Auroville's least talked about real
Diary: Cycling up the Edayanchavadi road towards
Adventure to see Auroville crematorium.
Following the directions given verbally by a friend, I look for
a rusty metal gate after the farm house belonging to a Pondicherry
business man. I see it blending imperceptibly with the live fence,
its trellised frame plaited with dry mullu stems. It is locked,
but I find footholds. Tossing my bag inside, I clamber up and
I follow the sandy red path, snaking between the wild growth of
cashews, palms, and silver 'work' trees. The sounds from the road
grow fainter and now only the occasional noise of a passing motor
vehicle filters through the silence of that lazy June afternoon.
Suddenly I am in a clearing. On the periphery, nestled amidst
a triangle of palmyras and a work tree, a gravestone catches my
eye. On it, hewn in English,
1947 - 1996
and the same in Tamil script. At its base, a lone ceramic gnome
with blue boots and a pointed cap contemplates, a pipe at his
Butterflies flutter past and bird-calls slice through the hush.
It seems like a perfect place to rest.
"If you don't get supramentalized, you
will die!" declares Cristo with a straight face. "So
a group of us came together in 1999 to promote Auroville's own
cemetery and burial ground." They called themselves the Farewell
Group - a team of Aurovilians concerned with providing amenities
for the final send-off, and Cristo is its scientific/research
head of sorts. "Though many of us may prefer to forget about
death, it is an inevitable end that awaits most of us. We need
facilities within Auroville to deal with the situation when somebody
leaves his or her body."
In the early years, deaths in Auroville were few and far between
(see box), and friends or family could choose to bury or cremate
their dear departed in any place of their choice. A few unmarked
graves lie in Certitude, and the Greenbelt communities of Forecomers
and Adventure. One even rests in the sacrosanct grounds of the
Matrimandir. However, the most popular yet controversial choice
was and continues to be the garden attached to one's house plot.
Cristo prefers that option himself even though he feels that this
practice should generally be discouraged. "This is in my
own will," he says. "For some reason, I prefer to do
it like that and have designated the place in my garden which
will be ecologically safe."
For Cristo, it is clear that whatever resting place people may
ultimately choose or be assigned to, it would be both unwise and
impractical for a growing city to have no well-defined space for
the dead. Auroville's current census registers at 1700 and the
number grows annually. It is only natural that the number of deaths
will also increase.
"Our first task was to find a suitable location," says
Cristo, "suitable primarily from an environmental standpoint."
Two factors that needed consideration were the distance from residential
areas (at least 90 metres according to the Tamil Nadu Panchayat
Building Rules) and the danger of ground water pollution due to
burials (preventable by water-tight caskets). The community at
Adventure came forward to provide land for the project, and a
four acre area was immediately made available, extendable by an
additional two acres in the future, if necessary.
The process so far has not been a bed of roses. Cristo refers
to complaints from some residents of Edayanchavadi about alleged
smoke disturbance from cremations. "The land picked was at
a distance of over 250 metres from the nearest residence in the
village. There is a buffer of at least four acres between the
crematorium and the nearest house," he stresses. "Also,
a tar road runs in between the two, so the separation is distinct.
From the beginning, we have been extremely sensitive to anything
that may hurt the sentiments of our neighbours in the village.
We are not stupid enough to build a crematorium under people's
windows." He mentions a special ceremony performed by the
village priest to consecrate and bless the land. "We know
that there are beliefs attached to such places. We have been following
the traditional ways and respecting whatever customs our neighbours
"At present we use a technique used by the Ashram,"
he explains. "The body is entirely cov-ered using dry cow-dung
patties rather than wood, and this hardly generates smoke. So
the inconvenience to the public is almost nil. Also in Auroville,
cremations are less frequent than burials."
The other issue that the group continues to grapple with is money.
While the overall project is projected to cost approximately 40
lakh rupees ( 80,000), only a sum of 2.19 lakh rupees (
4,400) has been made available through grants from the Gateway
Group in Auroville. Says Cristo, "This money was used to
erect a temporary crematorium designed by Werner, the German architect,
to dig a well, and to build a shed."
For Cristo, this is just the beginning. The research he has done
is extensive and detailed. For example, from his readings of The
Mother he believes there is a need for facilities to keep the
body preserved for seven days. Of this he says, "After all,
people are here to participate in the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. And
some of us may be found in a state where it may seem as if one
is apparently dead but in reality may not be dead at all. Particularly
when someone is in Kalpasamadhi it is almost impossible to tell
the difference. So in order to avoid accidents, the body will
have to be kept in a safe condition until a doctor can guarantee
that tissue decomposition has started. Only then you know it is
Down-to-earth and detached in his approach, Cristo, like a true
scientist, continues to keep updated about the latest happenings
elsewhere in the funerary world and informed about the latest
in cutting-edge technology - like the solar-powered crematorium
existing in Switzerland that saves on fuel costs and eliminates
environmental pollution, or the Geographical Positioning Systems
(GPS) to locate old graves and identify potentially usable sites
using satellite technology. According to Cristo's research, burial
sites apparently have a life-cycle of 30 years after which they
may be reused. Cristo also is familiar with indigenous practices.
He has travelled to Benares and Pashupatinath in Nepal to observe
and learn about current death practices, and has also witnessed
the rites following the last Shankaracharya's passing, whose body
was preserved in salt. All this information has been carefully
filed in his folder titled 'Rigor Mortis'. In it, there is even
a brief note on sea-burials.
With all this talk of technology, what is Cristo's opinion about
Aurovilians who may choose to donate their bodies or organs to
medical science, especially when one of India's most academically
prestigious medical institutions - JIPMER - exists in the neighbourhood?
"An important and excellent question!" beams Cristo.
"This is again a private matter. This may have legal implications
for Auroville. Suddenly if you have a team of doctors or surgeons
who come to Auroville to take organs from a body, some people
may object, especially if they have not been warned in advance.
That is why in the project we have a caretaker, who will help
not only to keep a record of the dead but also a record of future
clients and what they want to happen to their body when they pass
away. Of course all this will be voluntary."
Though the group feels there is little interest from the community
for this project, it plods along cheerfully with a commendable
sense of humour. In their project proposal, under the heading
'Beneficiaries', two lines sum up, "We will all benefit from
it. The later, the better."