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India Tourism Forces 'Universal Township' to Ponder Crowd Control
Tourists in Auroville pose in front of the Matrimandir, a meditation center. Lately, residents of the small community have wondered whether it is becoming too popular for its own good. By Emily Wax Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, November 7, 2008; Page A12
AUROVILLE, India -- Standing amid his shop's hodgepodge of saffron Hindu goddess T-shirts and jasmine incense sticks, Krishna Romali said he had moved to the outskirts of this "universal township" in southern India after hearing that business was even better here than at the infamous party beaches of Goa.
But after several months of selling toe rings and crystal necklaces, Romali admitted, he isn't really sure what Auroville is.
"There's some sort of meditation dome here. The foreigners really like it," said Romali, 20. "We just know Auroville is great for sales. We need the money."
Auroville, located about 100 miles south of Chennai, was founded in 1968 as an "experiment in human unity," where residents from around the world would live and work together along a tree-lined stretch of winding, red earth footpaths.
Today, the community of more than 1,700 has a solar-powered kitchen, a giant, golden-domed meditation center known as the Matrimandir, and residents from 35 nations. There is no corporate ownership. But there are frequent community meetings. Many residents work at home-grown publishing houses or organic cashew farms. They produce their own pottery, cotton clothes and beaded jewelry. Think Takoma Park times 100, only in India.
But lately, some residents have been wondering if Auroville is becoming too popular for its own good. Some fear their community, with its "laughter yoga" and vegetarian cookery classes, will turn into a "second Goa," as a front-page article in the monthly newsmagazine Auroville Today recently put it.
"We are increasingly attracting a different kind of visitor, one more interested in attending cheap workshops or simply 'chilling out,' " the article noted.
In its 40th year, Auroville has to pull off a balancing act: It must reconcile its original charter of "belonging to nobody in particular and belonging to humanity as a whole" with the less idealistic goal of controlling the number of visitors.
Other utopian destinations on the hippie trail across India have failed to get it right. Some have become overly commercialized or have simply shut down. The famous ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Beatles once meditated, for example, is now just a shuttered relic of 1960s counterculture.
Working the front desk at the Auroville visitor center on a busy day recently, Thulasi, who goes by one name, said the increase in tourists represents a challenge. Thousands of Indian families and foreigners show up every month, she said, and the numbers are climbing.
"We could spend all our time giving tours. We don't want the Matrimandir to become like a Hindu temple, with thousands of visitors every day or even hour," said Thulasi, who is originally from Sri Lanka. "Yet at the same time, we want to be inclusive, not exclusive. We have to somehow evolve. It's a real discussion."
The community is mulling plans to change the way visitors spend time at Auroville, including requiring a 10-day minimum stay and tightening the rules for admission to the various yoga and meditation workshops. Another idea is to ask long-term visitors to commit to volunteering in the community.
There is already a fairly complicated procedure for visiting the interior of the Matrimandir. From the outside, it looks like an enormous golden golf ball or an object from a science fiction movie. Inside, it's completely white, with beams of light focused on a giant crystal orb. Visitors are required to watch an informational video and then must request permission to meditate for an hour up to two days later.
There is also a firm set of procedures for moving to Auroville. Those who want to live here are called newcomers and spend two years learning the ways of the community before a committee interviews them.
The population of the township is approximately 43 percent Indian but also includes French, British and a recent influx of Russians, who say they are drawn to the Eastern philosophies and to yoga, which were once banned in parts of their homeland.
Some see hypocrisy in Auroville, since Indian domestic workers do most of the cooking and heavy cleaning while the Europeans live in comfort. Neighborhoods have names such as "Aspiration" and "Transformation," and residences range from shacks to solar-equipped eco-mansions.
The idea for Auroville came from a spiritual leader known as the Mother who died in 1973 -- Mirra Alfassa, a French woman who was an accomplished painter and musician, as well as a self-proclaimed psychic.
UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, has endorsed the township as a place that strives to foster unity and has helped its neighbors by employing often desperately poor local families. Auroville was considered a particularly good neighbor during the December 2005 tsunami, when it offered several rehabilitation programs across Tamil Nadu state. Residents have also planted hundreds of trees on what was once barren land.
"I like the spirit of the place, and it's still very much here," said John Harper, a Canadian who attended a meeting about Auroville in California in 1974 and decided to come.
On a recent day, hundreds of visitors had gathered to simply gaze at the meditation dome. A group of young Indian men wanted to be photographed with European women. Couples unfurled picnic blankets and snacked on lentils and flatbread packed in tiffins, or Indian lunchboxes. Europeans did yoga poses, listened to their iPods and snapped photos with camera phones.
"Despite any controversies, it's still a lovely place to take a break. I'm happy to know that such an attempt at utopia still exists," said Tony Mathew, 24, who works in the oil industry and drove 80 miles with his family to be here. "This is the type of place that has made India famous. So of course we want to see it."
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