No drink. No drugs. No politics. No religion. No pets... So is this Utopia?

Amid the quiet, traditional villages of south India, 1,800 people from 38 countries live in Auroville, a futuristic city set up in the 1960s by one of the strangest spiritual leaders in modern India. By Justin Huggler
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The Independent Online

And it all centres around a giant golden metallic sphere, with dimples all over, rather like a huge golden golf ball. This is called the Matrimandir, or the Mother Temple. A sign on one of the roads points to the "Evolution Laboratory". The neighbourhoods here have English names, including Aspiration, Certitude, Discipline and Grace.

A public drinking fountain advertises "Dynamised water", and a poster beside it explains that "dynamisation" is the incorporation of energies in water that make it healthier, and that one way of achieving this is to make the water "listen" to Bach and Mozart. Rural India, where cows and chickens wander through the villages, and life often gives the impression it has changed little in centuries, is the last place you would expect to find all this.

But this is not a film set or a theme park. Here, truth is stranger than fiction. This is Auroville, a living, working community of 1,800 people from 38 countries, who have given up their lives at home to come and live in what is a real-life Utopian project.

Rubbing shoulders with the local Indians, who go about their traditional life in the farms and villages near by, the inhabitants of Auroville are living out what they call an "experiment". Politics is not allowed in Auroville. Nor is religion. Nor is much private property. None of the inhabitants own their houses, which all belong to the township.

It may all sound familiar, especially given it was founded back in the late 1960s, the era of communes, flower power and a Western fascination with India. And Auroville certainly fits that mould. But it is more than a commune. It is the creation of a yoga leader known as The Mother. In the West, yoga may be just a fashionable way of keeping in shape, but for many in India it is a spiritual belief that man can reach a higher consciousness through meditation.

Auroville's founder was a follower of a yoga guru who took it one step further. He believed human evolution has not finished. And The Mother believed her "universal city" would help her work of bringing to earth a more advanced consciousness she called the "supramental". If it all sounds a bit wacky, the Auroville project has been officially endorsed by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation, and the Indian government.

Tim Wrey is among some 50 Britons who live in Auroville. He used to work in London's advertising industry, and though he says he never made a lot of money, he concedes he was not hard up. But in 1977, he gave it all up, sold his house and moved to Auroville.

When we met him, 68-year-old Mr Wrey was on his way to an aerobics class on a motorbike. Just as you start to get the impression Aurovillians are your typical New Age types, you see a touch of Hell's Angels. Most get around the sprawling township on powerful motorbikes, which they ride without helmets.

What makes someone give up the life Mr Wrey had in the West which is, after all, a life people all over the world aspire to? "You could say I was typical of many people," Mr Wrey says. "I felt a certain dissatisfaction with life in the West. You're working for yourself but you don't feel much else. Then you come across a place like Auroville. This is a place dedicated to human unity."

Life here is very different for Mr Wrey. He has few possessions. For three decades, he has worked in small-scale commercial operations run by the community. These days, he works in a tiny publishing department that produces books and pamphlets about Auroville and the yoga teachings of its founder. All the money he earned has been paid into a central fund, out of which he is paid a small allowance for his daily needs.

"I had to give up my life in the UK completely," he says. "You can't participate in something like this for the amount of time I've been here and then go back." Mr Wrey found Tamil Nadu in 1973. He was already feeling dissatisfied with his life in the UK, and took a year off work to travel the world. He and his wife visited 25 countries on an extended road trip. "We'd done 25,000km without difficulties then 50 metres from the Matrimandir we broke down. We were supposed to spend 48 hours in Auroville. We ended up spending 48 days. What excited us was that people here were not just talking about what the world should be, they were doing it. Both of us, my wife and I, felt we had found our home."

But when they returned to the UK, Mr Wrey and his wife diverged over Auroville. "My wife settled back into our London life, and I was the one who wanted to come back. In some ways, it contributed to the break-up of our marriage."

Four years later, his marriage over, Mr Wrey retuned to Auroville for good. Has he regretted it? "Never. There's so much to do here. Everything you do here is for a higher purpose. If the ideal of human unity is achieved, it will be of immense significance beyond Auroville."

But now the other side to Auroville rears its head: the conviction the 1,800 or so people here have that they are involved in a project of immense spiritual significance for the world, although most of the world has never even heard of it.

But when you ask Mr Wrey what he means, he says: "I'm not sure I can say." He recommends reading the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. But Aurovillians insist they are not a cult. "If that was what this is, Unesco would never support us," says Mr Wrey.

On 28 February 1968, in a ceremony that has been largely forgotten by the outside world, some 5,000 people from 124 countries gathered on a patch of barren land and mixed a little soil from each of their countries in a white lotus-shaped urn to mark the foundation of Auroville. The Mother was one of strangest spiritual leaders in India in modern times. She was born Mira Alfassa in Paris in 1878, to an Egyptian mother and a Turkish father. She claimed she experienced divine visions from childhood, including one of overriding importance, "the advent of universal harmony, the realisation of human unity and the establishment of ideal society".

Alfassa became involved in spiritualism and began to write about her visions and her beliefs. She married twice. In 1914, she set out for India with her second husband to meet Sri Aurobindo, an Indian teacher her husband had met who had been pursuing ideas similar to those of Alfassa. She said when she met Aurobindo, she recognised him as a figure who had been appearing in her visions since 1904.

Aurobindo, too, is a remarkable figure. Born Aurobindo Akroyd Ghose in Calcutta, in his youth he was a leading figure in the early Indian independence movement. He was also a highly regarded poet whose most famous work is written in English.

Sent to England by his parents for a Western education, Aurobindo graduated from Cambridge. On his return, he became heavily involved in the independence movement and was seen as a leader of the more radical wing of the Congress Party in the early 1900s, long before Mahatma Gandhi galvanised the movement.

He was jailed by the British, and on his release found himself increasingly turning from politics towards the ancient Hindu practice of yoga. He moved to the French-occupied enclave of Pondicherry in south India, where the British could not arrest him, and devoted himself to meditation and spiritual study. An ashram, a spiritual community focused on a guru, grew up around him and it was there he met Alfassa. She became his "spiritual companion". Their followers have been silent on whether there was any more to the relationship.

Central to Aurobindo's teachings were the belief that human evolution is not finished and man has the capacity to become a far greater being. Traditional yoga believes that through meditation man can experience the divine. Aurobindo taught that man can go further, actually bringing a higher form of consciousness to the world through meditation. He also wrote Savitri, a 24,000-line epic poem in English which contains many of his beliefs. Late in life, he retired to meditation, appointing Alfassa as The Mother to run the ashram.

After his death in 1950, she took over the ashram, and in 1968 the founding of Auroville was the culmination of years of her efforts to found a "universal city" to bring about the goal of "human unity".

Today, 1,800 people from lands as diverse as France, Ukraine, Tibet and Ethiopia live here although it was intended to be a community of 50,000. Auroville has transformed the once barren plain into an oasis of fertility through ambitious irrigation. But in other ways, the project appears to have stuck. Building of the Matrimandir, the huge spherical meditation chamber at the centre, is still not finished.

In the International Zone, planned to house pavilions showcasing the contribution of each country to humanity, the India Pavilion, one of few built, is being used as office space. The community still has not bought all the land intended for its project, and with land prices soaring, because Auroville has made the area more fertile, and because nearby Pondicherry is growing, it is fast being priced out of the Aurovillians' pockets. But Aurovillians are keen to point out that their various projects employ more than 5,000 people from the neighbouring villages, paying higher wages than they would otherwise be likely to get.

It would be easy to dismiss Auroville as a strange relic from the flower-power late Sixties, but for the extraordinary optimism of the people who live here. For them, Auroville is an ongoing success. And the Evolution Laboratory? It is a library.