It’s monsoon season again, in Calcutta, the latter part of the eighteenth century. Life is anything but easy. The River Hooghly is past flood stage and water is standing everywhere, a repository for human waste, animal carcases, and anything else that is not securely anchored. Malaria, chorea, and dysentery are rampant. Life expectancy is barely thirty years and infant mortality is unspeakable. Between 1770 and 1773, about 10 million people die of famine in Bengal – 1/3 of the population.
In “White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India,” William Dalrymple writes:
“…two monsoons was the average life span of a European in Bengal. In one year out of a total European population of 1200, over a third died between August and the end of December.”
Thus, the South Park Street Cemetery, which opened in 1767, became the final resting place for many of the men and women of the British East India Company and the early days of the British Raj (British Rule.) They are soldiers, sailors, their wives, and young women searching for husbands. They are traders and travelers seeking their fortune and escape from Victorian England. In those days death was an occupational hazard for the foreign community.
Today the cemetery, surrounded by its high wall, is an oasis of calm and quiet amongst the constant drone of India’s third largest city. It is an open air museum, and one of the world’s unique cemeteries. The graves are huge structures mostly in the shape of obelisks (tall narrow tapering structures.) Others are pyramids, urns or pavilions. It seems that even in death the occupants were imitating the grandeur of the British Raj by competing for the distinction of having the largest or most intricately decorated grave.
Rudyard Kipling, in “City of Dreadful Night,” sarcastically has this to says about the graveyard:
“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 shrivelled 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.”
A few caretakers appear to live on the premises, but seem to be occupied with gathering firewood and looking after their families’ needs rather than taking care of the graveyard. A few short years ago the grounds were home to hundreds of families who had nowhere else to live. Now it is all but deserted.
The cemetery was a highlight of my Calcutta visit. While it is a look into the city’s early history and grandeur, it is in itself, crumbling and decaying like much of Calcutta. As I wandered among the tombs alone, I wanted to know more about Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, Captain Dennis Bodkin, Elizabeth Barwell, Lieutenant-General Sir John Clavering, Major George Dowlie, Thomas Cotterell, Capt. W Mackay, Harriet Chicheley Plowden, and Frances Sophia, infant daughter of Lane and Margaret Magnaic. I found it difficult to imagine what their lives in Calcutta were like. The bravery, hardship, and heartbreak is unimaginable. The voyage alone from England would often take seven months, if the ship arrived at all. And we call ourselves travelers as we hop on a planes and fly to the other side of the world in less than a day and complain about the inconveniences we face.
This then, is my introduction to a gallery of images I made of the South Park Street Cemetery. Comments are welcome.
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