“The world slides, the world goes, and death makes equal the rich and the poor.”
How could a place be so full and empty at the same time? All around are the crumbling graves with cracked tombstones, faded with time, covered with yellow moss and falling leaves of the trees around, somehow surviving in an eerie silence. The South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata is a concentration of the who’s who of British Raj. Many mighty ones found their last resting place here—surrounded by a twenty foot high mossy stone wall enclosure—in one of the oldest cemeteries of India.
Park Street (now known as ‘Mother Teresa Sarani’) is part of an urban jungle, one of the busiest streets in the heart of a megalopolis, but inside the cemetery is strangely peaceful, dark and uncharacteristically cool for Kolkata, disconnected from the hustle and bustle outside the high wall. A stream of pedestrians walk past it every day without caring for its historical importance or knowing its existence.
The South Park Street Cemetery was built in 1767 for the early East India Company pioneers and their attendants. It is one the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world.
Today it looks really old, colonial and mysterious. Earliest grave here dates to 1768 and the last ones to 1895. Filled with colonial graves in the shape of massive pyramids, pavilions, obelisks and urns and each of them hid in themselves real history.
Famous luminaries like Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Sir William Jones (founder of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal), Richmond Thackery, Colonel Vansittart, Col. Akilis, Colonel Robert Kyd (botanist), Lieut. Col. Colin Mackenzie (Surveyor General of India), Lieutenant-General Sir John Clavering, Walter Landor Dickens, son of English novelist Charles Dickens (initially buried in Bhowanipore war cemetery and the tombstone was later moved here in 1987), and many others are resting in eternity here.
The graves, covered with heavy moss, seemed to whisper to the passers-by that no matter how hard one tries, from dust he has come and one day, to dust he shall return.
The South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata is an open air history book for one to read and touch. Today, the cemetery is in quite ramshackle condition. Several attempts, to restore it have been made, but the demise of senior committee members and severe lack of funds are main causes to hamper the same. The cemetery is thus a monument of double death—the decaying remains of its inhabitants, and its own death, as it lies forgotten by both, the present and the past. Who cares for the dead, when no one has time for the living one?
A.K. Bandyopadhyay, a retired Archaeological Survey of India officer and advisor to CBB (Christian Burial Board), Kolkata wrote about the cemetery, ‘‘Preservation of such precious heritage sites requires the special expertise of archaeologist-engineers. The structures have to be saved for posterity, without any alteration of their original characters. The right materials and the right workmanship must be selected. Phase I of renovations, completed in 2007 involved the restoration of 15 tombs that needed most urgent attention. Another batch of tombs is being taken up in 2009, even as the surrounding grounds are suitably refurbished in period style, with the added benefit of environment-friendly technology such as solar-powered lighting”. Lack of adequate funds is a big and persistent problem.
One of the most elaborate structures here is the grave of Major General ‘Hindoo’ Stuart. His real name was Charles Stuart and he was in the East India Company Army. He embraced Hindu culture and advocated strongly about it. He also acquired an Indian wife. He tried to persuade the British ladies to throw off their heavy corsets and wear the sari, as it was more suitable for local environs. He wrote in an article, “The Sari is the most alluring dress in the world and the women of Hindustan are enchanting in their beauty.” On his grave, a small mausoleum was built in the shape of a Hindu temple.
Rudyard Kipling sarcastically (and probably very correctly) wrote about this historic cemetery, ‘‘the tombs are small houses. It is as though we walked down the streets of a town, so tall are they and so closely do they stand—a town shriveled by fire, and scarred by frost and siege. Men must have been afraid of their friends rising up before the due time that they weighted them with such cruel mounds of masonry.’’
The Cemetery is known for its ghostly atmosphere and Sandip Roy filmed his ‘Gorosthane Sabdhan’ in its haunting environs. The movie was based on his father Satyajit Roy’s short novel of same name.
Today, not many visit the old, almost forgotten cemetery and it’s difficult to recognize from outside. Walking through the brick-pathways of the cemetery was a humbling, ego-shattering, experience. It had an old unknown, difficult to explain, eerie feel to it. Crumbling tombs and broken obelisks remind us of the mortality of human beings. There really is no immortality of the individual.
As we were walking out of the cemetery, we found a tombstone, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”
I would strongly recommend a visit to this small, green and mysterious cemetery. It will be a haunting, impossible to forget, experience.
Though the tombs are numbered and a list of persons buried here is also available with the management committee, finding a particular grave is not easy, as the graves are not placed in the order of their numbers.
There used to be another cemetery directly across to it. It was known as the North Park Street Cemetery. The cemetery has been replaced with Assembly of God Church School and the Mercy Hospital. A lone, neglected, grave stands in a corner as a reminder of the forgotten past. The small temple-like obelisk on the grave of Edwin Roberson (Superintendent of Calcutta Police) is known as the Roberson Monument.
The North Park Street Cemetery was opened in 1797 and was much larger than the cemetery situated opposite to it. It housed the graves of several prominent British citizens of Calcutta, including of Lieutenant Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick (Resident of Nizam of Hyderabad), Richmond Thackeray (father of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray). Many of the plaques and tombstones from the North Park Street Cemetery were transferred and placed on the walls of the South Park Street Cemetery. A large and exquisitely carved marble memorial to James Achilles Kirkpatrick is housed today on the Southern wall of St. John’s Church of Kolkata.
How to reach: Situated on Mother Teresa Sarani (erstwhile Park Street), the South Park Street Cemetery is well-connected by road network to nearby foremost places. The closest Metro Stations are Park Street and Maidan. The cemetery is an easy walk from nearby St. Xavier’s College or the Mother House (HQ of Missionaries of Charity).