Denial of dignity

The Hindu, India
Aug 5 2007

Denial of dignity


Two historical cemeteries in Kolkata are in a state of utter neglect
and indiscriminately vandalised.

In a bustling part of South Kolkata, tucked in between monstrously
designed offices and apartment buildings, lie a few acres of history.
They exist as two separate grounds, almost ashamed of their
antiquity, cowering within themselves so that the wei ght of the past
that they invoke does not trouble those leading the fast life

An observant pair of eyes will not miss the odd, weather-beaten
steeple or the graceful but damaged lines of the funerary urns that
dot the South Park Street cemetery, the solemn abode of the dead. It
contains around 1,600 graves that were erected over a period of 150
years, the oldest monument dated September 8, 1768, dedicated to the
memory of one Mrs. Sarah Pearson. A little further up is the bigger
and still functional Lower Circular Road (LCR) cemetery, a rambling
wilderness that surprisingly houses 12,000 graves.

Not resting in peace

It would be quite erroneous to assume, however, that characters part
of this vast historical gallery – ranging from British to Americans
and Greek to Armenians – lie in peace in their final resting place,
free from the restless clamour of life. A peek into the LCR cemetery
shows the sweeping decay that the place has come to symbolise, with
graves being hollowed out, tombstones ripped apart from the graves to
be either stolen or recklessly discarded and piled into a heap. While
the ravages of weather have ensured that most of the inscriptions
have turned illegible, those inflicted by humans have violated the
dignity due to the dead.

Acknowledging the ruinous state of the LCR cemetery, Ronojoy Bose, an
executive member of the Christian Burial Board that is in charge of
both these cemeteries apart from three others in the city, blames
petty criminals as well as more organised criminal networks operating
from the adjacent slums for the widespread vandalism. These mischief
makers regularly scale the boundary wall, at times even dismantling
parts of it, attacking the graves to pilfer whatever might have any
antique or archaeological value. `They have even stolen the railing
around the tomb of the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, one of
the shining figures of the Bengal Renaissance; only exemplary
punishment meted out by the police can tackle this menace,’ Mr. Bose

Already, the West Bengal Minority Commission has suggested certain
measures to rein in the theft of railings, concrete and marble slabs,
widespread dumping of garbage from the adjacent apartment blocks and
the trespassing that has become the order of the day. `The Minority
Commission had exercised its right to visit the cemeteries and as a
recommending body, suggested certain measures to the police to check
encroachment and restore the serenity and tranquility of the place,’
said Syed Adnan, Chairman of the Commission. `The last resting place
is a sacred site that also has religious sentiments attached to it;
in the event, it is very disconcerting for people to arrive at the
graves of their ancestors and find human faeces or pigs’ entrails
strewn all over it,’ he added.

One might indeed be bemused at the apparent lack of concern for its
colonial heritage in the city that was once the darling of the
colonialists. The South Park Street cemetery, in fact, has been
claimed to be one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world,
which housed colonial administrators and soldiers of the invading
army as well as the men, women and children who played only bit parts
in the larger drama of the time, their lives and deaths determined by
their resilience to withstand smallpox, rabies, cholera and `Arracan

A reflection of lives

While the South Park Street cemetery is better preserved than the one
at LCR, owing to the conservation efforts of the Association for the
Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India, the one at LCR needs
more attention. As the official brochure aptly reminds us, a walk
down the lanes among the decaying, moss-covered, weather-beaten
structures is as much a lesson in the neo-classical architectural
fashions of the times as it is a reflection of the lives that the
ordinary and not so ordinary led. So while John Drinkwater Bethune –
whose epitaph describes his achievement as having `paved through the
dark world of Indian women and rejuvenated it with the benevolent
light of education’ through the foundation of the Hindu Female School
– rests at the LCR cemetery, the towering steeple over the grave of
the pioneering Indologist William Jones dominates the one at Park

That is not to forget the tomb dedicated to the memory of Rose
Whitworth Aylmer, a sprightly girl all of 17 – a companion and source
of inspiration to the poet William Savage Landor – who lost the
battle to cholera almost as soon as she landed in Calcutta. While
Landor’s ode to Rose is inscribed on the epitaph (`Rose Aylmer, whom
these wakeful eyes, / May weep, but never see, / A night of memories
and sighs, / I consecrate to thee’), it is the eccentric religious
inclinations of Major General Charles Stuart, also known as `Hindoo’
Stuart on account of his devotion to the Hindu pantheon of gods and
his daily dip in the Hooghly river, that are reflected in the Hindu
religious motifs on his grave.

Already, a large number of graves in the LCR cemetery have been
uprooted on account of the entangling roots of the around 250 ancient
trees that dot the grounds in this area. The Christian Burial Board,
Mr. Bose said, is considering sending out an international notice,
stating that unless the descendants assume responsibility for the
upkeep of the graves of their ancestors or depute representatives to
do the same, the graves might not be preserved at all. It is said
that in the olden days, burials would take place here with the help
of lanterns, in the gathering dark of the evening. Perhaps now, more
than ever, that darkness is gathering strength.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS