Vivekanandar Illam

Vivekanandar illam

6 th February 1897.

He was coming !

The man who travelled to distant America from his occupied motherland , the man who conquered hearts and minds there, the man who represented the aspirations of a million people who, as oppressed people ,had forgotten their true heritage. He would be there that day!

The man whose trip to America was a part of an elaborate divine plan,… did I say divine plan?

But what divine plan by Narayana can work without the selfless efforts of Nara?

In this case , selfless efforts were made by hundreds of Indians –some were kings, some weren’t ,but all of them knew it was their last chance and they worked hard for it.

And the role played by those Indians who lived in Chennai was an important one. [ I say this in bold to remind the Chennai-ites of today ,a part of their history]The young men of Chennai had actually gone from door to door collecting money and support for the trip.

They were eagerly awaiting their “Prince “, “Messenger of peace”, “Great son of Shri Ramakrishna”, “The scion of ancient Rishis” as they referred to him in the numerous festoons and decorative arches, that adorned the city between Egmore railway station and castle Kernon, the building where Swamiji was to stay during the time he spent in Chennai.

Castle Kernon was where a welcome committee had been formed with members like Colonel Alcott of the Theosophical society and other dignitaries of the then Madras Presidency.

Just some time ago, an emotional group of people actually lay down on the railway tracks near Chennai , stopped the train in which he was travelling ,just so that they could have a glimpse of him.

Young Sooraj Rao was one of them and he just had to meet the Guru again , so he walked all the way from that little town to Chennai.

He was surprised to see well lit up fishing hamlets that were waiting to greet the “Jagatguru”.

The Guru arrived by 7.30 am that day and the crowd surged to see him.
A horse drawn chariot had been arranged for his journey till castle Kernon building and as the crowds got thicker , more police men were deployed to oversee traffic arrangements.

People paid their respects to him on the way ,as only irrational Tamilians can.They did Arathi to him the way they would have done for an utsava deity on procession.

An old lady fell at his feet as she was one of the many in Srilanka and India who believed that saint Thirugnanasambandhar [ a sixth century Saivite saint whose devotional hymns about the “thief who stole my heart “that melts even un-stolen hearts] had come back.

The procession swelled as more people who joined and wound its way through Chintatripet, Napier bridge, Walaja park , Mount road and finally reached the Beach road [ now Rajaji salai].

There, the young men from Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu who had waited for his arrival since days joined in the procession.

They let the horses that were pulling the chariot/ carriage loose and pulled the chariot themselves ,despite swamiji’s protest.

The Raja of Pudukottai Sanastaaan had done the same thing when Swamiji had landed in Rameswaram a few days earlier.

[Despite everything, this parcel of land in the South Eastern corner of India is by and large infused with a devotion to the supreme and those associated with him, in other words, irrationalism .I am tempted to think, may be an entirely different set of people [ aliens?] walked this land then but no, we are their descendants and all is not hopeless for us.]

The next nine days he stayed there were like Navrathri [Dushera]celebrations . He did not rest and spent all his time giving talks, discourses and also met people who came with an intention to differ with him, to argue with him , to “defeat “him.

If you know your Vivekananda,I don’t have to say, they left as changed people.

Reference Books.

1.Swami Vivekanandar [ Tamil] –By Swami Ashutoshananda Vol II RK Math publications.
Back to the 21 st century.

Castle Kernon is now Vivekanandar illam [Illam meaning house in Tamil] it was called “icehouse “before he stayed there as it must have been a building meant for ice storage .

It faces East , towards the bay of Bengal and the Road stretches North South in front of it.

This building is where a supreme devotee called Swami RamaKrishnananda established the Chennai branch of RK Math.[ I learnt this fact only after some reading] more than a hundred years ago.[ The second branch after Belur]until it was shifted to the new premises that is now the RK Math on what is now called RK Math Road.

There are more memories here than we had imagined.

Walk from there towards South, walk in to crowded Kutcheri road , be enamored by the temple complex of Kabalaeeswara to reach RK Math Road. There is a new temple next to the old one within the math premises and the whole place is a peaceful haven that nestles within a mad urban sprawl.

A place that seekers,those tired souls who need recharging , those who are looking for some solace after experiencing life's many maladies, visit.

Back to castle Kernon, walk Northwards,towards Triplicane , turn West and walk on.

Walk in to the temple dedicated to the Guru of all Gurus ,the Partha Saarathy temple and read the plaque in the Sannidhi of Azhagiya Singar [ literally “beautiful lion” Lord Nrisimha in a yogic posture].

It carries the message of Swamiji to a young lecturer named after the beautiful lion [ Alasinga perumal], whose nishkamya karma should be remembered by all.

Iam quoting from memory.

“The path is not rosy . but son, walk on for the sake of the oppressed, in the name of the Lord who gave us the Bhagavad Gita!”

The message is not meant for Alasinga Perumal alone.

Please read the article at this link. It is something you may be aware of , so what am I talking here ?

We now know the property is a leased one and the Government wants it back.No,They don’t want to demolish it –it’s a heritage building , one of the many that dot the Beach road. A proud reminder of what British and Indian planning and design[ the design was heavily influenced by what the British saw in India so its Indian planning too!] and Indian craftsman ship.
I am not aware of the legal implications here but know enough to understand it is at the discretion of the government.

The move seems to have been withdrawn now but the issue reminds us that heritage sites associated with our common culture need our collective attention.

Regarding the place,I don’t have data on whose property it was before independence or till what time the lease period lasts.

But I, like many Indians, don’t think buildings are bricks, cement and stone alone and there are several intangible issues involved.

The sannidyam of great devotees/ Gnanis stay on in the places they visit and Indian designers traditionaly have taken this non- physical aspect in to consideration while designing.

The Government said they would make alternative arrangements to house the memories but how would, [or why should] intangible issues be moved at all from one place to another?

This isn’t an isolated issue but part of a pattern.

Would it be possible for a group or association draw up a list of such invaluable holy sites associated with collective cultural memories, tag them under heritage sites and see that they are protected and handed over to the next geneartion?

It would be a proactive decision and can only be done by a group or association rather than individuals.

This is just an idea that came to me , it might or might not be a workable solution but I would like to have your opinion on this. It’s also a plea to organizations that are committed to protecting our heritage.

This can happen to any site and has happened and happening with a regularity and one can say ,a sort of a sword of Damocles is hanging above a lot of concrete evidences of our heritage.

If we can do some kind of safeguarding, some kind of proactive planning ahead ,to preserve what is in the custody of our generation, and to hand over the treasures to the next generation …

There are NGO’s in Chennai that are committed to preserving the colonial heritage of the city .There are architects who de-silt temple tanks ,do their best to preserve buildings designed in the Indo Saracenic style and involve themselves with a lot of restoration work.

It’s good and we ‘d need to do more. The heritage of the city , on the whole, should be preserved .

That definitely includes Vivekananda memories.

The path isn’t rosy or has never been, but walk on, we have to.

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