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1My favourite article on the cemeteries of pre-partition India

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  • scn_pk
    Jul 13, 2004
      Visiting India's Land of Regrets

      by Geoffrey E. Duin

      The title of a poem, "The Land of Regrets", by Victorian writer Sir
      Alfred Lyall is a fairly apt description of how Europeans living in
      India in those days often regarded the country. Today one can have a
      fascinating encounter with this aspect of India's past by taking a
      side trip off the tourist trail and spending some time wondering
      among the graves of India's old European cemeteries.

      These are not hard to find as most of India's major towns have at
      least one and some are near popular tourist destinations. There are
      two in the former British Civil Lines area adjacent to Old Delhi:
      the "Nicholson Cemetery" (a short walk from the Raj-era Oberoi
      Maidens Hotel), and the Lothian Bridge cemetery which has older
      graves like that of a Greek merchant who died in 1828.

      Calcutta has numerous old cemeteries including Catholic, Scottish,
      and an Armenian one with headstones dating back to 1630. The city
      once had a Greek and French cemetery though these have been reclaimed
      by asphalt and cement. But the most famous of Calcutta's and perhaps
      India's European cemeteries is the South Park Street(formerly Burial
      Ground Road)Cemetery located near the Chowringhee area. Upon passing
      through the newly restored gatehouse one encounters what an
      architectural historian has described as "an Imperial City of the
      Dead"[i]: an amazing array of neo-classical funerary
      architecture, "without parallel in England"[ii], of pyramids,
      pavilions, obelisks, urns, pagodas, and spiral columns, beneath which
      rest some of Calcutta's early nabobs, administrators, and soldiers
      along with their lovers, wives, and children.

      Agra has a Catholic cemetery located in the former British
      cantonment, which is not far from the Taj Mahal. This is the oldest
      cemetery in Northern India[iii], built by the Portuguese, and is the
      resting place of John Mildenhall, buried in 1614 who was the first
      known Englishman to have died in India. The old cemetery in Varanasi
      (Benares) is also in the cantonment where some of the city's upscale
      tourist hotels are located. This area of the city still retains an
      air of its colonial past with its gardened bungalows facing quiet,
      shady streets. Here St. Mary's Church stands slowly disintegrating
      amid its desolate grounds. Inside the church, a faded blue runner
      woven with fleur-de-lis designs is moldering under bat droppings and
      mildew. On a wall one of the plaques commemorates a service Queen
      Elizabeth and Prince Phillip attended at the church while visiting
      the city.

      The Benares cantonment, established in 1811, is one of over two
      hundred settlements the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French built
      throughout pre-Independence India. While places like Bangalore,
      Madras and Kanpur have become large and important cities, many of the
      settlements and stations they built were near towns or in remote
      areas that have seen little growth over the centuries. But
      regardless of the size or importance of the station; whether it was
      manned by a few thousand or a half a dozen, each had its oft-used
      burial ground filled with the graves of those who died within "two
      monsoons" or a few years after their arrival, or birth in India.

      There are an estimated two million[iv] of these graves scattered
      throughout the subcontinent most in cemeteries that are in various
      stages of decay while others have disappeared due to encroaching
      urbanization. Sadly, some are now being used as latrines, or are
      sporadically vandalized, or have become homes to squatters.
      Headstones and grave monuments have been stolen over the years and
      there is the problem of grave robbers that feed India's black market
      in skeletons(interestingly, reports of "old sahib" ghost sightings
      have protected some graveyards from being vandalized or occupied!).

      But due to the efforts of the British Association for Cemeteries in
      South Asia(BACSA), a London-based organization with worldwide
      membership, European cemeteries throughout Asia are being restored or
      at least maintained to some degree, especially those that are more
      historically important like the South Park Street Cemetery. This
      cemetery was in terrible condition before BACSA and members of
      its "sister" organization in Calcutta, The Association for the
      Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India(APHCI), restored it to
      its present state.

      Some BACSA members have taken on the arduous and painstaking task of
      locating and recording headstone inscriptions of European graves in
      Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and
      Japan. For example, Susan Farrington has dedicated her life to
      locating and recording every grave inscription in Pakistan, a task
      she started almost twenty years ago when she worked for the British
      Embassy there[v]. Her books from this work are published by BACSA
      and contain every legible name and inscription on headstones in
      cemeteries in Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi, as well as those on
      memorials and plaques found in the old cantonment churches in these

      Books like Ms. Farrington's are valuable tools for people researching
      their genealogical connection with the subcontinent and historians
      alike. The India Office Library and Records(IOLR)of the British
      Library in London has a repository of burial records, headstone and
      monument inscriptions, as well as a photographic archive gathered
      over the years by BACSA members. BACSA's activities also include
      hiring a chowkidar, or watchman to guard and maintain particular
      cemeteries(if you visit a cemetery that has chowkidar on duty, please
      be sure to tip him!).

      Ms. Farrington in her book about Peshawar Cemetery writes that: "…
      taking an hour or two to walk round the cemetery, it is possible to
      absorb the whole history of the border area without the need to
      plough through history books, or struggle with complicated military
      analysis"[vi]. This could apply to any cemetery in India as well
      because although they do contain the graves of the military and
      administrative movers and shakers of the Raj or East India Company,
      most of them are occupied by the ordinary people who made up the
      majority of the European residents in India: the shopkeepers and
      small hotel owners, the bakers, tailors, planters, bank, mill and
      factory employees, railroad workers, and the lower level military and
      civil servants along with their families.

      Their grave inscriptions offer a striking picture of life, frequently
      very short, and death in this harsh land: "died of cholera", "died of
      heat apoplexy", "died of heat exhaustion", "accidentally drowned",
      died of "wounds incurred in a dacoity"(sic), "died of enteric
      (typhoid) fever", "assassinated in the Khyber Pass", "fell a
      Victim….to that dreadful distemper the small pox", "shot by
      tribesmen", or "he sank exhausted by the united effects of the
      climate and his judicial labours". Deaths were also caused by hornet
      stings, polo accidents, alcohol poisoning, fires, malaria, dysentery,
      earthquake, rabies, plague, "hysterical mania", dropsy, "fatty
      heart", scalding and suicides.

      But the most poignant inscriptions among these are those of the women
      and children who suffered an appalling mortality rate in India(which
      unfortunately remains a problem among Indians today). It was common
      practice in old India for European girls to marry at fifteen or
      sixteen, only to die in childbirth a few years later. ("Begum"
      Johnson, once the grand old dame of Calcutta society first married
      when she was twelve but was fortunate to outlive a succession of
      husbands before dying at 87). Many who survived childbirth had to
      watch their children die. An inscription on a child's grave in Kanpur
      (that lies next to her sister's)reflects a mother's self reproach at
      the intensity of her attachment to her child:

      "Was my dear babe who now is gone an idol of my heart? It was
      needful we should part".

      The suddenness and frequency of death in India encouraged a blasé
      attitude toward it. In the 1800s funeral processions became so common
      that in some stations the band would play the solemn Dead March from
      Saul on the way to cemetery and on the way back break into a
      humorous ditty[vii]. According to one account: "we have known two
      instances of dining with a gentleman(at lunch)and being invited to
      his burial before supper time". A British soldier in 1851 wrote that
      a fellow officer was "playing billiards at 10 am, at 11 am he was
      seized with cramps and nausea, dead at 1 pm and at 5 pm the same day
      we were taking him to the cemetery" [viii](Because of the climate,
      burials were usually conducted at night). Or this from the diary of a
      Lady West written in 1823: "Here people die one day and are buried
      the next. Their furniture is sold the third and they are forgotten
      the fourth.[ix]"

      India's old European cemeteries and churches are historical treasures
      though unfortunately(and understandably)they are little regarded as
      such in India today, and even outside the country the colonial era
      might still be too fresh in our collective memory for them to
      generate the interest they deserve.

      Hopefully, more Indians and others will begin to appreciate that
      these cemeteries are part of India's cultural and historical
      heritage. Theon Wilkinson M.B.E., founder of BACSA and author of "Two
      Monsoons" , a book about the subcontinent's European cemeteries,
      hopes that in time, "these places may be regarded by the local
      citizens in the same way as we now look at Roman remains in Britain,
      without political and religious overtones"[x]. But by then many of
      the cemeteries and old churches in India could be gone.


      [i] Davies, Philip, Splendours of the Raj, Penquin Books, 1987

      [ii] Ibid

      [iii] Wilkinson, Theon, Two Monsoons, Duckworth, 1987

      [iv] Davies

      [v] CHOWKIDAR 1977-1997, Ed. Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, BACSA
      Publications, 1997

      [vi] Farrington, Susan, Peshawar Cemetery, BACSA Publications, 1988

      [vii] Wilkinson

      [viii] Ibid

      [ix] Ibid

      [x] CHOWKIDAR

      Subject: Travel & holiday guides Pakistan

      Title: Peshawar Cemetary
      Author: Susan Maria Farrington