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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 19, january 16-31, 2010
When the RK Math put down Madras roots
(By Karthik A. Bhatt)

It was 1897. Swami Vivekananda returned from a successful tour of the US and was accorded a tremendous welcome by the citizens of Madras, who had played a major role in making his visit to the USA possible. He stayed at Castle Kernan (as Ice House was then known) for nine days and enlightened the citizens of Madras on various religious and nationalistic topics. He captured the imagination of the public to such an extent that they wanted him to send to Madras a person who could spread the message of Sri Ramakrishna and also impart religious instruction to the masses. Swami Vivekananda replied: “I shall send you one who is more orthodox than your most orthodox men of the South and who is at the same time unique and unsurpassed in his worship and meditation of God.” Thus, the stage was set for the arrival of Swami Ramakrishnananda in Madras.

Swami Vivekananda stands tall besides Vivekananda Illam where he had stayed when it was Castle Kernan.

Sashibhushan Chakravarthy, in time to become Swami Ramakrishnananda, was born in July 1863 to a pious couple, Iswara Chandra and Bhavasundari Devi at Ichhapur in Hoogly. Brought up in an orthodox environment, he inherited his parents’ spiritual qualities. A brilliant student, he won a Calcutta University scholarship and passed the F.A. Examination from Albert College. He gave up his studies just before his B.A. Examinations to serve his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, during his last days. He had come into contact with Sri Ramakrishna for the first time in October 1883 and had been instantly drawn to him and his religious teachings.

After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Ramakrishnananda and his brother monks, ably led and supported by Swami Vivekananda, went about the formation of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Chosen by Swami Vivekananda, Swami Ramakrishnananda, accompanied by another monk, Swami Saradananda, arrived in Madras in March 1897 to spread the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna.

Swami Ramakrishnananda

Sashi Maharaj, as Swami Ramakrishnananda was affectionately known, was given a warm welcome by such devotees of Swami Vivekananda as Alasinga Perumal and Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Rao. Flora Cottage (which no longer exists) on Ice House Road (now Dr. Besant Road) was rented and Sashi Maharaj was temporarily accommodated there. He established a shrine in the house, worshipping there a photograph of Sri Ramakrishna which he had brought with him. Thus, the seeds were sown for the beginnings of the Madras Math, which is now one of the most important centres of the Ramakrishna Order.

It was in June 1897 that Sashi Maharaj moved into Castle Kernan, then the house of that noted lawyer of Madras, S. Biligiri Iyengar, a great devotee of Swami Vivekananda. He offered the use of the ground floor of his residence for the use of Sashi Maharaj. An ardent supporter of the Math, he even made a provision in his will for a payment of Rs. 12 a month to Sashi Maharaj. The later Ice House became the base from which Sashi Maharaj started spreading the message of Sri Ramakrishna.

Sashi Maharaj’s spiritual talks were held at various places in Madras. He inaugurated Vedanta classes in September 1897 at the Dewan Bahadur Rajaratna Mudaliar School in Chintadripet. The schedule for his classes throughout the week showed the great effort put in by him to impart spiritual education to the people. Classes were held in Purasawalkam, Egmore, Chintadripet, Komaleeswaranpet, Saidapet, and Mylapore besides at Castle Kernan. P. Manikkaswami Mudaliar, in a series of articles titled Reminiscences of Swami Ramakrishnananda, published in the Vedanta Kesari from time to time, speaks of the tremendous odds Sashi Maharaj had to face in going to these classes. Being stout, Sashi Maharaj had to squeeze himself with great difficulty into a jutka to travel to the classes. With no jutka stand near Castle Kernan, Sashi Maharaj often had to walk to Triplicane to hire one. He would not always have the money for the fare. Getting to Chintadripet was difficult as it had to be accessed only through Mount Road, which was low lying and often under water; he had to sometimes wade through hip-deep water to get to the classes.

After the death of Biligiri Iyengar, Castle Kernan came up for auction in 1906 and the devotees of the Math were worried as to what would happen to Sashi Maharaj and the shrine of Sri Ramakrishna once the house changed hands. Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Rao and other devotees of the Math made a valiant bid to purchase the house but ran short of funds. It was said that Dr. Nanjunda Rao fell short by Rs.1000 in the bid. The house was purchased by a wealthy zamindar from Waltair, Ankhitham Venkata Jaggiah Rao, and Sashi Maharaj had to move to an outhouse at its rear.

Later that year, a small piece of land on Brodie’s Road, Mylapore, was obtained as a gift from Akul Kondiah Chettiar, a devotee of Sashi Maharaj. The foundation stone for a new Math building was laid on this site by Swami Abhedananda, one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. The building came up under the supervision of A.S. Balasubramanya Iyer, an advocate of the Madras High Court, who was also a devotee, and was ready for occupation in November 1907. The cost of construction amounted to Rs.5500. The collection by way of contributions amounted to only Rs. 4100 and the rest had to be met with great difficulty.

Sashi Maharaj moved into the new building, called The Ramakrishna Home on November 17, 1907 and it became the new monastery of the Order. In a way, this building was the realisation of a dream Sashi Maharaj had, that of building an ‘Ananda Mandir’ to perpetuate the memory of Swami Vivekananda. (Sashi Maharaj had earlier made an earnest appeal for this purpose in 1902 at a memorial meeting organised by him at Pachaiyappa’s College on the passing away of Swami Vivekananda, in which dignitaries such as V. Krishnaswami Iyer, V.C. Seshacharirar and P.R. Sundara Iyer also spoke. The new building was a one-storeyed square one, with a large terrace. It was tinted red and stood on a high plinth. The building developed cracks within a short time of its construction and was finally demolished in 1914, paving the way for the construction of the present two-storeyed building in 1917.

The Mylapore Math was the site for the visit of many leading monks of the Order. It was graced by the visit of the Holy Mother Sarada Devi in 1910. She was put up at a house opposite the Math, Sundara Vilas, a house that no longer exists (then No.127, Brodie’s Road and now No.221, Ramakrishna Math Road) which had also accommodated Sister Devamata (Laura Glenn), one of the Western disciples of Swami Vivekananda who visited Madras and stayed for some time. Writing in her Days in an Indian Monastery, Sister Devamata talks about how Sashi Maharaj and a group of about 12 to 15 people had come to the railway station to receive her, despite her wiring the Math not to meet her as she was arriving at an early hour. Her interactions with Sashi Maharaj during her stay in Madras make for a fascinating account and give a wonderful description of Mylapore of the early 20th Century. Among other things, she describes the annual festival of the Kapaleeswarar temple and also mentions how Sashi Maharaj used to pull the Ther.

The birth anniversaries of Sri Ramakrishna and, later, of Swami Vivekananda were celebrated in a grand manner by Sashi Maharaj during his stay in Madras. The celebrations were usually held in the houses he lived in. It is, however, recorded that, in 1902, the 67th birthday celebration of Sri Ramakrishna was held in the residence of a Bengali devotee, Babu Kalipada Ghosh, opposite the Presentation Convent and very near the Madras Municipal Office on McLean Street (off Broadway). The celebrations usually consisted of public lectures in which leading citizens of Madras participated, harikathas, and mass poor feeding. One such instance was in 1909 when about 5000 people were fed at the Thannithorai Market in Mylapore where the poor were seated on the raised platforms (which were usually meant for the traders to display and sell their vegetables) and food was served to them.

Having played a major role in the founding of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home in 1905, Sashi Maharaj was instrumental in starting a school for girls in 1906 in George Town. Called the National Girls School, it started functioning from a choultry of the Kannika Parameswari temple in Krishnappanaicken Agraharam. Sashi Maharaj used to collect funds for its maintenance by going about with a hundi and deposited the collections in the account the school maintained in the nearby post office. This hundi is still kept in the shrine of the school. The school now functions from Basin Bridge Road, Mint.

The publication department of the Ramakrishna Math, which celebrated its centenary in 2008, was started by Sashi Maharaj. One of the earliest titles that was brought out in 1908 was called The Universe and Man. It was a collection of six lectures delivered by Sashi Maharaj at the new Math in Mylapore.

Towards the end of his stay in Madras, Sashi Maharaj’s health deteriorated and he had to leave for Calcutta for treatment. His association lasting about 15 years with the city came to an end when he left Madras in 1911, never to return again. He passed away on August 21, 1911 in Calcutta. – (Pictures courtesy: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.)


In this issue

Will bigger be better?
Road-widening no answer for increasing traffic
When the RK Math put down Madras roots
A collection well past its prime
Historic Residences of Chennai - 34
Other stories

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