Depending on who you ask, it means different things. To locals, the great golden globe in the centre of town is the heart and soul of the city. Cynical tourists, exhausted by the relentless hyperbole required of the pages of their guidebooks, dismissively describe it as a “golden golf ball”.
Admittedly the Matrimandir, with its segmented retro-futuristic architecture and gleaming façade, does look a little like a golf ball, but a very nice, very grand golf ball, a celestial wonder: God’s own Titleist.
The tee sits at the centre of a township on a stretch of otherwise barren land in India’s Tamil Nadu, just outside Puducherry. Once part of a French colony, Auroville, the “City of Dawn”, is an experiment founded in 1968 to provide for people of all creeds, races and politics to live in peace. It’s perhaps the last of the great communes from the ’60s, and I’ve come to see how this bastion of a more hopeful age has held fast against creeping despair and cynicism – which, as a child of the counterculture, is my birthright.
Auroville is the creation of Mirra Alfassa, usually known as “The Mother”, a key proponent, alongside guru Sri Aurobindo, of “integral yoga”. Auroville was meant to kickstart the next step in human spiritual evolution. She ordered her disciples to build the Matrimandir (“Temple of the Mother” in old Sanskrit) as a symbol that captured the otherworldly grandeur of the experiment. The French architect Roger Anger was commissioned to design a temple to house an inner chamber that had come to The Mother in a vision. She told a follower: “It must be a thing of great beauty, of such beauty that when people come they will say, ‘Ah, this is it.’ ”
Up close you can see the Matrimandir is roughly spherical, but with a flattened top and bottom. It is 29 metres high and 36 metres wide, and covered with some 1415 golden discs to “symbolise a radiating golden supramental sun”. About two-thirds of the discs are made of stainless steel. The rest are gold leaf pressed between glass-reinforced plastic. The dome itself is buttressed by huge ramparts of compacted red earth, and carefully manicured European-style lawns roll off in every direction, a minor horticultural miracle in the arid plains of India.
The citizens of Auroville are very specific on how you should approach the spiritual enlightenment to be found at the Matrimandir. The whole experience is carefully cultivated and controlled – there is a certain deportment expected and it is impressed on visitors that it is not a “tourist” site. Even so, there is a tour. It has to be booked several days in advance, but one is permitted to turn up to an early morning viewing and to indulge in “individual silent concentration”. Puzzlingly, meditation, as such, is banned – all forms of prayer or worship from traditional religion are strictly forbidden, and meditation is too closely linked with Buddhism and Hinduism. Instead, it’s about looking into your soul and finding silent time with yourself, not with some pernickety God.
Elsewhere, religion is a lucrative business in India. The country has given rise to two of the world’s major religions and innumerable smaller ones. Its polytheistic nature is fertile ground for spiritual movements and cults, and ashrams. It’s not unusual for Indians to invest their leisure time in seeking spiritual solace at an ashram, and a huge amount of capital enters the country from foreigners who come to India seeking enlightenment. From Victorian novelists to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, to The Beatles to Eat, Pray, Love
, Westerners have turned to India for spiritual succour for centuries. Shortly after notoriously mercantile President Narendra Modi was inaugurated, he appointed a ministry for yoga and ayurvedic medicine, recognising the potential of spiritualism as an industry, and lamented that previous administrations had missed the opportunity to market yoga and herbal medicine globally. A friend of mine who lives near the tourist strip of Mumbai puts it another way: “India’s greatest natural resource is rich hippies.”
While I’m waiting for my tour of the Matrimandir, I stay at the Mango Hill, a French-style hotel between Auroville and the Bay of Bengal that is popular with middle-aged Europeans who have come for spiritual retreat, and feels only a tiny bit like old colonial India. Hindu waiters in conservative white suits serve drinks to leathery, topless sunbathers who can escape the coruscating Indian sun by dipping into the swimming pool.
Metres away from the water, an ayurvedic healer sits massaging the pressure points of a woman’s wrist in a time-honoured Hindu medicinal practice, as much a part of the religion as vegetarianism and the worship of cows. A little later I see her in the restaurant eating a steak. That evening I see her again, sitting bolt-upright with her eyes closed and her fingers touching the centre of her forehead, the site of her third eye, as she meditates ostentatiously while waiters tiptoe around her. In the morning, I run into her preparing for the tour of the Matrimandir as we mill in the courtyard of the visitors’ centre.
Before the tour begins, the group, composed of middle-class Indians and Europeans in kaftans, is obliged to watch a video induction explaining the mission of Auroville and the purpose of the giant golden orb. The production values look inexpensive, but the film probably cost a lot when it was made. The voiceover is breathy and earnest. The whole thing is a little like that episode of The Simpsons
where Homer joins a cult.
After the video, we walk through the gardens, pausing under a sprawling Banyan tree. We are supposed to spend a moment beneath the shade of its branches contemplating nature. One of the tour group breaks ranks and embraces the tree. Red dust that cakes the trunk brushes off on her sari, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She nuzzles the bark with her face like a kitten, and moans in quiet joy. After a respectful moment, our guide peels her off, and we continue towards a viewing platform, and then inside the Matrimandir.
Inside, in absolute silence, we slip off our shoes and put on thick white cotton socks to protect the carpets, and then shuffle, in single file, up a spiral walkway to the central chamber. It is, without doubt, the cleanest and the quietest place I have been in India. On the way into the concentration chamber, volunteers in white cotton robes salute each other by tapping themselves on the heart and nodding.
The chamber is a 20th-century utopian dream: a ring of white stone pillars surround a giant crystal globe illuminated by a single beam of light that is captured by a computer-controlled heliostat on the roof and reflected within. It is, admittedly, magnificent, and as close to being on the set of the original Star Trek as I will ever be. The whole experience is like walking into a future dreamt up in the ’60s.
Afterwards, those visitors absolutely primed for a spiritual experience stagger out chatting excitedly. “That was wonderful,” says a dreadlocked man to his companion, “but I feel I wasn’t able to successfully tap the energy of the place.”
As I leave the temple I can almost sympathise with that hippie. I did have a moment in there, in the chamber where nothing could penetrate, no dirt, no sound, not even cynicism, where for the first time in my life the soggy-damp hippie world view almost made sense, even if I couldn’t quite hold on to it. It didn’t change my cynicism about hippies, but I’m glad there’s a place in the world for them – and grateful to the gods, all of them, old and new, that it is far away from where I live.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
Jun 6, 2015 as "Holy in one".