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Auroville's visitors and guests
It's not just the volume of guests which is different this year. Some Aurovilians feel that, while many guests are attracted by the ideal, we are increasingly attracting a different kind of visitor, one more interested in attending cheap workshops, or simply “chilling out”. On the other hand, some guests complain that “Auroville just wants our money.” So what is the reality? And what can we do about it?
To begin with, we need to distinguish between day visitors and those who stay longer in Auroville guest-houses. Most day visitors are handled by the Visitors Centre. The main attraction is, of course, the Matrimandir. “If people are given the freedom, they will simply rush straight there,” says Nicole, one of the managers of the Visitors Centre. “I see one of our main functions as breaking that wave so that they go on to the Matrimandir in a quieter state of mind. So visitors are encouraged first to see a Matrimandir video and an exhibition on Auroville and then they walk, or are taken in an electric shuttle, the last kilometre to Matrimandir.”
Future plans include shifting the parking – and, therefore, the ‘wave' – further to the west of the Visitors Centre. Visitors would then take a short walk across a canyon and would enter the Visitors Centre complex through a gate or portal, “to mark they are entering Auroville's space”.
Visiting the Matrimandir
“For us,” says Gilles, a member of the Matrimandir Access Group, “the Visitors Centre fulfils a crucial role in filtering and informing visitors before they reach us. People cannot understand that the Matrimandir is not a temple, that it is the soul of Auroville, if they have not first understood something about Auroville itself.”
The Matrimandir Access Group has its own method of ‘filtration'. Gilles points out that 90% of the day visitors just want to catch a glimpse of the Matrimandir. “For them we've created a viewing-point outside the oval because Mother said that people will only have access to this special area with permission.” Serious visitors have to book in advance. They are given a short introduction explaining the meaning of the Matrimandir and the fact that this is neither a traditional religious temple nor a place for rituals. Then they are taken to the Chamber where they can sit for 10-15 minutes. The next time they visit, they can sign up to attend the one-hour visitors' meditation.
“People understand this process very well, and they are very happy with it.”
But the number of visitors to the Matrimandir is increasing dramatically – 69,000 in December, 63,000 in January and 46,000 in February, an increase of 60% over the same months last year. Can the Matrimandir management cope?
“It's an extraordinary challenge,” admits Gilles. “I see the Matrimandir as one of the main tools to communicate something of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother to India and the world: it is radiating something. On the other hand, I see that people in a mass lower the atmosphere. Normally we limit our introduction talk and experience to 70 people and another 70 people can attend the one-hour visitors' meditation. At Christmas and the New Year there were so many visitors we doubled the allocation but immediately the atmosphere in the Chamber fell dramatically. So now our main concern is to preserve the quality of the atmosphere and to favour those who are really serious.
“What we cannot do is to forbid someone going to Matrimandir, even if we sense that a person is unsuitable. In most cases you simply can't tell! People select themselves because we ask them to make a little effort. As Mother said, ‘They have to ask'.”
Have the Matrimandir Access Group considered extending the opening time for visitors? “We do extend it on peak days but some of us feel strongly that generally we should confine the visiting time to two hours a day.”
Providing more information
The Visitors Centre is also feeling the pressure of the increased numbers of visitors throughout the year. “It's an enormous work for everybody here,” says Nicole. “This year we were able to handle it, but in the future our facilities may become so strained that people, especially those coming with organised tours, may have to book ahead.”
Part of the problem is that many Aurovilians do not want to work on the frontline at the Visitors Centre – it's too demanding. Yet, judging by comments in the Visitors Book, most visitors seem very happy with their reception: many refer to the special atmosphere of the place. Those with reservations are generally frustrated by the fact that they cannot learn more about Auroville. “We didn't get any clear picture of the community but only saw some buildings,” lamented a visitor from Finland . “We came with a curiosity to find out more about Auroville but we don't know how to do this. We feel shut out rather than welcomed,” said another. Others complained that the exhibition in the Visitors Centre told them nothing about why people join Auroville or the daily experience of living here (although the video showing next door provides some answers to these questions).
“Sometimes I feel embarrassed that we offer so little,” says Annemarie, who works at the information desk. “I've often thought that we need to organize one hour tours so interested visitors can really get an idea of what Auroville is like. At present, the vast majority of people don't have the faintest idea. Of course, running regular tours means having to get permission to visit interesting places in the community and having to find someone dependable to manage them – not an easy task.”
An alternative is to provide a fuller experience of Auroville at the Visitors Centre itself. In fact, one of the original ideas was to have a small ‘demo' farm and workshop there, along with examples of renewable energy applications in use in the community. The problem once again, as Nicole points out, is that not enough qualified people come forward to take up the work. “It's comparatively easy to set up these things. The hard part is sustaining them. But we have just put up, with a team of concerned Aurovilians, a new environmental exhibition which focuses upon Auroville's history, challenges and achievements in relationship to the environment. It also touches upon global issues.”
The guest situation
Some years back, the options for those who stayed in Auroville as guests were limited: there was the beach, a café or two, and a Matrimandir that was under construction. Today, those who stay in Auroville guest-houses do not complain about not having enough to do, particularly in the main tourist season that runs from the middle of December until the middle of March. This past season has seen a record number of courses, workshops and therapies offered, on topics like freeing the healing voice, kung fu shaolin, laughter yoga and belly dancing, as well as introduction programmes to Auroville, the integral yoga, and the surrounding villages. And all at rates far cheaper than in the West or elsewhere in India . Then there are the high-quality cultural events, the restaurants and shops, the international ambience, and, of course, the completed Matrimandir. So it's not surprising that the Auroville guest-houses, with their capacity of 500 beds, are fully booked up for these three months and that guest-houses, shops and restaurants are mushrooming in the nearby villages.
Many guests return annually, booking a year ahead. By October, Auralee at the Guest Service is getting 60 emails a day from people enquiring about accommodation. “I always send a personalised email response. For many people this is their first contact with Auroville, so the way I answer is important.”
So is it first come, first served? “No. I answer Aurovilians first, then Auroville International centres, then people whose names I recognise from past years. I give priority to those who want to stay longer and who want to give something to Auroville. And I first send people to Center Guest-house when they have vacancies because this guest-house makes the biggest financial contribution to Auroville.”
Auralee wonders about the motivations of some guests. “Some therapists come every winter to offer courses and I wonder, why? Who is checking on their qualifications? And are their workshops appropriate to Auroville, to what we are trying to achieve here?
“But we also need to look at ourselves. Some Aurovilians depend on the guest season to make enough money to support themselves for the rest of the year. The whole activity around guests – accommodation, workshops, therapies, tours, restaurants, shops, transport, bike hire etc. – is such an important part of our economy now. I'm concerned that, in such an environment, economic motives may be overriding other concerns.”
In fact, in January alone guest and guest-house contributions to the community amounted to more than ten lakh rupees (over $26,000). When one considers that guest-houses are only required to contribute 33% of their profits to the Central Fund, guests' total expenditure in Auroville guest-houses, shops, restaurants, courses etc. may be triple this amount. In fact, guests and visitors may have contributed as much as $500,000 to the community over the past year.
Who is coming?
While some people worry that Auroville is attracting a different kind of guest these days, Auralee values the contact with those guests who are open and really want to know more. “I really appreciate these people; it gives meaning to our work.” She dreams of an expanded Guest Service that will allow them to spend more time on such interactions.
But what about the guest-house managers? Do they feel that a different kind of guest is being attracted to Auroville and its environs? Ambre, who runs a small guest facility, has no doubts. “There are plenty of guests in the vicinity who are just using our facilities and profiting from Auroville. These people come here because we're too loose and don't seem to want to put any restrictions, which creates enormous stress for all. The main problem is that there are just too many guests and visitors for us to cope with. It is like being invaded.”
Sonja, who also runs a small guest facility, points out that many guest-house managers are much more selective in whom they take these days. “We want people who are really interested in Auroville: there's nothing so draining as a lazy consumer.”
Tineke, who manages Center Guest-house, says that in her guest-house the kind of guest changes with the season. “In May and June many of the guests are Indians, but the winter season is the time when many Westerners come, particularly older single women travelling in groups, as the climate is good and Auroville is a safe stepping-stone into India .”
“Then we become mamas!” says Sonja. “We get them a moped, bandage them when they fall off, nurse them when they get sick, we remove the funny animal from their room, we listen to their dreams. It involves a lot of support and care and we have to draw lines, otherwise we get overwhelmed. At the same time, we both feel it's important that Auroville welcomes guests because they can give a lot back. They lighten Auroville up, they bring new perspectives and fresh energy, and they can be a valuable mirror to you – they make you look at yourself anew. And some of them become like family.”
Nicole also points to a new trend – the number of young people, particularly from overseas, who want to do volunteer work in the community. “The Mitra hostel is really helping here because it's important that Auroville provides cheap, clean accommodation for youngsters like this.” Sonja is also enthusiastic about this new wave. “I'd reduce my prices for young people who want to put their energy into Auroville. One problem is we are not providing enough work opportunities for them at present.”
Neither Sonja nor Tineke seem to have major problems with the guests they take: it is rare they ask a guest to leave. “But sometimes I apply a filter,” says Tineke. “For example, I get phone calls from young Indian professionals in Chennai or Bangalore . When I ask them why they want to come they say, ‘Just to chill out'. Then I tell them life here is very simple, there are no bars, no night clubs. That's usually enough to change their minds. But some people really appreciate the peace here, and others come for a course and get hooked by the deeper aspect of Auroville: you can't predict who will be touched. So I wouldn't want the doorway into Auroville to be too narrow.”
Auroville not guest-friendly
Some guests with a deeper connection to the community come year after year and leave refreshed, recharged. But it's not easy to be a guest here. Many Aurovilians view guests as an irritant in the season, the cause of long queues at the shops and the Solar Kitchen, a source of danger on the roads, importers of alien preoccupations and, when they get lost, invaders of personal privacy.
Then again, guests see Aurovilians getting a preferential rate at certain restaurants and shops and resent this, not realising this is because some Aurovilians work hard for the community but receive little maintenance. Some guest-house managers are ‘hands off', giving little or no information about Auroville and leaving the day-to-day running in the charge of employees with little skill in handling guests. Quite a few guests also feel overcharged for the facilities provided. No wonder some feel that Auroville is only after their money.
What can be done? Regarding day visitors, whom most Aurovilians do not meet as they simply shuttle between the Visitors Centre and Matrimandir, there's a general feeling they are being handled well at present. They could be provided with more information, a larger electric shuttle would help solve the traffic problem on the road to Matrimandir between 4 – 5 p.m., and tours might be an option for those with more time and interest, but the vast majority of day visitors appear happy with their Auroville experience.
The more problematic casual visitors are the ones who by-pass the Visitors Centre and drive around Auroville looking for entertainment or a place to picnic or to sneak photos of the Matrimandir. It's probably impossible to completely prevent this, but a more active presence at the existing check-posts and extra check-posts at key points would help control this.
The guest situation is more complex. While not everybody is convinced that there actually is a ‘guest problem', many of those working in this area feel we need to begin by ensuring that the right kind of person stays here. How to ensure this?
Suggestions include requiring all guests to fill out an application form before they come here to clarify their intention in visiting the community, and extending the minimum stay in Auroville guest-houses to ten days. However, a ten day rule would discriminate against those people who can only get away for weekends and the ‘drop-ins' who get deeply touched by their visit.
Other ideas include greatly expanding volunteering possibilities and low-cost accommodation to attract young, committed people, and requiring all guests who want to offer or follow workshops to attend first an Auroville introduction course.
Of course, many of the so-called ‘problem' guests may not be staying in Auroville. Nobody knows how much guest accommodation is being offered in the nearby villages and in the new hotels springing up in the vicinity, but it must be substantial. Auroville has no control over these guest-houses. Yet people who stay there are able to use some of Auroville's facilities and can attend cultural events, courses etc.
As to the workshops offered, at present there is little control over who offers what during the guest season: it is largely up to the discretion of the Aurovilian managing the workshop space. Many of the workshops are offered by Aurovilians and have an Auroville ‘flavour', but one community hosted a one-month festival in February which was largely run by guests. While many people enjoyed the energy, some questioned the relevance of some of the workshops to Auroville's ethic and the festival closed prematurely because of complaints regarding noise and inappropriate behaviour. This experience, more than anything else, seems to have fuelled the fears of Auroville becoming a ‘second Goa '.
And it's not just the content of some of the workshops that worries people. There is also a lack of clarity regarding what happens to the money generated. So another suggestion is that an overview body be created that would ensure that the workshops offered are appropriate and their financing transparent.
A new guest department
Sonja goes a step further. She envisages an Auroville Guest Department that would handle all aspects of the guest experience under one roof and one economic umbrella. “I'd like to see a big beautiful Guest Reception Area close to the Visitors Centre which would centralize booking, issue guest cards and provide information on all the educational and volunteering opportunities available.”
Auralee also favours such a one-stop facility for guests. “At present the Guest Service is located above the Solar Kitchen, quite a long way from the Visitors Centre. I really feel for those people who struggle here in the dust and the heat, with their heavy backpacks, and can't get a drink or something to eat at the coffee shop next door because it does not accept cash.”
It's partly because of this that the Visitors Centre has now set up its own guest accommodation facility.
It's worth remembering that the Aurovilians who are dealing with guests are not all cut from the same cloth. They have different perceptions of guests, different motivations for being involved with them, different capabilities of dealing with them. Some want more supervision of the guest scene, including more filters on which guests we allow in and better quality control of what different guest-houses offer; others reject any kind of supervision as an interference in their personal domain. Some are seriously concerned that a certain type of guest dilutes and distorts the energy field of Auroville; others feel that we cannot judge and must remain as open as possible. Some would like to limit any further expansion of the guest scene in Auroville; others, concerned that the villages are profiting from providing accommodation and services for guests, think we should charge a hefty fee for entering Auroville and dramatically increase our own guest facilities.
One thing is clear, however. More and more Aurovilians and guests are dissatisfied with the present situation. We need to ensure that the people with the right motivation come to stay here, but then we need to offer them the best possible experience of Auroville. The hope is that as more and more of the ‘right' people come to stay here, perceptions of guests will change and more Aurovilians will be attracted to work in this field.
At the same time, we should see that it's not only certain guests who are the problem – it is ourselves. For example, there is the tendency of some Aurovilians to put personal profit above the well-being of the community as a whole. Guests can also become a convenient target for our own insecurities. And complaining about the behaviour of guests can be an excuse for keeping Auroville small and cosy, insulated from the outside world.
Which returns us to the core questions. Why are we here? And who are we here for?
We have never sat down as a community and looked deeply at the guest situation. With the finished Matrimandir already being described in the national press as a “second Taj Mahal”, it's clearly time to do this.
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