The mystery of the mature trees in association with the primitive building can be resolved by reading Bhagavan's own account of the founding of Skandashram. A dispute about its ownership arose in the 1930s with Perumal Swami, the devotee whose photo is featured at the bottom of the preceding page, claiming that he owned it. Bhagavan was compelled to give a legal deposition on this matter, during the course of which he said:
I came to Tiruvannamalai in the year 1896 and lived on the hill from 1899 to 1922. In that year this ashram [Ramanasramam] was started, and since then I have been living here. ... The ashram on the hill where I used to live was started in 1902. The building which is there now was completed in the year 1916.
The 1902 starting date gives plenty of time for the trees featured in the above photo to mature by the mid-or-late 1920s, which is when I think this particular photo was taken. The 1902 starting date of Skandashram also makes me wonder whether the ashram was built for Bhagavan by Kandaswami, as several accounts (including Kunju Swami's on the previous page) have maintained, or whether he built it for himself. He may have been happy for Bhagavan to take it over when Virupaksha Cave became too cramped for the expanding group of devotees who were coming to see Bhagavan, but since he lived there for fifteen years himself, developing its facilities year by year, I suspect the original aim was to make a congenial place for himself on the side of Arunachala.
For many years the ashram was simply known as 'Melasrama', 'The upper or higher ashram'. It took a few years for the newer name to catch on.
Bhagavan also noted in his deposition that Skandashram originally began life as a tirtham, a sacred water source. Once the spring was found - Kunju Swami refers to this in his account on the previous page - the possibility of buildings and human occupation arose. Skandashram came into being because there was enough water there to support the newly-planted trees and the devotees who eventually moved in around 1916. This is what Bhagavan said on this matter:
Skandashram was started in 1902. The building was completed in the year 1916. Even after that date some construction work was carried on.
At first it [Skandashram] began as a tirtham. Later it developed into a place of residence. Before Skandashram came into existence, moisture was found in another location nearby. Its source was in a rock that was twenty yards away. This tirtham is now located between Skandashram and Virupaksha Cave. It was only later that the Skandashram tirtham came into being.
Because it [Skandashram] was built by a person called Kandan who lived in the ashram, by his own hands, it became known as Skandashram. That tirtham [I just spoke about] is attached to that ashram.
I came across this photo of Skandashram a few years ago in the Ramanasramam archives. My first reaction was that this was the thatched hut that preceded the more permanent structure that appears there today. However, have a look at the coconut tree behind the hut and the other mature trees that surround it. They are, I would guess, at least twenty to thirty years old. I eventually decided that this thatched structure had been erected after Bhagavan moved down the hill to Ramanasramam, and that it was later dismantled to restore Skandashram to its original state.
I found the photo in a scapbook of old photos that Paul Brunton had kept. Copies of the photos are now in the Ramanasramam archives. If anyone reading this has old photos of Ramanasramam, Bhagavan or Aunachala, the archives at Ramanasramam would welcome an opportunity to scan them and add them to their already considerable and well-preserved record of old photos.
In Brunton's scrapbook there were two photos of this early construction at Skandashram. One had no people in the foreground. This is the other one.
The figure in the foreground looks a lot like Bhagavan. There is a characteristic kamandalu (water pot) in front of him; he is carrying a stick; he appears to be wearing a kaupina; the posture looks right; and the face is similar enough to Bhagavan's to justify this conclusion. Unfortunately, the original is a very small contact print that doesn't have quite enough detail to give a positive identification. I personally am convinced that it is Bhagavan, but I haven't yet managed to convince the people in the Ramanasramam archives that it is.
Brunton collected old photos of Bhagavan during the 1930s. No one else seems to have preserved this particular one. If this really is Bhagavan, then the photo would be recording a visit he made to Skandashram several years after he ceased to live there. As I remarked earlier, I am guessing that this photo was taken in the mid-1920s.
David Godman Books
Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings