Dimitri Klein sold his Paris-based advertising agency on the crest of the wave that preceded the bursting of the dotcom bubble. He spent five years at Auroville—the utopian spiritual community near Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, founded by Sri Aurobindo and “Mother” Mirra Alfassa—thinking about the big picture and formulating his plan for an “experimental” hotel. The Dune eco-resort was due to launch on 6 January 2005. The Tsunami washed it away on New Year’s Day. Nobody was killed, but the local economy was devastated and the Coramandel coast was blighted as a tourist destination.
Dimitri’s time in Auroville clearly lent him paranormal resources. The Tsunami wrecked both the Dune and the adjacent fishing villages. As a French citizen, he did not qualify for aid from the Indian government while, as an expat, he got no help from France. He raised the cash to rebuild from friends and fellow spiritual travellers—and out of this misfortune has arisen a truly revolutionary Dune Mark 2.
The Dune is a collection of 35 stylised beach huts: Keralan palm houses with surreal garden portals, lighting columns made of recycled plastic water bottles, brutalist concrete structures designed by a German architect and even a suite atop a water tower—voted India’s most exotic honeymoon location—surrounding a palm-fronded restaurant and glass-sided conference centre. An ancient Brahmin travellers’ hostel is in the process of re-assembly, stone by stone, on the complex. A blue swimming tank with overlapping sides near a deserted beach accessed by metal doors and an ayurvedic spa and yoga centre, in traditional Keralan style, supervised by an authentic Yogi (Dr “Bobby”) and staffed by Keralans, complete the eclectic picture. Food is grown on the Dune’s organic farm, irrigated by recycled waste water, heated when necessary for showers by solar energy. The beachfront tree line, swept away by the Tsunami, has been replanted. A fair number of villagers work for the Dune, which recycles profits to fund a school for fishermen and a residential academy in Chennai where kids are taught textile and fashion skills then placed in gainful employment.
The money which flooded into Tamil Nadu post-Tsunami was not necessarily welcome or well-spent. Centuries-old fishing techniques which conserved stocks and actually preserved the fishermens’ lifestyles have been decimated by commercial trawler fleets which now lie off the horizon like black beetles, killing as much as they harvest. Many Coramandel fishing communities were forced inland on the pretext of a further Tsunami flood and the land they occupied sold to resort developers. The fishermen have little in common with the inland farmers, and vice versa. Likewise, some of the well-meaning efforts of predominantly Christian charity agencies to rebuild villages, whether or not they had been affected by the Tsunami, have injected lethargy into the local economy. Illiteracy levels in rural Tamil Nadu range from 50% for males to 80% for females, but it was apparent from the uniformed, if barefoot, groups of children in the nearby villages that the young – boys and girls – were attending school. An estimated 70% of village kids are now getting the chance of at least primary education. Both Auroville—which provides a satellite economy for an estimated 20,000 people in surrounding villages—and, on a much smaller scale, The Dune, which has its own free school hut on the complex, are making a difference.
The Dune is “experimental” to the degree that it is attempting to be carbon neutral and leave no negative impact upon the ecosystem. Scientific and commercial visitors are encouraged to visit on study tours. The complicated and advanced water engineering and waste management systems which underpin it—remember, this is an area where average temperatures are well above 30 degrees celcius with no surrounding water and sanitation infrastructure—were developed by scientists and engineers from Auroville. Eminent international designers have been willingly dragooned into helping with the curriculum and designs for the textile academy in Chennai. Dr Bobby runs five conventional hospitals from Pondicherry to Chennai but still finds time to supervise a free yoga class most evenings and teach and practice Ayurveda on the sybarites and staff at the Dune. I can attest to the benefits of ayurveda, and the strenuous authenticity of the yoga, far removed from the Notting Hill Gate new age varietials.
Guests navigate the complex on red bicycles: luggage and supplies are transported in an electric rickshaw. Before the lip curls under the impression that this is exclusively the preserve of weekend hippies, the CEO of Bajaj Motorcycles, makers of up to 1 million vehicles a month, dropped by with his besuited senior management team for an evening seminar; while the CEO of Caterpillar and various Bangalore moguls also chilled out during our stay. We became so laid back that we scarcely left the Dune, apart from two extraordinary day trips to see temples and a couple of afternoons in the nearby villages, which redefine your view of poverty and reaffirm your faith in human nature. Anglo-Saxon cynicism is almost immediately neutralised by the disarming honesty and warmth of the Dune staff and management, who treat guests as partners in this experiment in eco-hospitality and who see the project as a way to feed cash back to the local economy.
The Dune is a very special place indeed, groovy and French with a predominantly Indian clientele, where you can luxuriate in a poor part of India in the almost certain knowledge that your presence is playing a positive role. I was torn between keeping it a secret or only telling people I liked and trusted. On balance, Prospect readers would almost certainly empathise. Two hours south of Chennai (the city formerly known as Madras) and 11 km north of Pondicherry, it’s a five star resort, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the prices, and there’s no bowing and scraping or goodness gracious Raj malarkey. Visit, chill, have a Shirodhara treatment, eat wonderfully healthy food with no side-effects, read improving books or watch one of 1400 DVDs in the Dune library, rap existentially with really interesting people, mostly Indian, and tell Sunil we sent you.