Christmas in India

Preparing for our gift exchange

Christmas in a predominantly non-Christian country is something very different than in our home countries.  People go to work, shops are open, and you are able to have a normal day if you wish.  Some of us celebrated away from our families for the first time, and there was some homesickness sprouting up here and there among our group.  However, for the most part, Dec. 25th, was a fantastic day for us here in India.  Even though normal Indians don’t take the day off, we were free to explore and

David opening a banana leaf wrapped gift

spend the day as we chose.  Some of us spent it hanging out where we are staying, Youth Camp Fraternity, some spent the day at the beach, and some just explored a little bit.  Jen, my room-mate, and I in particular had fun riding around on my new scooter which finally granted us freedom at the perfect moment.  We found what we think is a palm tree farm, checked out the beach and health center, and bought 26 tiny candles made here in Auroville to use at our present opening later in the evening.

Even though Christmas isn’t typically celebrated here in India, signs of it were here and there.  Shops, particularly in Pondicherry, had typical commercial Christmas decorations here and there, and these large, five-pointed star lamps meant for the holiday, were being sold everywhere.  Strangers on the street would wish us “Merry Christmas”, showing just how nice the people here can be.

Our Christmas-Palm

In lieu of family, our group gathered to exchange gifts.  But instead of buying something for a specific person, we all bought just one with a spending limit of about 300 rupees, or about 5 Euros.  Prof. Talcott played some jazzy Christmas music, we lit the candles, and ate holiday cake from Naturellement, the organization we visited the previous day.  A palm tree served as our Christmas tree, with flowers for decoration.  Our wrappings were also meant to be sustainable.  Instead of using traditional wrapping paper for the gifts, we used scarves, banana leaves, fabric bags, postcards, even the hair-net we had to wear while visiting Naturellement.

We exchanged gifts by playing a game where a person, who’s name was drawn out of the holiday cake box, picked a present from under our Christmas-palm….or “steal” a gift from someone else who’d already chosen a gift.  No worries though, that just meant the gift-less person got to choose another to open or “steal” from someone else.  That made the exchange much more communal, with the idea to just have fun no matter what you ended up with.

The Economy of Giving

Martina at Naturellement

Food Store

Tonight, everywhere in the world, people are going to sleep wondering which presents will be waiting for them when they wake up. Like most holidays, Christmas has become commercialized.  A tug-of-war over the supply and demand of, well, a lot of stuff.

It couldn’t be more appropriate than to be in Auroville over Christmas studying sustainable development. The consumerism that has engulfed this holiday is directly at odds with the system of beliefs and values that Auroville was founded on.

Earlier today, we met with Jean-Yves, a long-time resident of Auroville and a member of its numerous Councils and Committees. He walked us through the complicatedly simple system that is Auroville’s economy. Auroville aims to simplify the economic part of life to the point where consumption does not influence the individual pursuit of happiness. Without the constant emphasis on money, and the incessant need to make more of it, Auroville’s residents can focus on progress at the individual and community levels. For example, everyone, regardless of their job, is given a monthly maintenance fee, similar to a salary. To put this in perspective, it is around 8,000 rupees per month, or roughly 135 euro. The idea is, if you’re basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are provided (to an extent), then there is more time for the pursuit of “happiness.”

It seems to be working. Over the last week we have met people who are passionate and excited about the work that they are doing. Paul and Dave, with their backgrounds in traditional forestry, are re-building a virtually extinct sub-tropical evergreen forest. Martina’s original six-month project of providing Auroville with organic food products has turned into a twenty year sisterhood between her and the local Tamil women at Naturellement.

Instead of an economy of supply and demand, what we find in Auroville is an economy of need versus desire. Residents are asked to seriously evaluate what is a “necessity” and what is a “want” on a daily basis. Shops like Free Store and Nadini go against the paradigm of the traditional commercial system. At Nadini, a clothing and home goods shop, residents are allotted a flexible yearly budget. There is no “shopping” in Nadini. All of the items are behind a curtain. Instead of browsing, you describe what you need and a clerk brings you the item. Therefore, you only take what you need.

While I’m not certain that this economic system would work on a grand scale, it seems to be working in Auroville. Businesses are thriving, tourism is booming, and its residents are happy (or so they seem). At the core of its economic system, Auroville is very much about giving, with very little emphasis on receiving. Through self-reflection and self-realization (big ideas, I know) its residents seem to be finding a greater sense of purpose which they then and try carry on to the world outside of Auroville.

At Calve for Christmas eve dinner.

photoblog from my day at the garbage dump just outside of pondicherry

23-12-2010

My internship started yesterday. I’m doing a project with streetchildren from pondicherry about photography and i needed to get a feeling for the organization that is helping me do that; KALKI. Unfortunatly i missed out on some great seminars and presentations that the rest of the group went to today, but it was worth it! KALKI is a foundation that helps streetkids all over Pondi with education, recreation, counseling and health issues. The social worker of Kalki, Manuel, took me to one of the places they go to once a week; The garbage dump. The people that live on the garbage dump are called ‘gypsies’ and ‘immigrants’ by the people in the area. This visit made a huge impact on me and it is really hard to describe what I’ve seen, so hopefully the 21 pictures below will speak for themselves! They show people lying on the street, sick, with their 1 year olds next to them not having a clue what’s going on, a school that was ruined because of the heavy rainfall and despite the sign that says that every kid has a right to eduction, will not be rebuild by the government, kids covered in dirt enjoying the attention of the people from KALKI , the garbage dump where their houses are practically build on and much more..

This is the second garbage dump in a developing country that i’ve visited in my life, and it was again heartbreaking. These pictures show what my western eye sees while visiting a place like this. My project will enable some of these kids to learn some photography skills and they’ll receive disposable camera’s, so we can see how their live is through their eyes..

Rieke

Women and Dogs

Day 7 in Auroville. The group headed to the Village Action Trust yesterday morning. In a nutshell, VAT promotes and facilitates the empowerment of women in villages in the “greater Auroville area,” if you will; they run seminars and other group activities to increase the self-sufficiency of local Tamil women, which may include basic education, financial planning and/or social support services, all undergirded by the belief (and as far as I can tell, a fairly accurate one) that women in India are far more effective when they act as units rather than individually. Ambu, VAT’s co-director, made it abundantly clear that her organization is not a charity—charities foster dependency, they’re “easy” and “good for the ego,” but VAT’s participatory framework (that is, all those who benefit also contribute) reduces community segregation and hostility.

The group has been phenomenally successful: Women’s groups—and their men’s-groups spawn—are operating successfully throughout 60 surrounding villages, and the success stories (mostly of women harnessing the power of their respective groups and standing up to abusive husbands) that Ambu relayed were nothing short of all-out inspiring. Continue reading

Philosophical Auroville

Here’s a taste of the rich Indian philosophy that underlies the mission of Auroville, with words and wisdom provided by Deepti Tewari:

I think it’s fair to say that many of us are critical of Auroville. However, it’s hard not to be deeply attracted to the spirit of its aim, especially when put so eloquently by Deepti (seriously, I could listen to her describe the intricacies of a #2 pencil and I’d be fascinated).

She spoke of Brahman, the god spirit that exists in everything, the essence of the universe, that all of us are and can become. It’s a belief that everything then is connected and worth our utmost respect and care. It’s about thinking holistically, striving to balance internal and external, global and local, spiritual and mental, individual and collective, etc. etc. etc. Everything is one.

It makes me think of a zero, or a perfect circle, or a cypher. And that’s what sustainable development is about, or at least should be about. Auroville has its flaws and contradictions, which Deepti acknowledged, but it continues to venture forward. The people here keep trying, striving for the north star. And that’s the imperfect journey it takes to become a god.

Utopia, in its etymology, implies both perfection and the unattainable. Even though it’s unattainable, we have to try. Right?

Dystopian Paradise

Day 5 in Auroville. We met Deepti on Saturday morning, and we all left fairly awed. She’s lived in Auroville since she was 19, teaches at a local school and is entirely self-educated—as she put it, “I just read a lot.” During the course of her 2-hour talk about—well, really, about whatever we wanted and needed to know about Auroville—she threw around references to Descartes, the French Revolution, the Buddha and John Milton, and impressed us all with her eloquence and enthusiasm. While explaining the philosophical foundations of Auroville—a village that fancies itself emblematic of “universal” values, tolerance and realization of the Divine Consciousness chief among them—she maintained that the specific provenance of the town’s ideals was irrelevant. Call Auroville communist, socialist, Marxist, Leninist, Rawlsian, cosmopolitan, liberal, even a “hippie enclave”—a rose by any other name still smells as sweet. Auroville is, in other words, just Auroville, and to try to make sense of it by assigning it a specific political or philosophical box is the wrong approach. Auroville bridges the past and the future; it celebrates human unity; it provides, as Deepti mentioned, an outlet for people who hate the direction the world is heading (and, as she also admitted, you’d have to be blind to be completely satisfied with the direction the world is heading). Auroville is for everyone, and it belongs to no one. Continue reading

“You may say that I’m a dreamer…”

I have been bit by a few mosquitoes, the electricity in my room does not usually work and having long hair is not conducive to taking cold showers, but thus far India has been absolutely amazing! It is literally a breath of fresh air…Sooo relaxing.  Even with all of the minor inconveniences taken into account, I have never felt so at ease.

I would describe Auroville and Pondicherry as a combination of the spirituality of Avatar and the village lifestyle of The Jungle Book with a childlike innocence and friendliness of Peter Pan.  I love seeing groups of Indian women together dressed in their colorful saris.  Occasionally you will see one walking, balancing a basket or something of the sort on their head without hands.  There are cows and dogs everywhere and we even saw monkeys playing in the trees.  The largest monkey advanced from the group to sit on the edge of the stone cliff to tell us to keep our distance.

Territorial Monkey

Territorial Monkey

Last night we went to a concert at Auroville’s Youth Center. If there was ever a place the Lost Boys from Peter Pan existed, this is it.  The Youth Center was packed with Aurovillians and visitors for a concert of local bands. There are adult sized teeter-totters, giant swing sets, huge tables, a comfortable covered lounge, a kitchen, a stage for a band and ladders and ropes to climb up in the trees, all of which are centered around a blue, yellow, purple and white mosaic floor. It felt like I walked through a time warp back to the 60’s.  They were serving pizza, mango bars, vegan cake and Kampuchea (fermented mushroom tea) to enjoy during the concert.  Everyone watched, but I was surprised how little dancing or energy there was.  It is possible we were staring in Footloose, because that didn’t stop Robin, Brian, and I from busting a few moves.

Yesterday morning, we went to the Last School in Auroville and the Mohanam Cultural Center in the afternoon.  Deepti, a member of Auroville and teacher at the school spoke to us about Auroville and the spiritual history of India.  While some people viewed everything she was saying as idealistic and kept an objective view, I was completely absorbed by the community she described.

Deepti

She told us Auroville’s goal is to generate a spiritual collectivity that is based on brotherhood or the equality of the soul, where people, “take advantage of all discoveries from without and within.” Referring to the world today she said, “We don’t think we own air, but more and more we are beginning to think we own water.”  She says that Auroville doesn’t belong to anyone and the material creations produced by the community are shared.  Auroville and India in general are such relaxing places, that I can understand how easy it is to focus on your spiritual self.

The Last School Classroom

The school she teaches at has a classroom that lets in so much light, I felt like it only had three walls.  The walls were almost completely made of windows and the one opened into a green terrace with a large Bodhi tree, which is the tree Buddha sat under to reach enlightenment.  The school was actually designed around the tree and the atmosphere mirrors the teaching method.  The school emphasizes that there is no authority and that everyone learns from each other.  This is based on the premise that Aurovillians thrive on self-education.

Deepti spoke of Darwinism saying that many people believe in evolution.  She said why would we assume, that as imperfect, disharmonious creatures, we are finished evolving?  Auroville believes that we are still evolving and therefore should strive for spiritual perfection.  She says, “Most people who come to Auroville are very post-modern in thought.  They don’t fit into a social category”, and that they are looking to escape the problems of the world so they come to Auroville to work on a model society.

Where she realizes this is a work in progress, and that each individual of the community is a work in progress, I still cannot help but admire the experimental community and hope that such a community becomes a framework for civilization in the future.

Bodhi Tree

India and her Beautiful Contradictions

Chaos. For me, the most striking thing about India is her lack of apparent order. Cars and buses play chicken with rickshaw and motorcycle drivers, striking fear in the hearts of Western passengers. The locals don’t seem to notice, nor do the cows and dogs that lay in the middle of the lane.

A roadside store selling tobacco, soda, and portable phones has positioned a single alter at the front door. On it are beautifully decorated images of Ganesh, Buddha and Jesus. The warm air is infused with scents of incense and curry that compete with the odors of sewage and animal droppings. Women in bright orange, purple, and green saris carry large buckets water and loads of sticks atop their heads. Rising from the ground behind them is an ad for a high-end jeweler.

Along the roads are people’s homes, shacks made from others trash and the natural resource of banana leaves. While the sun sets in the distance, women cook dinner in the door entrances, children play in the mosquito-infested water, and dogs and goats pick at the plastic bags and rotting food.

Poverty juxtaposed with great wealth. Life dances with death. This is the beauty of India.

Holy Elephant in Pondicherry, India

For a Westerner—someone raised to follow the rules, to be disciplined, to create order when none exists—the visceral experience can be quite disconcerting and confusing. Yet, there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about the chaos here. Oddly, it seems to bring a sense of peace—the kind that comes with accepting imperfection and living in the moment.

— Jennifer Conway

 

The one about arrivals and first-days.

And so– here we finally are.  After about 12 hours in transit, we have finally made it to India.

After arriving in Chennai at around 3:30 in the morning, we headed south, towards Auroville, in an 18 passenger bus.  With not enough space inside of the vehicle, our friendly and reliable drivers helped to secure our luggage to the top of the bus.  We drove 1.5 hours south, and stopped in a beautiful village called Mamallapuram where we are breakfast and visited several beautiful stone temples.

By the time we headed towards our guest residence, it started pouring rain.  We pulled over and bartered for a tarp to protect all of our luggage, which was still on the roof of the bus.  Luckily we were able to get one up, and made it to the to the guest house, safe and sound.

A long journey, a beautiful day, and many more adventures ahead.  Too tired to articulate, I cut my film footage from the day in to a video-blog.  I hope you enjoy it!