Vivekananda is a monk who awakened India from its slumber

Most buildings are landmarks, at the most. Some have the good fortune to become monuments. And when they do, they define cities. But it is rare in history when a monument is famous not for its architecture or the purpose for which it was built, but for the person who occupied it. That is the story of Vivekananda House in Chennai.

On the shore of the Marina, this iconic monument is legendary for being the place where the determined and triumphant Vivekananda stayed, returning from America after having won countless hearts and many disciples with his elucidation of Hinduism and his message of universal brotherhood at the World Parliament of Religions held in 1893.

Vivekanandar Illam, — Illam in Tamil means house — though beautiful to the eye, was not intended to be an architectural splendour. Neither was it built for the stay of monks who landed in the erstwhile Madras. It was built in 1842 by Frederic Tudor, founder of an American ice company, so he could store ice imported from the other side of the world and was called ‘Ice House’. Later, when Tudor closed his business, the building was bought by Biligiri Iyengar, a wealthy lawyer, who with full-heartedly played host to the hero of Chicago when he arrived in Madras in 1897.

During his stay, from February 6 to 15, Vivekananda held discussions and gave lectures on what India meant to him and the importance of India breaking free of her shackles. Many of his disciples, eastern and western alike, have confessed: “Our love for India came to birth, I think, when we first heard him say the word ‘India’, in that marvellous voice of his. It seems incredible that so much could have been put into one small word of five letters…Ever after, India became the land of heart’s desire.” One can imagine the inspiration and the divine call to action that those who heard him speak at Ice House would have felt.

Those nine days made this building immortal. Sister Gargi wrote: “But of Swamiji, even a small scrap of paper or a shred of cloth that he left behind becomes an object to enshrine and worship. Whatever he touched became charged with his own vibrant holiness and can impart to us some aura of himself. There is no detail of his action too small to record, no whiff of his thought too inconsequential to ponder over, perhaps to write tomes about. If he spoke to some fortunate man or woman for five minutes, we want to know the biography of that person; if he entered a building, we want to know its architecture and history.”

And today, it is precisely this desire to know about the monk who awakened India from its slumber that draws visitors everyday to the Illam. At a time when our country seems to be caught in a storm and nation-building presents itself as the most daunting task, Vivekananda’s gospel can help us realise our place in a troubled India and India’s place in a testing world. May that be our purpose as we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

(The writer’s