Poignant reminders of the past

Old-world feel: The cemetery on Hosur Road is full of ornate motifs of angels, gargoyles and crosses standing out in spite of over-grown weeds. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Old-world feel: The cemetery on Hosur Road is full of ornate motifs of angels, gargoyles and crosses standing out in spite of over-grown weeds. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

Melancholic, the air poignant with an inescapable sense of loss, the Indian Christian Cemetery on Hosur Road stands in stark contrast to the busy world beyond its walls. Yet, the cold beauty of row upon row of graves is oddly fascinating.

This Protestant cemetery — the Catholic one is next door — is an “ecumenical” cemetery, meant for all denominations, says Rev. Vincent Rajkumar, secretary of the Indian Christian Cemetery. “Let them die as Christians, not denominational Christians,” he says.

Set up around the first quarter of the 19th Century, it was a garrison cemetery, providing the final resting place for British officers serving in India, their families, and (mostly European) ordained members of the church. In fact, two of the four sections that were once exclusively used for non-Indians are still commonly referred to as the European cemetery.

Records of the earliest grave were not immediately available, but a walk through the vast grounds here showed graves from as far back as the 1830s.

Several headstones bear ornate motifs of angels, gargoyles and crosses. Thoughtful epitaphs — some only just legible after decades of facing the vagaries of nature — offer glimpses of stories from the past to anyone who has the patience to wade through the overgrown weeds that hide many of the oldest graves.

There's the little boy who passed on before he was given a name; “an English gentlewoman” who seems to have lived a long life far from the land where she was born; a British officer remembered “by his comrades”; the botanist who successfully transplanted foreign species in Bangalore; the official who was reportedly washed away at a dam project; the uniform row of Commonwealth soldiers; and the scores of soldiers lying in unmarked graves.

There's even one Commonwealth burial from World War II, marked by its distinct headstone. This was erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that identifies and maintains the graves of members of the Commonwealth forces who died in service during the World Wars.

Peaceful reflection

Over the years, newer graves have taken up spots next to the older ones. Section I, which was eventually opened up to Indians from English-speaking congregations, is now open to everyone.

The cemetery is run by a body represented by a number of churches in the city.

Recently, the British High Commission sent a team that identified and marked around 100 graves of British personnel.

Although there are no immediate space constraints, Rev. Vincent says people are being encouraged to choose to be buried with family members, or even opt for cremation.

Pilot project

The biggest challenge, he says, is a view echoed by James A., the in-charge of the cemetery, is maintenance. Parthenium has made some corners of the cemetery almost inaccessible, and many of the older headstones are broken. A pilot project in one section seeks to clear the area off weeds, and will be implemented across the vast grounds if it is successful.

The unkempt graves may suggest that even the memory of many of those interred here has faded. However, the efforts of a small group of interested individuals are helping preserve this facet of Bangalore's history.

An open air chapel was constructed here in 2008, and the authorities hope to offer the services of a funeral home soon.

As Rev. Vincent says of the cemetery, “It should be a place of peaceful reflection and meditation.”

Karunya Keshav

The forlorn Indian Christian Cemetery is set to get a fresh breath of life with timely preservation

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