Saturday, June 14, 2008

An icy heritage

Fredric Tudor, a Boston native, could smell a business opportunity half-a-world away. Learning that the heat in India was causing acute discomfort to the British, Mr. Tudor packed a ship with tons of ice cut from New England's rivers and sent it off to Calcutta - a journey of about 25,000 km, which took over 3 months to be completed. This test run was so successful that he built an 'Ice House' in each of the 3 Presidencies - Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

The business didn't last for too long and the Ice House in Madras was bought by Biligiri Iyengar, a senior advocate of the Madras High Court. Designed to store ice, the building was ill-suited as a residence. Though Biligiri Iyengar tried various things, such as adding a verandah and renaming the building 'Castle Kernan', he could not live in it. However, it was a wonderful location to host Swami Vivekananda, returning to India in 1897 from his triumphant tour of the Western world. That was probably the high point of the building's history.

By 1963, Castle Kernan was in the hands of the government; the building was renamed Vivekanandar Illam (House of Vivekananda) to mark the Swamiji's birth centenary. In 1997, the building was leased to the Ramakrishna Mission to set up a permanent exhibition on Swamiji's life. But this permanent exhibition is on a lease that runs out in 2010 - hopefully, it will be renewed before that, and the diverse history of the building preserved for a long, long time.

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