Grave Matters

Considered one of the largest Christian cemeteries outside of Europe and America, the South Park Cemetery in Kolkata holds about 1600 vaults and tombs. The ordinary and well-known British who lived and died in Kolkata while serving the East India Company are buried here. However, the burial ground has shrunk, said Ian Chau, who volunteers his time as a caretaker at the cemetery. He accompanies the curious visitor around the grounds pointing at some of the more difficult-to-find graves as there are no markings along the path.

This place was far out from the British settlements in White Town, situated around present-day BBD Bagh. It saw burials occur from August 1757 till around 1830, some forty years over the ‘official closure date’ mentioned on a plaque on the gate. Back then, large portions of land on both sides of today’s Park Street were burial grounds, and the road was called Burial Ground Road. Right opposite South Park Cemetery was the North Park Cemetery, and adjacent to it was the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Today, the North Park Cemetery is a Protestant Church with a hospital and school attached. I asked Ian Chau about the remains of the cemetery. He said except for one family, everyone else consented to allow redevelopment. The one grave that belongs to the person whose family did not agree to the land conversion still exists to one corner of the main gate.

The Roman Catholic cemetery was established by a certain Edward Tiretta, an Italian businessman who could not find a place to bury his wife on her passing. He allowed anyone and everyone who needed a final resting place for their loved ones to be buried here. Unfortunately, this cemetery has been buried, literally, under a new school complex. Edward Tiretta’s plaque (and a few others) was transferred to the South Park Cemetery, and you can find them pasted on the walls close to the entry gates.

Edward Tiretta’s plaque

I pay the nominal entry fee (20 bucks) and step in to see before me tombs of all shapes and sizes – Obelisks, doric and ionic columns, vaults small and big make up the landscape. Some tombs have relief work of urns and anchors; others are dome-shaped, some have large urns installed on top of columns. Some graves have certainly seen better days. Some others have been restored recently, and some others are undergoing upkeep. Ian Chau tells me that burying took place from the first available spot near the gate and continued inward. Soon enough, I realised that there was no order to the burials as the ground was not a planned layout.

According to an information board on the premises, the first person buried here was John Wood, a writer in the Customs House, but the grave does not exist anymore. The tomb of a Mrs. Sarah Pearson is now one of the oldest. Mary Bowers, a survivor of the Black Hole incident, was buried here upon her eventual death. Babies, young women, retirees, sailors, officers, soldiers, they are all here.

Some notable graves belong to:
Elizabeth Jane Barwell (died 1778), wife of Richard Barwell. Richard Barwell was an important man – he was a friend of Warren Hastings and on the ‘honourable East India Company’ council. She was only 23 years old, and they were married only two years at her passing. The obelisk on her grave is a very tall structure, almost reaching the skies!

Tomb of Elizabeth Barwell

Sir William Jones (died 1794) founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal (located at 1, Park Street) when he served as a high court judge in Kolkata. He is supposed to have written his own epitaph.

Tomb of William Jones

Rose Whitworth Aylmer (died 1800), the love of poet Walter Savage Landor died far away from home and Landor in Kolkata that was known to be harsh toward those with delicate health. Landor dedicated a short poem to her, and the words are inscribed on the base of her uniquely shaped tomb, a cylindrical obelisk with an obliquely fluted surface.

Tomb of Rose Aylmer

Major Gen. Charles Stuart (died 1828), an officer of the East India Company who was so taken in by the culture and tradition of Hinduism that he became a practising Hindu earning him the epithet ‘Hindoo Stuart’. His grave looks part Rajput cenotaph, part small shrine! Mini gopuras (towers/shikharas) adorn the corner of the arches above the three open sides of the grave.

Tomb of Hindu Stuart

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (died 1831), a poet, teacher and rationalist who instilled thought and debate outside the boundaries of academic limitation that caused a flutter among conservative Hindus, died young of cholera.

Tomb of Derozio

Walter Landor Dickens (died 1863). A simple tombstone marks the resting place of Charles Dickens’ son, who served in the East India Company.

Tomb of Walter Dickens

These are only a few of the notable tombs in the cemetery. I asked Ian Chau if relatives come and visit; not really, he said. The maintenance is carried out by the Christian Burial Board of Kolkata. The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia helped restore the place, and the cemetery is now an Archaeological Society of India site.

I profusely thanked Ian Chau for patiently guiding me around the cemetery. Then he told me his story. He is a retired technician and a seaman, like his father before him and his grandfather before that. His grandfather was a carpenter who came to Kolkata from China. He worked in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, building summer retreats for the British of Kolkata. Chau’s paternal grandmother is of Nepali origin. In the aftermath of the Indo-China war of 1962, Chau’s grandfather, father and uncles were held in internment camps in Deoli, Rajasthan, with thousands of others. Upon release from the camp, his granddad and uncles decided to move back to China. While his uncles lived in China, his granddad kept going back and forth to Hong Kong from China, wanting to die in Hong Kong. Finally, his wish came true; Chau’s grandpa and grandma were laid to rest in Hong Kong, and the uncles eventually migrated to Vancouver. Chau’s dad stayed in India, and Ian knows no home other than Kolkata.
Growing up in a small town far down in South India, the only ‘Chinese’ we knew were the ones that ran beauty parlours. You could be assured of a great haircut there. Then we slowly saw the growth of Chinese restaurants. Not once did we wonder where they came from or why we called them ‘Chinese’. I know better today.

This oasis of peace and tranquility just off the bustling Park Street in Kolkata holds more than graves of the dead. It is a repository of history, stories, architecture and flora. I have been in the small and simple graveyard in Fort Kochi, seen a few tombstones right here in Nandi Hills, and visited a few others in Krakow, Boston and Berlin. However, the one in Berlin is among the grandest I have seen thus far, and clearly, the one in Kolkata is quite impressive. So add it to your itinerary of must-see places in Kolkata.

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