This morning Fulbright visitors were invited on a “heritage tour” along the Marina, the British built promenade in Chennai with historic buildings in various states of repair. Our guide was a brilliant archaeology professor/ storyteller who knows the city and its historic buildings like the back of his hand. It was a fascinating early morning walk, as we learned about the British “Presidency”.
My favorite story was about the Ice House, featured here. It’s now owned by the Vivekenanda Organization (more on that in a minute), but originally it was built as a guest house for a very wealthy Brahmin. The British government bought it and converted it into a giant ice house. The Tudor Ice Company in Massachusetts cut huge, thick blocks of ice in the winter (the professor said it came from Walden Pond- I also read it came from other ponds and lakes as well), dragged it to the Boston Harbor, packed it into ship holds with sawdust, and sent it on its 4-month journey to the major coastal cities of India for British use. The ice survived in the cold ocean, and was carried by poor Indian coolies to the Ice House, where it was stored underground in this circular building and sold in smaller portions for “ice boxes” and presumably, for drinks.
My ears immediately perked up! I did research for a writing project several years ago about the early missionaries who came to India in the l830s, the 19th century predecessors of my parents, who came to Madurai in l952 (south of here) as missionaries from the United Church Board for World Ministries, founded in the early l800s in New England by Congregationalists. Those early missionaries arrived in Madurai in the l830s, traveling on ice ships belonging to the Tudor Ice Company! Four months on a pitching ship carrying ice, landing in a foreign harbor. Off to the ancient temple in Madurai they went with their beards and black suits and dresses to preach, often being chased away by the Brahmin priests. I was delighted to learn where the ice landed, where it was stored, and how it was used! I never thought I would hear about the Tudor Ice Company again after reading about it in the missionary history books.
Years later, the property was taken over by the Vivekenanda organization. And who was he? Good old Wikipedia says Vivekenanda was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century. I will have to visit this spot- they have a museum dedicated to Vivekenanda.