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Swami Vivekananda and the Ice House

January 23, 2015

Last month I had the privilege of running a leadership workshop for young people at Chennai. More than running the workshop, it was the location where it was being held that excited me. It was being hosted by the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai and held at the Vivekanandar Illam (Vivekananda House, originally known as the Ice House). What would be so special in a building named after this great saint? After all, our country’s historical landscape is replete with memorials commemorating an extraordinary event or is associated with an outstanding personality in some way. This building overlooking the Marina beach in Chennai is also no different. It is not merely a building named after Swamiji but was something that invoked a special sense of awe and reverence for me.

Swamiji was a constant traveller and he visited Tamil Nadu twice – once in 1892 as a wandering monk and again in 1897 after his triumphal return from the West. He arrived at Pamban in Rameshwaram island on the 26th January 1897 and then travelled through Madurai, Trichy and other places to finally reach Madras (present Chennai). He received an unprecedented reception at the Egmore Railway station where he had reached by train and reached the Castle Kernan (as it was then known) the next day. It was here that he stayed for 9 days, from 6th to 15th of February 1897 and gave his popular talks on ‘My Plan of Campaign’ and ‘The Future of India’. These are two articles that have influenced my life and thinking enormously.

Castle Kernan was earlier known as the ‘Ice House’ where the Tudor Ice Company stored the ice it brought from the United States. The Ice house was built in 1842 by Fredric Tudor. Tudor who was known as the ‘Ice King’ had made his fortune by shipping ice to the Caribbean, Europe and India. He had struck on the idea of harvesting ice from frozen fresh water ponds in and around Boston, cut them into blocks and sold them around the world. He had built three Ice Houses in India – at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras where the ice could be stored for months. Amongst the three buildings, only the one at Madras stands today. Once people learnt to manufacture ice locally, the ice business of his shrank and eventually wound up in 1880. It was then an advocate, Biligiri Iyengar who originally hailed from Mysuru, bought the ‘Ice House’ and renamed it ‘Castle Kernan’ in honour of his good friend Justice Kernan. Biligiri Iyengar and his family lived here till 1906, when family circumstances including the demise of Biligiri in 1902 forced them to auction off the building.

Vivekandanda-Illam-1

It was also in this building that Swami Ramakrishnananda, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa set up the Ramakrishna Math and lived. The Government of Tamil Nadu has now given this building on a long lease to the Ramakrishna Math who have restored it to its original state. The restoration process also has a Mysuru connection with architect Mr. Ravi Gundu Rao overseeing the entire restoration process.

Sitting in the room where Vivekananda lived and spending some quiet moments there was what made the visit very special to me.

Balu