Was it a mirage? Five thousand people of different races and nationalities assembling on a piece of totally barren land in Villupuram district! They had been invited by Unesco to inaugurate a new city in this desert of red laterite, a city that would "belong to nobody in particular, but humanity as a whole".
The event took place in February 1968, some 12 km north of the former French colony of Puducherry, on a little hill that was being swiftly eroded. Youngsters representing 121 countries and 23 Indian states ceremoniously deposited a handful of soil from their respective countries in a lotus-shaped urn at the centre of the future city. As stated in its four-point charter, the international township of Auroville was to be a "site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity".
The project was based on a 'dream' of The Mother, spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian freedom fighter and philosopher who continues to inspire millions the world over. A few years earlier, she had written: "There should be somewhere on earth a place...where all human beings of goodwill who have a sincere aspiration could live freely as citizens of the world; a place of peace, concord..." Forty years later, one may ask: what has happened to her dream?
The first pioneers had their job cut out, to prevent further erosion. They did not have an easy life but their enthusiasm matched the tremendous difficulties. Their 'environmentally-friendly' actions (they planted millions of trees) were not moved by an ideology, nobody talked about 'ecology' in the 60s, but simply to get shade and prevent the sand storms.
Eventually they acquired some expertise; the world over, Auroville - The Mother called it the City of Dawn - is today synonymous with sustainable development, alternative energies and architecture. Ditto for those who began the first cottage industries, most of them had no prior skills in the field of handicrafts, they just needed to generate some income to build this "city the earth needs". It was much later that 'Auroville crafts' became a brand name.
To create the necessary physical base for a representative laboratory for an experiment in human unity, Auroville's founder envisaged a township for 50,000 people.
The progress was slower than expected, but today the city with its four zones (cultural, residential, industrial and international) is slowly emerging around the Matrimandir - the soul of Auroville - a place for silence and concentration. This spherical building is sometimes compared to a spaceship emerging from the earth.
Nearly 2,000 members (including 20 active seniors above 80 years old and 400 children) from 44 different nationalities contribute to one of the most cosmopolitan experiments in collective living in the world.
Asked what he thought has been Auroville's main achievement during the last 40 years, Alain Bernard, a former French executive who joined the community in the early 1970s, says: "The miracle is that it still continues to exist, despite the changes around us."
He rejoices that Auroville has kept its multicultural features and that more Asians, particularly from countries like Korea, are coming to the international city.
A few years ago, the prestigious French Newspaper Le Monde reported: "Waiting to know the fate of their utopia, Aurovilians carry on their quest for another way of life. Their doubts and the fragility of the undertaking are the guarantors of the authenticity and the value of the experiment that they pursue against all odds."
Nearly a century ago, Sri Aurobindo had used the Latin saying to explain his yoga: solvitur ambulando - while walking and progressing, problems get solved. This could be Auroville's motto because there is no readymade recipe or formula or even rules for such an experiment.
The world has indeed drastically changed since the 1960s. Puducherry, then a sleepy French settlement getting reconciled to being Indian, has become a buzzing industrial town.
The Mother had spoken of "a place where money would no longer be the sovereign lord", but with the world caught in the whirlwind of commerce, can Auroville resist?
Voracious promoters look at Auroville today with another kind of dream in their eyes. In 1988, an act of parliament was passed, creating the Auroville Foundation to provide the township with the necessary protection. Karan Singh, the present chairman of the Foundation, has regularly used his weight with the government to ensure that the 'dream' stays on the right track.
It is the spirit of the 'Aurovillian' which still sustains it. The enthusiasm of the pioneers is still palpable. Take for example Maj Gen KK Tewari who joined Auroville some 30 years ago. Despite his 85 years, he strongly believes: "I have no doubt that the Auroville dream will soon be realised."
Ultimately, the future of Auroville depends on the faith and the sincerity of the members of the community, but one thing is certain, the world will certainly be richer if a utopia like Auroville exists.
(Claude Arpi is a journalist based in Auroville. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )