My first experience of well-digging in Auroville
happened 15 years ago when the inhabitants of our community, Samriddhi,
hired a group of diggers to make a shallow well. Their technique
was simple. They had a giant augur with four protruding bars and
each man pushed or, rather, flung himself, at his bar. If everybody
pushed in the same direction at the same time, the augur would
corkscrew into the ground. It was a slow, hard business which
tended to attract slow, hard men. Every night they drank heavily.
Every morning they began work a little later and the bore drifted
a little further off vertical. After two weeks and at a depth
of thirty metres they struck rock and announced they had reached
their limit. So had we.
Last month that shallow well ran dry. Clearly our new well would
have to be much deeper; perhaps we would need to be more careful
about where we dug it. New territory, in other words. Who would
help us chart it? Fortunately, Auroville has never been short
of experts. Over the next few days we were informed that a) you
can drill anywhere and find water and b) that it is very important
to find the best spot; that a) the best drilling method is the
compressive method and b) that the compressive method is extraordinarily
risky; that a) the government-owned drilling rig is the most professional
and b) that private rigs are often the best bet; that a) we need
only drill to the second aquifer and b) that we should go as deep
This being Auroville, we ended up surrendering to a higher power:
in this case Harvest, the Auroville well and water service. Gilles,
the executive, began by announcing that he would dowse the optimum
spot for a new well. He unfolded a map of the area, took out a
small pendulum and dangled it over the page. Apparently there
were two promising places for a deep well. We strode onto the
land to investigate. The first spot turned out to be on village
land: useless. The second place, Gilles mentioned casually, was
somewhere in the middle of the community. 'That's interesting',
I thought, 'so is our house.' As Gilles penduled his way through
the undergrowth, that house exerted a strange attraction. He approached
it, retreated, approached it again, stopped. So did my heart.
'He's found water beneath our kitchen', I panicked, 'we'll have
to drill straight down through the cooker'. But then he relented.
Slightly. The ideal site turned out to be four metres away.
Harvest booked the Pondicherry Agriculture Department drilling
rig, then Sivasubramaniam, a charming hydrogeologist, arrived
to make an electrical survey as a means of checking out the accuracy
of Gilles' pendulum. It did. Everything was going swimmingly.
However, on the day that Gilles was setting off on holiday he
mentioned that the Pondicherry drilling rig was no longer available.
He had booked us instead with a private rig, "Quality Enterprises",
an organization which had never drilled in Auroville before. I
swallowed hard. Wished him a happy holiday.
The next evening, a huge truck with a long snout-like boom nosed
its way through the forest and parked behind our house. Around
midnight a lorry ground its way through the darkness. It stopped.
Silence. Then two huge crashes as the sides of the lorry were
collapsed. Over the next two hours 63 large pipes and numerous
tools were flung onto the ground, accompanied by shouts and imprecations.
Next morning we awoke to find a large tent pitched beside our
papaya tree and fifteen men sleeping all over our garden on primitive
bed-frames and mats.
In other words, drilling a well is an immersion experience. For
two weeks or more you share your physical and psychological space
with a band of men who eat, sleep and work around you. During
this time the familiar landscape changes: plants are amputated
or crushed by heavy tools or drivers suffering from night-blindness,
one part of your garden becomes a work camp while another part
is slowly invaded by grey, viscous sludge dredged up from the
bowels of the earth. If you're unlucky and it rains, your precious
little corner of the planet soon resembles the Somme.
The work itself goes on 24 hours a day, the drillers working in
shifts. Every three metres a sample is taken from the bore hole
and placed on a plastic sheet. You scan it anxiously for indications
of water-bearing strata. You become a connoisseur of drilling
sounds - a dull rumble means clay, soft grinding is sandstone,
frantic hammer strokes means the drill-bit is battering at limestone.
Your day, your night, are defined by the work. You are woken by
urgent clangs on pipes, you drift off to the rumble of the drill.
Sudden silence is balm for the neighbours, bad news for you: something
has broken down. Your mind empties of everything that has made
you who you are - Sri Aurobindo, Shake-speare, Monty Python -
as your life narrows down to keeping the men provided with tea,
sugar and milk, making sure the portable lights they use every
night are charged up during the day, and wondering when that interminable
layer of Ottai clay will finally yield to water-bearing sandstone.
Above all, there is the constant struggle to provide water.
Water, you say, water? But surely...? Well, yes, if you're drilling
a well you're probably not exactly rolling in the stuff. However,
in the counter-intuitive universe you've just entered you soon
discover that water is essential for finding water. Our moment
of enlightenment came on the first day of drilling when the site
foreman casually mentioned that he needed 40,000 litres just for
the next 24 hours. That's an awful lot. And, of course, it was
a Sunday and, of course, it was high summer, when power cuts peak,
tanks are dry and most Aurovilians hoard their remaining drops
We should have been warned. On the other hand, it's probably best
not to know everything that can go wrong. The drillers, they knew.
During their two weeks with us they only twice made a puja: within
twelve hours of each invocation there was a well-threatening crisis.
Once it was 'mud-loss', the other time siltation. Each time we
skirted disaster. Later, we learned there are many, many ways
to mess up a well - one neighbour had his new well collapse because
the bore hole was only partly cased, another has a large drilling
bit nestling at the bottom: it broke off during the drilling and
couldn't be retrieved. Then there are the stories of those who
drill and drill and never strike water. We were lucky. We found
it - 9,000 litres an hour of the beautiful stuff - although we
had to go far deeper than we'd originally planned. Down, down,
down 180 metres. I still can't grasp how an eight inch hole can
disappear down two full football pitches... (Since you ask, it's
a mere 4,000 miles further to the centre of the earth.)
So we were lucky? Partly. But it has to be said that, in the country
that helped define the term 'credibility gap', 'Quality Enterprises'
really lived up to their name. Unlike our rough-and-ready crew
of hand-diggers, this team was professional to the core. Everybody
knew his job, everybody worked as a team. Day or night the team
leader would be perched on the rig, his hand on the juddering
drilling lever, while his assistants would be keeping the circulation
channel clean, taking samples or preparing to hoist the next pipe
Hopefully, this well will serve Samriddhi for many years to come.
Ultimately, however, puncturing Mother Earth, drilling deep holes
in her to suck out water doesn't feel exactly like the way of
the future. Is this why, weeks later, I still feel a lingering
unease, an obscure sense of having participated in a slightly