Updated: April 25, 2010 18:38 IST

Glimpses of melancholy places

D. Murali
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Many tourists visit British cemeteries in India, but the reason for so doing surely go beyond the search for family or general history, writes Hugh Purcell in ‘After the Raj’ ( “What exactly is the appeal of these melancholy places?”

These are now the most ubiquitous British architecture in India, feels Purcell. The famous early cemeteries such as South Park Street in Calcutta or Kacheri in Kanpur appear as grotesque cities of the dead, a dense mass of stone pyramids, obelisks, catafalques, urns, and pavilions visible over a wall from the street outside, so completely separate from modern India, he describes.

Then there are the abandoned ones, given up to nature and vandals, where what is visible through a broken wall or across barbed wire is ‘a wasteland of monumental masonry, stone slabs poking out from encroaching undergrowth, tombs broken into vandals. Sometimes the grave top has been removed altogether for its flat surface, useful for a fashionable coffee table or for grinding curry powder perhaps.’

Hasty burials

British burial grounds are not quite the same as cemeteries, because they are defined as unconsecrated plots of land, the author explains. “The monuments therein often tell of violent death and hasty burial away from home. This adds to the drama of seeking them out and then spotting them, sometimes in an incongruous location.” An example that he cites is of the tomb in Delhi vegetable market to Lieutenant Alfred Harrison of the Gordon Highlanders, who was killed in the skirmish of Badli-ki-Serai in 1857.

‘Marching cemeteries’ are what can be found at the side of the road, where the casualties of heat stroke were buried when the column halted for the night, one learns; and there are ‘cholera cemeteries,’ where a unit buried its dead and carried on marching from camp to camp until there were no more cases.

Scars of mutiny

The book speaks about the graves of two infants, Elliot Markillan and Laetitia Domina, rediscovered in 2006 by Sandy Lall, an investigator of BACSA (British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia). “They had been in hiding with their father, the Collector of Fatehgarh, at a farm nearby, enduring the extremes of heat and the fear of discovery and death at the hands of the mutineers. After three months they died and were quietly buried.”

Later, the British erected a monument over the spot, with iron railings, a low wall and a gate, the researcher learnt based on information given by the villagers of Khasaura in the Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh. “But after 1947 it had been vandalised and eventually disappeared altogether, the iron stolen and the stone removed to sharpen agricultural implements.”

Three cemeteries

From out of BACSA’s list of more than 850 cemeteries in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the author mentions three. The first is in Sibsagar, Assam, of Dr Ward, a missionary who translated the Bible into Assamese and died in 1873. The second is in St John’s church at Tellicherry, Kerala. “The East India Company built a fort here in 1708 but long since deserted. The old church remains and is worshipped in by a small group of local Christians who maintain the graves that date from 1759 until 1919.”

And the third is about one of the earliest British cemeteries, in Surat, where the British first landed (1608) and built a factory. A huge 15-metre-high tomb here commemorates in language from the age of merchant adventurers the factory manager, Christopher Oxinden, writes Purcell.

He finds that the epitaph is perhaps addressed to the East India Company ‘masters’ more than to the Almighty. It reads thus: “Here he brought to a termination his undertakings and his life. He was able to enter in his accounts only days, not years, for death suddenly called him to a reckoning. Do you ask, O my masters, what profit you have gained, or what loss you have suffered? You have lost a servant, we a companion, he his life; but on the other side of the page he may write ‘Death to me is a gain.’”

Solemn study.


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