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The ancient little Irumbai temple in close vicinity of Auroville

A. K. Raman, a Tamil Aurovilian, has been in Auroville almost since its beginning. As a youth he worked at and around the Amphitheatre during school leave to make some extra money. Later he worked at a variety of jobs. He credits the late Ruud Lohman with much early support and his introduction to Auroville. Raman is one of the Aurovilians who, after joining the township, has made full use of the opportunities given to develop many of his various latent skills. Widely appreciated in the community, he is known by some as an artist, by others as an architect, and today Raman devotes his time to cultural restoration & awareness projects and video film-making.


ArchitectRoof detail of the 7th century Irumbai temple
In regard to his architectural background, Raman quickly points out that he has no formal 'school' training as an architect. He learned this craft through practical apprenticeship in the early Aspiration architects office, as well as through practice itself, building buildings with low-budget contracts such as the night-schools in Kuilapalayam and Bommayapalayam. In 1994 he astounded Indian officials by completing a government commissioned day-school in Poothrai (near the Hermitage settlement) using less than the allocated budget of Rs.1 lakh 20,000. "Probably the first time in Indian history: there was even a notice in the Hindu (newspaper)", he says. Raman's work in Auroville can be seen in a number of places, including ABC at CSR, Verite Hall and Auroville Bhakti, which, while initially meant to be a large factory, today contains many of Auroville's small workshops. Although structures he has built abound, he says, "Still, I wouldn't call myself an architect."

Discussing his current practice, video film-making, he talks about his first film, in which he "looks at Auroville from the villager's point of view." He traveled around the three main villages in the Auroville area, asking questions. "It was a huge work. The amazing thing is that people f.i. working in Matrimandir for twenty, twenty-five years don't know what Auroville is, what Matrimandir is..! So that's the angle I was tackling. But I did feel awkward. The people are very sweet, smiling: typical Tamil Nadu faces. We should include them also - this place is not only meant for people who read literature, Sri Aurobindo and Mother; it must be also for these locals."
Although the villagers generally may not know the ideals behind the practice, Raman agrees that nonetheless their involvement in the work here has had a strong influence on them. His film, 'Voices from the Village', was shown a number of times in Auroville, and is available at the video library as well as at various AV International Centres.Small corner in the temple courtyard, dedicated to the god Shiva

Pursuing video filming entails varied challenges for Raman. With no definite money source to draw on, essential materials such as tapes can take time to acquire. "The work is very slow. If there is money you just take your footage, get the editing done, and things like that. I have to learn to do it myself. Often my machine crashes because it's not upgraded; often I make mistakes because I don't know the programme well; so it takes time."

Tamil culture of long ago
In addition to his film-making and architecture, Raman has been promoting the ancient Tamil culture through projects such as the restoration of Irumbai Temple, which he initiated and oversees. "I want to introduce Auroville to the Tamil culture as it was long before the time that neon and loudspeakers proliferated. Mostly what Aurovilians get to see is loud music during these very loud festivals; they aren't able to see the very quiet and beautiful things that happen too." Twice in Irumbai and once in Auroville itself, Raman has facilitated such celebrations, poojas "which touch the heart of the people."

Irumbai temple
"Irumbai temple I respect particularly, not only because of its ancientness - it dates from the 7th century! An amazing thing is that a saint from Seergari, who became enlightened at the age of three; sang straightaway the praise of Lord Shiva; and lived only thirteen years, travelled to 256 famous Shiva temples during that time and also visited the little Irumbai temple. So there must be something here, which we'll have to discover somehow. Before I started some three years back with cleaning up the place it was like a jungle, unclean, thorn bushes everywhere, that kind of thing. Since then the temple got its own life. Now there are twice a month celebrations, attracting a big crowd. It doesn't matter how they orqanise them; at least now the temple is alive again, and draws a crowd from the neighbouring villages, they'll take care of it. ( >> see also the Irumbai legend.)
Around the region of Auroville there are a lot of these ruins, and I'm strongly attracted by them. Because of their age, because of the life involved in the 'ancientness' of the place. Even with nobody else around one gets a feeling for the ancient atmosphere by visiting these old sites and listening to the worn stones."

Future temple renovationsLord Ganesha,  Irumbai temple
As for future projects, Raman outlines one he'd really like to see materialise: "There is a Peruman Temple ruin down at Neyvelli. It's amazing. Huge pillars about 8 or 9 metres tall, granite, just standing unfinished. Amazing sculpture. I'd like to initiate a project to give a one-day or one-night festival there, something like what they did once at the Taj Mahal, but on a smaller scale. Get some nice musicians, take three bus-loads, and give a programme there. Light the temple, decorate it all, so that the whole village becomes aware: "Wow, such a rich thing is in my own village!" Like this there are so many ruins. If there were funds we could do one such a ruin each year - Rs.5,000 to 7,000 (roughly $ 100 to 150) would be more than enough for each. If you do it just once, the place will become alive, that's how it worked in Irumbai. And no modern music, just the classic stuff, because modern doesn't last for long; through time it changes. And once people have caught the 'fire' then it goes on by itself."

On money
Currently Raman is working on a video about money - 'MONEY', a hot topic in Auroville and the world today. Raman tells about two original Tamil words for money and their meanings: "Of course I'm tackling this thing from my own culture. Long ago, two Tamil words were given for the first coins: 'Naanaiyam' and 'Selvam'. Selvam itself also has two meanings: one is your offspring, the other is money. Very interesting. The word Selvam indicates "who has completeness". Money/Selvam means prosperity, abundance of land, cows, wealth. The second word, Naanaiyam, means trust, honesty, and coin. One can have a very good relationship with this.

A happy Raman: "If I had lived in Madras or elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, I don't think I'd have been the same person."Promoting education
Raman also talks about a long-term video project which will follow the progress of talented local children through their varied pursuits. One girl whose case he wants to document, for example, is studying Bharat Natyam and computers, and is first in her academic class. By showing such a study he hopes to make a motivating impression on other local school children.

On Auroville
Thoughts on Auroville: "Living in Auroville is neither living in the East nor living in the West. Being here helped me to learn to read, and to understand. I keep hearing the English expression, 'a fish in water knows nothing about water'. If I had lived in Madras or elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, I don't think I'd have been the same person."

As Auroville occupies the space between East and West, living here gives us the opportunity to see ourselves better, and what is valuable and undesirable about our native culture. A viewpoint that, had we remained in our native culture, we might not have gleaned, or only with great effort and through good fortune.

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