June 1968: A new mile on the road of works has come into view – the Mother has given Deborah and me an area of land in Auroville. She has specified that we build a home there, a hexagonal cone-shaped structure designed by Roger, the French architect, which combines elements of the typical Indian village hut with 20th century design materials and construction. It is called the “experimental hut” and the Mother wishes that we become an experiment of living in it.

The land site is strikingly beautiful. There is a canyon 50 feet deep which floods with water during the monsoon rains and is bone cracking dry in other seasons. The colour is deep red sandstone and earth streaked with paths of sun-bleached yellow-white limestone. Near the canyon’s edge, there is a small beautiful mango orchard, laden now with fruit. All round one side are yellow-green cashew trees, and another side opens to a flat uninterrupted plain of agricultural land.

There is no road yet, no electricity – just an immense place and a charged vibrant atmosphere: the ingredients of a grand adventure.

June 1968: Now the City of Dawn is the City of Summer. The City of Light is ablaze with heat. The land is parched and broken from the past year’s drought. There is sickness in the villages and among the few toilers of Auroville. The herds of village cattle roam the land in a quietly desperate search of food. Patches of the air are black with flies, patches of ground red with ants and the nights whine with mosquitoes. There has been a faltering of morale and some of the young people living at the centre have retreated to Pondicherry.

The administrators of Auroville continue to be utopian dreamers, mistaking continuation and expansion of the present technological movement for the spiritual future. The clouds float over Auroville but rain does not come; the thought of all the wonderful things that could and should be done here float through the mind, and, because of lack of resources, because of lack of people, because of lack of energy and because of the stubborn immobility of this human nature, all the dreams and ambitions become frustrations.

Those who would come to Auroville must understand that it is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. They must come ready to don the armour of the knight and be capable of giving up the concepts of time and self in the fury of the clash.

July 1968: Yesterday a major setback occurred here for us and I’m still a bit dazed by the swift denial of the event. For two months we’ve been involved in digging a borewell (the only water source possible in this arid terrain). The work was being done by hand, an extremely slow and tedious method. Finally after many difficulties we struck a small water source. Weeks have been spent gathering the necessary equipment to install a pump (just a hand pump). Finally everything was in readiness, then yesterday, during the first minutes of the installation a series of calamities occurred. The device stuck, one of the new pipes was obviously faulty, and a large amount of sand had accumulated inside. So it now appears the well is blocked, equipment lost, Rs 3600 to Rs 3700 gone, and the one chance to make a solid tangible foothold here removed. Water so far has been brought in four miles by truck, but that can hardly be a permanent arrangement, particularly with the monsoon approaching which will dissolve the fragile dirt road.

The adventures continue almost daily – in the balance, the possibility of the birth of a new place, a new consciousness, a new divine city. I feel, and I must feel that it can manifest even as I stand by the broken borewell, even though I tell you of only physical resistance and not the discouraging difficulties that we find every day in ourselves and in others.

September 1968: It is so strange in some ways, working on a creative technical marvel – because I don’t much care about city building. But I’m coming to understand through reading Essays on the Gita that the physical project is really just a field of action upon which a new basis of human relationship and harmony can be worked out and created. If this ego reduction and the unity between man and man does not occur in the midst of the symbolic work idiom, then to me Auroville will be just a rather impractical housing development. But slowly one sees that each one of us is trying a little to get beyond ourselves as we act and react and slowly a new trust is forming, a new oneness to each other with less fear and defence.

That red, hot landscape by the sea in south India will soon be transformed into a City of Dawn – if the inner landscape of human nature can change and evolve towards the spirit.

April 1970: The dam as an experience. Two weeks of work, twelve days – the core wall is there in its thick, dense armature of earth. It now needs pounding before being clothed in brick, cement and granite along the inside of its arms.

It seems that what I wanted from this experience was an opportunity to re-enter the vast ancient region of manual labour, so daily I don a loincloth, bind my head in cloth and with a bun of straw on top and wicker basket in hand, merge myself into the dark-skinned dust-dressed dance of the ages. That inhumanely beautiful, endlessly repetitive phrase: pick up, carry, deposit, return, pick up. The morning overture is full of chatter, but the mid-morning sun silences the stage and labour prevails. The sun continues its climb and from late morning (11.00 am) until the 1.00 pm meal becomes the all-dominating royal audience. In the heat and dust the mind is first to depart, but soon the will of the body and self-initiated strength also dissolves. By noon one is no longer moving but is somehow connected to a force that moves – a force that, earth-filled basket after earth-filled basket, stone piece after stone piece, extends through the ages.

Egypt, Greece, Rome: All the mortar and stone shells of past civilisations, all of them were assembled by this same many-handed, mud-stained deity, the last and lowest executrix of the collective material structures of human consciousness.

At noon one looks into the dark face of the worker that hands the stone slab to you, and into the face of the worker to which you hand it on, and sees that the slightly staggering bodies are empty and hollow now. God sometimes provides a space above the body of labour into which the essence of the being can escape during those sun-seared hours of pressure and fatigue. The bodies are moving, the dance continues, the work goes on.

The spirit of each of the labourers has withdrawn, a secret gift of peace which a grace brings to this beloved company of clay.

May 1970: Perhaps you received my very hurried collage announcing the completion of the dam – it is finished and, I feel, very beautiful. It astonished me to see how even in this gross functional construction, the power of individual expression, once developed to a degree, continues to bind its personal identifying signature to forms. The dam is somehow subtly androgynous, a harmonious combining of curves and straight lines.

June 1970: Sunday night an unexpected rain and wind storm crossed Auroville. In one hour of heavy rain the dam filled up with 19 feet of water and was overflowing. Sometime in the early morning, for reasons still technically unexplained, the dam burst. The immense pressure of the standing water tore through the 60 feet of compacted earth, shattered the brick and cement crust, and rushed towards its ancient destination, the sea, carrying with it for hundreds of yards huge chunks of granite, concrete, bricks. The dam failed!

A personal failure it is. But too much attachment to it in this way would be as egotistic as too much attachment to its success.

In the months since the beginning of the work, busloads and carloads of visitors to Auroville have come to this remote place to lavish congratulations upon me with half-sincere bravado, fabricating a “local hero” facade around me and this work. I stood patiently, suffering the notoriety of success and now I stand here daily receiving the even less sincere expressions of sympathy and regret. And I’m seeing in this rapid juxtaposition of success and failure that there is basically no difference between the two, both belong to our surface action, not to our deeper selves, and are of little moment to the inner experience which exists independent of its yield.

But to look only at the personal aspects of this event is to be a little myopic. Perhaps this land is not ready yet to give up its dryness and austerity. Perhaps there is too much more that we all must learn from the desert, but just after, or perhaps at the same instant that I saw the destroyed structure, I saw the beautiful smiling face of the personified future of Auroville and it said, “It will not, it cannot be that easy!”

Yesterday we began to collect the rubble from the canyon floor and place it in piles out of the way of the water’s path, and in my sight the dam changed from something that had been destroyed to something that must be repaired. And so work goes on.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Early Letters’ by Robert Lawlor, from Auroville: Dream and Reality – An Anthology, edited and introduced by Akash Kapur, Penguin Random House India.