As he returned to his game, I pondered the otherworldly atmosphere of the place: the bright colors of the women’s saris glowing against the sea, the melancholy in the fading shades of the boulevards, the absolute ease in the air. It is no coincidence that one of Pondicherry’s industries is spirituality. In 1910, the Indian nationalist, poet, and holy man Sri Aurobindo, fleeing a British arrest warrant for fomenting rebellion, arrived in Pondicherry. Safe within French jurisdiction, he began to preach enlightenment and spiritual evolution through yoga and meditation. Aurobindo and his disciple, Mirra Alfassa, a charismatic Parisian whom he christened “the Mother,” founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1926. Pilgrims were drawn by Aurobindo’s belief that oneness with the divine does not mean renouncing the world but “turning the will away from motives of self-interest to the truth and the service of a greater reality than the ego,” as he wrote in his memoir. Today, the ashram provides food and shelter to hundreds and guides the lives of thousands. Its headquarters, library, cafeteria, publishing operation, embroidery business, post office, and stores are housed in colonial buildings clustered in the northern part of Pondicherry’s French Quarter.
One of Aurobindo’s contemporary adherents is Jagannath Rao N., an energetic sexagenarian who told me that meeting the Mother was one of the great events of his life. “I was fourteen, and I felt all my problems were solved,” he recalled. “She seemed to have an answer for everything.” Rao N., who spent his career in the diamond trade, is a volunteer at the ashram. “It’s her work,” he said, “We get rid of our ego. No job is too small or great.”
A few miles north of Pondicherry lies Auroville, the utopian community Alfassa founded in 1968, when she was 90, in what was then arid scrubland. Calling it “the city of the dawn,” she conceived Auroville as a town devoted to new ways of living: cashless, international, dedicated to peace and spiritual harmony. Today, it occupies more than 2,000 acres, accommodating 2,000 people from 43 countries who live together under the canopy of the 2 million trees they have planted. Aurovilians run businesses in fields ranging from technology to textiles. The campus’s focal point is the Matrimandir, a meditation space inside a structure that resembles a giant golden golf ball on an immaculate fairway. Visitors are welcome to stay at Auroville, attend courses, volunteer their labor, join a yoga session, or book meditation time in the Matrimandir.
At Dreamer’s Café, part of a complex of stalls and boutiques at the information center, I met one of Auroville’s newest residents, Marlyse, 70, who goes by only her first name. She described the journey that had brought her here three months earlier from Switzerland. “I worked in corporate IT,” she said. “I had to raise my kid! Then I found the Auroville website and knew immediately—this is where I belong.”
In her linen shirt, a Maori pendant symbolizing friendship hanging around her neck, Marlyse radiated enthusiasm for her new life. “I just want to contribute to this endeavor,” she said. “Auroville makes it easy if you have a dream.” She is part of a team developing electric transportation for the community, funding a portion of the enterprise from her own savings. Upon arrival she was “horrified,” she said, by all the motorbikes. When not devoting herself to that project, Marlyse works behind the information desk and on the website. She is being assessed by her fellow Aurovilians, who will decide if she has the personal qualities and work ethic to stay on as a full member of the community.
Around us young people consulted their laptops. Belief in the teachings of the Mother and Aurobindo is no longer required, Marlyse explained— “but you have to work. Community members work six days a week.” The atmosphere was one of quiet excitement, industrious and dedicated to something beyond personal advancement.
The following evening I found myself in the city of Thanjavur on the back of a moped, weaving terrifyingly through traffic like a pebble in an avalanche. My driver, the impish and charismatic K. T. Raja, beeped his horn constantly, never looking right, left, or behind, navigating by instinct and faith. As the city swept past, I thought of Lear again: “Violent and amazing delight at the wonderful variety of life and dress here.” The serenity of Auroville felt far away.