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My Favourite Necropolis


I hope you enjoyed reading, as did I, Unheard Melodies‘ post of 7 December on Kensal Rise Cemetery, The Decent Inn of Death. Anyone who was anyone in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries was buried in great style. In Britain we have Kensal Rise, Highgate and Glasgow; in Paris they have Père Lachaise, all destinations in their own right to those who value ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy‘, as Thomas Warton Jr wrote in 1745:

O, lead me, queen sublime, to solemn glooms
Congenial with my soul; to cheerless shades,
To ruin´d seats, to twilight cells and bowers,
Where thoughtful Melancholy loves to muse…

He was only 17, so he can perhaps be forgiven for finding ‘cheerless shades’ so congenial, but in fact any resident of the British Isles needs to develop the ability to feel pleasure in melancholy if only because of our weather, especially in November and February.

But the most atmospheric necropolis, or city of the dead, of them all is surely Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. This cemetery, which by the 1980s was in the middle of ‘downtown’ Calcutta, is a warning to city planners everywhere – when it was built in the 1700s it was sited at the far southern end of town, and called Burial Ground Road, but the city centre moved inexorably south, turning the cemetery into a landmark of midtown Calcutta (on a street now renamed Mother Teresa Sarani), which has been allowed to remain a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city.

At least it seems peaceful in relation to the surrounding traffic. But I invite you to listen to the sounds as you follow this 53 second video of Park Street Cemetery. Apart from the ubiquitous crows, and a distant peacock, at 0.13 seconds you can hear the koel, or brain-fever bird, said to have driven generations of English women mad as they listened to the rising crescendo in the pre-monsoon heat, waiting for a climax to the song and a downpour that seemed as if it would never arrive. (And yes, I do speak from personal experience, though I seem to have more or less recovered my sanity!)

I spent a good deal of time in the cemetery in the late 1980s, photographing the graves to form part of the record being compiled by Maurice Shellim for BACSA (the British Association for the Preservation of Cemeteries in South Asia), of which Robert and I are life members. As any photographer knows, in the tropics the best time for photography is in the early morning or just before dusk. It is also the time favoured by the formidable mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects of the region, as I can attest (One must suffer for one’s art of course, this I knew). Luckily for me, this only resulted in two bouts of dengue fever: the residents of the cemetery were not so lucky, in fact their life expectancy once arriving in Calcutta was said to be ‘two monsoons’

The two best known occupants are probably Sir William Jones and Rose Aylmer. Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society, was a man of great distinction – a fact of which few were more aware than he himself. His obelisk tomb is the tallest in Calcutta, now unfortunately painted white. But the epitaph waxes lyrical about his great humility, summing up:

He thought none beneath him but the base and ignoble.

Hmm. Not quite sure whether this will be humble enough to get him past St Peter at the pearly gates.

 

 

Rose Aylmer, the object of Walter Savage Landor‘s elegaic poem, was said rather tartly by locals to have died from a surfeit of pineapples:

Ah, what avails the sceptred race,
Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.

In Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy‘, Amit and Lata walk around the cemetery and particularly like Rose Aylmer’s tomb, which Amit says ‘looks like an upside-down ice-cream cone’. Amit explains that Landor had met Rose in the Swansea Circulating Library and then again when she, like many unmarried girls just beginning to be past it, arrived in Calcutta on ‘the fishing fleet’. She died before knowing whether she would have to join the sad troupe of the ‘returning empties’.

 

I strongly recommend the post by ‘Chris’ of Taiwan dated 1 May 2011 on ‘Graving Blog’, devoted to Park Street Cemetery. He has many more photographs and a well-written background piece.

The Revd Richard Coles recommends Birmingham’s Key Hill Cemetery. What’s your favourite resting place?

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The photograph of Rose Aylmer’s tomb is by Sean Chadwell; the general view of the main illustration and the thumbnail of Sir William Jones are made available by wikimedia. All are released under a creative commons licence.

The passage in ‘A Suitable Boy’ is in section 7.30, pages 451-3 in my copy. Although my name does not appear in the acknowledgements, I did the background research on Landor for Vikram, and he has annotated the contents page ‘A cemetery affords a pleasing walk’ with ‘(which it wouldn’t have, without your help, Laura. Thanks!)

vikram 001vikram 2 001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know that Calcutta is now called Kolkata, but there was no city here at all until Job Charnock of the East India Company set up his trading post on the highest possible navigable point on the Hooghly River in 1690. He called it Calcutta, it was Calcutta while the cemetery was open, and while we lived there in the 1980s so, for me, it remains Calcutta.

………………………………….

I wrote a book called ‘Calcutta Through British Eyes 1690-1990‘. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1991 but is now out of print. It was an anthology of published diaries and letters written by English people living in Calcutta since its foundation.

4 comments on this post:

Richard Haggis said...
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Thank you for this, and for the reminder of what it must have been for so many intrepid travellers to meet their ends so far from home. As an inveterate genealogist, I have spent a lot of time in graveyards, and reading memorials (none, alas, to any of my forebears, who all went unmarked into the common graves, until my grandfather in 1981), and one often finds a person described as a resident of one place, but buried in another, or born far away, and you can’t help to speculate on their travels, their stories. I particularly like their peace, which does seem to attract wildlife. The little civic cemetery in Londrina (Parana, Brasil), in my partner’s suburb, is full of delightful little owls in broad daylight, and woodpeckers in the fruit trees. And it was there that I first realised that a leaf, being blown along at full pelt on a windless day, is really a hummingbird, or “flower-kisser” as the Brasilians rather saucily have it … What a lot of life there can be, in the midst of death!

Lay Anglicana said...
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Thank-you, Richard. Park Street is particularly poignant, as you say, because almost all of them were young. In the 18th century, Calcutta was called the city of palaces, and its streets were thought to be metaphorically paved with gold. It attracted many young men in search of their fortunes; some of these, like Warren Hastings, were indeed lucky but others died of malaria or dysentery, quite often on their way home.

As you say, it is partly the peace of these places that attract us, but also the feeling that they do not feel empty – it does not require much imagination to feel the presence of the shades of our ancestors.

17 December 2011 09:49
17 December 2011 07:41
UKViewer said...
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This fascination with the final resting place of many, seems to pervade a lot of the British people. I and my spouse are quite fascinated by them, and often walk around a burial ground, particularly when attending funerals or a new church. The Church yards, left untouched, are the best. The shame is that many urban church yards have been despoiled by planners with grave stones removed and being laid to grass.

I can’t say that I would like someone tramping over my grave, or playing football on it – Urgh!

Rural Church yards retain their charm and are often well documented – and are an oasis of peace and excellent for research (if you are that way inclined). I have a particular interest in unknown War Graves, where an individual has been buried in a Church yard and where it normally stands out from the surrounding ancient graves, by being maintained by the War Graves Commission.

Following up how and why they arrived in that particular spot can be a challenge, but satisfying when you discover the answer.

We were particularly fascinated by continental burial grounds, where they tend to be more flamboyant than ours. With Photographs, life stories and extensive eulogies. And maintained by successive generations.

I’ve been told that it’s a morbid fascination, but I disagree. It’s about having a respect for those who’ve gone before and their lives which are often forgotten. Out of sight – out of mind, so to speak.

Lay Anglicana said...
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Like you, UKViewer, I have always been fascinated by graveyards and if I visit a country church I usually go into the graveyard as well. It’s rather a shame that modern British memorials are so matter of fact, and don’t convey the same atmosphere that European ones still do.

17 December 2011 09:53
17 December 2011 08:51