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August 2005


Evolving the Matrimandir gardens


Mother once wrote that the Matrimandir gardens are as important as the Matrimandir itself. What is happening today?

Two years ago, after a long period of relative neglect, there was a new impetus to manifest the gardens. Today, according to Alain Grandcolas, coordinator of the Matrimandir gardens, “the designs and the main technical difficulties for the whole garden area have been solved, two-thirds of the contouring is done, and the pathways will be completed by the end of 2006. Meanwhile, we've embarked on the next stage: making prototypes of the garden of Unity and the twelve inner gardens.”

Map of the Matrimandir oval area

Some years ago, Roger invited Paulo to design the twelve inner gardens on the basis of some specified parameters. However, the collaboration ended when Roger stated that Paulo had not respected certain conditions. Subsequently, Roger came up with his own design. As this did not meet with universal acclaim and Roger himself was unsatisfied, he decided to invite Aurovilians to come forward with designs for individual gardens. An interim group was created – the Matrimandir Gardens Reflection Group – to draw up guidelines for the gardens and to develop a process for selecting the designs to be materialised. The present parameters include that the size, internal division and contouring of the gardens are fixed, as are the orientation and material of the main pathways; the outer slope of each garden should be covered in grass; each garden design should include the flower Mother specified for it (although the designers are free to include additional flowers and shrubs); designers must be open to the permanent evolution of garden designs; and there should be no trees in the twelve gardens except on the outside edge near the oval pathway, and here the trees should not obscure the view of the Matrimandir.

A number of Aurovilians have reacted to the guideline restricting trees. Kireet, an Aurovilian with considerable experience of gardening both in Holland and in India , wrote an open letter to the community in which he asked, “Why are trees unwanted in the Matrimandir gardens? Seeing how hot and sunny it is at this time of the year it doesn't make sense to me, as a gardener, to create gardens without trees...Beautiful trees, pruned in a proper way, will give the area a majestic grandeur. Trees will not degrade the beauty of Matrimandir, they will enhance it and beautify the gardens as well.” He concluded, “The Matrimandir gardens without trees will be no gardens at all.”

Alain replies that, “The visibility of Matrimandir is an essential part of the design and lay-out. This is why the gardens should not hide the forceful presence of Matrimandir, nor the calm and vast presence of the surrounding lake. Nevertheless in the thirteenth garden – the Garden of Unity – more than 50% of the pedestrian area will be shaded by trees, and in the Inner Park , which represents one-third of the Matrimandir garden area, there will be many trees.”

What we are touching upon here are two totally different conceptions of gardens. Kireet, in one of his open letters, refers back to what Mother wrote in the mid 1960s when she said that the ‘Mother's Pavilion' would be surrounded by tall trees, creepers, rockeries and small waterfalls. Mother was particularly appreciative of Japanese gardens; in 1965 she noted that the gardens around ‘The Mother's Shrine' would be similar to those surrounding the Golden Temple in Kyoto .

However, in January, 1972, Roger presented to the Mother a new concept for the gardens. In this model which Mother, says Alain, “liked very much”, there are no trees and the small gardens seem little more than settings for the focal point, the golden Matrimandir. In other words, simplicity has replaced natural (or artfully-constructed) profusion and full visibility has supplanted the partial screening and multitude of different perspectives suggested by Mother's earlier conception.

The present group responsible for the gardens “have embraced this concept of Roger as a guiding principle of garden design in the inner gardens,” says Alain, “as we consider that the Mother has entrusted him with the responsibility for the designs of the Matrimandir. We also believe that simple gardens are a more effective way of achieving what Mother wanted the inner gardens to evoke. For the gardens will not at all be like conventional gardens where you come to sit and walk and chat: the purpose is to evoke specific states of consciousness in those who pass through them. In this sense, the gardens can be seen primarily as a place of initiation for Matrimandir: they are sacred and, like the Chamber, may only be open to visitors one day a week or once a day. The inner park, however, may be different, a place where people can come and sit and enjoy the shade of the larger trees which will definitely be there.”

The new amphitheatre next to the Unity Garden

So what has been the response to Roger's invitation? “First of all,” says Alain, “it is encouraging to note that Narad, who was invited by the Mother to work for the Matrimandir Gardens and who founded the Matrimandir Nursery, is back in action and works closely with Roger and the gardens' team. As for those Aurovilians who are ‘professional' landscapers or who have an interest in garden design, with the exception of one of them, who felt that his concept of gardens was too ‘traditional', all have expressed interest. Four have already presented models, others are developing or have developed concepts for the gardens of Existence, Harmony, Wealth and Progress. Soon the work will begin on executing two prototypes for the gardens of ‘Life' and ‘Power'. Meanwhile Leonard, the son of a long-term guest, has completed a prototype for the garden of Unity , while Nadja is already finishing the prototype of Bliss. We are also about to invite people from outside Auroville to submit designs. Roger and Paulo, by the way, though invited have not submitted new designs.”

The process of getting a design agreed is a fairly rigorous one. Apart from respecting the specific parameters and guidelines, garden designers have to submit a detailed plan and a model of their garden to the Garden Reflection Group. If the Group gives the green light, the designer will then be allocated funding to create on site a full-size prototype of the garden using low-cost materials: this must include the flowers, mock-ups of structures and samples of the final materials to be used. “The final decision will be taken by a panel,” explains Alain. “At present, the Garden Reflection Group is discussing how this panel will be selected.” Is Roger a member of the Garden Reflection Group? “Yes, but he has said he will not be on the future panel, he will only advise on request.”

Nadja came to Auroville eight years ago. Looking back, she feels that most of this period was, unknowingly, a preparation for her present involvement in the Matrimandir gardens. There was, for example, her work in the Forecomers nursery, her healing work and her experience of arranging the flowers in the Solar Kitchen. “For more than two years I had been feeling a call to work in the gardens,” she explains, “but only towards the end of last year, after the politics around Matrimandir had subsided and I felt more confident in myself, did I feel the time was right.”

From afar, all you can see of the prototype of the garden of Bliss is a dome-like framework. As you approach, you notice that the upper half of the garden, from the cusp of the small petal down to the dividing path, looks like a fairly conventional garden, with grass, benches and arrangements of shrubs and flowers. The larger outer part of the garden is striking, however. Here the earth is bare and a broad spiral path sweeps round to the entrance of an 18 metre diameter dome. When the excavation is complete you will step down as if into the womb of the earth. A short distance from the dome there is a shallow depression and a circular platform made of wood.

“I needed to find out what wanted to be here, to manifest on this spot. I didn't want to impose anything,” says Nadja. “For the path I kept asking the land, ‘Where do you want us to walk?'” Many of the elements of her prototype garden also came through.

Prototype of the Garden of Bliss

“I saw the dome, for example, as a kind of solidified gas: the flowers and the leaves came through it but it was somehow waterproof, closed. The ground all around it was sparkling like diamonds. The materials in these visions were futuristic – they don't yet exist on earth – so the challenge is to translate them into what is available. In one very strong meditation, I found myself inside the dome. I was wondering about some dimensions and I started receiving very specific measurements, like 4.27 and 13.51.

Later, when we were working with the computer, it turned out that these figures gave a diameter of exactly 18 metres for the dome. So I knew it was right, that it fitted.”

As to the symbolism of the dome and the nearby shallow bowl in the ground: “I felt that bliss is both something that you receive from above – the bowl is there to receive it and the dome has an opening to the sky in the centre – but, as Sri Aurobindo wrote, it's also something that you can find deep inside yourself, and this is why, after walking the spiral path, you enter the dome and go down into the earth. The only flower Mother gave for this garden is the hibiscus she named ‘Ananda', and she described this quality as being calm and sweet in its truly simple austerity. That word ‘austerity' changed my whole conception of bliss. It's not vital, dramatic – this flower is quiet, unassuming, it needs empty space and simple surroundings.”

On the outer framing ‘wave' of the garden there are three small trees and some benches. “In the final design the trees will be bigger to give shade: after working full mornings here in the full sun I'm very aware of the need for shade. For sure, more trees will come in the gardens but this will come through collaboration not through conflict, not through people confronting Roger. In fact, the first message I got when I began this work was that this is a work of collaboration, and I feel that part of my role here is to build bridges between people with differing perceptions.” “Regarding the gardens, all of us, including Roger, have evolved quite a lot,” adds Alain.

“My dream for Bliss,” concludes Nadja, “is to have a team of 6-8 people who try to go as high as possible to contact the concept for the garden which, I believe, comes from a higher plane and is waiting to descend.”

The prototype of Bliss will be finished soon. Meanwhile in the garden of Unity – which is situated between the Banyan and the Matrimandir offices – one of the six designated plots already hosts a completed prototype. Here, pots of ‘Spiritual Speech' surround a low marble shelf and eight seats. At the centre will be a small shade tree. A nearby sign explains that this is an experiment in a ‘new type of landscape'. “Leonard's concept for the Garden of Unity is totally in the exploration stage,” explains Alain.

A new type of landscape? Prototype plot in the Unity Garden

What about the lake or water channel which will surround the oval? Have any decisions been taken as yet? “No,” says Alain, “in any case, whatever the final decision it will not affect the design of the gardens. My hope,” he concludes, “is to have the whole of the oval – the Matrimandir, the meditation rooms, the amphitheatre, the pathways, the inner gardens and the inner Park – finished by February, 2007. If, by that time, there is still no concept for some of the gardens, we will cover those plots with grass, sand or stone while they await their final form. For many of us feel that when the final shape is there, even if all the details are not completed, it will call something from above.”

What does the larger community feel about what is happening right now in the Matrimandir gardens? There seems to be widespread support for the fact that, at last, something is being manifested. As to the actual designs, when Paulo and Roger presented their differing concepts for the twelve gardens some time ago, they generated considerable, often heated, discussion. Now that the gardens have been given over to individual designers, there's more a sense of ‘wait and see'.

Certain unclarities remain, however. One is the role of the larger community, if any. At present, the Gardens Reflection Group envisages that the final decision regarding the design of the gardens will be taken by a yet-to-be-constituted panel. The Gardens Reflection Group has been constituted by Alain on the basis of “those Aurovilians interested by the gardens and with whom Roger feels comfortable”. It seems likely that the panel will reflect the same orientation. This is only natural for those Aurovilians who believe, based on certain statements of the Mother, that Roger should be the final (or, at least, most influential) arbiter of the gardens' design. Other Aurovilians disagree. They point out that the original design of the gardens has evolved over the years, that Roger himself, by handing over responsibility for the design (albeit temporarily) to Paulo had admitted that the gardens were not his strong-point, and that it is time that the community as a whole has more of a say in deciding the setting for its ‘soul'.

These represent old tensions in the community which have merely been transplanted to a new setting: as ever, Matrimandir is a remorseless lens, throwing into sharp focus our unresolved issues regarding authority, the interpretation of Mother's vision, even the nature of the ‘new' spirituality. What exacerbates these tensions at present, however, is a lack of information regarding exactly what is manifesting on site, and why. Recently, Aurovilians visiting Matrimandir have noticed a construction coming up near the Garden of Unity . “It's a small amphitheatre,” explains Alain. “Roger designed it. It will seat 300 people and is intended for small, intimate gatherings.” Exactly why this could not have been reported in the News and Notes or on the AVNet is unclear, but it adds to a suspicion that the larger community is viewed by the executing group as an obstacle rather than as a possible source of creative input in the manifestation of the Matrimandir gardens. While there may be some reason for the executing group's stance – the community has often proved itself incapable of charting a clear and intelligent course – the net effect of the present situation is that everybody involved becomes locked in self-reinforcing positions: as the walls go up, the shouts from without grow louder which, in turn, push the walls even higher.

Perhaps it is this negative spiral of mutual distrust, rather than any issue of individual design, which is the real challenge we have to surmount if Matrimandir is finally to be a living symbol of human unity.


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