History of AVAG (Auroville Village Action Group)
... digging of pits in the soil for tree planting unearthed very ancient burial grounds, which the archeological experts dated back to 2000 years ago – and indicated a trade with Rome.
Bhavana Dee is an American woman who came to Auroville in the early seventies. During her time here she has, among many other things, measured milk at AuroDairy, planted innumerable trees and run a leather workshop which spawned a bevy of small village units. In 1983 she founded and led the Auroville Village Action Group. She writes about the history of Auroville in the area and the development of AVAG in these and following pages.
Auroville as a physical being, is only about 5 kilometers in diameter. It is located in an environment of land and water and people and history. When it was started in l968, it was hardly a welcoming scene: barren burnt dry red soil stretching to the horizon in every direction, with nary a tree to stand under. Well, there was one scraggly banyan looking rather uncertain of itself, under which was living an old woman who provided water to foot travellers from the inland villages on their way to Pondicherry. She’s the one who told the tale of Kaluvelli Siddha, the ancient legend which predicted that in a distant future “people from far away” would come to transform the cursed wasteland into a beautiful green area.
Of course, it is unknown if Aurovilians were destined to be the prophesied redeemers of the land – but the villagers had told the tale because they were hoping it was so, and it was not long before many Aurovilians were fully engaged in tree planting, water conservation and organic farming. The coming of Auroville sparked a variety hopes for a better life in the minds of the villagers. Some sold their land to Auroville and bought better land elsewhere; some came to work in Auroville, mostly starting as manual labourers and household helpers; some did business with Auroville, providing building materials and work teams; many learned to speak English. The people who came to work for Auroville found they were treated not just as labourers but as “real people”, and the bright ones were recognised and promoted to responsible positions. Many children saw the friendly foreigners as a source of nourishment for their hunger for education – and Aurovilians responded with schools for the children. Of course, many villagers were too busy to take much notice of Auroville – either with their own village politics, or with the pressing need to provide food for themselves and family. And a few saw Auroville primarily as a target for theft.
When Auroville started in 1968 the whole area was very poor. The land was already denuded of nearly all vegetation, and frequent wind storms and monsoon deluges stripped it further of its meagre topsoil, carving ravines as rain water poured down from the plateau into the sea. The local villagers were living in small palm-leaf roofed huts, and in some families the women could come out only one at a time because there was only one saree to wear among them. In some villages they had to walk 2 kms to fetch water. Most were eating only a gruel made of the millets which they were growing on their infertile fields, and they were looking malnourished. But they had hope. They responded to the call of The Mother to sell their lands to Auroville, and they were eager to work – and they could work, hard, in the hot sun. And learn.. new skills, a new language, new ways to live.
At the same time, they were teaching the Aurovilians about the local agricultural practices, language and culture. The villagers’ simple worship of local idols did not fully transmit the rich Dravidian tradition of great yogis called “Siddhas”, who had achieved great psychic powers through their tapasya, but their bright smiles, endurance and helpfulness even in the midst of such hardship testified to a deeply instilled spirituality. In those days Auroville provided a midday lunch to most of its employees, but also there were instances when workers not only didn’t get paid, but brought food to their temporarily-out-of-funds Aurovilian employers!
Some Aurovilians began studying the history of the area – to find out when and why the trees were all cut. The French Institute in Pondicherry was the source of many treatises written by colonial scholars over the past centuries. And Meenakshi, a renowned Tamil poetess and Tamil scholar, who came to join Auroville in l976, investigated the traditional sources. The legend was verified in ancient texts. It was discovered that 250 years ago the land on which Auroville is sited was a deep forest, with elephants and tigers. There had been a kingdom in the area, of which the Irumbai temple and name “Kottakarai” (corner of the fort) village refer. But there was little left to reflect those past glories, although the digging of pits in the soil for tree planting unearthed very ancient burial grounds, which the archeological experts dated back to 2000 years ago – and indicated a trade with Rome.
It was clear, however, that the answer to the people’s poverty was not lying in the past, but in the NOW, inspired by a new hope for the future. Auroville, focused on the coming of a new era of life on earth, promised this new future for all, and the early Aurovilians together with the eager-for-a-job villagers began to work together to redeem the land. Ecologically, the land was restored with bunds, tree planting, protecting and farming. Economically, the people were earning enough to improve their diet, fix their leaking roofs, and send their children to school. A Health Centre was set up to deal with the plethora of illnesses among the population. Also, as Auroville began to grow, villagers were engaged and trained in construction trades, and managerial skills were built up. A variety of small handicraft units such as incense making, needlework and leatherwork sprang up, often in Aurovilians’ houses – and a large number of women learned skills; increased their family income; and confronted a new style of living.At the same time, other Aurovilians were responding to the cry of the children for education. Schools for village children were set up, AND some children were adopted into the Auroville community, singly or in small residential educational experiments. Now, some 30 years later, many of these children are pillars of the Auroville community. And many environmental working groups, undertakings, village oriented activities and development projects are ongoing.
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