Four weeks in India saying "amazing!" (Part Two)

See also Part One of this essay.

by Heidi Watts 
Heidi Watts is a professor of education at Antioch New-England graduate 
school in Keene, New Hampshire. Her connection with Auroville began when 
Miriam Eckleman, a kindergarten teacher there, spent several months taking 
classes at Antioch and visiting local schools.  Miriam invited Heidi to 
Auroville to give workshops to any interested teachers.  Heidi had never 
been to India, but after reading Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on education 
and realizing how closely their pedagogy corresponded to her own, she 
accepted. She traveled with her friend Peggy Leo, who has also been part of 
the Auroville-Antioch teacher exchange. 

January 1, 1993 

On the first day of the new year we must have said Happy New Year a million 
times. In Mahabalipuram, where we had come by taxi to see the sand carvings 
and the temples, the town was as crowded as St. Ives on an August Bank 
Holiday: throngs of Indians dressed up and in a holiday mood.  There were 
families of mama, papa and two children, and the usual ragamuffin crowd of 
loose children and old men, but most noticeably there were bands of young 
men laughing and chattering, matched by clusters of young women in rainbow 
assortments of sari, flowers and face jewels. The young men would stop us 
to say Happy New Year, grinning broadly, extending a hand. Then: Where 
from? America? What state? and again, Happy New Year! sometimes, See you 
again, Come back next year, or Happy New year in Tamil. 

At the beach the same groups clustered on the edge of the beach watching 
the water, but the waves and surf were alive with young men splashing, 
jumping waves, laughing, throwing coconuts, playing, simply playing 
boisterously in the water clad only in their underwear usually, though a 
few had bathing suits. The girls, more modestly, stood in the shallow surf 
in their saris which grew wetter and wetter as the waves caught at hem. 
They too laughed, giggled and occasionally said Happy New Year. 
A young urchin of nine years "picked us up" and accompanied us as a 
semi-guide through the temples. He never asked for money, unlike the men 
and some of the beggar children, and his English was quite good. We took 
his picture and bought him an ice cream, and I said I would send him a copy 
of the photo if he would give me his address. With painstaking slowness he 
wrote his name, then asked me to finish writing the name of the town, then 
he supplied the rest. He knew what should be in an address and he was 
anxious to get it right. Then, to my surprise, he asked for my address, and 
wanted to know about the road name. He was as bright and engaging as the 
children in Li's class I have been enjoying so much. (At the bon fire this 
morning Ladine came up and gave me a hug-made my day, and it was only 6:00 

The ride to Mahabalipuram was wonderful. Once off the main road to Madras 
and roaring down the easterly road to the coast the road got even narrower 
and ran through a succession of emerald green rice paddies. The rice seems 
to be planted and harvested under some system of managed rotation. In each 
section there would be some paddies of just mud, some being plowed, some 
with small clumps of stalks standing in water, some with the stalks planted 
at regular intervals to make a "field", small paddies of thick rich green 
grasslike stalks. The harvested rice was piled on the narrow road and the 
rice threshed from the stalks on the pavement. At times the piles of straw 
or mounds of grain were so deep we had to go around them but usually our 
taxi and all the other forms of transport: bicycle, bullock cart, or 
pedestrian just went right through and over. Presumably our passage helped 
the threshing out? I am surprised it didn't scatter or destroy, but 
apparently not. The dried stalks, looking like the hay, were gathered up by 
men and women in bundles or carried like loose hay stacked on the head. 
There were hay ricks abuilding by the side of the road, and trucks and 
carts overflowing with hay. "You see South India at its best," said Miriam. 
Lungis and shirts on the young men, little girls in bright dresses, little 
boys in shorts, all were out on the roads or in the fields working with the 
rice harvest. The fields themselves, small roughly rectangular or square 
patches of brilliant green, edged, often with palm trees or bushes, 
flowering vines, other trees pulled the eye toward them. In the distance, 
palm trees shimmered in a haze on the horizon, interrupted by an occasional 
odd-shaped hill rising from the flat plain. Hills. They were cut so 
strangely and rising so abruptly as to look like a giant sculptures, a 
somnolent elephant perhaps, or a boa constrictor which has eaten an 

We celebrated New year's Eve by 1) doing sacred dances on the roof of 
Pitanga at sunset on the lst day of the old year, 2) eating soup with 
Ursula at her house, 3) snoozing until just before midnight, 4) listening 
to some special "new age" music made just for the occasion while sitting on 
the floor of the dance studio in silence with most of the other residents 
of Samasti, 5) arising in the dark and hassling with the bicycles to get to 
the pre-dawn bonfire in the amphitheater of the Matrimander,  6) cooking up 
a two egg breakfast for ourselves, and 7) hiring a taxi for the day to go 
to Mahabalipuram. I think we'll remember this New Year's celebration for a 
long time. 

January 3 

The Vedantangal bird sanctuary was an other-world experience. I knew at 
once I was somewhere I had never been before and felt rather like pinching 
myself to be sure that being in India was really for real. Flashes of other 
bird sanctuaries I have known, the island off the coast of Wales, Flamingo 
Lake in Culebra, Hog island in Maine, Indian island in Nova Scotia...images 
of these places came back but none of them, not even the lake in Culebra 
was like this. 

With the mist rising off the water under the urging of an increasingly 
sunlit world we saw across a short expanse of green water, small clumps of 
grass and clumps of green trees in shades of lime, emerald and forest. 
There were herons, grey blue with long pink legs themselves clumped 
together in some of the nearer trees, and flocks of white-winged, 
long-necked storks in the further trees. There were also egrets, ibis and 
other varieties of heron and stork turning the trees almost white under the 
sheer numbers of them in some places. Sometimes in the water but more often 
in the air were small gatherings of cormorants, a long way from home to my 
way of thinking. Nearer to us but much less visible were smallish 
brown-backed paddy herons or pond herons, fishing by sitting or standing 
very still and watching for any faint movement. Standing on a concrete 
outcropping Miriam spotted a smirking frog, head barely out of the water, 
not moving at all, with one brilliant yellow eye in a brilliant green head 
gazing up: another watcher and waiter. We saw one bird of prey, a fish hawk 
of some kind, soaring through the sky, and small coveys of ducks adabbling. 
One, a kind of coot, was actually called a dab chick. 

I had great trouble at first seeing the birds even though they were not far 
away, and though eventually the visibility got better for me as I learned 
to adjust the binoculars and as the sun rose higher and shone more 
intensely it was never very good. I think my cataracts are really showing 
their presence, and this may explain why I find bird watching less 
attractive even with my own better quality field glasses. Nonetheless I was 
dreaming about coming back, with my own binoculars, and staying at the 
nearby hotel so as to be able to come out to the viaduct in the early 
morning and again at sunset. Knowing what I now know of South India's 
sunrises and sunsets, I am sure the sight of birds coming in and out of the 
roosting places at the break and close of day would be spectacular. 
On the other side of the viaduct from which we looked out at the birds the 
flat land was divided into small fairly regular rectangles for rice 
growing. Here some men and boys were plowing up one field with two pair of 
water buffalo, cows and men scrunching through mud to mid-thigh. In another 
field a pair of bullocks drew a horizontal wooden blade to smooth the 
previously ploughed field of mud, and two men with the familiar short 
handled scraper shovel (mumpti), which I have seen used in many different 
ways, were cutting a deep furrow around the edges. In a third and fourth 
field a man and several boys were setting out rice transplants in a field 
of water and in yet another field, this one not mud but brown earth, a man 
scattered seed. Surrounding this evidence of industry were fields and 
fields of green plants in various stages of height and ripeness. I am told 
they can do two harvests a year, so presumably the men I saw ploughing were 
preparing a harvested paddy for a second crop. Running in a ragged line 
from north to south and east to west, thus creating larger boxes across the 
grid of small fields were the main irrigation ditches. Water was let in as 
needed from the sanctuary side, which, Miriam explained, was made so rich 
by the bird droppings that no other fertilizer is needed. The farmers, 
understanding this, have refrained from the usual practice of killing 
birds, and have actually promoted and supported the sanctuary. Nothing like 
enlightened self-interest. Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary. 

January 4 

This was the Madras day for book buying. Stores turned out to have very 
little, though the best of them-Landmark-had some usable items. I forgot to 
look for books for teachers, but I don't think there was an education 
section. Also, I didn't go to the book fair so perhaps there was something 
there-but I think a call for "your favorite books on teaching" at the 
workshop will elicit whatever there is. 

I find the heat, dirt, noise, evidence of poverty and misery, confusion, 
unfamiliarity and importuning of these Indian cities not only overwhelming 
but unbearable. I would come back to Auroville-an Auroville which includes 
villages and Tamilians-but not to India. I guess I could also return to the 
India of sunrises and sunsets, of green rice paddies and long surfy 
beaches, but not to the India of fingerless beggars, shit in the 
streets-what streets?-and a continuous din. 

January 5 

Today's workshop on relaxation techniques was a good beginning for this 
body work. What does one need to do to get better at sitting cross legged, 
or at lying on the back? I need to ask Ursula. However, in spite of some 
pain, as Loka would say-agony, I said to myself at the time-in spite of 
some agony occasioned by sitting cross-legged and from lying on my back 
through various breathing activities, there were some wonderful relaxing 
activities and some I may perhaps be able to relay and repeat at home. 
Better yet, to put forth the idea of hiring someone to lead us-the Antioch 
New England staff-in a morning of relaxation activities before one of our 
all-day retreats. Or perhaps between us we could pool our ideas and do 

At the end Loka got us in a circle for what I would call a debriefing. She 
said, "It is to mentalize it. To fix it in the mind. At another time she 
said, "It is very normal that the mind wanders away. It is his specialty." 
Taking in of the breath is what we do to meet an emergency, letting it out 
is a sign of release. 

When you have a tight muscle, think of a scrunched up piece of paper, then 
unscrunch it and smooth it out. 

January 9 

I have spent four weeks in India saying, 'amazing.' One experience after 
another is just that-amazing. Take the temples in Chidambaram we just 
visited. Consider the antiquity of the temples, built about two centuries 
before Christ, with garish neon lights and chalkboard signs put up on 
exquisitely carved pillars; consider the carvings in granite, one of the 
hardest substances, garlanded with fragrant, brilliant flowers; or the 
priests, with white dhotis, strangely knotted hair and bare chests running 
around in the middle of a throng of devotees, beggars, children, pilgrims 
and a few white folk. The bells, the incense, all of us in bare feet 
walking from temple to temple over rough paving, dirt paths, worn steps, 
ghee slicked granite floors, or tilesŠpeople below, and everywhere one 
looks Gods, carved in the pillars, painted in the shrines or presented as 
statues, hanging in cheap poster form, Gods ranging in size from immense to 
tiny, and the lord Shiva, at last, in every possible position: 204 dance 
positions and more for the pictures. 

The towers of the four temples were visible on the flat horizon long before 
we reached the town, and later, as we walked through the courtyard in the 
fading light they were silhouetted in their amazing height and carved 
shapes as black against a glowing red sky...a few enlivened and enlightened 
by strings of bright-colored oversized Christmas lights. 

We walked in through a long covered mall to reach the temple entrance 
lined, of course, with vendors. Some to keep our sandals, most to sell 
flowers, offerings, pictures of the Gods, bangles and bracelets, and all 
the bright frippery of India-a nation of bead and shell traders. As we 
walked out, in the now-dark, my mind half on the overwhelming sights and 
sounds from inside the temples, my eyes moving from one side to the other, 
scanning the wares, ignoring the beggars and pleas to buy, suddenly Carel 
pulled me to the side and I looked up to see that I was 6 inches broadside 
to a huge grey bulk of elephant.  As I shrank back the elephant lowered his 
trunk, waved the curly pink tip over my head and lowered it beseechingly? 
menacingly? toward my hand. "He wants a coin," said Carel, and Miriam 
pulled out her purse. I could now see the man on top of the elephant as the 
trunk coiled and uncoiled itself again and held it out like a beggars hand 
for Miriam to lay the rupee in it. 

We saw a priest performing a puja in the antechamber of the shrine of the 
dancing Shiva. He sat cross-legged on a box, a cloth laid ceremoniously 
underneath him, in front of a round metal tray with a collection of bowls 
on top of it. An attendant rinsed everything by sloshing water out of a big 
urn over the contents and onto the floor, then laid out supplies on the 
side, flower heads, a leaf with some small white seeds or shredded pieces 
of something, various metal containers. The priest, well fleshed, wearing a 
white wrap-around garment below and bare above, his hair twisted into a 
tight side knot, murmured incantations or prayers of some kind while these 
preparations continued and occasionally glared at the crown. He did many 
things with the water and pyramid of bowls before him-putting in flowers, 
murmuring, putting in bits of the white things, holding a small clump of 
reeds above the bowl and to one side of his face. 

After perhaps five minutes of this he got up, went over to the image of the 
black bull near by-a symbol for Shiva-unwound the orange and gold scarf 
around the neck of the bull and threw it over a post, murmured something 
more, took a dish of water from the attendant's hand and poured it over the 
bill, then took a dish of sour milk and poured that over, then another bowl 
or two of water, all of this now sloshing around on the stone floor, then 
wiped the figure and tenderly put something from his other bowls onto the 
face in three places. The final act was to replace the scarf, knotting it 
around the neck of the bull.  He then returned to his place, draped a red 
cloth carefully over his knees this time, and returned to various 
ceremonial gestures over the crystal which represents the phallus coming 
into the vagina-another symbol of Shiva-fertility and creation. 
It's interesting that once the teacher workshops started in earnest the 
journal keeping diminished.  The workshops are being successful, I feel, 
and in spite of many reservations I had. One fear was language, and though 
not good we seem to be able to function because 1) we have some English 
speakers and some Tamil translators, and 2) we have been doing such 
hands-on activities. This leads to hope that I could work with other 
non-western teachers in other situations. Who knows what cultural no-no's 
we commit, but they seem willing to forgive or overlook-I suppose that 
happened when they decided to come to New Creation to begin with. The 
afternoon group is, in fact, a delight, the teachers so open and young and 
friendly and ready to take in anything. And so beautiful to look upon. 

January 10 

Aurogreen is very green. We sat on the brick terrace, underneath the 
spreading branches of a transformation tree, and just out of sight of the 
barn where Charlie was mostly working with a sick cow and ate a delicious 
Suzie-prepared lunch of red rice, vegetables cooked with a few curry spices 
and curd, and fruit salad. After lunch here at the community kitchen Suzie 
took us to her own house for tea and offered us each half of a bullock's 
heart as well. This is a fruit which is soft and sweet inside, with a white 
custardy consistency and a faint memory of pear. It has black seeds in the 
white custard which one discards. 

Talk with Charlie, running from farm chore to quick lunch and back was talk 
with a very busy man-a hundred things to do, great diversification with 
cows, chickens, orchards and fields. He told us that his parents had sent 
him to India at 17 to keep him out of trouble. In 1970 this apparently 
meant drugs and revolution. But, he said, he wouldn't have gotten into 
revolution because he was essentially not for violence, and drugs, well, 
what do you know. Anyway, after getting kicked out of his catholic military 
school at home, and also rejecting the rigid academicism of the Indian 
school where he was sent through the agency of an Indian stepmother, he 
made his way to Auroville, and it sounds like exactly the right match. 
Aurogreen operates its five houses and all the farm work with alternative 
energies. Suzie showed us proudly the methane tank where the manure and 
slurry get dumped, and the gas stove in the kitchen which is fueled from 
the tank. Solar panels in the roof  provide the rest of the energy, though 
they do need electricity for the deep well which provides all the water for 
the farm, and is actually the deepest well in-India? Certainly in more than 
all of Auroville. 

January 14 

As always, the pace quickens as we near the end. 
Yesterday's staff review of a child was quite extraordinary, though for 
this experience in Auroville quite ordinary. I led a staff review of a 
student who was born in India, has a French and German birth-parents and an 
Italian step-parent. The teachers with whom I work follow a similar 
multicultural, multilingual pattern. Of the 14 teachers participating in 
the review only two are native English speakers: the first languages 
represented in the group include Hindi, Flemish, Tamil, Dutch, German, 

What has been important for me about this experience: the amazingness of 
Auroville-the mixtures of people, languages, endeavors, the ideal itself, 
the intentionality of Auroville and its inhabitants; Auroville hospitality; 
the fact that I was able to offer something useful and the opportunity to 
practice improvisation; the sheer fun of working on educational issues of 
importance to me with people who share my values and who have-in my 
view-far fewer obstacles than most of the teachers I know. The gift is to 
the giver. 

Through this runs my fascination with Auroville-I feel under a spell of 
enchantment...grief at leaving, a sense of being, again, wonderfully cared 
for and made much of-experiences which keep happening to me-feeling there 
is no way I can reciprocate, still feeling overwhelmed by all the sights 
and feelings and sensations and experiences of the last four weeks. One 
does not return from India without being changed. I wonder about the 
changes in me which will be occasioned by Auroville. What Auroville wants, 
obviously, is that I should become a convert, or so Carel said jokingly 
this morning. I have been given so many works of Sri Aurobindo and mother, 
clearly I must honor this by reading some (not all!) 

Part One of this essay. 

Since her first trip in 1993, Heidi Watts has returned to Auroville each 
December to give workshops, and Auroville teachers have come to the USA to 
stay in her New Hampshire house, take classes at Antioch- New England 
graduate school, and teach and visit in local classrooms.  The teacher 
exchange has also included Antioch graduate students who have done 
internships in Auroville at the New Creation school.  

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