I wrote this article for The Hindu to coincide with the 175th birth anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
When Swami Vivekananda returned from his US trip in 1897, he was given a tumultuous welcome in this city. After all, the citizens of Madras had been at the forefront of organizing his overseas tour. When he left Madras after nine days, it was with a promise to send a fellow disciple of his guru Sri Ramakrishna, to be entrusted with the task of continuing his work in the city. This was Shashi Bhushan Chakravarty or Swami Ramakrishnananda. Madras was to refer to him as Sashi Maharaj. He was first housed for a short while at Flora Cottage, a bungalow no longer in existence, on Ice House Road in Triplicane. It was there that he first enshrined a photograph of Sri Ramakrishna, signaling the commencement of the Math.
The Ice House or Castle Kernan as it was then known, was the residence of Bilagiri Iyengar, a lawyer and ardent devotee of Swami Vivekananda. And it was at his invitation that the latter had made Ice House his place of stay when he visited Madras. Iyengar offered the ground floor to the Math and Sashi Maharaj moved in, in 1897. When Iyengar died in 1906, the house had to be auctioned and the Math moved out.
That year, a small piece of land on what was then Brodie’s Road, was gifted to the Math by Akul Kondiah Chettiar. With the foundation being laid by Swami Abhedananda, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples, the building, was ready for occupation 1907. This was demolished in 1917 to make way for a two-storeyed edifice that is still preserved and used.
An interesting visitor in the early years was a Western disciple of Swami Vivekananda’s — Laura Glenn. Named Sister Devamata when she joined the Order, she stayed in Mylapore in 1910 and left behind a fascinating account of life in the area then in a book titled Days in an Indian Monastery. Among other things, she describes the annual festival of the Kapaleeswarar temple with Sashi Maharaj pulling the holy car or Ther. The birth anniversaries of Sri Ramakrishna and later, of Swami Vivekananda, have been occasions for mass public feeding at the Math. Sister Devamata writes of one such event in 1909, when about 5,000 people were fed at the Tanneer Turai Market (recently demolished).
Sashi Maharaj began the publication department of the Math in 1908. Today that is a busy bookstore selling several of the Math’s titles.
Over time, the Math became such a landmark that the road itself changed its name to become RK Math Road. Dwarfing both the old Math building and the publications division is the Universal Temple, completed in 2000.
What is heartening is the way the old and the new co-exist in the campus. The heritage structures are tended to with the same care as the new buildings. That is a principle that the rest of the city would do well to follow.