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South Park Street Cemetery: In Conversation with Rosie LLewellyn Jones

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In Conversation with Rosie LLewellyn Jones: South Park Street Cemetery

 

Riti Sharma: Today we are joined by Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones who is an eminent authority on the South Park Street as well as on the cemeteries across Britain as well as India. Dr. Jones we would like to begin with how you came to be associated with BACSA, first of all?

 

Rosie Llewyn Jones: Yes, certainly. BACSA is an association set up in 1977. It is called the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia and was set up by an Englishman, being born here in Kanpur, he came out to India in 1972 and he was appalled by the awful state of old European and British cemeteries in India. They had been more or less neglected after 1947 after independence. And in fact there was no one to look after them. Many people think that the Commonwealth war graves commission in England look after all foreign cemeteries. That isn’t true. They only look after the cemeteries of soldiers who were killed during the two world wars. If you were British and you died before that or during the two world wars or after, upto 1947, there is no one to care for your grave.

 

So we decided to raise funds and we have been very successful and what we do is to fund local people who want to restore cemeteries. We don’t come out to India ourselves to do the work. We work through local people and it has been very successful.

 

 

R.S.: So if we talk about these South Park Street cemeteries which you have worked on, what are the qualities you would find to be different when you talk about South Park Street Cemetery and when you talk about the rest of the cemeteries in India?

 

R.L.J.: South Park Street Cemetery is the finest and largest cemetery of Britons in India. It is absolutely unique. There are lots of very unique features about it and possibly the first thing that strikes people, there is no church associated with the cemetery. Normally you get a church surrounded by grave stones. In this case you don’t and this is for historical reasons that the first church in Calcutta being destroyed by Siraj ud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, it wasn’t until 1784 that the second church, St. John’s was set up. Obviously people had been dying before them and it was necessary to bury them. So a rather large tract of land at the bottom of Park Street was allocated for this purpose and the road was originally known as Burying Ground Road and it was there on the outskirts of the city because it was considered unhealthy to bury people within the living area which is perfectly understandable. So it was on the outskirts of the town. Burying Ground Road, it was called. And funerals used to take place at night. You would have people standing there with lighted torches and the hearses take along horses. And the idea of having burials at night was because they were so frequent. If you’d have them during the day, people watching would have become very demoralised because the death rate among the Europeans was incredibly high, very high indeed.

 

So it is unique and it doesn’t have a church attached to it. It is also unique in that it is a planned cemetery on  asymmetric lines. It has gradiated paths and this isn’t seen anywhere at all until Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is set up 50 years later. So South Park Street Cemetery predates the concept of Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

 

R.S.: We have come across a range of architecture within the cemetery which ranges from pyramids to obelisks even, the family vaults. What do you have to say for this kind of variety? There was a lot of money, and a lot of labour being spent on the cemetery at that point, for a cemetery which closed by 1790?  

 

R.L.J.: It was actually a bit later that 1790. I know it says 1790 on the gate post but in fact we have got graves upto 1818 there. And probably or somebody, a relative, a father or mother buried there, then they would allow their children to be buried there. So it is from 1767 to about 1818.

 

And there is a huge variety of tombs because as you say there was almost a limited number. We are talking about the tombs of really rich people in Calcutta, extremely wealthy people. They were judges and officials, traders, seamen, officers, that kind of thing. And also at that time both labour and materials were very very cheap. The tombs were laid out of brick covered with stucco and this is why you can build the tombs to enormous heights. Very elaborate tombs. Now these people would not have been able to afford the same thing had they died in England. It was the fact that being in India when they built the tombs that allowed them to build all those fantasy tombs if you like, extremely grand tombs.

 

 

R.S.: Sir William Jones’ tomb, for instance?

R.L.J.: Yes, if we go to Sir William Jones’s tomb, this is the largest and tallest tomb in the cemetery. And in a way this is fitting because he was really a giant among men. He set up the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was a linguist. He was one of the first people to start translating Sanskrit stories and documents which before that had belonged almost entirely to Brahmin priests. So unless you were high caste Brahmin, you would not have access to these fantastic stories, earliest stories of Hindus in India. So he made available texts for the common people. That was one of his great triumphs. He was also a very gifted linguist) and he was the first to notice the similarities between some Sanskrit words and some Greek words and this led him to the theory of the Indo-European language which gave birth both to Sanskrit and Greek, two different branches came out like that and he was the first one to say that there is a similarity which allowed other linguists to then build on his work. So he was as I said a giant among men. 

 

 In this cemetery, we are looking at a variety of shapes and forms. The British at that period in the 18th century saw themselves somewhat like the Romans in Britain, that is symbolising colonial power coming in to a fairly, what would I say, disparate set of people. You know, really their idea of colonialism and with that you impose your own set of norms, you impose your own architecture. So it was entirely fitting that Britains buried here would choose classical motifs, classical Greek columns, classical Roman architecture, filigree architecture. And also you have to remember that this was the age of the enlightenment, the age of reason and this had something to do with the discovery of ancient Egypt with Napoleon’s army going in and finding all kinds of things like pyramids and the Sphinx and busts. So it is a combination of that exciting period when architecture is not only looking back but it is also trying to rationalise what is going on. And one interesting thing about South Park Street Cemetery is that you will not find a Christian cross there. We have looked. There appeared to be no crosses at all and as I said this is because it was very much the age of the enlightenment, of reason and rationality. And other motifs you get, in particular there is one which was quite popular and that is a column, a fluted column which has broken off half way and this symbolises a life cut short. And again you get the classical roman urns and this is looking back to the idea that the Romans cremated their dead, put the ashes in the urn and then bury those. In fact, these are over an actual grave where people were buried. So you have got a huge variety and a lot of symbolism connected with it too.

 

Hindoo Stuart is one of the most amazing chaps. General Charles Stuart,and he was so entranced by the Hindu religion, he decided to become a Hindu. Now strictly speaking you can’t. You are born a Hindu or you are not. You are an outcast. But he followed Hindu religion religiously I have to say. He married a Hindu wife. He would go down and bathe in the Ganges twice a day, early in the morning and in the evening when he had finished his work. He thought English women ought to adopt the sari because it was such a lovely garment. He wanted to see them in saris, not in their very tight corseted clothes. And all kinds of things like that. So in a way Hindoo Stuart is a nickname. We know he wasn’t really a Hindu, he couldn’t be a Hindu but he got the nickname because he was so entranced with the whole Hindu culture and religion. And his tomb is unique in that it is built in the shape of a small Hindu chhatri and there were a number of Hindu statues, gods and goddesses around the tomb, Kali, Durga, Hanuman, Ganesha and Lakshmi which unfortunately have been stolen with the passage of time. But had you seen his tomb a hundred years ago, it would have looked much more like a temple to different gods and goddesses.

 

And I suppose one of the other tombs which is very significant then is that of Henry Derozio who was the Young Bengal Renaissance poet and teacher who died at a young age tragically, was a great inspiration to people here. He was really drawn towards Hindu reform, rather like Raja Ram Mohan Roy. So his tomb is special. And it has a cross which has been erected later.

 

 

R.S.: So if you do look at the historical aspect of South Park Street Cemetery or any kind of a cemetery, how would you consider this particularity that a lot of the people who have been interred in the South Park Street Cemetery have had something to do with a particular movement or oriental studies or any kind of work on colonial history of India?

 

R.L.J.: Well, you are going to find this in fact with all British cemeteries all over India. If you look in Lucknow for example, there were tombs there to people who took part in the uprising of 1857, officers, viceroys, people with their own particular way of looking at things. But if you do look at the South Park Street cemetery, obviously with the number of people buried there you are going to get different strands of thoughts. So you have got judges, you have got oriental scholars, you have got Derozio at the start of the Bengal renaissance. You have also got sailors there. There was one or two an admiral and you have also got Rose Aylmer who was a young English lady, came to India and died when she was only 20. It is said because she had too many pineapples. All right, it was cholera, we know it was cholera but that is the romantic story, she died from the surplus of pineapples. And her tomb is interesting because it has a kind of a gaudy sort of shape, it is an obelisk but it is fluted. And Walter Savage Langdor, the English poet was very taken by her. He met her in England before she came out. And when he heard the news of her death, he wrote this wonderful poem 'Ah what avails the sceptred race, Ah what the form divine! (Something something something…..)'

 

In fact, this is the first tomb that BACSA restored in 1977 and we had some money from the natural descendant of Rose Aylmer. So it was very much a family connection. So you can find more or less anything there.

 

Recently an inscription was put on the tomb of Lady Anne Monson who died in the late 18th century. This was erected by Lady Emma Monson who was a descendant of the family and there was a rededication ceremony last February. So it is like there are actually family names still going on today, descendants in England who will pay to have the tombs here restored. So it is not just impersonal. There are strong family names.

 

 

R.S.: So would you like to say something about how the cemetery was constructed?

 

R.L.J.: We don’t have much information on that, but as I say the British community in Calcutta was extremely rich and I should imagine they purchased the land on what would then have been just fields or marshland. We think it was fairly marshy, because they had to construct boards going down to the cemetery. So they would have bought it, and in fact it was extended, so at one point if you look at the Rawdon Road Gate, it was extended out like that because the number of people who were dying was very very high. And it’s said that the life of a European in India was often just two monsoons, that is literarily two years.

 

Of course it wasn’t just the British who came out to India for trade. In the 18th century there were a number of other East India companies set up. There were the Danes, the Danish East India Company. And the French had their own company. The Portuguese had already been here. The Dutch were here. And even the Danes at Serampore on the Hooghly. And you do notice differences in architectural styles of tombs and Dutch tombs are particularly interesting because they are often two-storeyed. So you get the bottom storey on the ground which is like a little chhatri and then you get a smaller chhatri above it. And I was fascinated when I was in Dhaka recently last year to be taken down to see a tomb in the old cemetery, at the old Narinda cemetery and it seems quite clear to me, it is the tomb of an early Dutch trader. And I’d say it is probably 17th century. We know nothing about it but on stylistic grounds, I think it is a Dutch tomb. And the French tombs at Seringapatam for example tend to be rather small obelisks set on square base. So there are variations and of course they should move through time. Once you get into the 19th century, you are looking at Victorian or Gothic tombs. Now they do start to have crosses, very prominent crosses and they also have statuary like angels, open books, that kind of thing. It becomes very very different in a very short time. And in a way that is why South Park Street is unique because its style was fixed by the end of the 18th century. That was it. Anyone who was buried later had to fit in. So it is a unique moment preserved in time, that is what is special about it.