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In 2020, I was chosen as one of the lead designers for the Matrimandir gardens design project in Auroville, a settlement based on the principles of ‘human unity’ as proposed by Sri Aurbindo and manifested in materiality by Mirra Alfassa. The design competition call, which preceded my engagement, introduced the Matrimandir gardens at Auroville, India as the following:
“The Matrimandir gardens are meant to be a place where one can explore the states of consciousness through a beautiful landscape that surrounds the Matrimandir. The visitor can experience the state of consciousness of (a particular) garden and move from one conscious experience to another as they move from one garden to another. These 12 powers of the gardens are necessary for the complete manifestation of the integral yogic consciousness in a person. The gardens are meant to be a place for inner concentration…”
As part of the project, my responsibilities included designing four of the twelve gardens (Gardens of Light, Life, Power and Wealth) that surround the Matrimandir (literally translates to the mother’s temple) such that they are evocative of the four states of consciousness each of them represents. Subsequently, I traveled to Auroville in March 2021, November 2021, and again in February 2022 primarily for the project. Yet while visiting Auroville over the course of time, I realized that this project was a means for me to become entangled with the many forms of life which create the Aurovillian landscape. The purpose of my trip changed. From architectural project-oriented site visits to getting enmeshed in the inner workings and daily lives of the Aurovillian community, my entanglement offered an embodied knowledge of and about the settlement. It is these embodied findings of mine that I have tried to elaborate through the following research.
Fig. 1. Matrimandir and the gardens – together known as the unity pavilion. Source: Author
The present settlement of Auroville contains landscapes of desires continuously rendered by its inhabitants (both villagers and settlers) in materiality. These renderings unify inhabitants, visitors and their many desires, each doing their part in contributing to a common geography, unknowingly united by the palimpsests of their desires. The settlement also contains landscapes of aspirations, contradictions, and consequent struggles, most visible of which are issues of settler colonialism. Yet reflecting on the struggles of the settlement is not the objective of this research. To understand these struggles and contradictions of Auroville as a settlement, one must look at the work of Jessica Namakkal. Both her paper titled ‘European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia’ (Namakkal, European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia., 2012), as well as her recent book titled ‘Unsettling Utopia’ (Namakkal, Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India, 2021), do a good job of encompassing the said issues with(in) the settlement.
Personally, I find it unwise to render the Aurovillian community as a unitary object stuck in space and time. On the contrary, the community itself is a being, evolving and being created, in multiple levels of correspondence with itself, the struggles and aspirations of which cannot and should not be homogenized. It is with this background and through my own inhabitation of Auroville that I have tried to understand what kind of built forms are considered sacred in the Aurovillian landscape and how matter and spirit tie together in the common imaginary, if they do at all. Another primary question that I have explored in my research is related to the idea of ‘human unity’ as theorized by Sri Aurobindo and how it takes material form and shape in and as the settlement, if at all. If so, I further try and understand the possibility of its continuous correspondence back with the spiritual development of the settlement, which was projected to be the main aim of the settlement by the Mother, Mirra Alfassa.
Lastly, as a design consultant to Auroville’s most sacrosanct places and the most important center – the unity pavilion – I wish to clarify my engagement and location within this research. I had selective access to the social, political, administrative, and spiritual spheres of the settlement over the course of my project (2020 to 2022). This access included an understanding of the administrative and decision-making powers of various executives in and around Auroville, as well as their different roles and hierarchies that abound and impacted the settlement. In addition to this, I also had insight into how these aspects and daily ongoings of the settlement were reflected at a material level through a series of interviews I conducted throughout the duration of my project along with my own observations. This hybrid position of being an outsider, yet an insider, allowed me an immersion in the daily activities of the settlement while affording myself an understanding of the settlement. My position was also a vantage point that afforded me a critical understanding of my role in the making of the settlement of Auroville.
Perhaps, it is best to start with understanding Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of ‘human unity’ before dwelling upon its material rendering as the Aurovillian settlement. I shall especially look at the idea of ‘human unity’ in relation to the idea of a nation-state, for this was also the starting point of Sri Aurobindo’s thesis. In a series of essays in one of the anthology of works by Sri Aurobindo titled ‘The Human Cycle, The Idea of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination’ (Aurobindo, 1962) he details his idea behind human unity and how it ties together with the larger life forces, collective and subjective action, as well as the dangers and shortcomings of a nation-state. Sri Aurobindo begins by addressing humanity’s lack of understanding of its collective and communal life for the simple reason that it has been understood through a shallow and empirical lens which revealed to humanity the defects and characteristics of its own “impermanence, often of disorder, especially of defencelessness against the onslaught of larger organizations, (and) an insufficient capacity for widespread material well-being” (Aurobindo, 1962, p. 282).
According to Aurobindo, owing to these shortcomings of our own collective life and our understanding of it have helped humanity give rise to social and political devices which have fast become substitutes for the unity of the human race. Aurbindo further postulates that while these devices have effectively dealt with the defect of humanity’s own collective life, its disadvantage is that “the individual, the city, the region sacrifice their independent life and become mechanical parts of a machine” (Aurobindo, 1962). In order words, the balance between the subjective and collective (Arendt, 1958) life force shifts towards a subjective and objective way of life wherein the state attempts to grow into an intellectual and moral being to justify its existence by organizing the general economic and animal well-being of the community and even of all individuals. Yet, the state along with other such organizational devices and “democratic societies are national-territorial and built on principles and practices of othering, both internally and externally” (Ahmad, 2021).
In the face of such internal and external othering, Sri Aurobindo reasons for a harmony between the two poles of life, one being the individual whom the whole or the community nourishes and the other being the whole or the community itself which the individual helps constitute. It is the harmony between these two poles of our existence that largely forms the premise of Sri Aurobindo’s idea of ‘human unity’. In another essay titled ‘The Inadequacy of the State Idea’, Sri Aurobindo yet again makes the case for an altruistic ideal and the discipline of self-sacrifice. He acknowledges the need for growing solidarity with one’s fellows as well as in the collective soul of humanity. He further makes the case for an individual’s cause to live in the community in order to develop themselves individually as well as collectively. Here again, he resounds his ideas for subjective and collective inhabitation along with the causes for the inadequacy of the state in question (Aurobindo, 1962).
In doing so, Sri Aurobindo argues for a renewed understanding of human unity and its feasibility for future generations. This idea was subsequently explored by Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual partner, Mirra Alfassa, otherwise known as ‘the Mother’ to the Aurovillians. Since the early 1940s, she made possible the rendering of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy in the form of Auroville: a settlement established in 1968 largely due to her efforts and guiding principles. As a result, the manifestation of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy into materiality and its continuing rendering in the built environment long after Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa have passed away demands crucial inspection.
Landscapes of Love and Manifestations of Interiority
Consequently, it becomes vital for us to understand how this concept of ‘human unity’ as envisioned by Sri Aurobindo has been and continues to be rendered as and within the settlement of Auroville. This section explores some of the manifestations of interiority within the settlement. In doing so, it will tie together the spiritual principles of Sri Aurobindo to the continuous material production in and of the settlement through a socio-spatial lens, particularly since the spatial and material rendering, and production of the settlement is not devoid of the people constituting the settlement.
Auroville renders interiority, experiences and love through language, landscapes and built forms. A.K. Ramanujan highlights the relationship between these in his essay titled “On Translating a Tamil Poem” and writes; “classic Tamil poetry would call the poem an “interior” or Akam poem, a poem about love and its different phases. Contrasted to it are “exterior” or Puṟam poems, which are usually public poems about war, society, the poverty of poets (struggles), the death of heroes and so on” (Ramanujan, 2021b: 224). An interesting thing to note is that Akam poetry is that of the “inner world” and “experience, not action.” In another essay titled “Form in Classical Tamil Poetry”, Ramanujan explains that “the reason for the absence of individuals is given in the word Akam: the “interior” world is inexpressible, there are no names there; it has neither geography nor history” (Ramanujan, 2021a: 199). Yet these “inner worlds” find outward expressions by rendering landscapes of love and interiority through language. Rendered externally, these landscapes consequently create the interiority they reflect: landscapes of love find an expression from and towards landscapes of beings by affording forms of experiencing love for nature, trees, animals, beings, and objects. These are landscapes of love rendered in languages of love.
“Of the seven types of Akam poetry (each based on a conception of love), the middle five are each assigned special landscapes. Lover’s union is associated with the mountains; separation with the desert; patient waiting with forests; anxious waiting with the seashore, the lover’s infidelity and the beloved’s resentment with the pastoral region.”
Further, each of these landscapes is assigned a “native element (karu)” which consist of “gods, animals, trees, birds, drums, occupations, lutes or musical styles” (Ramanujan, 2021b). Here too, natural landscapes play a pivotal role. Flowers assigned to each of these characteristic landscapes are associated with feelings about the types of poetry assigned to them. Here, interiority is given external expressions through beings. Here, “being” is represented by landscapes rather than social and cultural conceptions.
Language, literature and built forms become pivotal to rendering experiences and interiority. Such reflections of time, place and beings between the external and internal landscapes strive for a synthesis between the spirit and the material in Auroville through constant negotiations between the many actors involved in its making. The settlement is a reflection of the inner world. It is an expression associated with the spirit which is rendered as and through the built landscapes and its multifarious beings. These material landscapes simultaneously reflect on and alter the interiority which helps create these landscapes in the first place.
Such associations have seeped into the landscape design guidelines for the Matrimandir gardens as prescribed by the Mother too. Each of the twelve Matrimandir gardens has been assigned a flower by the Mother – Mirra Alfassa, based on their spiritual significance. While each of these flowers has a common and a scientific name, these have been given a spiritual name by the Mother as well. As an example, the Hibiscus rosa-Sinensis ‘Waimea’ is the flower dedicated by the Mother to the Garden of Light. Interestingly, Aurovillians know this flower primarily by its spiritual name; ‘Light of the Purified Power’. Floral elements here have clear ontic significations, giving implicit conceptions, a material body and form. In turn, these forms evoke and reflect interiority. This association between ‘one’ and ‘many’ is a multidirectional flow of forms of life. At the same time, this diversity of landscapes and forms of life corresponds with and is part of interiority, a unifying whole.
Within these landscapes, the Matrimandir (the mother’s temple) too becomes a material fixity that affords a spiritual unity, an object that centers and affords the realization of centrality and interiority within each individual yet binds the settlement as a collective. It ties the Aurovillians and their plurality spiritually and unifies their many aspirations and contradictions. As a result, the Matrimandir becomes a material entity/ object of significance providing an ‘ontological passage between worlds’ (Levy, 1992, p. 268) which further engages Aurovillians with the cause of ‘human unity’.
Fig. 2. Proposed masterplan of Auroville, India. Source: https://auroville.org/page/the-master-plan
Rendering the Cosmos
In addition to the flowers and the Matrimandir, the proposed masterplan for Auroville itself reflects the transcendental cosmic arrangements through a terrestrial landscape. The Mother laid down a basic concept for this “city of the future” in one of her sketches made in 1965. Based on this sketch, the master plan of Auroville was laid out in the form of a spiral galaxy in which several arms or “Lines of Force” radiate outwards from the center – the Matrimandir. This cosmic blueprint is subsequently meant to be inhabited by beings, each evocative of spiritual qualities and different states of consciousness while collectively emphasizing the achievement of spiritual unity. This physical representation of the cosmic order facilitates ontic entanglements and continuously creates Auroville. Here, the extra-terrestrial (transcendental) is reflected and represented terrestrially and becomes the playground for realizing the higher cause of ‘human unity’. Robert I. Levy points to similar findings in Bhaktpur in his seminal work on the Hindu logic of the organization of a traditional Newar city in Nepal. Pointing to a schematic illustration of the city titled ‘Yantrakara khwapa dey’ (Levy, 1992, p. 153), he points to the mandala’s significance as the city boundary containing the area within which ritual power and order are held and concentrated. Not only this, but the Mandala circumference separates two very different worlds, an inside order and an outsider order, while suggesting possibilities of various kinds of relations and transactions between them. Levy further helps us understand that while this boundary “may not represent the boundaries of the cosmos, for there is some sort of world beyond them, they represent the boundaries of its central order, the order that is congenial to human beings” (Levy, 1992, p. 157) and that of the ordering principle, which in the case of Auroville happens to be ‘human unity’.
Fig. 3. Zodiac signs represented as deities at the Navgraha temple. Source: Author
These reflections of celestial arrangements and sacred geographies are not particular to the Aurovillian master plan. During my last trip to Auroville, I visited the Navgraha Temple, about 50 kilometers away from Auroville. The temple is dedicated to the nine celestial objects (navgrahas) as defined within the Vedic astrological system. Within this temple enclosure, each of these celestial objects is represented by 10-meter-tall deities, each occupying a peripheral square on a three-by-three square matrix arranged around the central square reserved for the sun deity (Surya). This concentric configuration affords each deity to be in spatial and metaphysical relationships with others. All these relations are reinforced with the help of concentric spatial arrangements. The temple reflects the solar system through a square cyclic plan, centering the devotees yet affording a personal space of worship in relation to each of the navgrahas. Here the concentric layout of the temple arranges the sacred in space and in doing so affords the concentrically inward-moving self to be recognized within each being.
This relationship between the spatial configuration and the cosmos is further reinforced in the temple. Concentrically moving outwards from the central enclosure of navgrahas, one finds two more spatial arrangements of cosmic deities (twelve zodiac signs and the 27 lunar mansions) each in relation to the center. What is even more interesting is that each lunar mansion is assigned a floral element grown at the periphery of this arrangement. This concentric interweaving of interiority and exteriority is a common defining thread between the temple and the Aurovillian landscape. One where both express the transcendental with the help of natural beings, cosmic objects, star systems and floral/ faunal elements.
Fig. 4. The Navagraha temple and its cyclic spatial arrangement reflecting the cosmos. Source: Author
Through the Navgraha temple, the Matrimandir precinct and the proposed Auroville masterplan, cosmic arrangements reflect and evoke the transcendental. One must note that these manifestations are not stagnant and warrant entanglements of beings within these manifest spaces and built forms. Consequently, these landscapes must be understood as opportunities for the transcendental to be expressed and continuously enacted by beings with the help of material fixity. Each of these spaces affords ascent from the material towards the spiritual plane by facilitating the expression of interiority on the material plane. These sacred geographies facilitate the witnessing (sakshin), not only of sacred deities but of the self. This ontological gap is filled by a sacred astrological cosmology, or as Levy states, ‘astrology fills a gap, where the more common kinds of the ordering of action, that determined by role, city area, an annual calendar, or phase of the life cycle, do not operate’ (Levy, 1992, p. 265). In the case of Auroville however, as stated before, astrological signifiers constitute an additional layer of the settlement along with other forms of proposed material ordering.
Fig. 5. Two of the twenty-seven lunar mansions represented as deities along with their respective floral elements. Source: Author
This sacred geography is further rendered as an entire gamut of local metaphysical manifestations. These include local temples, roadside idols and shrines present in the vicinity of the settlement. While human unity through phenomenological integration of matter and spirit has been envisioned within Auroville, its manifest form becomes entangled with these local metaphysical geographies. What is categorized as Vedic, Puranic and Upanishadic expressions, fuse and find themselves in entanglement with the landscape of religious representations. This heterogeneous metaphysical materiality must be understood as part of the same discourse. These temples, tanks, roadside shrines, idols and religious complexes are markers of ordinary sacrality rendered in space, time and materiality as multifaceted expressions facilitating ascent to the transcendental.
How can one understand this complex diversity and unity of the landscapes of Auroville? Could one say that these landscapes comprise of the subtle (sukshma) rendered in gross (sthula) materiality by means of daily practical living to transcend gross materiality and attain the subtle? (Levy, 1992, p. 275) Yet this line of questioning perceives the gross and the subtle as distinct concepts. Then could one understand these as landscapes that form parts of the unifying whole in order to facilitate a merger with the unifying whole? Could these be understood as entanglements in which our inhabitation unifies and forms both, the part and the whole? Perhaps one needs to understand the inhabitation of landscapes then. Perhaps my own entanglement with the gardens project could afford some answers.
I like to think of my inhabitation and work at Auroville as a performance, a concentric interweaving of outward and inward landscapes, entangled and enacted as I hop between the four gardens, the fabrication workshops and the Matrimandir office. Entangled in spiritual, ontological and spatial relationships, the Matrimandir, its workspaces and the people who inhabit this landscape of production set the stage for the performance of my being. My entanglements were defined by necessary circumambulations around the Matrimandir; performative, governed by work, by production and creation of the gardens which eventually led to a sacrificial creation of the self. It is here that making, production, work and labor become central to Auroville, tying the expression of human unity in the built environment.
Making of the Self
“Sri Aurobindo only theorized. Mother never theorized. She was the force (shakti) which rendered Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy into materiality.” An Aurovillian executive revealed this to us during one of the many conversations which unfolded during our introductory week at Auroville in March, 2021. Consequently, the master plan of Auroville was prepared on the vision given by the Mother. Presently, the implementation of the masterplan is conflicting with the many realities of the physical landscape and surrounding geographies of Auroville. Originally envisioned as a settlement of fifty thousand residents, the current population of the settlement stands close to three thousand. Being in such a nascent stage of occupation, the settlement is already entangled in land and infrastructural conflicts. In the face of such issues, one can ask why the current masterplan cannot be altered to suit the contemporary aspirations of Aurovillians and resolve a larger set of ongoing conflicts? After all, since the community has evolved and is still evolving, why shouldn’t the blueprint governing the settlement evolve too?
A separate meeting with a former master planner of Auroville in March 2021 revealed the answer to this question. “It is a work in progress, this settlement,” the former master planner said. Such conversations eventually helped us realize that human unity is meant to be achieved through “the process” of rendering the spirit (spiritual/ philosophical cause) into materiality rather than the material output of such a process. The master plan is, therefore, to be treated as a blueprint for the achievement of the cause (human unity) rather than the achievement of a material fixity (the Aurovillian settlement). This understanding forms the bedrock for the constant creation and production of and within the Aurovillian landscape. As a result, labor, making and production become pivotal to achieving human unity, situated much in line with Hannah Arendt’s idea of Vita Activa (Arendt, 1958).
In this landscape, making constantly reflects on the being and helps the being to become. My own investment of work and labor in the gardens helped both the gardens and my “self” to become. Within this landscape, different forms of labor shape individual beings and eventually the ontological and material fabric of the Aurovillian society. Within this landscape, tools which create, sustain and struggle equate to godliness. It is easy to find tools in the materials and making workshops around Auroville marked with a Tripundra – a Shaivite mark worn on the forehead representing Shiva’s threefold power of will, knowledge and action.
Fig. 6. Electrical workshop at Matrimandir adorning the Tripundra. Source: Author
Evidently, the process of achieving human unity through labor, work and production in and of Auroville ought to be regarded more important than the material output of labor itself. Still, such a material fixity is not entirely obsolete. The Aurovillian masterplan takes the importance of a blueprint assigned by the Mother. Work involved in shaping material landscapes of Auroville, based on this blueprint, facilitates the creation of inner landscapes. Consequently, work and production (doing – being) are meant to render a material fixity, a sense of finality and closure, yet are constantly unfolding opportunities (doer-ship – becoming) to achieve human unity one individual inhabitation, one human “being” at a time (Ramanujan, 1973: 2). Interestingly, the Hindu pantheon of gods has a god of tools and craftsperson-ship – Vishwakarma – literally meaning the maker of the universe.
I perceive Auroville as entanglements of multilayered landscapes – as a becoming fixed in liminality and as a landscape of oscillations, continuously oscillating between the divine, the human and the non-human. Auroville can also be understood as an ever-changing composite of built landscapes and landscapes of forms of life interacting, reflecting, and creating a multiplicity of beings.
Within this cosmology, the Matrimandir anchors the being into centrality. It attempts to make the self or the center within each being a bit more explicit and conscious of itself. The Matrimandir and other such expressions strive to achieve the transcendental by means of the local metaphysical or as Ramanujan states, “localize a trans-local divinity.” There are many landscapes that create Auroville – internal and external, material and ontic – and all these while rendered distinctly, create a unified whole within, without and through individual and collective inhabitations. These landscapes and their associated oscillations are many and one. They express constantly unfolding reflective relationships between the dual and the non-dual (dwaitadvaita).
Yet, all these workings of the settlement beget the understanding of a larger question – how close does this constantly performed vision of human unity stand to the idea of ‘human unity’ as detailed by Sri Aurobindo? Are these ongoing processes of synthesis of built space and ontological entanglements what can be conceptualized as ‘human unity’ as perceived by Sri Aurobindo himself? While further work is necessitated in this direction, it is safe to say that there is no one synthesized output or rendering of ‘human unity’. In fact, the very idea of ‘human unity’ is being rewritten with every single small step to enliven the settlement through the many processes which create it. In this case, one might need to revisit the concept of ‘human unity’ which drives the very settlement and gives meaning to itself in the first place.
Ahmad, I. (2021). The Time of Epistemic Domination: Notes on Modernity as an Oppressive Category. ReOrient, 72-95.
Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.
Aurobindo, S. (1962). The Human Cycle, The Idea of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.
Levy, R. I. (1992). Mesocosm; Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Namakkal, J. (2012). European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia. Journal for the Study of Radicalism 6, 59–88.
Namakkal, J. (2021). Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India. Columbia University Press.
Ramanujan A (1973) Introduction of Speaking of Shiva: Penguin Books. (pp. 1-37)
Ramanujan A (2021b) Form in Classical Tamil Poetry. In: Vinay Dharwadker (ed) The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan: Oxford University Press. (p. 199)
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