Sometime last year I decided to give the photos in Living by the Words of Bhagavan a complete makeover. Some were taken from old scratched prints that have since been cleaned up in the ashram archives. Others were not reproducing well for technical reasons that I won't go into. I asked the President of Ramanasramam if I could take new files from the ashram archives for the next edition, and he happily gave his permission.
I picked up one batch of photos a few months ago. Yesterday I went back to have a longer look at what was available. The ashram archives is doing a great job in locating new photos and preserving the existing ones. During my search I discovered many pictures that I didn't even know existed. I ended up taking copies of several new photos that were not in any of the previous editions of the book. The new pictures mostly show the state of the ashram and the surrounding area in various periods of their development from the 1920s to the 1940s, a time when Annamalai Swami was actively involved in building projects.
As a 'preview of forthcoming attractions' I have decided to share a few of them here.
This tiny old print comes from the earliest days of Sri Ramanasramam. The thatched hut on the right of the photo was the original 'temple' over the samadhi of Bhagavan's mother. This photo is one of a pair that were taken at the same time. The other is more well known. It has Bhagavan standing near this hut, reading. The caption 'hermit and hermitage' on the other photo is in the same handwriting as the caption (Samadhi Tiruvannamalai) on the bottom of this one. Both photos were probably taken in either 1922 or 1923. On the day they were taken this small hut was the only construction that Ramanasramam had. Bhagavan lived and slept there for several years until the old hall was completed in 1928. Just to give a sense of scale, the tree on the left would have been more or less on the spot where the door to the new hall is today.
This is an interesting view that I hadn't seen before. In the foreground it looks as if work is about to start on the 'tank room' (next to the ashram well in front of the dining room) and possibly the old ashram office and bookstore block as well. The end of the old hall can be seen behind the lamp post. In the early 1930s the ashram had a tiled dining room that was located more or less on the spot where Bhagavan's samadhi is today. This was connected to the old hall by an awning that protected transiting devotees from the sun and the rain. A portion of the wall that runs round the ashram well can be seen on the right.
This follows on from the previous photo. The new dining room and kitchen have been completed. A corner of the dining room can be seen in the top right-hand corner of the photo. The old dining room was then demolished and a shady awning was constructed on the south side of the old hall. The photographer in this picture is probably standing on the spot where Bhagavan was eventually buried. In the 1930s the entrance to the old hall was on the south side of the building (the one furthest away from the mountain). To get into the hall Bhagavan and the devotees had to climb a few stairs. When Bhagavan found it difficult to climb the stairs in the 1940s (no one was allowed to help him) a new entrance was made on the Arunachala side of the hall, the same one that is still used today.
This gives an interesting insight into construction methods of the 1930s. Huge granite boulders were dumped on the lower slopes of Arunachala, behind the ashram. Stone cutters and stone masons then came and turned these huge shapeless masses into the square building stones that were used to build the cowshed, the Veda Patasala, the dining room and kitchen, and the old ashram office. All the shaping work was done by hand, with hammers and mild steel chisels that had to be sharpened at regular intervals by an onsite blacksmith who would reforge the cutting ends of the chisels over a charcoal fire that was kept hot by a bellows. This photo is dated 1935, so the stones produced by these workers probably ended up in the dining room or the kitchen.
Annamalai Swami told me that Chadwick had arranged for several photos of the two of them to be taken, but until yesterday I had never seen any of them. This one turned up in an album that comprised photos taken by Dr Mees in the 1930s. Chadwick took many photos of Annamalai Swami supervising the ashram building work, but none of these pictures seems to have survived.
On page 173 of Living by the Words of Bhagavan (second edition) Annamalai Swami described how he constructed a house for Chadwick inside the ashram, and how Bhagavan attended the grihapravesam (opening and consecration) ceremonies. I didn't know the event had been recorded until I serendipitously came across this photo yesterday. I was looking for a copy of the photo of Chadwick's house that has appeared in past editions of Living by the Words of Bhagavan. The archives didn't seem to have one, but half an hour later, when I was searching for something else, I found this file. The head of Bhagavan (he is the one with a stick and a water pot) is obscured by the shade of the overhanging thatch; Chadwick's head (two to Bhagavan's left) is also obscured for the same reason. However, out in front, on the right there is S. S. Cohen (shading his eyes) and Paul Brunton, wearing a western jacket. I have played with the brightness and contrast on the original scan, and studied all the faces at a high resolution, but I could not see anyone I thought might be Annamalai Swami.
I love this photo! A gloriously sunlit Bhagavan is slowly walking to the steps that lead to the path to Skandashram. On his left is a thatched building that was later demolished to make way for the ashram dispensary that Annamalai Swami built.
This is an idyllic early 1930s shot of Arunachala, with the Palakottu tank in the foreground. The house peeping between the trees is the one that was started by B. V. Narasimha Swami in the late 1920s. Its most famous tenant, though, was Paul Brunton, who lived there in the mid-1930s.
Here is another lovely shot of the Palakottu tank, taken in an era when it was much better maintained than it is now. For many decades the sadhus who lived on its banks used it only for drinking water. In the early days of Ramanasramam devotees would carry buckets of water from this tank to the ashram since it did not have enough water of its own. The shrine visible on the top right is the original Ganapati temple that accommodated both Ganapati Muni and Viswanatha Swami in the 1920s. I say 'original' because it fell down (or was demolished) in the 1960s. The current temple was reassembled from bits of the original that had ended up on the properties of several local people who had used the old temple as a source of building material. The man on the rock is Dr Mees.
This is the original wall-less entrance to Sri Ramanasramam. The arch seems to be the same one that is still there today. I am including this photo in the new edition because it illustrates one of the incidents in which Perumal Swami tried to take over the ashram. The ashram heard that Perumal Swami was planning to come to the ashram in the middle of the night to build a hut next to the iluppai tree that still exists by the ashram entrance. He apparently planned to move into it to wage his campaign to take over the ashram from inside the ashram itself (Living by the Words of Bhagavan pp. 134-5). On the advice of a local police inspector, the ashram built a barricade of bamboo and rope on either side of the gate to demarcate the ashram's boundaries. This was the first fence around the ashram. Prior to that night it looked as it does in this photo. The inspector whom the ashram consulted also agreed to post two policemen at the gate to prevent Perumal Swami from entering. The temporary barricade was not converted into a permanent wall until the late 1940s. I would guess that this photo dates from the early 1930s.
This is the kumbhabhishekam of the Mother's Temple that took place long after Annamalai Swami left the ashram. I am including the photo in the new edition because the steps in the foreground are the ones that Annamalai Swami built at Bhagavan's behest. Bhagavan insisted that he work late into the night to finish the work. Within hours of the work being completed, there was a torrential downpour that filled Pali Tirtham in hours. It collects run-off from the mountain, and when Annamalai Swami was planning to stop work for the day at the usual time, the tank was completely empty. If the work had stopped at that time, it could not have been resumed until the tank emptied, several months later.