Also see Tariq Jazeel's most recent Society & Space contributions: Dissimulated Landscapes: Postcolonial Method and the Politics of Space in Southern Sri Lanka and Urban theory with an outside


Matrimandir, Auroville (A Preliminary Report from the ‘Auroville’ archaeological dig, August 5000)

Our team has uncovered the foundations of a modest city-like complex, around 20 km squared, in the southern tip of the continental South Asia region. The remains date back to the Anthropocene period, and we can confirm that we have found the lost settlement of "Auroville," which we understand to be an experimental, utopian city built in a rural part of what was Tamil Nadu, in the country India, circa. AD 1968-2050.

The complex is peppered with remains of what appear to be a variety of structures in terms of size and function, pointing to an eclectic range of architectural styles, some with no correlating contemporaneous examples anywhere in the world. Given this was an "experimental city," this is unsurprising. However, we are more puzzled by the similarity that many foundations bear to what we know to be the mid-twentieth "International Modernism" (IM) architectural style; a style dating from around 1920, known to originate in continental Europe, typically found in France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. Usually, such dense concentrations of European architectural style found so far from Europe is a pattern associated with European "colonialism," however carbon dating of the IM structures at Auroville suggest they were built well after India’s independence. As such, this concentration of IM so far from Europe has led archaeologist to speculate that the complex may usefully be analyzed via a historical and intellectual lens that twenty-first century academics called "neo-colonialism," ie. the continuation of colonial relationships of dependence and social and political influence long after a colony’s independence. Given the dearth of other cultural evidence, however, this is difficult to corroborate. It appears that Auroville had a small archive building, which unfortunately was not vaulted or climate controlled, so the vast majority of textual records about the site have perished.

What records we do have indicate that the city had a population of 2,500 by the year 2015. However, the size of the area, its density and the placing of foundations, taken together with areas we believe were set aside for expansion, lead us to believe that the city could have accommodated up to 50,000 people. We suspect therefore that Auroville failed in its own terms and suffered gradual decline through the troublesome twenty first century.

A serendipitous find some 6000 miles away in London has thrown some light on, and raised more intriguing questions about, a structure at the geographical center of Auroville. It has also given us an insight into possible reasons for the settlement’s decline. The find is a "postcard" (Figure 1) depicting a strange looking edifice built, and it appears maintained, at what must have been great expense. The "postcard"—these were pictorial representations of places and symbols that people typically wrote messages on before sending to loved ones and friends from holiday destinations (they became obsolete sometime in the twenty-second century)—was unused, found in the ruins of University College London in the partially preserved files of an academic. It appears that this academic conducted an unremarkable research project on Auroville sometime early in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, his files were in such disarray that it has been difficult to find more than fragments of information about Auroville, and as yet we have found no publications by her/him on the city.

Nonetheless, as you can see (Figure 1), the "postcard" depicts a gold clad geodesic building, which from the positioning of the foundations we know was the centerpiece of Auroville. The "postcard’s" reverse calls the building "The Matrimandir." The building we suspect was intended as something like a central meditation chamber for the community. We can speculate on this because we know that this community followed the teachings of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950), the chief proponent of a system of integrated yoga that aimed toward spiritual transcendence of social, political and religious beliefs (at the UCL site we also located a fragile copy of a biography of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, published in 2008 by Peter Hees).[1] From other scraps of remaining archival material, we also know that the community experimented with communalist forms of social, economic and spatial organization, as well as sustainable environmental management systems, all of which apparently sought harmonious ecological relationships in this southern Indian bioregion. In the historical context of what used to be known as "late capitalism" (as it turns out of course, there was nothing "late" about it), this was it seems a bold move to forge an alternative kind of lifestyle and community. As such, we are speculating that this community was well aware of humankind’s agency in shaping geological processes long before the Chemist, Paul Crutzen, formalized public understandings of the Anthropocene. What is more, they attempted to do something about it.

But an archaeological reading of "the Matrimandir" has given us an insight into the structural and philosophical contradictions that may well have lead to the decline of this alternative community. Given Auroville’s apparent commitment to minimizing its environmental footprint, we have been mystified by the material ostentation of the Matrimandir. It was gold plated, at a time when gold was one of the most expensive commodities globally and had an iconography of luxury and expense. The Matrimandir also contained a chamber that records from continental Europe suggest housed the world’s largest optically perfect glass globe, engineered in, and imported from, Oberkochen, Germany. The structure itself, archaeologists believe, was set in well-maintained and irrigated grounds, in what was a semi-arid landscape. The cost of building and maintaining the structure and its grounds would, at that time, have been astronomical. We have been perplexed by the fact that these cost and resource inefficient structures were located in a part of the country India that, at the time, was one of the poorest regions in the world. We have wondered about the nature of the relationship between Auroville and its surrounding villages, especially given its claims to alternative economic existence (there is even evidence that the community tried, unsuccessfully, to run an economy without money). All this presents further evidence for the "neo-colonial" hypothesis, but this needs far more historical evidence, not least to give us a picture of the kind of people that settled there.

Ultimately, our current best archaeological research leads us to hypothesize that the Matrimandir stands as something of an icon of the contradictions and structural tensions that riddled late twentieth and twenty first century attempts by progressive and internationalist human societies to carve out forms of social and spatial organization with the potential to halt the onset of what came to be known as the Anthropocene. It seems logical to ask how our ancestors could have successfully staked out alternative forms of social, political, and economic organization in a historical context where capitalism was so deeply engrained? As the Matrimandir bears testimony to, even post- and anti- capitalist societies tended to exhibit forms of exclusion and hierarchy in relation to their constitutive outsides, and ultimately most reinforced the dependent pathways of capitalism at large. 


[1] Our colleagues in digital archaeology conducting "cloud analysis" have found the electronic trace of a "Wikipedia" "web-page" on Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, and another on "Auroville." If they can unlock the codes to restore the so-called "Wikipedia files," the implications for Archaeology and History are huge. (Some believe it would decimate and cause fundamental shifts to the academy, leaving many thousands of archaeologists and social historians out of work.)