Akash Kapur’s book on Auroville, inspired by a personal quest, opens the door to a reading of the community as a bizarre utopian cult By Deepa S. Reddy

There is a legend of the seventh century Irumbai temple near Auroville which tells of a Siddhar (an enlightened sage) who re-ties the anklet of a dancer in whom he sees the form of Shiva himself. The locals mock him, and Kaduveli Siddhar is furious. He utters a curse that breaks the temple lingam in three and commences a ceaseless drought. The frightened villagers beg for mercy, the Siddhar relents, the lingam is partially rejoined, but the curse can be lifted only with the arrival of some people from a far-off land, he says, at some far-off time.

Many today say those people must have been the early Aurovillians.

There is another, better-known legend of Auroville which tells of a fair-skinned seer from a far-off land who comes to Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and finds a rishi in whom she sees the form of Krishna himself. Other fair-skinned people follow, drawn by her magnetism, locals join, and her vision of human purpose and unity compels them to build a city from the red earth of a drought-ridden land, transforming it into a forest. They work with what they have, not always having enough, and, like the villagers in the old story, not always able to understand the whys of anything: why a woman is paralysed or a child drowns, or why the miracles they envision do not occur.

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Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher with the University of Houston-Clear Lake, US. She lives and works from Puducherry and Auroville.