Travel Route: Mamallapuram – Auroville – Pondicherry

Auroville and the Matrimandir

Auroville is an international community founded in 1968. Of the 3000 residents, 900 are Indian, and most international residents are French. Auroville is near Pondicherry, a former French colony.

My beloved partner Danna Sigal wrote these visit impressions:

Auroville is a utopian community dedicated to peace and service of the divine, with no religious affiliation. The Matrimandir is at the center of the community, and our visit was a most powerful experience, both a spiritual and architectural highlight. The serenity of the building and its surroundings is in stark contrast to the many glorious South Indian Hindu temples, which are colorful and chaotic, filled with throngs of visitors, fire, music, chanting, incense, and thousands of images of the deities in various incarnations.

The procession from the road to the inner chamber of the Matrimandir is carefully orchestrated as a preparation to quiet the mind for the meditation experience. After parking your bike, Vespa, or car, all electronic devices must be turned off and placed into a locker at check-in before crossing the expansive gardens under the blazing Indian sun in silence to the gigantic Banyan tree. At the appointed time, the visitor is escorted in silence down a ramp between 20+ foot high canted red sandstone walls, deposits their shoes, then ascends the stairs to the Matrimandir entrance.

Once inside, the overwhelming feeling is simply awe. As the eyes and body are adjusting to the cool interior, the visitor is seated on a white marble bench, retrieves white socks (from compartments where they are folded and stacked like the 4 points of a compass), and places them on bare feet to protect the white Himalayan wool carpet of the inner chamber. Thanks to poured-in-place concrete technology and the hands of hundreds of ex-pat acolytes tying rebar in the 1960s, the exquisitely-detailed spherical space inside the Matrimandir is covered in subtle golden LED backlit triangles. Once feet are properly covered, the visitors begin ascending the spiral ramp around a central column of light, which is reminiscent of the “fountain of youth” scene from 8-1/2, slowly, quietly, deliberately, taking in the enormity of the space.

Finally arriving at the central chamber, a greeter escorts each visitor to one of 84 white meditation cushions around 12 columns. At the center of the chamber sits a crystal sphere lit from a small skylight above, refracting a column of light that illuminates the space and descends through the entire sphere down to the lotus leaf fountain on the earth below.

The experience reminds me of an exquisitely executed solution to our first architecture school assignment, where we were asked to create a pavilion on a blank canvas. Much consideration was offered to designing our structures and sculpting our canvases to create an experiential procession imbued with profound meaning and a sense of awe. The Matrimandir is inspirational as both a building and an experience. The Aurovillian spirit of hope, community, and perseverance is palpable here and extends throughout the community. Auroville has built a sustainable, carbon-positive (they create more energy than they use) culture of experimentation that continues to expand today.

My impression of the Matrimandir

Upon entering the main chamber, I had to take a deep breath. If there is a way to bring the eternal to earth – the Matrimandir does it. A sense of nothingness, emptiness, and beauty are at the core of the Matrimandir. It’s a shrine dedicated to the ineffable – which is too great to describe in words. It’s a space void of objects, but the most elemental one, a beam of light, which says it all.