The lost souls of Madras

Janane Venkatraman unearths details about the oldest British tombstone in India

Updated - February 07, 2012 06:55 pm IST

Published - February 07, 2012 06:54 pm IST

BURIED TALES: Elizabeth Baker's tombstone Photo: The Hindu Archives

BURIED TALES: Elizabeth Baker's tombstone Photo: The Hindu Archives

The courtyard of St. Mary's Church, situated in Fort St. George is as unlikely a place as any other to lay tombstones to rest. Outside the west entrance of the Church lies a cracked stone, damaged by man and weathered by the elements, blending in with the other tombstones around it. The elaborate Latin inscription, complete with a beautiful coat of arms, speaks of one Elizabeth Baker who in died 1652. She was the wife of Aaron Baker who was the first president of the Madras Presidency. Her tombstone also has the distinction of being oldest British tombstone in India.

Elizabeth Baker died at sea after childbirth when she was on her way to Madras. She was three weeks away, yet her body was bought here for burial. But she, along with the others, was not buried at the Church. Tony Freeman, who has been the manager of St. Mary's Church for the past six years lights up as I ask him about the tombstones. “The original resting place for all these tombstones was called the ‘Guava Garden', now a part of the Law College campus. It was destroyed when the French laid siege to Madras in 1758. The tombstones were actually used as shields by the French to protect them from the English cannons.”

The Indian settlement called Black Town which held the cemetery, had developed just North of Fort St. George. It bore the brunt of the attack. Nothing remains of the cemetery today except two monuments — the Hynmer's Obelisk and the Powney Vault.

“Once the siege was over, the cemetery was relocated to where it stands today, near Chennai's Metropolitan Transport Corporation on Pallavan Salai. The British government then laid the tombstones to rest at the courtyard of St. Mary's Church” says Tony.

But it was not to last.

The tombstones were disturbed again in 1782, when Hyder Ali threatened to lay siege to the Fort. They were dug up from the courtyard and used on the Fort ramparts as mounts to rest the guns of the English. They suffered further damage and many tombstones, along with their innumerable stories were completely lost.

Freeman says, “Yes, it is rather unfortunate. The Church has meticulous records about burials, baptisms and weddings but they all date from the early 1800s. The records for the burials alone start from 1815. The records that talk about these tombstones are all destroyed or missing.

“It was after that incident that the tombstones were laid to rest one final time at the church. But many of them were in quite a bad condition. Only about a 100 tombstones survive and today some of them are not where they used to be.”

There are a total of 104 tombstones of which 12 were originally laid in the space in front of the north entrance to the church. They were moved to the east end when the new sanctuary was built in 1885 to house the choir. This is where they lay today.

Most of the tombstones are inscribed in English; only a handful have Latin inscriptions. The inscriptions are hauntingly beautiful, whether in elegant flowery fonts or serious block letters, each telling a story of a person that walked the streets of this city so many centuries ago. The tombstones also have the coat of arms and crests of the family handsomely carved into them.

Lying at the eastern end of the courtyard, directly beneath a tall tree whose roots have slithered into the gaps between the stones, is one lone tombstone inscribed in Tamil. It speaks of a Thaniappa Mudaliar, alias Lazarus Timothy and quotes him as being a founder of the French East India Company. Dating back to 1691, this is the oldest Tamil tombstone found in Madras. The courtyard of a church, even one as old as St. Mary's might be an unlikely place for tombstones such as these. But to see them lying quietly in dappled sunlight, under the shade of tall strong trees, one cannot but marvel at the absolute simplicity of the scene. It is perfect.

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