Newsletter April 2004
The quietness with which the Matrimandir workshop disappeared during March was remarkable.
For 31 years it stood there and then, suddenly, it was gone only a few piles of masonry, some floor slabs and a single vertical steel girder remain to remind one of all the activity that had been focused on this spot over the past three decades and more.
This building, made from precast hollow blocks, wooden roof trusses and asbestos roofing, was built in early 1973 after its predecessor made of bamboo and coconut thatch was badly buffeted by the cyclone that swept Auroville and Pondicherry during Sri Aurobindo's birth centenary year.
In 1973, of course, the newly-built workshop stood boldly beside the deep crater that held the foundations of the Matrimandir and the beginnings of its four massive pillars. All around, the landscape was barren, save for an occasional palm tree and the youthful banyan tree the centre of Auroville on the opposite side of the excavation.
The site was swept by free-wheeling dust storms in summer, and surrounded by red mud during the monsoon.
The workshop being built in June 1973 the banyan tree is on the far right, and the beginning of the Matrimandir pillars can be seen between the workshop and the Banyan Tree
Nowadays those dust storms are long gone, and the flowing waters of the monsoons are less stained with the red earth of Auroville, for the grasses and forests that have grown up all around have tamed these once unhindered forces of nature.
The workshop stood about 100 meters from the center of the crater of the Matrimandir, directly straddling the East axis of the gardens. It occupied, along with its attendant storerooms and the generator room, a large part of the garden of Perfection, one of the 12 gardens which will surround the Matrimandir making up the 22 hectares of the Inner Gardens oval. The move today is to completely clear this oval of buildings so that the open space can be transformed into the Inner Gardens the focus of the next phase of the work here. So the workshop had to go
From the beginning the Workshop has been a material hub from which the daily physical movements to build the Matrimandir have radiated. Always supporting the construction work, building up the needed machinery in the first few years (concrete mixer and vibrators, pumps and generator to get though the daily Tamil Nadu power cuts), then taking on a long series of significant construction projects, while always charged with maintaining the many machines on site.
During the early seventies the workshop concentrated on helping to prepare the massive concretings of the four great ribs of Matrimandir, and the heavy slabs of the first, second and chamber levels. All kinds of metal fittings were produced for these works, from bolts to steel shuttering to special tools of all kinds.
Then came the mid seventies and the workshop took up the largest steel work of its entire career: the construction of the two spiral ramps that lead up to the Chamber. These ramps are made up from a total of some 3 dozen complex box-like sections built with steel pipes welded precisely together in the workshop. Some of these sections were 4 meters long and weighed up to one ton. When the moment came they were carried by hand to the structure, lifted up by winch then pushed into place along a sturdy scaffolding (again by hand) for final fitting and welding.
Muscle power : A section of the ramp is carried into the Matrimandir (1979)
In the late 70's the construction called for the fabrication of the spherical space-frame of Matrimandir, composed of precast concrete beams, all of which had to be lifted up and put into place on the structure. How to lift them? Build a crane of course! (Cranes capable of lifting beams 30 meters high were not to be found for love or money those days in Tamil Nadu!) So Piero, Matrimandir engineer and site architect in charge of the construction throughout all those years, designed a rotating crane with an overall length of 30 meters and the workshop team of the day built it. The job took several months, but the day came in 1980 when the four main crane sections were moved out to the structure. To lift and carry the main long arm, a call went out to the Aurovilians to gather at Matrimandir: some 50 people were needed to move it! Slowly over the following days, the sections were winched and hauled up to the very top of the Matrimandir which at that point consisted of the four pairs of massive concrete ribs joined by the ring of Unity at the top.
Once assembled, the crane was a wonder able to swing around to face all points of the compass and, with its push button remote controls, to lift upto one ton at the end of its arm.
This crane stood in its place for about 21 years, being removed only at the end of 2001 when the golden discs on the upper hemisphere had been fixed in place.
This great shot from 1980 shows the ramps and the crane,
- both made in our workshop
But in our workshop narrative we are still in 1979!
The next big job (huge job!) after making the crane was to make the some 1200 precast beams for the space-frame. The layout of the workshop floor was altered for the purpose and the making of those beams began, a process which involved bending the reinforcement steel, welding it, binding on the stirrups, and then concreting it, right there on the workshop floor! The entire process took 9 years.
Many an Aurovilian helped out over the years with that job concreting the beams, moving them to the nearby curing pond on a four-wheel trolley, preparing them for the day when each in turn would be lifted up onto the structure to become an integral part of the growing sphere.
By 1988 that job was done, the sphere was complete. The work at Matrimandir then turned inwards and we proceeded with the completion of the Inner Chamber fixing carefully all the white marble that had been stored for many years underground in the Amphitheater.
Vivid images of the workshop's involvement during those years still stand out in memory:
* Giant steel pipes had arrived from Italy, destined to become the 12 white columns that stand today in the Chamber. The workshop had to first mount these pipes horizontally and then rotate them so that teams of painters could transform then from galvanized gray into gleaming white.
* The prototype heliostat the one that still serves on the top of Matrimandir today, reflecting the sun's ray into the Chamber was built up piece by piece in the workshop and then tested for months to perfect its accuracy.
* And, a most striking memory, the day we first assembled the prototype of the Chamber's central symbol on the workshop floor a ferrocement sphere 70 cms wide had been made, and in steel we had built a set of four Sri Aurobindo's symbols that were to support this model of the globe. Setting the ferrocement globe on its four sided stand, a 3-meter wide symbol of the Mother was drawn on the cement floor in chalk around the central globe. We all were at once astonished by the beauty, simplicity and the seeming familiarity of the three-dimensional symbol that suddenly sprung to life that day.
* * *
Well, that was many years ago. Since then, the workshop has continued to support the myriad activities and needs of the growing Matrimandir.
Now, there are new workshop spaces, new store rooms, and a new generator room, all located just outside of the Oval of the inner gardens.
And the old workshop has gone. True to its role of supporting to the growth of Matrimandir, the workshop continues to serve in this way even after it has ceased to exist, for the hollow blocks of its walls have been re-used to build up the new structures, old pillars have been reused as well as doors beams, shelves and just about anything that is still solid and serviceable.
Indeed bits of the old workshop complex are to be found in almost all of the new structures that have come up over the past two months -- as if, with a smile and a twinkle in its eye, the old workshop was not ceasing to exist at all, but was rather being reborn in a number of youthful new bodies in order to carry on with its task of building the Matrimandir until the work is done.
Please note; The visiting procedure for visiting the Matrimandir has changed,
please read about the details >>
M A T R I M A N D I R - A U R O V I L L E 6 0 5 1 0 1 -
T A M I L N A D U - I N D I A
Tel. (91) (0413) 262-2268 (sectt); 262-2228 (finance); 262-2153
(workshop); 262-2373 (info). FAX: (91) (0413) 262-2053;