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Evolution of a spiritual movement on display

The Belur Math of the Ramakrishna Mission houses a unique museum which unfolds like the petals of a lotus. Several original articles preserved and exhibited here are sure to evoke stirring emotions in the mind of the visitor, observes INDRANI DUTTA.



The museum at the Belur Math is not a mere collection of artefacts, it is a chronicle ...

THE NEXT time you are at the Belur branch of the Ramakrishna Mission, stop by for a while before you head for the main shrine. To your left, you will find a building that houses the Ramakrishna Museum. A museum that offers not merely a sight-seeing opportunity but enables one to witness the evolution of one of the world's most respected spiritual movements.

The museum is unique in the sense that it is not a mere collection of artefacts used by one of the greatest sages of modern times, but it tells the story of a historical movement, even as it chronicles the Bengal of those times. Says Swami Prabhananda, secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture and a trustee of the Ramakrishna Mission and the Belur Math, "The effort has been to develop it as a history of the Ramakrishna movement."

While there was in existence, since 1994, a small museum within the same compound at Belur, the idea to present the exhibits in a more meaningful manner struck the monks, who then set about the arduous task of collecting the objects. "That took a very, very long time, and we could inaugurate this museum only in May 2001," says Swami Prabhananda.

The museum is structured in such a manner that it unfolds like the petals of a lotus. The first floor forms the upper petals of the lotus encasing within them the sacred mementoes, while chronicling the vital incidents in the lives of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), the fountainhead of the movement, the Holy Mother Sarada Devi (1953-1920) the sheet anchor of the movement and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) the prime force behind the order.

On the ground floor of the two-storeyed museum are housed the souvenirs of some of the torchbearers of the Order. At the centre is an extremely realistic recreation of the Panchavati — the clutch of five sacred trees of the temple-garden in Dakhsineswar which were a silent witness of the great master's sadhana and realisations. Many believe that the Ramakrishna movement was virtually set in motion from here.

Several original articles preserved and exhibited here are sure to evoke stirring emotions in the mind of the visitor. Among these are the black stone bowl from which Paramhans took payasam during the days of his battle with throat cancer and the pillow he had used to rest his head on, in the house in Calcutta where he spent his last few months. His room in the house where he distributed ochre clothes to 12 disciples anointing Vivekananda (then Narendranath) as their leader has also been shown with a model of Sri Ramakrishna bestowing grace on his disciples. The footwear used by Sri Ramakrishna has been put on the model.

The room at Dakshineswar where Sri Ramakrishna lived for 16 years has been recreated in the museum with display of clothes and other objects used by him, the tanpura used by Vivekananda to sing to his master, as also the copies of two charcoal drawings sketched by Sri Ramakrishna are displayed here.

Sri Sarada Devi's pilgrimage to Chennai, Madurai and Bangalore has also been exhibited along with the items used by her then in 1911. Swami Vivekananda naturally finds a pride of place in the museum which showcases a huge replica of the front of the Chicago Art Institute where the famous Parliament of Religions was held in September 1893. Alongside the same display is a letter by Jamshedji Tata, Swami Vivekananda's co-passenger on the trip. The letter reveals an important and well-known work that Jamshedji did, inspired by Swamiji — the founding of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore.

Swamiji returned to a hero's welcome after his lectures on Vedanta in the West. At the Victoria Hall in Chennai, he gave a few stirring speeches and so large was the congregation that he could not speak from inside the hall and had to address from atop a carriage! The wooden staircase and the lotus woodwork of this historic building have been brought over.

A few displays away from this is a show on Miss Josephine Macleod who met Swamji in the U.S. in 1895 and served India for 40 years thereafter. She stood by Vivekananda during his early days in the West and was later actively associated with the trials and the triumphs of the movement in many parts of the world. It was through Josephine Macleod that some of the best thinkers and writers of the West like Romain Rolland came to know of Vivekananda and his master. At this enclosure is a crystal image of Swamiji that was done by the Paris jeweller, Rene Lalique.

A visit to this museum will not be complete without a view of the murals and the terracotta on the outer walls. The bas-reliefs offer slices of history and mythology beginning with the Vedic age right up to Sri Ramakrishna's times, enabling the visitor to literally walk a bygone era.

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