The first branch of the Ramakrishna Order in South India. Ramakrishna Math, Madras (now Chennai) was started in March 1897.
It was first located at Castle Kernan (earlier named Ice House, and since 1963, called Vivekanandar Illam or Vivekananda House) located on the Marina Beach Road. The Math came into existence as a result of the request by devotees of Swami Vivekananda when he was leaving the city in 1897, after nine days stay in Madras which received him with royal honours. Swamiji agreed to their request and said, ‘I shall send you one who is more orthodox than your most orthodox men of the South and who is at the same time unique and unsurpassed in his worship and meditation of God.’ After reaching Calcutta, he sent Swami Ramakrishnananda, one of his brother disciples to Madras to establish the Math.
After enduring 10 years of struggles and hardships at Castle Kernan, in 1906 Swami Ramakrishnananda shifted the Math to Mylapore, on a plot of land donated by Sri Kondiah Chetty, a student of Swami Ramakrishnananda. Located at Brodies Road (now called Ramakrishna Math Road), it was built on the small plot of land between the road and the present Old Temple. It was a single storey structure, with a hall and four small rooms in the rear portion. The two eastern rooms were used as the shrines of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Due to poor quality of construction, the building developed big cracks and had to be abandoned, and the Math was temporarily shifted to another location nearby.
Foundation Laying and Inauguration
Swami Brahmananda, the first President of Ramakrishna Order and a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who had come on his second visit to Madras, laid the foundation stone for the present Math building (now called Old Temple) on 4th August 1916.
Thanks to the able supervision of Sri A. Ramalinga Iyer, Superintending Engineer, the construction work progressed rapidly and on 27 April 1917, eight months later, the inauguration ceremony was performed by Swami Brahmananda himself. At his instance the building was dedicated to Swami Ramakrishnananda who passed away in 1911 at Calcutta.
Swami Brahmananda stayed in this building in a room to the southeast on the ground floor. He used a walk inside the prayer hall, often touching the black stone pillars, going into high spiritual moods on several occasions.
Initially the building consisted of the large hall and a few rooms only on the ground floor. Later some rooms were built on the first floor, running parallel to the either side of Prayer Hall. The shrine was located upstairs but there was no partition between the alter of Sri Guru Maharaj and the meditation room in which devotees sat. The devotees literally sat at the feet of Sri Guru Maharaj. As this was felt inconvenient for conducting the worships, in 1938, some modifications were made in the shrine area which was moved back by a few feet and separated by bars from the meditation area. This provided much needed space both for conducting the puja and other services at the alter and for accommodating the devotees (with seating capacity of 40) in front. A small Gopuram was also added later. On the southern side of the shrine, one room was used as shayana griha for Sri Guru Maharaj and the adjoining room had large portaits of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda and Swami Ramakrishnananda.
The terrace of the Prayer Hall has been built in native Madras Terrace Style(the method of roof-cum-floor construction in which brick-bats are stacked diagonally on thin and long wooden beams). Other architectural features, typical to old buildings in Madras, are the use of rectangular black stone for flooring (which had to be changed from the ordinary cement flooring to the present marble flooring), and pillars, and arched entrance and side openings.
A Witness to Many Historic Events
The Prayer Hall in the Old Temple was a witness to many important events. Besides conducting a regular puja (with Anna bhog) for 80-plus years (except for a short period during the second world war in 1942, when due to the fear of bomb threat from Japanese forces, the puja to the sacred relics of Sri Ramakrishna was briefly shifted to Uttiramerur), the shrine has been a place of many Spiritual and cultural events. All the seva (ritual-services) to Sri Ramakrishna were done here as per norms and practices laid by Swami Ramakrishnananda. Swami Brahmananda ordained Swami Yatiswarananda (later Vice President of the Order) into sanniyasa in the shrine. Swami Vireswarananda. The 10th president of the Order was invested with Brahmacharya vows here. Two order direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna-Swami Shivananda and Swami Vijnananda (2nd and 4th President of the Ramakrishna Order) – also stayed in the building during their visits. Several eminent monks of the Order such as Swami Ashokananda, Prabhavananda, Akhilananda and many others have lived and performed intense spiritual practices in this building.
With a seating capacity of 300, the Main Hall was the place where most weekly and Jayanti-day discourses were held for several decades. This was the main hall for all important pujas, public meetings and celebrations till 1963. In this year 1920/21, Durga Puja was conducted here. For this purpose, at the behest of Swami Brahmananda, Ramlal Chattopaddhyaya. The nephew of Sri Ramakrishna brought the image of Mother Durga from Calcutta. Durga Puja in image was held here again in 1952, 1953 and 1954. The centenary celebrations of Sri Ramakrishna (1936), Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (1953) and Swami Vivekananda (1963) were held in this hall. Many national leaders such as C. Rajagopalachari, Morarji Desai, Kamaraj and others have spoken here on various occasions. On the occasion of 150th Birth Anniversary of Holy Mother Sarada Devi, fiberglass statue of the Holy Mother was places here in 2004-after taking it around in a procession in various parts of Tamilnadu.
The building was also the residence of the Presidents of Math such as Sharvananda, Swami Siddheswarananda, Swami Yatiswarananda and Swami Kailasananda and Vice Presidents of the Ramakrishna Order have also stayed in this building during their visits to Madras. Earlier, the Math Office and the Books Despatch and Packing Sections were also housed here. There are five living rooms on the first floor of this building which are even now used by monastic members.
Since the year 2000, after the new universal temple of Sri Ramakrishna was consecrated in the same premises in the site adjacent to the library, the Old Temple is used for meditation, occasional classes and meetings for students and devotees.