Auroville is the "experimental" township that is located near Pondicherry (Puducherry). It can be a pleasant day trip from Chennai, and a good place to go even if you are not from Chennai, for grownups and kids.
Where to go
Auroville is not just one location. It is actually an entire area, but most people refer to the Visitors Centre and Matri Mandir as "Auroville". If you are going from Chennai, take the East Coast Road, go past Pondicherry University and look for the sign that says "Auroville 8 KM". Take a right turn there. Keep going and ask for directions as you go. Or you can also follow one of the many tourist buses which are headed to the visitors center.
What to do
The Visitor's Centre and Matri Mandir are definitely places you want to go, but they are only part of the Auroville experience for us. The Visitors Centre has a small exhibit about Auroville and a number of nice stores that sell craft, handmade items, soaps, perfumes, candles, books, clothes etc., It also has an excellent vegetarian restaurant that our kids and we like. The kids can run around in the lawn with one parent looking after them while the other goes shopping. Or you can buy them a nice book from the bookstore and let them read.
The Matri Mandir is a good (1 to 1.5km, say my feet but it may be very different) distance away from the Visitors Centre. First, you have to watch a short movie about the Matri Mandir at the Visitors Centre and then you will be given tickets to the Matri Mandir. The walk to the Matri Mandir is worth it. It is also an opportunity to have a long conversaton as a family. It is nice and shady but the Mandir itself is an awesome architectural structure (See photos below).
My other Auroville photos are on Flickr
But like I said, there are other places we like to go in Auroville also. There is another very nice restaurant we like (real Italian food, pizzas made in a brick oven etc.,) called New Creations Corner. It is on the road to Auroville, has no board saying its name, but as of December 2008, was painted in yellow with open air dining and a PCO next to it. I cannot imagine any other way to describe it or find it. The food here is excellent. It is run by a couple of Europeans. They have a mixed vegetarian, non-vegetarian menu at super-cheap prices. This is the not the place to go if you want Indian food. Our kids love this place also.
But if all you do is drive to the Visitor's Center and back, you have missed a very very nice part of Auroville - the shopping. Our routine is usually, drive, stop, browse, buy, drive, stop, browse, buy....... There are many, many interesting stores hidden behind small non-descript signs selling various items we like - clothes, crafts, necklaces, 100% natural soaps made from vegetable oils, hammocks, completely natural and soft washing detergent for babies clothese, lampshades, organic food, organic oils, crafts, necklaces and more. These are spread all over Auroville. Stop by a few. Check them out. Don't get distracted by the lack of a jazzy storefront. Our favourite soap vendor Auronature, is in a simple looking house with the decoration consisting of large soaps painted on the outer wall, with large lettering. Not what you will find at one of the hip malls in the city, but stop and you will be surprised. Same with Bon - an organic store. It is next to a cowshed, but has organic soaps, incense sticks, organic sesame oil etc.,Most of these are direct storefronts of the manufacturer, and their prices are lower than what you will find in the stores at the Visitor's Centre and much lower than what you will find in the Auroville store in your city. A number of these products also make great gifts for friends.
Of course, the kids can get bored of this shoppping soon, so get them involved in some of the choosing so they stay motivated. Also, you may want to do most of this before you go to Matri Mandir. A walk to and from the Mandir may make you and your kids too tired to shop.
I am no expert at architecture, but a number of buildings and landscapes in Auroville have caught my eye, the best of which is Matri Mandir. As you are driving to the Visitor's Center you will see a couple of nice examples. There is also an interesting book about Auroville architecture in the bookstore.
I am sure many people at Parentree have been here. Do share with us your tips so we can plan our next trip to Auroville.
Overall, our children like a trip to Auroville for two reasons - It is very relaxed and we do not have to hurry, and there is good food!!