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Passage to Pondicherry

On the second floor, Indian, European, and American ashramites were working on a colossal project: the publication of the corrected works of Sri Aurobindo in 36 volumes. After retiring from politics, Aurobindo famously spent 24 years shut away in three small rooms, writing poems andessays that carefully recorded the progress of his yoga. In an air-conditioned office, Richard, a bearded American Sanskrit scholar dressed in white, was examining these texts with monklike patience. "Sometimes I have to look over a hundred instances of a word to determine precisely what Aurobindo meant by it," he told me gravely.

"We do get things done," Peter assured me, after we got downstairs to the high-ceilinged office that serves as the ashram's publishing house. Medha, a cheerful Aurobindo devotee from Mumbai,working in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves of manuscripts, laughed and interjected, "But I think that's because of grace."

Temple elephants, who will snuffle up your rupees with their lavishly decorated trunks and then give you a blessed pat on the head, are ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu; the one at the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple just down the street from the ashram is particularly friendly. After we left the temple, Peter took me to the ashram bookshop, SABDA, which is stocked with literature on Hinduism, Sanskrit scholarship, and, of course, the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Curious visitors (those not quite curious enough for the complete 36 volumes) can also sample the founders' wisdom in the form of pamphlets devoted to particular topics. I passed over "How to Cultivate Concentration," "Know Thyself and Forget Thyself," and "The Mother on Desires" in favor of"HappyBirthday," feeling as if I were buying Cliff's Notes in front of an English teacher.

"It's my birthday," I said defensively.

Peter looked startled. "But why didn't you say something?We have to get you a pass!"

Friends had told me that I would need a pass for nearly everything in the ashram—to sleep in the guesthouse, to eat (in strictlymaintained silence) in the ashram dining room, and to meditate near the Mother and Aurobindo's tomb—but this seemed to be taking things a bit far.

"I need a pass to have my birthday?" I asked.

Peter explained that your birthday is the only day of the year that you can visit Aurobindo's preserved and sealed-off rooms. He checked his watch. "We have to hurry," he said. "It might be too late."

We rushed to a small office in the ashram's main building, where a birthday pass–giving ashramite graciously made an exception and issued me a ticket for the following morning. "After all," Peter reasoned, "it will still be your birthday in America."

Before coming to Pondicherry, I had visited a friend in Mumbai, Pheroza Godrej, an elegant Parsi woman in her nineties. We sat in her courtyard apartment on Hughes Road, eating rapidly melting strawberry ice cream, while Pheroza described her own visit to Pondicherry more than a half century earlier, when Aurobindo was still alive: "They're all the time saying, 'Make your darshan and keep moving, keep moving,'" she remembered. "But how can you move when his eyes are on you?You're fixed to the spot."

Of course, darshan—a blessing received by viewing a holy person—is a little different once the holy man is no longer there.When you enter the ashram courtyard, the first thing you see is the samadh—the marble tomb that holds the remains of Aurobindo and the Mother—which is perpetually covered with flowers. The private rooms upstairs are kept just as they were when Aurobindo was alive. When I arrived with my birthday pass at 9:30 the next morning, the staircase to the inner sanctum was already crowded with people, some of them holding marigolds and roses as offerings. At the appointed moment, we were allowed to file silently into the guru's rooms.

Like my paternal grandmother, Sri Aurobindo seems to have been crazy for collectibles. I saw vitrines crowded with carved ivory elephants, Greek amphorae, and Dresden figurines—all gifts from devotees. Unlike my grandmother, Aurobindo owned six or seven large tiger heads, with open jaws and glass eyes, which he kept lined up on a table in the antechamber. Inside the room everything had been preserved: the chair where the yogi received visitors; his bed, covered with a pink nylon spread; his fan and goosenecked reading lamp. We sat in silence for about 15 minutes in front of a large portrait of Aurobindo as an old man; afterward, the ashramites dismissed us with fresh garlands, birthday cards, and tiny sepia portraits of the Mother.

Although visitors often confuse the ashram at Pondicherry with its neighbor Auroville, the two are entirely separate entities.A bumpy, 20-minute ride away, by white Ambassador taxi, Auroville was founded as an international community in 1968. Today its 1,700 residents come from more than 35 countries and live in dramatically varied settlements—everything from cashew farms to avant-garde art studios to Florida-style condos—spread out in a rough spiral over 10 square miles of land. Philosophically, Auroville is distinct from the ashram, dedicated not to Aurobindo's Integral Yoga but to the Mother's vision of international "human unity."

Those with a serious interest are encouraged to stay and work in the community, but even a day trip from Pondicherry is rewarding. Auroville is home to a number of architects who have let their imaginations loose; the public buildings (particularly the ultramodern Bharat Nivas, an Indian cultural center, and the new town hall) are unlike any others in the world. Because the community's geography is confusing, it's best to either begin with a tour from thevisitors' center—or make an Aurovillian friend. As Anu Majumdar, a novelist from Calcutta who has lived in Auroville for 30 years, put it: "You can't see Auroville from the road."

What you can see, from quite a distance, is the 95-foot-high Matrimandir, the enormous sphere covered with gold-plated discs that marks the center of the community. The Aurovillians have been laboring to complete this monument to their founder's vision since the early seventies, and they're still putting on the finishing touches. After obtaining another pass, from the kiosk inside the gate, you enter the structure and follow the spiral walkway up to a dim inner chamber, where an attendant provides you with a pair of regulation white socks. Inside the chamber, you sit on white cushions around the Mother's globe—a flawless crystal sphere, illuminated by a single beam of light from a skylight directly overhead. Aurovillians will tell you that the Matrimandir is not for formal meditation; in the words of the Mother, it's something simpler, "a place...for trying to find one's consciousness."

Most people don't come to Auroville for the beach, but the community's stretch of coastline is palm-fringed and lovely. There are few visitors, especially during the hot season, and staring at the sea provides a welcome break from other spiritual labors. Just off the beach, at the Quiet Healing Center, I tried a hatha yoga class in a bright, high-ceilinged studio. After a rigorous hour in the 90-degree heat, I decided to sign up for a massage. I followed a Tamil masseuse up to a thatched hut on the roof, where she immediately changed from her sari into a T-shirt and shorts, then instructed me: "You—everything but panties!" I anticipated something painful and healthy, and was pleasantly surprised by the soothing strokes of the ayurvedic technique. The massage hut (equipped with a ceiling fan fastened to a beam)kept out the sun and circulated the breeze. The only drawback was the copious amount of oil; by the time I left, an hour later, I had become a sort of human samosa.

On my last night, I returned to Pondicherry proper to attend the evening meditation at the Aurobindo ashram. At the appointed time, an ashramite rang a brass bell and all the lights went out, except for one blue lamp above the samadh. In the dark, the tips of the incense sticks glowed like tiny orange pairs of eyes. The noise from outside the walls—autorickshaw horns, bells of the street hawkers, someone's cell phone playing "Für Elise"—seemed truly separate from what was going on inside. That community and its guests, sitting together in perfect silence, represented another version of what I love about India: its proud variety, the distinctness of each particular place. India Lite, perhaps, but hardly the dead city of its colonial past.


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