South Park Street Cemetery: The Dead Still Tell Tales
In the late 18th century, Reverend William Parry, chaplain of St John’s Church in Calcutta, was given a raise. The Rs 30 added to his monthly salary was a special allowance meant for a ‘palkee’ and bearers so that the reverend could make the arduous commute between his parish and a new cemetery on the outskirts of the White Town.
The new burial ground was located in the middle of fields and, to reach it, a new road had to be built. This road came to be known as Burial Ground Road – today one of Kolkata’s most happening streets, Park Street.
Clearly, the South Park Street Cemetery, as the burial ground came to be called, was absolutely vital to the Europeans in Calcutta. Poor sanitation, a poor understanding of tropical diseases and only rudimentary medicine had made death so distressingly common that the existing cemetery could no longer hold the dead. The Europeans were then using Calcutta’s first British burial ground, located where St John’s Church on Council House Street stands today.
Concerned that the sight of funeral processions winding their way through the town several times a week might the residents’ erode morale, and that opening a new cemetery in the town could be a health hazard, the Board of Governors of the East India Company decided on a site that was far from human habitation.
In August 1767, the President of the Company told the Board that a new burial ground “near Mr Vansittart’s house”, was ready. Things were so dire that the first burial took place on that very day – that of a certain Mr Wood, an East India Company ‘writer’ or clerk.
Now smack in the middle of Kolkata but walled off from the bustle and chaos outside, this 8-acre quiet and leafy haven holds the mortal remains of 1,600-odd British men, women and children. One of the largest of its kind in Asia, it is the final resting place of some notable personalities and boasts some dramatic and beautiful tombs, cenotaphs and mausoleums.
The burial ground, also called the Great Cemetery, is no longer in use, and although a marble plaque on the gate says it was closed in 1790, the tombstones suggest that it was used right up till 1840. Strolling along its paths and reading the inscriptions on the graves reveals a lot about what the city was like in the 18th century.
Burials back then would often take place at night. The coffin would be carried on the shoulders of the deceased person’s friends since no hearses had been introduced in the city, and torches would be lit to keep tigers at bay!
– Katherine Blechynden writes in her book Calcutta: Past and Present (1905), that there were an average 200 burials a year.
She suggests that enormous amounts of masonry were piled onto graves, creating gigantic memorials to even the humblest of people, to contain the diseases that so often led to fatalities. The cemetery’s first occupant, Mr Wood, was not alone for long. Blechynden writes that, “soon heavy monuments arose and multiplied on every side as the City of the Dead gathered in its denizens”.
The giant obelisks of South Park Street are a popular tourist attraction today but they are also a roster of the who’s who of Calcutta in the 18th century. Among the graves is that of George Bogle, once private secretary to Warren Hastings, first Governor of Bengal. Bogle was sent by Hastings in the summer of 1774 to make contact with the Panchen Lama, in the hope that trade links could be opened up with Tibet and China. With the effort proving successful, Bogle became British India’s first ambassador to Tibet. He was also the impetus for the construction of the Bhot Bagan Math, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the plains of Bengal, which survives in Ghusuri in Howrah to this day.
There are quite a few military burials in South Park Street cemetery as well. Several tombs are marked with an anchor and a chain, indicating that the deceased served in the navy. One of the most important residents of this necropolis is Lt Gen Sir John Clavering. Having served in the Seven Years War and the Invasion of Guadeloupe, Clavering arrived in Calcutta in 1774 as a member of the Supreme Council of Bengal. He was eventually promoted to Commander-in-Chief in India and died in Calcutta in 1775.
Also buried here is Edward Gordon, who was for several years the commander of the military escort of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Then, there’s Major-General John Garstin, Chief Engineer for the Bengal Presidency. Garstin was the man responsible for Kolkata’s Town Hall as well as Patna’s Gol Ghar. When the Old Court House in Calcutta was demolished in 1792, Garstin used the bricks from the building to construct five buildings in a cul-de-sac now known as Garstin Place. From here, the Indian Broadcasting Company, the predecessor of All India Radio, began its operations in 1927.
While the stories of the men are told and retold, it is easy to forget the many women buried in South Park Street Cemetery. A study of the tombstones reveals that a very large number of women died very young, from complications during childbirth. There is a large number of children buried along with their mothers as well.
Among the most well-known women buried here is Rose Aylmer (1779 to 1800). Rose was in love with the English poet, Walter Savage Landor. However, her family did not approve of the match and sent her away to her aunt in Calcutta. She died at the very young age of 20, due to “a most severe bowel complaint brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit, the pineapple”.
Rose’s death may have been caused by cholera, and it was believed at the time that fruits such as watermelons and pineapples were one of the ways in which people contracted the disease. Many towns banned the sale of fruit during a cholera outbreak.
Also here is Charlotte Hickey, wife of the famous memoirist, William Hickey. Charlotte must have been in her late teens when William proposed marriage to her. Katie Hickman writes in great detail in her book, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India, of her arduous journey to India, how she was initially held captive by the French and how as word of her great beauty spread, she was driven to near madness by the sheer number of young gentlemen who would pop by her house just to get a glimpse of her. Charlotte died in 1783, at the age of 21.
But when it comes to beauty, no one is better remembered than “the Celebrated Miss Sanderson”. Elizabeth Jane, daughter of Colonel Sanderson, was thought of as being the most beautiful girl in all of Calcutta. She was quite aware of her status, and was rather a playful and mischievous young girl.
On the occasion of a ball, she received multiple requests from eligible young men, to be their date for the evening. She told each of them separately, that they would look wonderful if they wore a pea-green suit with purple lace trimmings. As a result, a dozen or so young men turned up at the ball wearing the exact same, ridiculous outfit. But they were sporting about it and lined the streets and serenaded her as she went home that night! Elizabeth married Richard Barwell, a friend of Warren Hastings, and died at the tender age of 23 in 1778.
Among the two tombs at the cemetery most revered by Indians even today, one is that of William Jones (1746 to 1794). Jones was an Anglo-Welsh philologist and judge, who first proposed a link between European and Indo-Aryan languages. He was a pioneering scholar of India and his contributions to the field have been many and great. His is the tallest obelisk in South Park Street Cemetery, and it is maintained by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which he founded.
The other focal point of veneration is the humble tomb of the poet and educator, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809 to 1831). Although his poetry had been published in The India Gazette while he was still quite young, Derozio’s rise to fame began with his appointment as a teacher of History and English at Hindu College. His religious skepticism and his penchant for free-thinking, both new at the time, deeply impressed his students. Although Eurasian by descent, Derozio considered himself Indian and his thoughts and activities led to the founding of the Young Bengal movement, which sought social change.
When it comes to architecture, the one tomb in South Park Street cemetery that stands out is that of Major-General Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart (1758 to 1828). An eccentric Irishman, Stuart’s rather unusual life and philosophy finds mention in William Dalrymple’s White Mughals (2002). As soon as he arrived in Calcutta in the 1780s, he was attracted to Hinduism. Within a year, he had started rising at the crack of dawn to bathe in the Ganges, and greeted all Hindus he met with an enthusiastic “Jai Sitaramjee.”
According to his subordinate, William Linnaeus Gardener, on at least one occasion, he had taken a leave of absence to bathe in the Kumbh Mela, and had completely changed his diet and avoided “the sight of beef”.
Stuart had also written a number of articles urging European women in Calcutta to adopt the saree, without which, he said, they had no chance of competing against the beauty of Indian women. Stuart’s collection of deities and idols from the Indian subcontinent forms a major part of the British Museum's ancient Hindu and Buddhist sculpture collection today.
South Park Street Cemetery was closed in the 1840s, although a couple of burials took place even after that. In many ways, the cemetery is a time capsule. History books capture the bigger picture, but here the epitaphs reveal interesting nuances, some sombre, some mischievous, of the people buried here. These obelisks and plaques that bear these epitaphs are a reminder of the early days of Calcutta, which was then known all over the world as ‘The City of Palaces’.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about heritage since 2013.