Twenty five years ago the road from Kuilapalayam meandered down to the ‘ Beach Road ' through a sandy gully. One night, the residents of Kuilapalayam hacked a new straight path from their village through the fields down to the main road. With this, a new roadside community sprung into existence, based mainly on seasonal tourism.
Statue of Periyayi Amman in Kuilapalayam on the Auroville Main Road
Until last year there was on average, two accidents a day on the road. It was a mass of pot-holes and very dangerous, but now it has been resurfaced. However, heaps of builder's sand and rubble are dumped on the roadside and goats and dogs love to lie on its warm smooth surface, oblivious to the traffic hurtling by.
At the Kuilapalayam end, the road begins with a shrine and a huge, supine, highly-coloured goddess opposite a busy bike repair workshop. As you turn into the road, the first building you see has completely collapsed. It has seen a succession of failed businesses, the last being a Tibetan restaurant. The Star Saloon, a men's hairdressers, has sprung up next door, one of three barber shops on the road. And another bike repair shop next door.
Across the road from Last School is Auro Udyog Mandala, a carpentry shop where a dozen men sit cross-legged on the ground, sawing and hammering. The place never seems to close; in the middle of the night, figures can be seen working chiselling away in the gloom.
In the field behind, half a dozen houses are being rapidly built. They are all substantial; one is four storeys high, and when it is completed it is rumoured it will sell for 20 lakhs (US $43,500).
Many small businesses dot the road
The road is now a microcosm of modern India , and in many ways it is not a pretty picture. Raju, who was born here, told me of his experiences. “There has been a tremendous change here, especially in last five years. The price of land has increased hugely and the real estate men are moving in fast. Ten years ago, my plot here cost one lakh rupees (Rs.100,000) and now it is going for six. People are buying a plot then selling it again after 3 months for a profit. My uncle's plot cost 25,000 rupees five years ago and he just sold it for nine lakhs. This is a man who did not know how many zeros there are in a crore (Rs.10,000,000)! This has upset the balance of many families and created stress and greed.
“On my little street three foreigners have built houses, and the rest are owned by people from Pondicherry who want a quieter lifestyle as Pondicherry is becoming more noisy and polluted. We village people have nothing in common with either of these two groups, yet have to live very close to them, and we often have trouble. For example, they complain about our early morning temple music and our loud festivals, and that we do not keep the street clean. They do not understand that these are our ways and we were here first and they should adapt to us. Just because an Indian family from Pondicherry paid 29 lakhs for a small two bedroom house does not mean that he owns me, his poor neighbour.”
Beautician-entrepreneur Ajanta Ganguly
Many Aurovilians too run their businesses on the road. Deepam Candles is run by Aurovilian Murugan who was educated at New Creation School and taught pottery by Christine, a German lady who helped many Tamil boys. He taught pottery at New Creation School for thirteen years, before opening this candle shop with his wife, Kala. He employs fourteen women from the village. “Things are getting difficult,” he says. “In the last 3 months the price of wax, which is a petroleum by-product, has risen 100%.”
The Unity Taxi Service is another Auroville unit run by Krishna, also educated in New Creation School . He has just started a taxi-share scheme and would eventually like to be able to provide a free taxi service to elderly Aurovilians.
Next to the Taxi Service is Ritual Tattoo, a smartly-painted shop run by a French man from Pondicherry , who does tattoos for “girls from Bangalore and foreigners”. Next door is Silhouette, a beauty parlour run by Ajanta Ganguly who came from Chennai. “I felt a strong pull to come here,” says Ajanta . “Although I am a Christian, I have a deep affection for the Mother. I feel I am doing service here through my work, and I get involved in the local community. I do wish Aurovilians would support me more. Most people just speed past on their way to the East Coast Road . It would be nice if we could somehow be more integrated.”
A little further down on the left a neatly painted sign says Amaidi - Working with Volunteers in India . The Amaidi (which means ‘peace' in Tamil) house is run by Camille, an ex-Aurovilian from Holland , and Jansi, his Tamil wife.
Camille came to Auroville in 1993, loved it, and even became a Newcomer. But unfortunately his mother in Holland became seriously ill, so he returned for three years to care for her. When he came back he had to begin his Newcomer period again, which he felt was unfair. He went to live down at Quiet, but in 1996, he moved to Pondicherry . He then married a Tamil girl and returned to Holland , but realized he could never live there again as he felt he had changed too much. The family came back and started a guest house, the only way he could think of to make money.
Then a Dutch organization, Joho, which sends volunteers to South India , needed someone in this area, and he seemed the perfect person. He now arranges work for Dutch volunteers in schools, orphanages, farms, and they stay in his guest house. He takes them on ‘exposure' days to Auroville and sometimes they eat there and buy bread at the bakery. He is full of admiration for Auroville but feels he needs the autonomy to run his own life and business, especially as he has a young family.
Another such family is Cordelia and Giorgio who run Cordelia Gems, a spacious shop selling jewellery and crystals near the main road. Cordelia is from Malaysia , Giorgio from Italy . They originally came here to join Auroville, but found they could not support themselves financially for two years as Newcomers, so they had to start up a business nearby. They plan to take over a defunct pizzeria and create a good Italian restaurant there.
There are two Tibetan restaurants on the road, and yet another one above Yoga Travels. The Lhasa Tibetan restaurant is like stepping into a Tibetan community, with brightly-coloured prayer flags and a large picture of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama on the wall. Aurovilian Dorjee was preparing lunches after her 6 – 10am breakfast shift up the road at the ‘Tea Stop Café' by the Auroville bakery. She lives in Douceur community and is one of the new generation of Tibetans who were born in India . “Tibetan women are strong,” she says. “From the age of nine they are taught how to cook, sew, and farm! That is why we have the confidence to start these restaurants in Auroville. It is also a way of financially supporting the Tibetan Pavilion.”
Many Westerners live in the little streets behind the main road. They rent houses from Tamils, most of whom would ideally like to join Auroville, but the reasons they usually give for not joining is they cannot support themselves over their Newcomer year and, there is no housing. “We are not allowed to stay in Auroville if we have no house, so we have to rent down here.”
A rough survey suggested there must be about 70 private guesthouses in this area, of varying standards. There are more and more each year as local people quickly convert a room to host a tourist. However, except for the period from December to March, there are not enough guests to fill the rooms. Many of the guesthouses use the prefix ‘Auro' in their name, and guests mistakenly think they have a connection with Auroville and therefore must be of a certain standard.
Now the first estate agent has popped up along on the road with an impressive sign that reads Eastman Real Estate with his Chennai telephone number and web site address listed. The lady in Sunshine Pottery next door says she could get in touch with him and he would come from Chennai right away if one wished to buy land.
Down the end of the road is the Third Eye restaurant run by an Indian couple which has branched out into a tours and travel shop, the third travel agency on this strip. Next to it is a ‘Bicycles and Scooters for Rent', the fourth I counted. The second ‘ Art Gallery ', with the artist sitting hopefully outside, is next door. Two pottery shops compete for ceramic purchases, as do the assortment of grocery shops for one's cooking needs.
The Kerala Ayurveda Centre has been given a fresh coat of paint, and an authentic-looking Keralite gentleman in an orange lungi comes and hands out glossy brochures. There are impressive pictures in full colour of how one could look after a five week treatment of pancha karma using gallons of oil. Their charges for a massage seem rather high, 500 rupees, but then he is from Kerala, and hoping to attract tourists. An equally large ayurvedic establishment is just up the road, so the competition is keen.
The entry to Auroville from the East Coast Road
From the East Coast Road Auroville is well-hidden. The only indication is a battered yellow sign which points vaguely in its direction and says “Auroville – 8 kilometres”. Near it a giant pizza advertisement guarantees 50% more topping.
Things change very quickly on this road. And as Raju says, “It will soon be like a Pondicherry street.”
An earlier interview with Serge titled “In relentless pursuit of Divine Anarchy” appeared in AVToday # 176, September 2003