Forty years of building Matrimandir
2011 marks the 40 th year of the construction of the Matrimandir. We take a look back at these forty remarkable and event filled years….
There are, it must be said at the outset, a thousand tales of personal and community encounters interwoven into the growth of Matrimandir, and on some level it is these events which underlie and give heart and meaning to the whole story of Matrimandir's physical growth. In the account that follows we focus on the structure's visible growth. Some of those more personal tales of individual interaction with the soul of Auroville have already been told and surely more will be told in the years to come.
On Feb 21 st , 1971, at a dawn ceremony, the foundation stone of Matrimandir was placed in the earth between the Banyan tree and present site of Matrimandir. Sunil's moving music was played, and the Mother's recorded message that she had given for this occasion:
The land was bare. Warm winds swept across the empty plateau, raising clouds of orange dust. The sky was wide and cloudless. But the air was full of an intense Promise and an unmistakable Presence. The seed of a marvellous golden Future had been planted. As young trees began to reach upwards in scattered locations on the plateau – newly planted by the first pioneers in their campaign to bring life and nature's soft richness back to the denuded land, so too the seed of Matrimandir germinated, took root, and began to grow.
The first step was the preparation of the ground for the intended construction. A large crater had to be dug into the earth to lay the foundation slab of the building. This digging was bravely started by a handful of Aurovilians, breaking the hard red soil with steel crow-bars; they carried baskets of the earth out of the growing crater under the intense South Indian sun.
Aurovilians digging the beginning of the crater of Matrimandir
But the work was long, and it became clear by November of 1971 that a more intense labour force would be needed to move the project forward at a reasonable speed. Soon, some 400 earth workers from nearby villages were camped on the spot to excavate the 20,000 cubic meters of soil that had to be removed. From those days we have some truly impressive photos and movie clips depicting that massive effort.
The excavation for the foundation of Matrimandir
By early 1972, the excavation work was over and at dawn on 21 st February, Mother's 94th birthday, a moving ceremony was held deep down in the crater to mark the beginning of the construction of the Matrimandir.
The ceremony held for the beginning of the concreting of Matrimandir's foundation
All those present dropped a single pebble into a concrete mixer standing silent and ready.
A stone slab, bearing the word “ OM ” and Mother's signature, was placed by a young girl and boy at the base of the East pillar.
By 3 rd May, 1972 the steel for the massive tie slab which would underlie and link the four great pillars of the globe was laid. The concreting of that slab lasted 26 hours, with about 120 Aurovilians and Ashram students participating. The four massive piers of concrete reached upwards from the cardinal directions. Mother named them after the cosmic Mahashakti.
These four pillars had reached their full height by the winter monsoon of 1973, with the final section being cast on that fateful day, November 17 th . The concreting was completed at 7:25 pm, just at the moment that the Mother left her body in the Ashram at Pondicherry .
The push to build the Matrimandir continued unabated, with a tangible force supporting each movement forward. In the quiet evenings one could not help but feel the penetrating Presence that filled the air at Auroville's center, as if attending the birth of some mighty future.
By May 29 th , 1976, the four great pillars had completed their upwards arcs and were joined at the top in the concreting of the “ring of unity” ….It was an important moment in the history of Matrimandir.
Attention then turned to the creation of the Inner Chamber itself, the tall, twelve-sided room that the Mother had first described after a vision on 31st December 1969. The room was to have a conical, upward-sloping roof, with an opening at the top to allow a ray of sunlight to enter.
The floor of the Inner Chamber was cast in November 1976. It was a magical time, concreting that mighty slab anchored to the supporting brackets that reach out from the four giant ribs, high above the Auroville plateau. It was like building in the fourth dimension, completely out of normal time and space. From this concrete floor slab, the twelve walls of the Chamber began to rise in 1977. During the early months of 1978 the sloping sections of the Chamber roof were cast. By 8-4-78 the work was done, the Inner Chamber's space had been “concretized”. There it stood, silently suspended, embraced by the four pillars of Matrimandir, for nine whole years while the next phase of the work went on.
During the next decade, while the outer spaceframe was being built to give shape to the sphere of Matrimandir, one would often go there, to that empty shell of the Chamber with its bare floor, walls and ceiling… home to hundreds of bats…and dream in that silent space. One could barely imagine what would come – the white marble walls and the future beam of sunlight that would penetrate the shadowy spaces of this cave with its illuminating ray. But there was lots of work to do before that beauty would manifest: the protective covering of Matrimandir had to be built first.
That work, executed methodically between 1979 and 1988 was the creation of the spherical space frame of the structure. Some 1100 “H”-shaped concrete beams were precast in the workshop, cured in a specially built pool, and then lifted one by one to be concreted on the structure row by row. It was a time of slow, steady growth, almost a test of endurance after the huge push of the ‘70's. There were fewer people working on the site during those years, perhaps only a dozen …a small team down in the workshop precasting the concrete beams and a half a dozen others up on the structure placing the beams in position higher and higher up the sphere. The work moved steadily, year after year, and was marked intermittently by long lines of Aurovilians who came to pass chetties of concrete in long lines from the cement mixer up to where the current row of beams was being fixed. The outer spaceframe of Matrimandir with its solid upper “cap” was completed in a final concreting on 8-8-8.
Attention turned once again to the Inner Chamber. Now it was time to materialize the heart of Matrimandir as the Mother had seen it almost two decades earlier. We needed now to finish that room, with its sun ray and crystal globe and marble walls, to make it real and tangible. First, the walls were clad using a fine white marble brought over from Italy . It had been purchased several years earlier and kept in storage in the Amphitheater for the intervening years. The twelve walls grew white, row by row, from the bottom up during 1989-90. When they were complete the conical ceiling was finished with Plaster of Paris and painted in a delicate mix of shades of white. Marble obtained from the north of India was then laid to finish the floor of the Chamber.
The twelve columns, giant seamless welded tubes imported from Italy , having been meticulously painted, polished and repainted down in the workshops, were hoisted up by the crane and installed while the work of cladding the Chamber floor was being completed. Moving those massive columns, each one wrapped in specially made mattress coverings to avoid any damage to their painted surfaces, was like launching of ship, as they were rolled along the ground on two sets of wheels, then fixed to the crane and hoisted up to the level of the Chamber. Imagine lifting a column almost nine meters long straight up for fifteen meters and then turning it to a horizontal position, and then rolling it in through the chamber door….It was an aerial acrobatic feat quite impressive to see.
Soon after this work was done, and the Inner Chamber was silent once again, the 70 cm glass globe arrived from Germany , and on April 27 th , 1991 it was lifted in its wooden crate up to the Chamber. Opening that crate in the nearly finished Chamber revealed the crystal's perfection to us for the first time; it was a very moving event for all those present.
The globe was initially installed on a temporary set of supporting Sri Aurobindo's symbols while the final gilded set was prepared in Germany . On 18 Feb. 1993 the globe was installed on the final set of four golden symbols joined in a supporting square. Beneath it was the 3m wide Mother's symbol that had been carved in a circular slab of white Italian marble.
Two aspects remained to complete the Inner Chamber, the air conditioning and the laying of its wall-to-wall carpet. The original AC system, that sent chilled water from a plant under the Amphitheater, was built during the summer of '93. Around this time the weaving of the white carpet made of New Zealand wool commenced on specially built looms in a factory in north of India. The weaving took six months, and by February of '94 the fourteen huge rolls of carpet had arrived on the site. In a five day operation, they were carefully trimmed and laid in place by master carpet fitters from north India thus completing the Chamber as we see it today.
While work was progressing on the Inner Room the outer walls of the Chamber were still being lashed by the monsoon rains and then baked by in sun for the rest of the year. The spiraling steel ramps that lead from the second level to the Chamber vestibules were still just painted pipe structures and were similarly open to attacks by the elements. They had been built in our workshop during the mid ‘70's and installed in 1978 and 1979.
It became urgent for the cladding work for the outer face of the spherical spaceframe to begin. Different materials, ranging from glass sheets to marble clad concrete, were considered. Finally, the option to use precast triangles of ferrocement was chosen and their production and installation started in mid 1992 and was completed in late 1994. While this work was going on, the construction of the ring of twelve petals surrounding the sphere, with small meditation rooms inside, was undertaken between ‘91 and '99.
The work force expanded rapidly after the completion of the concentrated push to finish the Inner Chamber. By 2005 there were some 300 people working on site at a multitude of tasks. The last major phase of the construction was the creation of the golden discs and their fixation on the outside of Matrimandir. Several methods were tried out over the years but finally a technique for fabricating gold- in-glass tiles to cover each individual disc was worked out. Establishing a veritable factory on site, the two million tiles required to clad the 1400 discs were made, and finished discs were regularly produced between 1997 and 2002.
But by mid 2004, when most of the golden discs were already placed on the building, we realized that the water-proofing coating on the ferrocement triangles was not adhering properly. So all of the discs that had been mounted had to be taken down in order to redo the waterproofing. This set the completion back by three years, but with the amazing persistence of the disc fixing team, and with the help of the new stainless steel crane, recently installed on the roof, the whole globe was golden again by 2007.
The lower hemisphere and interior space of the Matrimandir surrounding the Chamber had in the meantime undergone a major transformation. Between 2002 and 2007 the ‘inner skin”, consisting of triangles of white glass-based fabric stretched in triangular frames, was mounted on the inside face of the spaceframe of the sphere of Matrimandir.
The ramps received their honeycombed aluminum panel floors and their curved parapets of transparent glass and, lastly, their white wool carpets. In an even more gradual and painstaking process, the first and second levels, the central spiral staircase and the fountains in the four ribs were clad in marble mosaic for years together. All of this work came to a coordinated end in the summer of 2007, and suddenly, to our astonished eyes, the interior of the sphere was done! One could only marvel, silently, at the perfection and the beauty that had come into being.
And so the Matrimandir has completed forty years. Literally thousands of people have participated in its construction, some for a day or two as passing visitors, some for a lifetime, whether physically here on the site or as supporting donors all over the world. One and all they have had the joy of contributing to this special manifestation at the heart of Auroville.
The work continues; there are twelve gardens to build and beyond them, the Lake . The amazing adventure launched by the Mother so many years ago is still growing. That seed planted in 1971 has sprouted, grown and blossomed wondrously here on the soil of Auroville. And it is with an immense gratitude that we all look back at those wonderful and deeply challenging years of growth and look forward to the Future.
Address for donations and correspondence:
(Please make your cheque, money order or DD payable to ‘Matrimandir')
MATRIMANDIR – AUROVILLE 605101 – TAMIL NADU – INDIA
Bookings: Tel (+91) (0413) 262-2268; accounts: 262-2228