Ramanathapuram Centre – an overview
by Swami Abhiramananda
The royal families of sethupathis have been ruling the Ramanathapuram from time immemorial. They are credited with protecting the Sethu built by Bhagavan Sri Ramachandra and the Rameswaram temple where Lord Siva was worshipped by Sri Ramachandra. Swami Vivekananda refers to the stone slab in the Ramanathapuram palace on which Bhagavan Sri Ramachandra installed their ancestor as Sethupathi for the first time. The stone can still be seen ‘throne-like’ in the palace and is used during coronation and other important ceremonies connected with the royal family.
It is said that during the period of Kizhavan Sethupathi (1673 to 1708 A.D), Ramanathapuram became the capital of their kingdom. In 1772, the British led by Commander Stevenson and the moghuls jointly took control of the Ramanathapuram State. Colonel Martin was given the responsibility of administering the state. Colonel Martin lived in a bungalow which came to be called Colonel Bungalow and the street in which it was situated was named Colonel Bungalow Street. The Colonel lived in this bungalow from 1790 to 1830 and died at the age of 70. He was entombed in the nearby CSI cemetery. The bungalow was in a natural surrounding with trees and a big water tank on the backyard. The building and the surrounding park measured 160 feet by 600 feet. The royal tank behind was meant for the Raja’s family.
After the demise of Col. Martin, the Rajas used to worship the Divine Mother Rajarajeswari with sacrifice in the Martin Bungalow. In 1894, the pontiff of Sringeri Mahapitham, Sri Siva Abhinava Narasimha Bharathi, visited the place. The Raja expressed his desire of abandoning the sacrificial practice and to follow Sattvika mode of worship. The Pontiff stayed in the bungalow for 48 days and performed Goddess Rajarajeswari yagna and thus consecrated the bungalow. The Golden vigraha of Goddess Rajarajeswari was shifted from the bungalow to the palace temple. Since then, the bungalow has come to be known as Shankara Vilasam, also sometimes referred to as ‘Shankara villa’ or ‘Shankara Vilas’. It was in this Shankaravilas building that Swami Vivekananda stayed. This bungalow acquires historic significance, as initially, Bhaskara Sethupathi, the Raja of Ramnad himself had decided to go to America to attend the Parliament of Religions. But after seeing and discussing with Swami Vivekananda in Shankara vilas, the Raja decided that Swamiji was the proper person to attend the Conference.
When this author went to see the Raja of the palace, he had the privilege of attending the mid-day arati of the Goddess Rajarajeswari in the palace temple.
Since the time of Raja Muthuramalinga Sethupathi, the father of Bhaskara Sethupathi,
innumerable poets, scholars and pundits have stayed in Shankara Vilas. Some of the great poets and littérateurs of Tamilnadu patronized and felicitated by the sethupathi maharajas are Raghava Aiyangar, Poochi Srinivasa Aiyangar, Vu.Ve. Saminatha Iyer, Arunachala Kavirayar, Abdul Kadir Ravutthar, Chinnasamy pillai, Sakkarai pulavar, Shataavadaanam Saravana Perumal, Thirukodikaaval Krishna Iyer, Ambalavaana Desikar, Sitrambala Kaviraayar, Arumuga Naavalar, Sivasambu pulavar, Mir Javvadu pulavar etc.
Raja Bhaskara Sethupathi
Born on 3, November, 1868, the Raja lived only for 35 years. He was the then Queen Parvatavardini Natchiar’s sister’s grandson. Since he lost his father Muthuramalinga Sethupathi (II) at the age of four, he was, according to the British law, groomed by a committee constituted by the ‘Court of Wards’. He was trained in British lifestyle, mannerisms, western music and English language until the attainment of majorhood. The Ramnad State was, during this transition, under the control of the Collector of the area. Bhaskara Sethupathi took charge as the king on 3, April 1889.
Although he was trained in western traditions, his mind was always with Indian Gods and traditions. He had great devotion to Ramalingeswara of Rameswaram temple, Goddess Rajarajeswari, Thiruppullani Venkateswara etc. He was also well versed in Tamil literature.
The Raja was known for his generosity. It Is estimated that he gave away Rs. 40 lakhs in charity, an astronomical sum in those days! He was also a champion of the masses. In 1897, he conducted a protest march against people not permitting dalits into the Hindu temples.
But the crown of his character was detachment. During the year 1900, the Sringeri Sankara was performing Rajarajeswari puja in the palace. The Raja knelt at the feet of the Sankaracharya and offered his turban and sword at the feet of Shankaracharya, thereby symbolizing the handing over of his kingdom to the Sringeri Math. The Sankaracharya accepted the gift and in turn handed over the kingdom to his prince Rajarajeswaran. At that time, the Raja was just 32 years old!
His end was as dramatic as his life. Leaving the kingdom to his son, the Raja went away to the Thiruvavadudurai Adheenam (an old, traditional math) on the banks of the river thamarabarani and spent his life in sadhanas. Even during the last moment of his life, he requested the famous musician Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar to sing the Divine Mother’s song in mohana ragam. Presenting a diamond necklace to the musician, the Raja attained the feet of the Divine Mother.
Swami Vivekananda, the wandering monk:
Swami Vivekananda, after wandering through the length and breadth of India to study the condition of her people, reached the Kanyakumari Rock on 24 December, 1892. After meditating for 3 days at the Rock, Swamiji left for Rameswaram. Going on foot, he stopped on the way at Madurai, where he met the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Sethupathi (1868-1903), to whom he had a letter of introduction. The devout prince, one of the most enlightened of the Indian rulers, at once acknowledged Swamiji as “the Coming Man of his Motherland” and became his admirer and disciple. The Raja invited Swami Vivekananda to be a state guest of the Ramanathapuram palace. Swamiji stayed in the Shankara Villa for a week and visited Rameswaram temple, though the official documents in this regard are not yet traceable. Perhaps, a scrutiny of the palace records may clarify this speculation.
To the Raja, Swamiji expressed many of his ideas about the education of the poor, the improvement of agriculture, and about the problems and potentialities of India. The Raja persistently urged Swamiji to go to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, saying that it would be a very favourable opportunity for drawing the attention of the world towards Indian spiritual thought, and for laying the foundation for his future work in India.
Raja Kumaran Sethupathy, the present Raja of Ramnad informs us that Raja Bhaskara Sethupathi met Swamiji again at ‘Woodland Palace’ in Royappettai, Madras, in January 1893, to impress upon him the paramount need to address the Parliament of Religions.
Swami Vivekananda, the triumphant hero:
After his epoch-making address at Chicago and the West, Swamiji returned to India on 26 January 1897. The place of his landing was at Pamban, now called kunthukal. Kunthukal literally means ‘setting foot’. The place is so called because Swamiji first set his feet in India at this place after return from the west. This place was under the rule of Bhaskara Sethupathi who accorded him a rousing reception. To quote from Swamiji’s biography:
“On Tuesday, January 26, about 3 p.m, the steamer carrying the Swami and his European disciples arrived in Pamban. The Swami had been invited by the Raja of Ramnad to Rameswaram and was about to land and proceed to that place when he heard that the Raja was coming in person to meet him. On the Raja’s arrival, the Swami and party transferred from the vessel in which they had come to the state boat. As soon as he entered it, the Raja and all his staff prostrated before him. The meeting between the prince and the monk was a touching one. The Swami feelingly said that, as the Raja had been one of the first to conceive the idea of his going to the west and had encouraged and helped him to do so, it was apt that he should meet the Raja first on returning to the Indian soil.”
The Raja placed Swamiji in a throne-like seat in the state-boat, put sandals at his feet and remarked that he deemed it a high honour and privilege to have been in a position to do this than to wear the richest diadem on his head.
When the state boat reached the shore, Swamiji was given a tremendous ovation by the people of Pamban. Under a decorated pandal, an address of welcome was read out and presented to him. The Raja added to this, a brief personal welcome which was remarkable for its depth of feeling. Then Swamiji gave a short reply, pointing out that the backbone of Indian national life was neither politics nor military power, neither commercial supremacy nor mechanical genius, but religion and religion alone; and India alone could give spirituality to the world. He concluded by thanking the people of Pamban for their kind reception, and expressed his gratitude to the Raja of Ramnad for all that he had done for him.
Swamiji was accompanied by his brother disciple, Swami Niranjanananda, Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, J.J. Goodwin and Mr. Harrison of Ceylon.
The pamban (Kunthukal) Monument:
The Raja commemorated the spot where Swamiji set foot on the Indian soil after return from the west, by erecting a monument, forty feet in height, bearing the following inscription:
The monument erected by Bhaskara Sethupathi, the Raja of Ramnad, marks the sacred spot, where His Holiness Swami Vivekananda’s blessed feet first trod on Indian soil, together with the Swami’s English disciples, on His Holiness from the western Hemisphere, where glorious and unprecedented success attended His Holiness’ philanthropic labours to spread the religion of Vedanta
January 27, 1897
The monument does not exist now. When asked, Swami Tathagathananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order, who was the Chief Warden of Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home, Mylapore, said, “For a long time, there has been no trace of this monument. Our Mission conducted relief work near the Rameswaram temple in 1958. At that time our monks tried hard to trace it out. None could tell them anything about it”. It is believed that the local fishermen broke down the sthupa monument.
Recently, an imposing palatial structure has been built at this place by the Government of Tamil Nadu. This monument is being maintained by Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Tirupparaitturari. Hundreds of tourists visit this holy spot every day.
Swamiji then drove in a state-carriage. After some time, the Raja commanded that the horses be unharnessed and he himself drew the carriage to the town. Swamiji remained in Pamban for three days. On 27 January, he visited the Rameswaram temple. He recalled his previous visit five years ago as a wandering monk. Swamiji was received at the Rameswaram temple with temple insignia, a procession of elephants, camels and horses to the accompaniment of traditional music. Swamiji spoke here on ‘Real Worship’, the script of which can be seen inscribed in Tamil and English at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum. S. Nagalingam Pillai translated his speech into Tamil. To mark the occasion, the Raja fed and clothed thousands of poor people
Towards Shankara Vilas:
From Pamban, Swamiji reached Ramanathapuram via Tiruppullam in a state-boat on 29 January 1897 at about 6 p.m.
To quote again from the Biography of Swamiji:
The firing of cannon announced to the waiting thousands the arrival of the Swami. At the time of landing and during the procession, rockets shot into the air. There was rejoicing everywhere. The Swami was driven in the state-carriage, accompanied by a bodyguard commanded by the Raja’s brother, while the Raja himself, on foot, directed the procession. Torches flared on either side of the road. Both Indian and European music added life to the already lively proceedings. “See the Conquering Hero Comes” was played on landing…. Attended with all pomp, Swamiji reached the Shankara Villa.
J.J. Goodwin mentions that the cheering and shouting of ‘Hara Hara Mahadev’ was terrific; that he was proud of Swamiji and realized what Swamiji was to India.
Swamiji entered the Shankara Vilas where many had gathered to hear his reply to their welcome. Swamiji was received with shouts of triumph and joy. The Raja opened the meeting with a speech in high praise of Swamiji. Raja Dinakara Sethupathi, his brother, read out an address of welcome. Swamiji began his reply with a speech starting with the words ‘The longest night seems to be passing away…..’ which have since become immortal.
The Raja introduced Swamiji to the elite of Ramnad. Swamiji stayed at Shankara Vilasam for three days, i.e., up to 31 January.
At Ramnad, Swamiji gave a lecture in a Christian Missionary School. He also attended a durbar at the palace held in his honour at Ramalinga Vilasam. In the meeting, Swamiji received addresses in Tamil and Sanskrit to which he replied appropriately. During the course of the function, Swamiji conferred on the Raja, the title Rajarshi, meaning that he was both a King and Sage at the same time. To our knowledge, Swamiji has not conferred any title to anyone, anywhere in the world except to the Raja of Ramnad. This speaks volumes of the glory of the Raja of Ramnad.
Enroute to Madras:
Swamiji left Ramnad palace on 31st January and travelled through Paramakkudi, Manamadurai, Madurai, Trichy, Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Mayavaram to Madras. In most of these places he delivered inspiring addresses waking up the sleeping Leviathon that was India. These lectures have been brought in a book- form under the title ‘Lectures from Colombo to Almora’ which give Swamji’s detailed plan of action for the rejuvenation of an awakening nation. Particularly worth mentioning is the address at Kumbakonam in which he exhorted Indians to “Arise, Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached’. Pronounced for the first time in Kumbakonam, these words have inspired innumerable youths over the last hundred years to dedicate their lives for the betterment of their nation.
The journey from Ramnad to Madras which is about 380 miles by rail was an arduous one for several reasons. Firstly, he had to halt at a number of places on his way to Madras, which meant going through crowded programmes at each of them, besides having sleepless nights – for the journeys were done at night and for some distances by coach. At every station at which the train halted, thousands had gathered at the platform. Speaking about the strain that Swami Vivekananda was put to ever since he landed at Colombo, Romain Rolland comments: “A sick man who needed to nurse his vitality, he made a superhuman expenditure of his energy”. One wonders where he got all this energy from. An explanation can be found in Dr. Radhakrishnan’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita: “He works as God works, without any binding necessity or compelling ignorance, and even in performing work, he is not involved. When his egoism is removed, action springs from the depths and is governed by the Supreme, secretly seated in his heart. Free from desire and attachment, one with all beings, he acts out of the profoundest depths of his inner being, governed by his immortal, divine, highest self.”
The present scenario of Ramnad Centre:
When Ramanatha Sethupathi, the great grandson of Bhaskara Sethupathi, passed away in 1979, the royal family members wanted to sell the Shankaravilas building to some organization associated with Swami Vivekananda. Several Hindu organizations tried to procure the memorial, but for reasons unknown, they could not do so.
The visionary who secured this building at last in 2002 was Sri M.S. Karunanidhi, a hosiery businessman. He has been in the business for over 25 years and used to travel almost 25 days a month. Despite his busy schedule and the professional hazard of losing business, Sri Karunanidhi gave his time and money for the noble cause. Recently he met with an accident and has been miraculously saved by the grace of God. He lives just behind the Shankara vilas (the present Ramanathapuram centre) and is helping the centre in all possible ways.
Swami Atmanandaji, Head of Amaravathipudur and Kanavaipudur centres, purchased the land along with the dilapidated building from Sri M.S. Karunanidhi at the request of Dr. S.M. Kamaal, a historian and writer, in 2002. Sri Karunanidhi gave 3000 sq ft of the land as gift and the remaining portion at the same cost at which he had purchased it from the palace authorities. Swami Atmanandaji demolished the dilapidated building and raised a beautiful temple for Sri Ramakrishna on that spot at a cost of Rs. 40 lakhs. The two pillars at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum (garbhagriha) has been retained from the original building and reinforced. Most of the teak wood used in the new building are retrieved from the old building. They have been used mainly in the construction of the shrine door and the main door at the entrance to the temple. This new temple was consecrated on 30-8-2007 by Swami Gautamanandaji, President, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai with senior monk Swami Somanandaji presiding over the meeting. Swami Atmanandaji has magnanimously and unconditionally gifted this temple to the Ramakrishna Math, Belur Math, for which we are deeply indebted to him. The headquarters of the Ramakrishn Math at Belur appointed Swami Abhiramananda as the Adhyaksha of the centre on Buddha Purnima, 21 May, 2016.
Visit of Kakkan, an interesting incident:
The following is a record of the visit of Sri Kakkan to Sundara Vilas as narrated by Sri M.S. Karunanidhi. Sri Kakkan was the Home Minister in Tamil Nadu Government cabinet in the 1960s. In those days, state government officials were permitted by the palace authorities to stay at Shankara Vilas. Sri Kakkan took his noon lunch and rested in a room at the Shankara Vilas. An employer of the guest house proudly informed that the room where Sri Kakkan was resting was the very room occupied by Swami Vivekananda when he had visited Ramnad. Deeply agitated, Sri Kakkan jumped out of the bed saying, “How can I stay in the same room sanctified by the great Swami Vivekananda?” He rushed out of the room and rested in his car itself before leaving the place.
I conclude this article with a quotation from Sri G.P. Srinivasan: “In the case of ice house building in Chennai, where Swami Vivekananda stayed when he visited the city, the State Government initially decided to demolish it, but because of Swami Vivekananda’s association, it was spared and handed over to Ramakrishna Math. The Math has renovated and has been maintaining it as a memorial cum exhibition centre. … In my opinion, the Shankara villa is as significant as the Vivekananda Illam and the Vivekananda Rock Memorial at Kanyakumari”
Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekannda by Sailendra Nath Dhar, published by Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan
Memoirs of European Travels by Swami Vivekananda, published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata
‘Shankara Vilasam, a historical perspective’, an article written by Sri M.S. Karunanidhi in Tamil and published in ‘Vivekananda Bharatham’, September 2007.
“The dispappearance of a Vital Historical Monument” – an article by Sri G.P. Srinivasan, published in the March 2007 issue of the “Hindu Voioce”.
“A New Vivekananda Memorial at Ramanathapuram” – an article by Sri G.P. Srinivasan published in the April 2007issue of the ‘Hindu Voice’.
Mannar Bhaskara Sethupathy in Tamil by Dr.S.M.Kamaal, published in 1992 by Sharmila Publishing House, Ramanathapuram
From the author’s personal interview with Swami Ramananda, Organisational Secretary, Akhila Bharat Sannyasi Sangh, who directly supervised the demolition of Shankara Vilas building and construction of the new temple-memorial.