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January 2005

Nurturing the Tamil Heritage in Auroville

- by Priya Sundaravalli

Meenakshi and Angad share views on manifesting the Tamil Heritage Centre


“It is there and also it is not there,” says Meenakshi of the Tamil Heritage Centre. “The idea has always existed, but the visible structure is not there. But despite all this, we are rich in activities.” The Tamil Heritage Centre was officially inaugurated 3 years ago, with a site consecration ceremony held under the banyan tree. The first brick is, however, yet to be laid. “People outside have received the idea well. It is we within Auroville who have been unable to prioritize it.” The basic elements to begin construction are ready - a site approved by the Development Group and a building design by Anupama. “All we are waiting for now is some initial funds to print a brochure that will explain our aims and mission. With this we can seek financial support.”


Children floating oil lamps in the pond at Irumbai Temple on the occasion of the ‘Thai poosam’ festival in January - photo Ireno


Angad explains why he believes there is a need for a Tamil Heritage Centre, “A Heritage Centre, even if it may not bubble with activities and happenings, will help us in Auroville to focus on real and equitable ways of dealing with local people and problems, as well as educating the people coming from the outside. The Centre would serve as a window on Tamil Nadu for Auroville; for Tamil Nadu, it would be a window on Auroville. Plus it would be in our own self-interest, especially as Auroville continues to absorb the neighbouring lands, and a large number of people are going to be left in a vacuum. He believes that Auroville cannot follow the path of the big corporations that come into India through buying people out - “It will lead to suppression and disenfranchisement, and will be disastrous for Auroville. The most sensible thing to do is to culturally empower the people.”

For Meenakshi, it is no surprise that the Mother chose this part of Tamil Nadu to start Auroville. “If we look at this area in the context of it being a part of one of the oldest living civilisations of the world, it makes great sense.” Recent scientific evidence has shown this to be true. “In Bommaiyarpalayam, Indian scientists have excavated a Neolithic site with a fossilized hominid skull dating back to 187,000 years!” shares Angad. “And there is evidence that the Auroville plateau was formed off a sandbar in the mouth of the Sankaraparani River , which was lifted up during the Eocene age to form the Eocene cap.

This is the period when neither the Himalayas nor the Indian subcontinent had formed! So the area where we are located is very ancient.”

Many obstacles have come up along the path to physically manifest the Tamil Heritage Centre. However, these have not deterred Meenakshi or the others. “Activities are happening and things are very alive,” she says positively.

“There is something amazing in Auroville - when you say or repeat something many times here, it creates ripples. We see that several villages have taken up the idea of cultural heritage and have started centres, while here we haven't even made a building. In Sanjeevinagar, there is the Mohanam Cultural Centre; Kuyila-palayam has a thriving cultural centre which was inaugurated last year and it forms an important hub for both children and adults in that area; and now I hear that something is happening in Periyamudaliarchavadi and Bommai-yarpalayam with the youth. In Auroville also, two new groups have formed, the Mirra Women's group and the ‘What we can do for Auroville' group, whose impact we are already experiencing within our community.”

On a personal note, Angad shares, “When I first came to Auroville, there was a very strong pressure on Tamil Aurovilians to break away from one's family and one's past. Though I am not Tamil, I too went through a stage where I thought I should break off links with my past. But then I realized that this was absurd. We are in a continuum, and I think of the Heritage Centre as something that enhances the continuity that the universal city of Auroville should have.”

“If you look at the Tamil culture of the Sangam period, it was very modern,” shares Meenakshi. “It may appear even scandalous from some of the current standards of society. There was no marriage, elopement was accepted, feminine liberty was not an issue and women were in the forefront.

They could choose their partner and they had all the rights that men had. The society was not tied by the Varnashrama Dharma (four-caste hierarchy). The archaeology of the area is also very exciting as it pre-dates even the Vedic times! So Tamil Heritage can be looked at from several angles – history, geology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and arts and crafts.”

The team has many ideas for the Tamil Heritage Centre. “It will be a place to experience through all five senses!” declares Meenakshi dramatically. “The Tamil Heritage Centre will have a kal mandapam (auditorium of granite) for performances, a thamarai kolam (lotus pond), a sacred grove with traditional flora and lots of space for open-air activities. There will be a Sandhai (market) for our village craftsman where they can both display their wares and have workshops or demonstrations. This will promote self respect and dignity for our village neighbours. Already we have started several activities – like reviving folk and classical music, Bharatanatyam dance, Nila Mutram or moonlight gatherings to read poetry, classes in spoken Tamil, exhibitions on ancient scholars and their works like the recent show on Thiruvalluvar, visits to historically important sites, celebrations of traditional festivals at the Irumbai temple - the list is endless.

Publications are also being put out, like the monthly newsletter from Ilaignargal school, or the proposed series of books on Tamil Heritage worked on by Marti and Auroville Press with assistance from UNESCO. Two issues in this series ‘Kolam', and ‘Temples of Tamil Nadu', are ready for publication.

“We also wish to create a Site Museum with displays of the megalithic burials and other artefacts, describe their discovery, and create a learning exhibition. This would give an opportunity for visitors to learn of Auroville's rich history.

“Let there be no fear that with a Tamil Heritage Centre, Auroville will become more of a Tamil town, or that Tamil culture will be plonked down on top of us,” says Angad in parting. “It is just the opposite. It is to try and debunk the myth that Tamil culture is what one witnesses now in the films, or as the filth in bus stands at any town or city, or as the loud music blaring onto the streets, or as in temple towns where one is aggressed by touts.. The Tamil Heritage Centre in Auroville will be an anchor for the local population, open the eyes of the outsiders to the richness of Tamil culture, and certainly benefit young Aurovilians growing up in the township, many of whom have little touch with the various aspects of this culture.”

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