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Church where Charnock lies buried faces a grave problem

The Moroccan-style mausoleum of Job Charnock in the compound of St. John’s Church in Kolkata. On the right is the grave of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, who had accompanied Robert Clive from Madras to recapture Calcutta from the Nawab of Bengal.

The Moroccan-style mausoleum of Job Charnock in the compound of St. John’s Church in Kolkata. On the right is the grave of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, who had accompanied Robert Clive from Madras to recapture Calcutta from the Nawab of Bengal.   | Photo Credit: Bishwanath Ghosh

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People living near the historic St. John’s Church think nothing of throwing garbage into the compound

As far as colonial-era monuments go, St. John’s Church in Kolkata is by far the richest in terms of history. In its compound lie buried several figures who landscaped the colonial era, and a mere walk in the churchyard — looking at the tombstones and tablets — can help discerning visitors reconstruct in their heads the period when the sun never set on the British Empire.

This should make the 1787-built church a popular destination for visitors, but ignorance and indifference keep it largely deserted: it serves as an island of peace in the bustle of Dalhousie Square, or BBD Bagh. Yet, church officer Rangan Datta is a much hassled man. He has a strange but serious problem at hand: the corner of the churchyard where the mausoleum of Job Charnock (considered the founder of Calcutta) stands is hemmed by flats; and many residents think nothing of throwing garbage into the church compound.

“Leftover food, empty liquor bottles — everything is flung into the church compound. Recently, a packet containing leftover food almost hit the head of a Westerner who had come to see Charnock’s grave. He was nice enough to shrug off the incident with the remark: ‘That was some blessing from the heaven’. Only in India will you find such disregard for heritage,” laments Mr. Datta.

Mr. Datta has even lodged a complaint at the local police station, but that hasn’t helped. “Our staff cleans up the mess. What else can we do? The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) has merely erected a signboard that this is a protected moment, beyond that it has done little to help,” he says.

The fact that Charnock, who died in January 1693, lies buried here makes the church compound — a former riverside cremation ground — the oldest existing known site of the British period in Kolkata. Among the others buried here include Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, who had accompanied Robert Clive when the latter was dispatched from Madras to recapture Calcutta from the Nawab of Bengal; Lord Brabourne; Lady Canning (ledikeni, the popular Bengal sweet, was named after her); and Frances (Begum) Johnson.

Rich history

The church itself is a handsome piece of architecture and it houses — besides several plaques marking milestones in the lives of celebrated soldiers — Zoffany’s Last Supper (painted in 1787) and a still-functional pipe organ installed in 1824. One of its rooms once functioned as the office of Warren Hastings, and there, in a glass case, Hastings’s chair remains preserved.

The church, run by the Calcutta Diocese, may be rich in history but remains cash-strapped. As a result, renovations, which should be carried out more often, considering its importance in history, are being carried out only now — after 35 long years.

“We wish we had more funds, but money remains a problem. We were somehow able to raise enough funds from our own members to carry out this renovation,” says Mr. Datta.

“But more than funds, what we need is respect for heritage. You have no idea how angry I feel when I find chicken bones and liquor bottles strewn around Charnock’s mausoleum. Sometimes I feel that when people call us ‘Bloody Indians!’ we actually deserve that title,” he complains.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 3:25:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/church-where-charnock-lies-buried-faces-a-grave-problem/article30151942.ece

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