Pondicherry lies 150 kilometres south of Chennai on the Bay of Bengal. Until the 1950s it, along with Karaikal which is in Tamil Nadu, Mahe in Kerala, and Yanam near Kakinada on the coast of Andhra Pradesh, were French enclaves. Now a Union Territory of India, Pondicherry still retains a certain tattered French flavour, but it is better known for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville, which are located here.
The Ashram was established by a Bengali, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, in 1926. It is located near the waterfront in Pondicherry, in an area which more strongly than other parts of town bears the stamp of the former French presence. Thousands of foreigners and Indians (especially Bengalis) are drawn every year to this ashram which is the wealthiest in India.
When Sri Aurobindo died in 1950 the leadership and guidance of the Ashram passed to a Parisian artist, Mirra Alfassa, who became known as 'The Mother'.
Auroville, founded in 1968, is ten kilometres out of town and covers fifty square kilometres. It was conceived by the Mother as a progressive international community transcending politics, religion and race. Designed by French architect Roger Anger, it is divided up into various subsections with such names as Certitude, Promesse and Discipline, which devote themselves to alternative agriculture and technology, tree planting, education, health care, computer research and development of village level industries. Auroville-made handcrafts are of high quality and sold at craft fairs throughout India, as well as in outlets in Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu) and elsewhere.
Despite the humanistic ideological underpinnings of both the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and also of Auroville, relations with local people have not always been smooth, because of a resentment by local Tamils of what they felt was their continuous second class status. The Ashram is dominated by Bengalis and Auroville by foreigners (largely European) with the local people found most often in menial roles - a sort of neo-colonialism.
After the death of the charismatic Mother in 1973 the ashram and Auroville went through a difficult period involving a sometimes acrimonious and even violent struggle for control between the Sri Aurobindo Society and Auroville. Eventually, at the recommendation of the government of India, a committee was set up with representation from both of these as well as increased local involvement. Since the late 80s Auroville has been run by an administrative committee which mediates between Auroville and the central government.
The idealism of the Auroville concept has resulted in an impressive amount of development of the area, including innovatively designed housing, planting of orchards and of a large number of other trees of various species, construction of a dam and of schools, as well as of the huge Matri Mandir meditation centre which was intended to be focal point of the community. The construction of this large, almost spherical building has been slow because of inconsistently available funds but it is now nearing completion.