Madras Miscellany Society

A Calcutta cemetery with Madras connections

A century-old burial ground tells the story behind the name of Charnockite, the gleaming granite, and its link to India’s colonial past

A recent report said the South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta, was celebrating its 250th anniversary. Its share of significant Madras connections I’ll talk about another day. For now, it reminds me of another Calcutta cemetery almost a century older and with significant Madras connections. It’s the burial ground in a portion of which St. John’s Church was built to be consecrated in 1787. The church opens on to what is left of Calcutta’s first European graveyard. Dominating it is the massive, octagonal mausoleum raised above the graves of Job Charnock and some of his family. This domed, urn-surmounted structure, considered the oldest masonry work in Calcutta, houses several tombstones.

A Calcutta cemetery with Madras connections

Job Charnock, the English East India Company’s first merchant at Sutanuti (now in north Calcutta), being harassed by various local groups and lacking support from his London superiors, came for relief to Elihu Yale’s Madras in March 1689. Bolstered by men and materials from Yale, he returned to Sutanuti in August 1690. Combining the villages of Sutanuti, Govindpur and Kalighat, he founded what became Calcutta. While in Madras, Charnock’s three daughters, Mary, Elizabeth and Catherine, all born of a Hindu mother, were baptised in St.Mary’s in the Fort.

When Charnock died in 1692, he was buried, it is speculated, next to his wife, who had died a year earlier, in the new settlement’s burial ground. Mary, his eldest daughter, married Charles Eyre, his successor as Chief in Calcutta. When she and her infant son died in 1696, she was buried next to her father. It is presumed that Eyre raised the mausoleum over the family’s tombs in 1697. But what links the Charnock burial site to Madras is his tombstone within the mausoleum, placed, it is believed, a couple of years after his death by his son-in-law, Eyre. Thomas Holland of the Geological Survey of India was asked by the Chaplain of St. Paul’s to study it and several others, including that of Charnock’s third daughter Catherine, as “the rock itself, being of a type hitherto undescribed, is of sufficient value to call for a study.”

A Calcutta cemetery with Madras connections

In a detailed paper in 1893, Holland lists the minerals in the black-hued rock and discusses them. He then concludes, “From its proximity to the coast and to Madras, it seems likely that Pallavaram would have been selected by the earlier agents of the East India Company as a source of this handsome rock.” Holland concludes: “As this is a new type of rock, and modifications of it occur by the introduction of accessory materials, I would suggest for it the name Charnockite, in honour of the founder of Calcutta who was the unconscious means of bringing, perhaps, the first specimen of this rock to our capital.”

The black pillars that grace the façade of the Tamil Nadu Legislature are of Charnockite. When polished, this granite gleams, is even almost mirror-like. But our Government engineers in Madras have, in their wisdom, instead of polishing them, painted them in gloss black!

New life for Sir CP’s library

Going to libraries these days to do research is a dying habit. Even if it is to access the splendid resources the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation Library on Eldam’s Road provides free. This library, offering a wealth of information on Law, Indology, the Environment, History, Sanskrit and several other subjects, is a treasure-trove for researchers. But where are they?

The collection had as its nucleus around 10,000 books, about a quarter of Sir CP’s private collection. The rest he had donated to what is now Kerala University, that he had helped found as Travancore University, and to Annamalai University, Vice-Chancellor of which he’d been. Sir CP’s was Travancore University’s first Vice Chancellor. He went on to become the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, then, not once but twice, of Annamalai University. He was 82 when he accepted the post the second time and went to London in 1963 to the Commonwealth Vice Chancellors’ Conference where they marveled at the sprightliness of the man considered the world’s oldest VC. When he retired in March 1966, he turned to books and writing.

The completely modernised library, with Sir CP’s and the Foundation’s own collection, has over 50,000 books, besides journals and ancient paper and palm leaf manuscripts. But it’s not a lending library. It does have copying facilities though. Dr. Nanditha Krishna, to reorganise the library, make it reader-friendly and invitingly bright and airy, has upgraded the interior of the old Sir CP mansion, but created a façade to reflect the antiquity of the building. As an integral part of the library, holding a part of the holdings, is Sir CP’s study she has re-created, with a bust of his overlooking the room from one end.

The archives just off it have his files (accessible, on request) and many a 19th Century rare book. There’s even a room for Sir CP’s fiction. We’ve spent so much time making this a user-friendly library, says Dr Nandhitha Krishna, but is it time wasted, she wonders sadly. Digitisation is the way to go, is all that I can advise, though it goes against my grain to say so.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 10:20:16 PM |

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