Illam is a place of pilgrimage for every student and devotee of Swami
Vivekananda's life and teachings. For full nine days Swamiji stayed here,
he met visitors, he sang, he prayed, and he meditated. The place is still
charged with his invisible, divine presence.
Vivekanandar Illam on the Marina, Chennai, built 160 years back, has a
long and interesting history. It was meant to store ice, whence it got its
popular name, the Ice House. Eventually this house became a silent
spectator of a series of diverse historical events, some of which have
lifted this building to a status of an outstanding historical and cultural
Mr.Frederic Tudor, the 'Ice King', built three houses in Calcutta, Bombay and
Chennai to keep ice under proper insulation so that it could be stored for
months together. Amongst the three buildings the one at Chennai alone
stands today. It was built in the year 1842. Tudor maintained his business
in Chennai from 1842 upto around 1880. After the invention of making ice
by 'steam process' in India, his business collapsed.
Then the Ice House was sold to Mr.Biligiri Iyengar, a prosperous advocate of
the Madras High Court. He remodelled the house adding circular verandahs
and provided it with many windows to make it fit as residential quarters.
Also he named the house 'Castle Kernan,' as a tribute to his friend, the
famous Justice Kernan of the Madras High Court. Apart from being his
residential quarters, this house served as a shelter for poor and
educationally backward students. The structure failed as a residence,
probably because of inadequate ventilation.
Swami Vivekananda's Visit
Castle Kernan acquired historical and cultural value after Swami Vivekananda's
stay there. Swami Vivekananda came to Tamil Nadu twice: first as an
unknown wandering monk (December 1892 to April 1893) and then as the
famous Swami Vivekananda, after his appearance at the Chicago Parliament
of Religions and successful preaching work in the West.In a very real sense, it was Chennai that first 'recognized' Swamiji's
power and potential, and it was the young men of this city that took a
leading part in sending Swamiji to the West.After
his triumphant march through the West for four years he returned to India
via Colombo (Sri Lanka), Pamban, Rameswaram, etc to Chennai in February
He was given a tumultuous welcome at Egmore Railway Station, a kind
of welcome never extended to any other person in the recent history of
India. Being a disciple of the great Swami, Biligiri Iyengar offered
Castle Kernan for the stay of his Master. Swami Vivekananda was taken
there in a grand procession along with some of his western devotees (J.J.Goodwin,
Capt. & Mrs. Sevier etc.), some eastern disciples (Swami Sadananda
etc.) and two of his brother monks (Swami Shivananda, Swami Niranjanananda).
stayed there from February 6 to 14, 1897, and delivered seven electrifying
lectures revealing his plan of campaign to restore India to her pristine
glory. Indian Mirror published a report on 6.2.1897
Kernan, where Swami Vivekananda is lodged, presented a picturesque scene
on Saturday evening. The castle itself is beautifully decorated and fitted
up for the reception of the Swami and party. Two magnificent pandals have
been put up, one at the entrance, which is intended to serve a purely
ornamental purpose, and another in the compound, which serves the purpose
of a meeting hall, where the Swami patiently undergoes the severe
cross-examination to which he is subjected on the technicalities and
subtleties of Vedanta. A large number of gentlemen waited upon the Swami
at the pandal that evening, when an acrostic poem in Sanskrit in honour of
the Swami was read by Mr.R.Sivasankara Pandiaji. The Swami then offered to
answer any questions that might be put to him".
the eve of his departure for Calcutta, ie on 14 Feb 1897, Swami
Vivekananda was coming down the staircase of Castle Kernan. The devotees
of Chennai requested him to have a permanent centre here. Swamji readily
agreed and deputed his brother disciple Swami Ramakrishnananda to initiate
the Ramakrishna Order's activities in South India.Swami
Ramakrishnananda, a great thinker, erudite scholar, forceful speaker and,
above all, a God-realized saint, arrived in Chennai in the 3rd week of
March 1897 with Swami Sadananda and after a short stay of a few days at
Flora Cottage, a building on the Ice House Road (now Dr. Besant Road),
shifted to Ice House and established a shrine for Sri Ramakrishna there
with the help extended by Sri Biligiri Iyengar, the owner of the house.
Thus, the first branch of the Ramakrishna Math, which is now flourishing
as an international spiritual organization, was started in Chennai.
after the passing away of Sri Biligiri Iyengar in 1902, Swami
Ramakrishnananda continued his work here till 1906. In 1906 this property
was brought to sale by auction by the mortgagee.
the Government of Madras acquired the Ice House in 1917 as part of their
social welfare scheme for Government Secondary Training School for Women.
Initially the Government set up the Widows' Hostel in this building from
1917-1922. It appears that this building bore the name of Marine Mansion
for a short period then, which name except for a marble plate available
now, has gone into oblivion of memory. From 1922-1941 it acted as
Elementary & Secondary Grade Teacher's Trainees' Hostel and T.P.T.
Hostel. From 1941 to 1993 it acted as B.Ed. Trainees' Hostel.
The Ice House was named Vivekanandar Illam by the Govt. of Tamil Nadu
during 1963, the Centenary year of Swami Vivekananda. At this time Sri
Ramakrishna Math made efforts to acquire the building to preserve it as a
great national, cultural and historical monument. It needed much patience
and perseverance and even then it was a long wait. Finally, on 6 February
1997 the Government of Tamil Nadu made a public announcement at the
meeting near Vivekanandar Illam in connection with the 'home coming
centenary of Swami Vivekananda,' that the government would soon hand over
the historical monument to the Math. The formal announcement followed a
few days later and the Government of Tamil Nadu has given Vivekanandar
Illam to Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, on lease to set up a permanent
exhibition on Swami Vivekananda and the Indian Cultural Heritage.
then onwards the work started. But no project could be taken up until the
structure was thoroughly strengthened through repairs. So conservation
experts were consulted and a committee appointed to oversee the renovation
of the Illam and implementation of the various projects. 1.5 Crore Rupees
was estimated for the work and setting up an exhibition. So far about Rs.
65 lakhs have been spent, and careful repair work was carried out keeping
the historicity of the building in view.
Vivekananda Cultural Heritage of India Exibition : First Phase
Section 1 : Cultural Heritage of India
A colourful and vibrant exhibition of paintings, 43 in all is a delight to
the connoisseur and lay for its sheer beauty and artistry. They portray
India from Vedic times to the advent of Sri Ramakrishna. These paintings
echo the cultural & spiritual history of India and an instant
attraction. Mr. P Purushottam Karanth of Lalit Kala Academy, Mysore, Sri
Maniam Selvan, a celebrated artist of Tamil Nadu, and other renowned
artists bring alive before our mind's eye that ageless civilization and
culture which made gigantic strides in the plane of thought, even in the
remote past. These would excite any art lover as it vividly depicts the
significant growth of Indian thought power - in search of inner peace and
tranquility. There is one section devoted to the spirit and culture of the
Tamils and the proud place it occupies even in modern times. The subtitles
to the exhibits convey with ease subtle and lofty ideas of the Vedas and
Section 2 : Photo gallery
The photo gallery is set in a large circular verandah with 120 exhibits on
Swami Vivekananda - from his days as an itinerant monk to his conquest of
West through his life and work. On display are rare photos elegantly
laminated with bi-lingual (English & Tamil) subtitles and scripts.
Students and admirers of the Swami Vivekananda will revel at these as
these help them recall the momentous incidents connected with his life.
These photos donated by the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, USA are
remarkable for its clarity and sharpness even as they were taken a century
ago. Some relics of Swami Vivekananda are
also displayed here.
Section 3 : Swami Vivekananda's Room:
On the 2nd floor is the room where Swami Vivekananda stayed from 6 to 15 Feb
1897 after his triumphant return from the West. From here he proclaimed
his Mission and inspired thousands of men and women to consecrate their
lives for the emancipation of our motherland and mankind in general. The
room commands a breath-taking view of the beach/ocean.