The stillness seemed to vibrate. I had never heard silence as loud as in the inner chamber of Matrimandir (“The Mother’s Shrine”), in Auroville, Puducherry. Despite the low mesh of breathing of our group, the silence bore through my thoughts like an exclamation mark. We were in an all-white room inside an elaborate spherical structure that took 37 years to see the light of day; a cocooned, pristine chamber of quietude that first appeared in several visions to founder Mirra Alfassa.
I had heard the most provocative stories about Matrimandir. The gold-plated sphere for silent meditation in the experimental township of Auroville was a singular experience by all accounts. It appeared as a lotus in full bloom to some, and a golden golfball to others; the interiors were said to be straight out of a 1960s sci-fi flick. There is an action committee that holds that Matrimandir hasn’t been raised according to Alfassa’s stipulations, but the hallowed dome seems like every spiritual traveller’s passport to happy dreaming.
A lot of Matrimandir’s oomph lies in the detailing, right down to the blooms in each of the 12 gardens. The sphere comprises 1,415 large gold discs. The carpets are woven in Agra with Merino wool from New Zealand. At the heart of the inner chamber is a 400kg crystal sphere from Germany – the largest optically-perfect glass globe in the world – which harvests a beam of sunlight made powerful by lenses situated at the top of the dome.
Alfassa, the founder of Auroville, was called “The Mother” by her spiritual collaborator, Sri Aurobindo. Matrimandir was to be the symbol of the Universal Mother, according to Sri Aurobindo’s teaching. So the number 12, associated with the Hindu mother goddess Aditi, was embedded in the design. The inner chamber has 12 pillars – and a pile of white floor cushions – encircling the crystal globe in the chamber. The gold sphere is suspended above 12 “petals,” or meditation rooms with themes such as Courage and Gratitude, each of which is flanked by a garden named after a divine attribute such as Bliss.
A lot of Matrimandir’s oomph lies in the details; the structure was built over 37 years. Photo: Frederic Soltan/ Sygma/ Corbis
After nearly four decades of construction, Matrimandir opened in 2008. Alfassa is said to have passed away at the same time that the concreting of the four pillars supporting the inner chamber (and named after aspects of the Divine Feminine) was finished.
On the day of my visit, we had an elderly but sprightly guide from Calcutta, who had tossed aside a lucrative career decades ago to live in a universal village. Our guide seemed to belong everywhere and nowhere. He fitted in with the calm landscape. While we saw the lush Peace garden around us, he remembered a time when all the land was barren, save for the large, ancient banyan tree dominating the grounds beside Matrimandir, marking the geographical centre of Auroville.
I found Matrimandir surreal. Water cascaded in a murmur down its inner walls, and a pink glow suffused the dome as we shuffled up the spiral to the inner chamber at the top. The meditation rules were strict. We had to roll up clothing that might touch the floor, wear socks that were given to us when we entered the sphere, and pause outside the inner chamber to catch our breath so the panting wouldn’t echo inside. We had to be absolutely silent. A blinking light would signal the end of our concentration, and then we would be led out and through a couple of the meditation petals before spending a few minutes in the Lotus Pond below the sphere, which had a baby crystal mirroring the one in the inner chamber.
The Lotus Pond has a baby crystal mirroring the 1,100kg sphere in the inner chamber above it. Photo: Frederic Soltan/ Corbis
With all of 10 minutes, every second was of the essence in that stark, white chamber. I only realized how deep the silent concentration had been when I opened my eyes and had to take a few long breaths to stop the world from oscillating. Our hosts had clearly been lenient with our time.
My road to Matrimandir had been long and winding. I had stayed at a forest community in Auroville nine months earlier and all my efforts to visit and wangle a pass had been thwarted. This time, my aunt and I had barely landed an appointment. And yet, the wait seemed perfect. My aunt had only come to give me company but had a profound experience; for me, our experience at Matrimandir had been a rare, non-denominational bridge I could share with family. I knew I wanted to return, to immerse myself in its powerful, incredible stillness. But when I am surrounded by the chaos of city life, it is the banyan tree that I remember the most–its roots like thick fingers dug into the earth while the wind rustled leaves everywhere–a living testament that, like our guide, seemed unbounded by time.
Make a date. Entry is free, but the rules are strict and there are a lot of visitors. Drop by the Visitor’s Centre in Auroville at least a day in advance to watch the brief introductory video and get an access pass; try for a waitlist card if it’s full up. On D-Day, visitors arrive at 8.45am, watch another short video on the philosophy behind Auroville and Matrimandir, and then board a bus to Matrimandir for a 10-minute meditation. Photography inside is prohibited, so all belongings are deposited at a locker outside. The whole trip takes about three hours. A meditation slot on a subsequent visit is for 30 minutes.
Stuck for time? Alternately, you could get a pass to the Matrimandir Viewing Point. Catch the shuttle bus or walk down a beautiful, shaded 1km-path to gaze on Matrimandir from the surrounding gardens. Photography is permitted.
Passes are available at the Visitor’s Centre in Auroville from Wed-Mon, between 10-11am and 2-3pm. Matrimandir Viewing Point is open on Mon-Sat from 9.30-5pm; Sun 9.30am-1.30pm. For more information, see www.auroville.org/thecity/matrimandir/mm_access_policy.htm.
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
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