These five long-term workers of Tamil origin, who come from the villages around Auroville, joined the Matrimandir as teenagers or as young men. It was economic necessity that was the prime motivating factor. They all started as apprentices, learning a variety of skills from the Westerners or the Ashramites who worked for the Matrimandir.
What has it meant working at the Matrimandir? How has the work changed over the years? Have they changed though their work at the Matrimandir? What does the Matrimandir mean personally to them? Here are their reflections.
After 6th standard, my parents did not want to spend money for my books and studies, so I got fed up and ran away from home and joined the Matrimandir nursery.
It was a super job – all I had to do was to water the plants, and do weeding. My first boss was Narad. Even then he was strict. If we missed even one plant he would get upset. But once the job was done, he would be happy as a child.
A year later I moved on to electrical work. I remember the date I joined duty; 1st January 1973. It was ‘leave' day, but I did not know that. When I showed up, I was made to sign attendance, received my pay, and was then given the day off! It was so amusing that I was paid for a leave day.
I started to work under Toine who I consider to be my Guru-asan (teacher). I picked up skills quickly on the job. Everything I learnt is by experience; I have no certificate.
My work in the Matrimandir now is all kinds of things that need to be done. Sometimes I do mechanics and machinery maintenance; other times it is electrical work, or help in purchasing, and sometimes even driving… I believe it is Auroville that brought me up, and made me who I am today. I came here very young. Other than Auroville, I don't know any place else. Even now, if I have vacation, I prefer to stay in Auroville rather than go outside. Some of my friends think I am crazy and make fun of me about this. When I am in Madras , I find myself saying to myself, ‘Che! Why do I have to be here?'
What I have observed in the last two years is that the work is going very fast. We all feel the pressure upon us, but I find it enjoyable. Instead of being a burden, it is actually a lot of fun. It is as if nobody can afford to walk anymore; we are all running to complete the work! In fact it was hard for me to even make time for this interview – I am supposed to be in Pondy right now taking a delivery …
I know there is a feeling amongst some about how it is not correct to force the opening date before everything is complete. But I look at it a little differently. My question is, when is anything ever complete? We will always have to be doing improvements. So I say let's go ahead. Yes, this work is making us run, stress out, or whatever, but let us complete it. Then perhaps we can relax a little.
In 1972, I saw The Mother. Richard took two of us boys to the Ashram. Mother came on the balcony and it was so super! At that time I did not understand how special it was. I was just 12 or 13. Since then I have the feeling that I am working for Her. It is a bhagyam (blessing) that I can be involved in this kind of work in this lifetime – not everyone can get this luck
I have no regrets about my life. Everything that has happened has been Mother's grace and Ganesh's grace. In 1988, I became an Aurovilian. It was then I felt something for Auroville, and wanted to become an Aurovilian. At that time my wife was working with ‘big' Jocelyn and it was she who encouraged us to go for it. It was a good decision. I am proud to say that my second son was born here in Auroville.
Being just a worker working at Matrimandir is different from being an Aurovilian working at the Matrimandir. Things seem a little more carefree, being just a worker. But being an Aurovilian working in Matrimandir, it feels like a responsibility. Perhaps it is a natural consequence that Mother puts on us.
I was a young boy when I started work at the Matrimandir, perhaps even before Auroville started. I remember digging soil in the amphitheatre. I am now fifty-one.
Sometime in the middle, I left Matrimandir to work outside. It was the time of the conflict, but I returned in the mid-eighties. I have been here now for the past 20 years.
There are many events in the construction of that Matrimandir that stand out clearly in the mind. I remember the early days when I was digging the soil, earning a rupee and fifty paisa as daily wage. But we were happy. I also have memories of the Matrimandir when it was like an open shell; you could stand inside and look up at the sky and the clouds. I was there when the last ring of the roof was put together. It was a special feeling when that work got completed. There are so many such moments in the construction of Matrimandir. To me, they are all special.
There is one day that stands out very clearly in my memory. It was the day the inner chamber got finished, and the crystal put in place. I was involved in the laying of the white Italian marble tiles inside. It was so beautiful when the chamber was complete with the crystal inside. I think it still is the most beautiful place in the Matrimandir. Until about three years ago, I used to do regular chamber duty between 4 and 5 in the evenings. Now things are not as open so I have stopped.
There is one person I would like to specially mention: Gerard, he is my Guru. I started working under him as a young boy. He trusted many things to me, and it is because of him that I have learnt a lot. Finally I believe that all my work is for the Mother. It is to Her that I am answerable and to nobody else.
I was on school holiday when I joined Matrimandir.
I have had to learn all kinds of work. I can say that there is not one place in the Matrimandir where my hands have not laid. I am the one who does the finishing – I planted the garden; I was among the ones who when the crystal arrived, lifted it and placed it in position. No, I have never been for meditation in the inner chamber, but every time I start a new work, I think of the Mother. At the time She passed away, I had gone to see her at the Samadhi.
But even with all this, I sometimes wonder if my life has not been a waste. Why? Because workers who were junior and working under me are now in higher positions. Sometimes, I also I feel I am like the kinnathu thavalai, a frog in the well. I've not seen the world outside; this is all I know. And this is where I'll probably be till the end.
Opportunities did come by to work elsewhere but nothing worked out. Twice I left to go out and do other things, but once I was out, I could not stop thinking of the Matrimandir. I felt pulled and forced to rejoin. Each time I was accepted back without any questions. So now I have to say that this place has a Sakthi; it is this which keeps bringing me back and not allowing me to leave.
About the opening fixed for February 21st, many of us don't understand this rush. This is not done in our culture. Especially for something sacred like the Matrimandir. It is a temple, and a date can be fixed only after the work is complete; not the other way around. But I cannot express these things. We are all working hard and as quickly as possible, but it is going to be impossible to have everything ready by the 21st.
Even though I have all these thoughts, I don't know the answers. I just to do my work. Sometimes when I see how the work has developed here, I get flashbacks on how things were in the beginning, when we started the work, and where we are now. It all feels unreal like a dream.
Then I get this determination that I have to finish the work I have started. I have come here, and this is my place.
For me there is an inner joy to work here at Matrimandir.
It was a year before Mother's passing that I joined. I was a 15 or 16 year old boy, just completed 8th standard and on summer vacation. I am from the nearby village. I was bored with nothing to do over the holidays when I heard about the work and a daily wage. I came and have never left since.
It was Roger who pulled me in. I learnt everything here, and slowly my responsibilities grew, and I became in charge of some big jobs. Right now I supervise the team that is fixing the four door panels.
My official name is Jayarakshagan. It means ‘one who victoriously protects'. But it was a mouthful for Gerard who had to read out our names during the weekly pay-day. So it became shortened to Kumar, which is my pet name. Since there were too many Kumars, I became ‘welder' Kumar.
Many job offers came my way, from Kanchipuram, Chennai, Banga-lore, but I refused them all. Sometimes the thought comes if I did make the right decision in staying here. The work is no doubt joyful and fulfilling, but it is not easy being a worker. Even if you have worked for many years, you are still somehow different. After all these years, to get a ‘weekly' pay cheque is somewhat demeaning. Also every minute of a worker's time is accounted for; not so for Aurovilians working here. If we are late by half an hour, it gets taken off from the weekly salary. Then there is also the checking of workers' belongings at the end of each workday, to see that nothing is removed from Matrimandir. These things disturb me sometimes.
Then the other issue is the monetary aspect. It is difficult to make ends meet, especially when you have a family and children for whom you want a good and secure future. I have two daughters and a son, and all are still in school. I want them to have better opportunities than I. But education is expensive. I know this is a concern of many workers. We are very happy working here, but what about our childrens' futures? The Tamil Aurovilians seem to be able to afford to send their children to expensive private schools.
At one time, the chance came for me to become Aurovilian, but I did not take it up. I thought what difference would it make and kept quiet, but now I feel that perhaps it was a wrong decision. The Tamil workers who joined after me and became Aurovilian are now much better off and seem to have everything – big houses, motor bikes and secure futures for their children... Some of us workers even thought that when the Government got involved and the Auroville Foundation came, our future and our children's future would become more secure…
While I say all these things and worry, my work here still brings me an inner joy and peace. Perhaps this is what keeps me working here even though things are not so perfect. Earlier, I used to come and meditate in the chamber but not these days. Things have become a little more strict in the past two to three years.
(Interviews by Priya Sundaravalli)
“Her presence has been there from the very beginning”
Lakshminarayan joined the Ashram in 1971. Having a background in civil engineering, he spent about six years as a supervisor on the Cottage Guest House construction project before moving to Auroville in 1978 to work on the Matrimandir.
“Actually I'd been participating in work on the Matrimandir from the very beginning. Some of us Ashramites used to come out on Sundays to help with the excavation. Later there were the major concretings which continued through the night.”
In 1978, Auroville was not a comfortable place to be. It was the height of the troubles with the Sri Aurobindo Society. So did he regret leaving the relative security of the Ashram? “In some ways it was difficult to leave the Ashram, but an inner preparation for Auroville had been given to me by the Mother – I think She charged me there for eight years before sending me here. At that time there was some negative feeling regarding Auroville in outside circles but it was always clear to me that this was Mother's work. She said that Auroville is an extension of the ideal of the Ashram, a more external manifestation, and I took it in that way. So I never felt I wanted to return to the Ashram.”
Over the years, Lakshminarayan has worked in many different areas of the Matrimandir construction – bar-bending, chipping, preparing the nodes on the space-frame, working on the marble in the chamber and on the central staircase. Did the Matrimandir ever become for him just another construction site? “No, because from the beginning I knew it was the universal Mother's shrine. I came with that spirit and that spirit has remained. Of course, the exterior, the body, of Matrimandir took shape gradually over the years but the soul has always been there. The Force that Mother put there, Her presence, has been there from the very beginning.”
For many years, Lakshminarayan has been enjoying the privilege of cleaning the crystal in the chamber. “Some visitors want to turn it into a new religion, to worship the crystal, which Mother did not want to happen. For me, it's a symbol. The ray is the light from the supramental sun, the consciousness-force coming down, and the crystal is the individual or collective soul which has to be clean and spotless to receive it. This is the main thing we need to concentrate upon.”
And how is the atmosphere around the construction now? “It's very good that many of the Aurovilians who worked here years ago are coming back. There's much more harmony now, and harmony and a spirit of perfection are indications that the work is going well.”
(Interview by Alan)