Himachal graves call out to British tourists

By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned;
By strangers honoured, and by strangers mourned.
– Alexander Pope

gravesIronically, neither are the strangers honouring, nor are the strangers mourning. Nearly 42 cemeteries – estimated by London-based British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) – mostly of the British era in the state are in pathetic condition and openly vandalised. However, the Himachal Pradesh tourism department’s recent decision to woo British tourists to these graveyards may change things for good.

The most prominent amongst them is the Cemetery in Sanjauli, which once was a quite place, and dates back to 1820s. However, the cemetery today is in shambles, with illegal constructions getting closer to it, threatening to lay foundations on the graves itself.

The pine trees certainly are eerie, though the remains of the graves are magnificent. The epitaphs and the elegies are sheer poetry and sculptures/monuments a hint of the diminishing European art from Shimla. Many of the tombstones and headstones have found their way into the kitchens and bathrooms of houses in the vicinity. The remaining sculptures have lost a head or a limb and moss threatening to eat the rest. The gravestones, headstones have become standby wickets for children (mostly teens) playing cricket, who with their shrill rapturous cries not only cut through the whistling wind but are bound to disturb the sleeping dead too.

Towards the end of the cemetery are newly dug graves waiting for their new inmates. However, children without any respect for the place, jump in and out of them. Are they to be faulted when their cricket ball rolls into it?

And not to forget the large cows wandering amongst the bushes that have infested the once nicely laid out path and gardens. And yes, the place is a good hideout for drug-addicts and peddlers too.

These cemeteries are history books in themselves. A lot of thought must have gone into the planning of these cemeteries symmetrical and a lot of of thought and emotion  into the sculptures and epitaphs. But does anybody care for the dead? Not, until you belong to the lineage.

The Himachal government has commissioned local historian Raja Bhasin to carry on the restoration work and document four European graveyards in Shimla. This documentation would help mostly the British tourists to trace their ancestors. Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) too has identified two of the cemeteries – Old Cemetery near Oak Over and the Sanjauli Cemetery as heritage places.

Similar cemeteries can be found in Kasauli, Dagshai and Dalhousie as well.

Surprisingly enough, the Christian missionaries who are working in graveyard shifts in the tribal and interiors of Himachal to bring the gullible into the Christian fold too have paid less heed to these cemeteries. They get crores of Rupees as funds from Missions abroad and in Delhi and Mumbai to raise churches and lure the people. While the Catholic Christ Church on the Ridge, Shimla gets most of the tourists, it itself has done little to keep the graves around it in good health. They too are wanting attention. Considering that the British were mostly Catholics, the Church should have come forth in demanding care and restoration of these cemeteries. Though least can be expected from other prominent sects – the Evengalist and the Methodist priests have their own axe to grind with politics and in-fighting.

The restoration of these cemeteries with the gardens deweeded and more trees planted around, will not only attract the British tourists but historians, architects and Indian tourists as well. However, rules for no noise in the area must be strictly laid down.

The British of the erstwhile summer capital of British India, today remain only these graves and the same can be true for the Raj art and architecture as well. If nothing else, the restoration may bring in due respect for the dead at least.

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A perfect story-teller, who is madly in love with the hills. Shimla is his first love, and probably the last too. Won't get tired reading Rudyard Kipling. Hopes to pick up poetry again soon.

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  1. We seem to be pretty obsessed with terminology such as British India, Summer Capital of British India, British Raj et al.

    Let the Brits finance the restoration of dead mens’ domains!!

    Descendents of Sikhs who fought and laid down their lives to defend the French are not allowed to wear turban in France !. Most of the Europeans even today suffer from Imperial hangover and we Indians find it hard to get rid of colonial mindset.

  2. Hi Dharmender,
    Nice to see you back. I was wondering where have you got lost? No comments all these days.
    Anyways, well Dharmender, howsoever, you might deny it, and I’ll say is that it’s not colonial mindset. But the fact is the British did rule us for 200 years and we cannot change that history. And Shimla was the summer capital of India (rather British India). By changing names of places from Lord Ripon Hospital to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Hospital and Lady Reading to Kamla Nehru Hospital and Snowdown to Indira Gandhi Hospital won’t change history and won’t change the fact that these Lords and Ladies once roamed the Shimla Mall on rickshaws pulled by the ‘coolie’ who was an Indian. Well there were the local Seths too – the Ditta Mull and all, but the laws drafted by the British Legislative Lords prevailed on them and they paid the taxes in takkas or the Ruppees to them.
    The British rule was a dark spot in Indian history but we have got a lot from their legacy as well. We should thank them if not for dividing India and Pakistan but for consolidating the rest of India at least. We would have been small small princely states… Situation could have been better too. But the fact is that you cannot change facts and history. It’s only a matter of perception depending on which side of the debate you are. You may call the 1857 as a mutiny or you may call it the first war of independence.
    There isn’t much pride in the fact that the British ruled us but why be negative always. Let’s look at the good things they’ve done to India. Though for that matter they did it all for their selfish interests and not in the Indian public interest. But these good things did percolate down to the masses. We can debate it if you want to. And that’s not a colonial mindset but one who’s accepted history as it was – in both its Black and White. And we hope to make it colourful. And let’s remember all colours have that shade of Black and White too.

  3. Shimla ,no doubt,is britisher’s gift to India,but today it is coverted into a dirtiest hill station by the locals

  4. Interesting ‘debate’! I was supposed 2 do a short film fr Channel 4 on India’s 60th Ind ann scripted around Col Charles’s Parker, of Bengal Arty,epitaph below St. Bede’s (he’s not actually buried there)which never materialised…A ‘gora’ rejecting a ‘black’ or a ‘colonial’s mindset’s’ point-of-view ?!

  5. Totally agree with Vividh. Why do we have to carry the baggage of history? Let us make some money instead out of this history. Goras have a great fascination for their ancestors who are buried in India. If only the govt. can somehow make the atmosphere feasible for international travelers to visit India!

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