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A buried past, a curious future

DEAD MAN'S TALES: The Dutch Cemetery serves as a reason for the the publication of the Hortus Malabaricus. PHOTOS: THULASI KAKKAT  

The ancient Dutch Cemetery in Fort Kochi, the oldest European cemetery in India, is a tell-tale reminder of Dutch lives lost in their quest for trade and expansion. Every tombstone has a story of a historic past, of pride, of power.

The Dutch, through the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or the VOC) stepped on the shores of this port city in the early 1660s. In 1663 they managed to capture the fort and port from the Portuguese who had been there from 1505 onwards. In 1795, the English captured the fort from the Dutch.

The Portuguese had their hospital and cemetery on the west of the Parade Ground, writes K.L. Bernard in his History of Fort Cochin. A Catholic cemetery was taboo to the Dutch and they decided to erect a separate one for them, which is located between the Lighthouse and Bank House.

A small, square plot enclosed with high walls within which are tombs – ‘flat, dome and pyramid shaped – occasionally diversified by broken pillars, urns and sarcophagi, all more of less blackened by exposure, the grass rank and wild, here and there lost sight of among bushes of a beautiful orange flowered weed that infests these parts,’ is how Charles Allen Lawson describes the cemetery in his British and Native Cochin (1861).

Nothing seems to have changed. The date 1724 is engraved on an entrance pillar, the gates seem to be locked forever, the tombs are overrun by wild growth, and the thick walls plead for a whitewash.

The 104 tombs, records say, are constructed in typical Dutch architectural style with inscriptions in ancient Dutch script.

“Sadly, this cemetery is not a monument under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is still managed by the Church of South India (CSI), which also manages the historic St. Francis Church near by. The cemetery is one of the few surviving Dutch structures, a footprint of their presence in Fort Kochi. Once in a while, when grants are doled out some cleaning up is done. It is then left to the mercy of the elements,” says K.J. Sohan, former Mayor of Kochi and member, INTACH.

In the cemetery lay buried many Dutch governors, commanders, officials, gents and ladies who died in Cochin.

In fact, the British preserved this as a monument for the Dutch. According to T. W. Venn, who published the book St. Francis Church, Cochin, the last person who was laid to rest in this cemetery was Captain Joseph Ethelbert Winckler. His burial took place in 1913.

“The cemetery is the graveyard of war heroes and a memorial in tears for the brave hearts that came here in their sailing boats. Many are the soldiers and officers that lay buried here,” says M.A. Aboobacker, cultural activist.

When the British took over Fort Cochin, arrangements were made twice for the Dutch to leave Cochin, but they refused, preferring to stay on under British rule. “Their gravestones in the cemetery stand testimony to this. Stories have been added to history through ages; for example the Cochin Raja's palace in Mattancherry is called ‘Dutch Palace' when it has nothing to do with the Dutch, in terms of architecture or occupation, except that the VOC gave the Raja some fund for its renovation,” informs Dr. Anjana Singh, whose research on Fort Cochin’s Dutch connection is the premise of her book Fort Cochin in India (1750-1830): The Social Condition of a Dutch Community in an Indian Milieu.

But for Bernard this ‘chivalry yard’ was always uncared for and a safe haven for anti-socials. According to him the Dutch were ‘vandals, plunderers and destructors’ who did nothing for the cultural progress of the natives. They did not construct anything new in Fort Cochin, as most of the buildings were empty when they came as the people had left the town in fear. Their only interest was to amass wealth, which they did ruthlessly. So, Bernard writes, the sole remembrance is gate and the cemetery where the leaders lay buried. And ‘a mausoleum is unwarranted’.

“Bernard is right and wrong,” feels Sohan. “Right because all that the Dutch did was to pull down structures, churches, monasteries and converted them into warehouses. They brought down Fort Manuel and built a small fort in its place. The cemetery was inside the fort, close to the Holland Bastion, one of the eight bastions in the fort. And till recently when the boat landing place was close to the cemetery it reeked of rotten fish, it was dirty and refuge for anti-socials.”

However, Sohan considers it as an important monument that needs to be preserved. “One of the lasting contributions of the Dutch was the Hortus Malabaricus. I find a link between the need for the publication of this work and the cemetery. A large number of Dutch people lost their lives to tropical diseases and were buried in this cemetery. Looking around they found that it was only their people who fell prey to these diseases, while the natives survived. That’s what prompted the Dutch to call Itti Achuthan, a well-known Ayurveda physician who authenticated the contents of this classic work prepared with the assistance of European and native scholars.”

The few visible tombs show that the layers of plaster on the laterite stones of the tombs have withered off. The church authorities are finding it tough getting it rid of weeds and keeping the place clean.

“There should be a concerted effort to maintain this heritage. The place needs a facelift. The walls of the fort, which is now buried, needs to be dug out and re-built. After all Fort Kochi gets its name from this fort. The tombs must be plastered, a pathway, proper landscaping can all be done to turn this into a tourist attraction. The inscriptions and other information on the tombstones can reveal a lot more on the history of the Dutch in Fort Kochi,” feels Sohan.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 12:43:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/A-buried-past-a-curious-future/article14553252.ece

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