the afternoon, Nata went to see the Mother, who according to him was silent and strongly withdrawn. She caressed his head, presented him with flowers, and told him: “I knew you would do it.”
The Mother leaves her body
The Mother retreated to her room in the Ashram and from 20 May 1973 only received some of her personal attendants and her son, André Morisset. In the night of 17 November, 1973, the Mother left her body. It was a deeply shocking event for Aurovilians and Ashramites alike, many of whom had a close connection to her, all depending on her for spiritual guidance. More than that, the Mother had been spending all of her energy on bringing deeper consciousness into her cells, to open the physical body to the Divine Force, so that illness and death might be overcome. This is considered one of the ultimate aims of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga – to bring the Divine Consciousness into the depth of matter itself. The belief that Mother would complete this work before her body wore out left many feeling deeply shocked by her passing.
You might wonder why we say that the Mother ‘left her body’? This seemingly peculiar turn of phrase points to Mother’s explanation of what death is: it is the moment when consciousness leaves the deteriorating physical shell, abandoning the form that refuses to be transformed. ‘Death’, as we commonly speak of it, does not exist in the Integral Yoga, or, for that matter, in many other Indian spiritual traditions.
Directly in the wake of the Mother’s passing, the Ashram became divided as some, including her close collaborator and disciple Satprem, believed that she was in a trance so deep that there was no detectable heartbeat. His beliefs were not shared by those in charge of her body, and she was buried in the samadhi next to Sri Aurobindo in the Ashram’s compound. Over time, conflict with Satprem festered, as he wished to publish the Agenda, the transcripts of his talks with Mother, which some at the Ashram disapproved of. The disciple eventually left the Ashram in 1978 and had, in the years to follow, the Mother’s Agenda published in France in 13 volumes.
For some Aurovilians, Satprem became the inheritor of Sri Aurobindo and Mother’s work, and his fight with the Ashram – whom he perceived as having become dogmatic and institutionalised – became a part of an increasingly escalating conflict between Auroville residents and the Sri Aurobindo Society. Many Aurovilians were concerned about what they saw as an increasingly autocratic approach of the Sri Aurobindo Society to Auroville. This conflict, which deeply marked life in Auroville for the better part of the late 70s and early 80s, created a painful separation between Auroville and the Ashram.
Conflict with the Sri Aurobindo Society
After the Mother’s death, tensions also arose between the Sri Aurobindo Society, an administrative body connected to the Ashram that stewarded the project of Auroville and the residents of Auroville. At the time, most Aurovilians came from the west and were a free-spirited and dedicated lot, and there was certainly a cultural clash underlying many of the differences in opinions and values. As with any conflict, there are different historical accounts on what actually happened, and if you are interested, we invite you to spend some time delving into the resources listed at the bottom of this article to see if you can make up your own mind. What is clear is that some residents of Auroville felt that the Chairman of the Society was more and more projecting himself as the head of Auroville, which flew in the face of their understanding of the Auroville experiment. From the Society’s side, there was a wish to keep Auroville in line with the Mother’s vision, and that included an attempt to rein in some practices that they did not approve of. Auroville regularly appeared in the news in this time – unfortunately, not as the utopia that it was meant to be, but as a site of slander, jailings, false accusations and even physical fights between the different parties.
It was also a conflict that created deep divisions in the Auroville community itself, as not everyone was willing to go against the wishes of the Society or even preferred to stay under its umbrella. Some of these ‘Neutrals’, as they came to be known, later reported a sense of alienation or even distrust from the rest of the community. Considering that for those on all sides of the conflict, the dream of Mother was at stake, it is understandable that tensions ran high. We should also not forget that in this time, quite some Aurovilians were jailed at the behest of the Society, who ran many court cases against them, and in the case of foreigners, attempted to get their visas rescinded. It was only through the intervention of personal friends of Auroville, such as JRD Tata and Sir CPN Singh, that these measures were later annulled, and that in the end, the uncensored Mother’s Agenda was published in France and Auroville was freed from the management of the SAS.
The conflict between the Society and Auroville reached such a level of infamy that eventually, the Government of Indira Gandhi – who reportedly had a warm relationship with the Mother – stepped in and decided to take over the management of the Auroville project for a limited period of time. They did so by having India’s Parliament pass the “Auroville (Emergency Provision) Act – 1980”. Its constitutional validity was then challenged by the Society all the way up to the Supreme Court of India.
Passing of the Auroville Foundation Act
In the Supreme Court, the main challenge to the Government’s takeover of Auroville presented by the Society was that Sri Aurobindo’s teaching should be considered a religion, which the head of the Society, Navajata, dubbed ‘Aurobindoism.’ Why a question of theology in the courtroom? The Society hoped that proving Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga to be a religion would give them back the rights to Auroville, as Indian law protects religious institutions from government interference. However, the Supreme Court was more convinced of the arguments against this line of thought, since Mother and Sri Aurobindo had often stated that it was not their intention to found a new religion, but instead, to work for a radical change in human nature. More than that, the SAS had earlier declared itself to be a non-political and non-religious organisation when it applied for tax benefits from India’s government and for becoming an associate organisation of UNESCO. In the end, the Court ruled in favour of the Government in 1982.
In 1988, the Parliament of India passed the Auroville Foundation Act, which constituted the Auroville Foundation. It created a close tie between Auroville and the Indian Government, one that continues today. To understand more about the organisational consequences of this move, please see our article on
Auroville’s organisation here. The passing of the Act and the eventual constitution of the Foundation closed a turbulent chapter in Auroville’s history. As for the relationship between Auroville and the Ashram, there has been increased collaboration between the two since the late nineties, and a renewed understanding of each other as members of the same family has helped to forge an amicable relationship.
Work on the Matrimandir, the golden spherical ‘Temple of the Mother’ situated next to the central Banyan tree, started quite quickly after the Inauguration of Auroville. The foundation stone was laid on the Mother’s birthday, the 21st of February 1971. The Matrimandir is now a well-known icon and the first thing many people associate with the City of Dawn; it brings many people who are attracted to its splendid architecture. Although the Matrimandir is absolutely not intended as a tourist site, there is a limited possibility to book a meditation session or take a guided tour. If you are interested in visiting the Matrimandir, please check out Matrimandir’s informational website here.
For Aurovilians, the Matrimandir represents so much more than what can be understood from a short visit. From the early days, the Matrimandir had a very profound meaning for Auroville, as Mother said: “Let the Matrimandir be the living symbol of Auroville’s aspiration for the Divine.” More than that, she named it the Soul of Auroville, the energetic centre that holds all its dispersed parts together. While today that manifests on a more subtle level, in the early days this was more clearly apparent, as it was the work on the Matrimandir that brought many parts of the community together. An important milestone in the history of Auroville was the completion of the main structure of the Matrimandir in 2008. For a more precise history of the building of the Matrimandir and a deeper exploration of its spiritual significance, please see our article here.
Reviving the Land
Throughout all these historical events – the high ideals, the splendid start, the spiritual, physical, social and legal conflicts – perhaps one of the most remarkable ‘events’ has been the slow but gradual transformation of a barren plateau into the lush forests that are now a hallmark of Auroville. From the first day that Aurovilians arrived on the stretch of land that was supposed to be Auroville, their first need was for shade. And so, they started planting trees, watering them daily in a battle with the hot south Indian sun. Although they had little expertise, many historical sources – from inside and outside of Auroville – note the dedication and hard work that went into the reforestation efforts. The work in those days also cemented the relationship between the first Aurovilians and the villagers around, as they taught us their practices and worked with us.
At some point, community members realised that one of the greatest challenges was to make sure that rainwater would not run out into the sea. Decades of erosion had left deep canyons that channelled water away from the plateau on which Auroville was situated, taking away the fertile topsoil with every monsoon. The conservation of water through a huge restructuring of the landscape, creating bunds and swales to retain rainwater in place, was a mayor innovation that was soon also picked up by the villages around. Today, Auroville is one of last places on earth to host a substantial chunk of upcoming Tropical Dry Evergreen (TDEF) forest – a type of forest native to southern India that has almost entirely disappeared.
The early reforestation efforts were not done by experts, and they favoured ‘pioneer’ trees that took well to the barren environment, sometimes without a full understanding of their qualities. One of the more popular pioneer trees was the Acacia auriculiformis, locally known as the ‘Work Tree’. When cyclone Thane razed over Auroville in 2011, species like the work tree, which are not cyclone-resistant, fell over. It is estimated that at this time, Auroville lost more than half of its forest cover.
While the cyclone devastated the forest, it has also opened up space to use our improved knowledge on TDEF to plant more appropriate species and create a more diverse environment. More than that, many Aurovilians remember cyclone Thane as a time where the community really came together again, as in earlier times. While most roads were blocked and many houses damaged, residents came out unscathed and took up the work of clearing roads and repairing roofs together. Extensive work was also done in and with the villages in our bioregion.
50th Anniversary and Beyond
In 2018, Auroville turned 50 years of age. The occasion was marked by a special bonfire celebration that included a water ceremony, where samples from 321 bodies of water all over the world were brought together in the Amphitheatre, in an echo of the Inauguration of 1968. The 50th Anniversary was a moment for the community to pause and take stock – what has our experimentation brought in the last half century, and how can we move forward into a future of Human Unity?
At its core, Auroville is an aspiration to take a leap towards the future. Yet, looking back can help us understand our current reality in all its complexity. While this article can only give a few highlights, we hope that you already got a taste of some of Auroville’s history – always taking into account that the real (hi)story of Auroville is carried out in the small, everyday experiences of those who have felt called to come and do the Mother’s work.
Want to know more? We have selected a few resources for you to dive into!
Our favourite is a book called Turning Points, which contains more than 20 interviews with Auroville pioneers.
The Mother’s Agenda, the 13-volume publication of unedited conversations with the Mother published by Satprem, can found online here (downloadable) and here.
The Dawning of Auroville, a book by W. Sullivan, is written by one of our early arrivals and gives a beautiful insight into daily life from then to now.
For a short insight into what Mother has said about Auroville, see our intro article here. For a more extensive collection of her words, see Gilles Guigan’s book, ‘Auroville in Mother’s Words’.
On the conflict with the Sri Aurobindo Society, one Aurovilian who was present at the time has published an article detailing his account.
‘Auroville, a Dream Hijacked’ by Nirmalya Mukherjee gives the account of the conflict with an emphasis on the viewpoints and opinions of the Sri Aurobindo Society. Read a review here.
For a more extensive account of Nata and many more interviews with attendees, see the book ‘Inauguration of Auroville: Concept and Purpose’.
If you are interested in the history of the building of the Matrimandir, please check out these books on the subject.
Christoph Pohl has made a beautiful movie on the Auroville reforestation efforts called ‘Ever Slow Green’ – get in touch with the filmmakers to see where you can get a copy.
For a beautiful insight into how rural south India has been touched in the last 50 years by development, see the book of Akash Kapur – who grew up in Auroville – called ‘India Becoming’.