A veritable banyan
Started on a modest scale, the Ramakrishna Mission Students' Home has expanded to take care of thousands of boys who are educated and trained in skills even while learning human values. PREMA NANDAKUMAR traces its history as the Home enters its second century.
Students at workshop ... training in vocational skills.
FOR ONE hundred years, the Ramakrishna Mission Student's Home has given maternal refuge for thousands of young boys in need. The person who was responsible for starting this unique institution was C. Ramaswami Iyengar. A modest clerk, he was, however, rich in humanistic idealism and worshipful respect for Sri Ramakrishnananda who was then managing the Ramakrishna Mission at Chennai.
Once when they were conversing, the monk asked the young man of 20 whether he would be able to help feed an orphan boy from Mysore.
Understanding the anguish of the monk, Ramaswami Iyengar decided to start a residence for such underprivileged children. Receiving the blessings of Swami Ramakrishnananda, he gathered a few rupees from generous friends, and opened a house for boys. The Swami inaugurated the Ramakrishna Student' s Home on February 17, 1905 and said: "Anna Daana (feeding) is known as the highest of dharmas. It is holy. Indeed, even more important is Vidya Daana (imparting education). Holiest of all is the imparting of spirituality. This Home should have the ideal of giving all these three to its children. Bhagawan Ramakrishna will surely bless this venture."
Ramaswami Iyengar now went around collecting donations, and struggled with the problems (human, financial, material) of running such a refuge for the marginalised youngsters of our society. Bhagawan's blessings carried him through as also the unfailing help and encouragement of Swami Ramakrishnananda. According to him, from the day Swami Brahmananda visited the Home in 1909 and blessed the students, the Home prospered. The manner in which the students were given training in Indian traditions (with regular lectures by Swami Ramakrishnananda) while preparing them for regular school studies pleased eminent personalities like V. Krishnaswami Iyer, Annie Besant and V. S. Srinivasa Sastri.
A decade after the founding of the institution, S. G. Srinivasa Acharya, district Munsiff of Nagapattinam, donated 15 grounds of land in Sullivan Gardens, Mylapore, to build a permanent Home. He also paid for measuring the grounds, for stamp papers and all other expenses for the transfer of the land. Now began the challenge of garnering funds for raising a building.
Students singing bajans at the Prayer Hall, at the Ramakrishna Mission Students' home, Chennai.
Ramaswami Iyengar and his brother Ramanujachariar, backed by the moral support of Swami Brahmananda plunged into the task. Englishmen like Alexander Gorton Cardon and A. H. Stone who were in the government were delighted to help and the foundation was laid by Swami Brahmananda himself in 1917 on Buddha Purnima.
The buildings came up, strong and beautiful because the students (who became phenomenal achievers later on) also assumed responsibilities with enthusiasm.
The honesty of purpose exhibited by Ramaswami Iyengar and his fellow-workers inspired everyone to offer what they could to build the Home. Living rooms apart, the visionary founders of the Home also built a large Prayer Hall.
Seen today, the Prayer Hall is an amazing area of holiness. The carved doors have gleaming brass knobs. Stained glasses atop the doors flash the figures of great spiritual luminaries while a figure of Mahasaraswati in white marble presides over the Hall. The portraits of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi shed their benign grace. At the feet of Mahasaraswati one can salute the portrait of Sri Ramakrishna brought by Swami Ramakrishnananda to Chennai when he came here for the first time.
With its credentials established, the Home now received a huge property in the village of Malliangaranai which helped it to give a rural thrust to the ideal of man-making envisaged by Swami Vivekananda. Apart from Ramaswami Iyengar and Ramanujachariar, the Home received priceless service from voluntary workers like S. Vasudevachariar, K. Vedanta Desikan, Anna N. Subramanian, and T. S. Krishna Rao.
When I wandered around the Home recently with S. Seshadri who had been an inmate in 1934-41, I could feel all the yesterdays of the Home as a continuing present. There is pride that the students have been achievers.
Down memory lane, one hears of the tragedy of young Venugopal from Ceylon drowning in the sea, the pranks of the boys and the benign sternness of the guardians, the lovely bhajan sessions, the interactions with monks, the eminent personalities who delivered speeches, the Navaratri celebrations and music programmes, the cricket game introduced in 1928 by S. Jagannathan (an ICS who later became Governor of the Reserve Bank of India), the joy of doing physical work or puja in the Home under the guidance of elders, the maternal solicitude with which Thatha (Sri Ramanujachariar) managed to feed the boys during the severe "Ration Years" ...
The clean kitchen is a pleasure for a housewife. The kitchen feeds 380 boys four times a day, giving them a sumptuous and balanced diet. The boys are also given free boarding, lodging and education in the Residential High School. There is a residential Technical Institute (the DME course), which helps them get a diploma in Mechanical Engineering. Even more important is the vocational training imparted to the students in carpentry, foundry and smithy. Computer Technology has also been made available to them. If the boys show exceptional merit, the Home helps them pursue their studies in colleges.
As the Home enters its second century, it is our duty to carry the torch forward. For, the Home is the Holy Mother.
The authorities of the Home headed by Swami Veethabhayananda are prepared to shoulder further responsibilities by starting courses for diploma in Automobile Engineering and Diploma in Computer Technology.
Already the Medical Ward has been renovated at a cost of Rs. 24 lakhs. To accommodate the increased demand for the intake of students, plans are afoot for constructing a Centenary block, build residential quarters for the staff and a new centralised overhead water tank.
Offerings to the Home which are exempted from Income Tax may be kindly sent to Ramakrishna Mission Students' Home, 66, P. S. Sivaswami Salai, Mylapore, Chennai - 600 004.
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