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Ice House through the years

The Ice House has changed character through the years and today, as Vivekananda Illam, it plays an important role in cultural development.


THE VIVEKANANDAR Illam, built more than 150 years ago, was popularly known as the Ice House. This was the very place where ice was stored in those days. In 1833, it was Fredric Tudor, an ice merchant of Boston, USA, who brought ice to India in a ship named Clipper Tuscany. That was the first time ice was brought into India from abroad.

Tudor, the `Ice King', built three houses, one each in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, to keep ice under proper insulation. The building in Madras still stands, but the others have "evaporated" into thin air.

After the invention of making ice by the stream process in India, Tudor's business collapsed and the building was purchased by Biligiri Iyengar, an advocate of the Madras High Court. He named it Castle Kernan and added circular verandahs to the old frame of the building to make fit for inhabitation. However, it did not succeed as residential quarters because of inadequate ventilation.

Swami Vivekananda returned to India via Madras after a triumphant tour of the West in February 1897. He was taken from the station to the Ice House in a grand procession. He stayed there from February 6 to 15 and delivered seven electrifying speeches.

Swami Ramakrishnanda, a disciple and the indomitable messenger of Swami Vivekananda's mission to South India, came to Madras in the third week of March 1897. Soon, he established a shrine for Sri Ramakrishna in the basement floor with help extended by Biligiri Iyengar. Thus the first branch of the Ramakrishna Mutt was established in Madras.

Among the visitors to the Math were sister Nivedita, an Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda, in 1902, and British devotees Charlottee Elizabeth Sevier and Captain John Henry Sevier, who stayed on the third floor of the Ice House during the time Swamiji was present in 1897.

After the death of Biligiri Iyengar the property was sold to a zamindar (land owner) in Waltair (Vishakhapatnam) in 1906. The Government acquired the Ice House in 1917 and set up the Brahmana Widows' Hostel (1917-22). Thereafter, the building became the Elementary & Secondary Grade Teachers' Hostel, and between 1941 and 1993, the B.Ed. Trainees Hostel. In 1963, the Government renamed the building as Vivekananda House (Vivekanandar Illam) as a token of respect to Swamiji in his birth centenary year.

In February 1997, a hundred years after Swami Vivekananda's visit to Madras, the Tamil Nadu Government gave the building and a portion of the adjacent land to Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, on lease to set up a permanent exhibition on Swami Vivekananda and the cultural heritage of India.

SASHI NAIR

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