Walkthrough of South Park Street Cemetery

Walkthrough of South Park Street Cemetery

in Video
Published on: 03 February 2017
Walkthrough of South Park Street Cemetery with Sudip Bhattacharya

Riti Sharma: This is South Park Street Cemetery. Any reason why is it called South Park Street Cemetery?


Sudip Bhattacharya: It is because this is part of the huge cemetery complex and this was even though, I mean we can see this large number of cars coming down this road, it is almost the heart of Calcutta as it were but at a point in time this was absolutely uninhabited. Huge amount of forest all around and this Park Street was known as Burial Ground Road because this is where, this was the point in which all funeral processions came and this was the end of the journey so to speak. And the reason for that, this was situated about as far as possible from what might be called White Calcutta which was where most Europeans lived, that is the area around, that was known as Dalhousie, now BBD Bagh and its adjoining regions particularly centred around Lal Dighi or the Pool that we have in the centre of BBD Bagh. So this is how the road came and the reason for taking this road for burials was interestingly to keep the sight of frequent funeral processions away from the sight of women because they would get too upset with so many funeral processions coming in.So this is South Park Street Cemetery. On the other side, we have North Park Street Cemetery. I would like you to take a look at that. As you can see, one  long representative tomb on the other side. That is the only tomb which is standing.


Eventually this became full. It was opened in 1767. It was declared full by 1790. So you can estimate the number of burials that took place during this brief period. Then North Park Street Cemetery was used. Once North Park Street Cemetery became full, the next move around 1840 was again across the street to what is now known as the Lower Circular Road Cemetery or the  Mullick Bazar Cemetery. So this was a huge cemetery complex and innumerable number of people buried here.So we go along.This is of course a kind of a grand entrance as it were. You must keep in mind that this was one of the earliest, probably the first planned cemetery in all of Asia.  Keep in mind what Kipling said. Now Kipling said two things. First of all, he called this a necropolis. The second thing he said the reason why there are these huge tombs is because probably men at that point in time wanted to bury their friends under such mounds of masonry that they did not want them to rise up again. Now this being one of the interesting things.


I draw your attention of course to the large number of women here and also buried here as compared to probably a slightly lower percentage of men. Of course, there are many such small tombs and these are all tombs of children. The child death rate, mortality is very high but this is not a phenomenon unusual to India. They are all over the world. The reason being that paediatrics as a science was far from evolving and what medical practitioners usually did was to simply reduce by a certain percentage based on experience the same limited pharmacopeia that was used to treat adults. So this was entirely unsuitable. And children of course have their own ailments and specific ways of addressing these ailments which was absent then and would be absent for a very long time and hence this unfortunately high mortality rate.But not just for children, also you must keep in mind that gynaecology and diseases of women were again not really recognised, not at all recognised as a separate medical speciality. So you have again a large number of women dying. For instance, here you have the tomb of, this is Anne Hayes, wife of Thomas Hayes who died this life on board a ship for instance, age 26 years. And I draw your attention to the pathetic tomb inscription written of sorrow and the permanence of death in a world without visual memories.


This tomb which is of Mrs. Martha Goodland who departed this life 21st March 1785, this is a very old tomb as you can see and I again, it might not be really possible to read the entire inscription but, well, this is a very long inscription, poetic and the thoughts also pathetic and full of sorrow for somebody who died aged 23. Large numbers of women dying in their 20s. and again both the limitations of medical science and the fact that they came to India, they fell victim to a number of diseases which might not have afflicted them equally in Europe.This cemetery represents the age of Warren Hastings, probably beginning quite sometime before his taking over as Governor General. You will find that all the people buried here was dead by 1790. In certain cases, there are family tombs even after that. So, this is the tomb of Mary Bowers, one of the survivors of the infamous ‘Black Hole’ incident,  very controversial. This goes on to show how ancient and interesting this cemetery is.


Now, we move on to other tombs.There were a number of doctors also who fell prey to the same diseases because it was not disease but death that was just a great leveller of purity and experience in Calcutta in Bengal at that point of time. And here we have the tomb of John Campbell, M.D., an assistant surgeon in the service of the East India Company who died of a fever at the Presidency General Hospital in 1803 at a very early age of 24.


Now this is just an example of this kind of trained persons who were not spared from the same diseases. At the same time, we also have other very famous doctors who in their time were known to have written some of the best textbooks on diseases of India, diseases of Bengal as we shall see a little later.


The next tomb of course is one that is very famous because it is associated with the name of Walter Savage Landor and I am sure you are aware of his name, the famous poet. And of course this is the tomb of Rose Aylmer. Now the unique thing about the tomb is of course its inward, its flute like structure, this is fluted, tomb obelisk which is fluted.


This is the tomb of Charles Western. Charles Western was a Eurasian (the people whom we now call Anglo-Indian.  Yet at that point in time racism had not driven its roots and created a rift between the Europeans and the Eurasians and the Indians and for this reason he was a very powerful man in his time. He was on the Bengal Council and you will find a portrait of him sitting with very unusual head gear. He has got this hand kerchief wound round his head because he suffered from migraine, terrible headaches. He trained to be a surgeon under Holwell, Holwell the man who wrote the first account of the black hole. And then of course Holwell himself was a surgeon. He returned to England, joined the administrative service of the East India Company, came back. He too gave up his training as a surgeon and became a businessman. He made a lot of money. And the interesting thing was that he was also a person given to helping the indigent and so he distributed considerable amount of money every month. He lived in Chandan Nagar. He had an unusually long life for the times. He lived to be I think around 70-80 and Charles Western was one of the most respected inhabitants of European society at that point in time. Of course the important thing here is to note the absence of racist bias.


(The first cemetery is of course right behind St. John’s Church. There was no St. John’s church at the time when Job Charnock was buried there but that was Calcutta’s oldest cemetery. And of course you have some very interesting figures of Calcutta there like Begum Johnson. Begum Johnson who lived to be about 84 and interestingly married four times. She outlived all her husbands except the last one. Begum Johnson, if you had the least importance, if you were slightly important in European society, you were bound to spend an evening, at least one evening at Begum Johnson’s residence.)


Now I would like you to see this series of tombs. They are almost similar. They are almost kind of family vaults. And the unique architecture is interesting. They have all survived.


And of course in between you find interspersed the tombs of children.



R.S.: So there are a lot of people who were posted in the army as well as the regiment over here.


S.B.: Yes. There were a large number of army officers and of course officers in the company service in the Honourable East Indian company service, HEIC Service as it used to be known at that time. Yes. And of course it would mainly be three types of people. Persons employed by the East India Company. And then you have army officers and naval officers and their families.


And the only Indian buried here is of course Derozio.


Hindoo Charles Stuart is a very interesting figure because he is believed to have walked down from Wood Street where he lived to the Ganges every morning bare bodied to have a bath in the Ganges. (But the interesting thing is there is a very interesting article that he wrote about how saris would suit women better as compared to European dress. He was quite confirmed in his belief that saris were better dress even for European women. It would make them look more graceful.) His opinions were not precisely Hindu as in Hindu religious terms but more given to a perception of Hinduism as something which was tolerant, something more the kind of thing that we talk about nowadays, like more expansive, more accepting. And it is believed that he was buried with a number of idols that he worshipped every day. Like in this case in this sense mind you he was a very rule-keeping Hindu. Of course he wasn’t a Hindu in that sense.Charles Stuart was really a phenomenon in his time.


S.S.: You have the concept of Hindu coming in because of the British .Would you be able to say something about it?


S.B.: Yes, this is something very interesting, why was he given this nickname of the Hindoo. The reason he was given this nickname of Hindoo is because they saw it as a kind of aberration. I mean after all, you could kind of overcome racism, you need not be racist, you need not be worried about the colour of the skin, when religious issues came up I believe, I suppose there must have been some kind of complaint on the part of general society as it were, European society, that this is not what he was supposed to do.Some tombs were constructed right here. But some tombs, tombs were also kind of brought in pieces from Europe and so you could have them simply set up here. Look at the classical carvings. You have the urns and you have the sorrowing mourners who have downed their torches and are carrying this wreath. The angels that have downed their torches. They wanted to erect tombs which were classical but probably they were not really able to convey an exact idea of what they wanted to the Indian masons and therefore you have a very interesting combination of two separate architectural styles. The idea is essentially western but if you look at the Cupolas, they are the Indian gumbaj, the modified Indian gumbaj [also gumbad].


So this is a very interesting amalgamation of styles, of architectural styles. You have obelisks, you have urns, along with that you have the gombaj too.


Again another walkway with tombs on either side and a little way down we turn to the other end of road, we turn right where I will show you some more tombs including the one that belonged to the most beautiful woman of her time, Elizabeth Barwell.


(Her husband was Richard Barwell who was a member of the Council. There was a council of four people for four people were placed to control Warren Hastings. John Clavering, Colonel Monson, Richard Barwell and of course there was Sir Philip Francis. Now Richard Barwell sided with Hastings. He was the only one who sided with Hastings. The other three did not. As we know, Sir Philip Francis and Warren Hastings fought a duel very famously which left Sir Philip Francis wounded).


She married Richard Barwell who was probably the richest man around, who was immensely immensely wealthy. And of course you see that she passed away at a very young age. She died when she was 23. But I draw your attention again to the massiveness of this stone. The pyramid stands for power and grief. Interesting combination. Richard Barwell went back to England.


As I said, women fell prey to diseases more often because like paediatrics, gynaecology was yet to develop. Ailments which were specific to women, this was yet to be recognised that women could have their own specific, gender-specific ailments and that you need a medical science to deal with this exclusively. So women’s ailments were frequently overlooked to a great extent because women themselves considered it not something to be really discussed. This was something that was ignored. Medical practitioners tended not to identify something special for special treatment.



R.S.: There was a sense of taboo.


S.B: Yes, there were a number of factors which contributed to probably a higher female mortality.


There was an unhealthy period and the unhealthy period ranged from approximately the end of the hot months until October. Usually the Europeans in Calcutta celebrated the fact that they have managed to survive that year’s unhealthy period by several parties which were thrown after the 20th of October. So after the 20th of October once the season had changed, once it was cooler, they felt that they more or less had managed to escape for that year. So it is interesting here to note that Edward Wheeler’s health began to decline in September and that he was dead by 10th of October. Now another reason for this would have been the absence of any, the limitations of the pharmacopeia available to a medical practitioner. What was available bleeding, for instance, venesection. Then there was calomel, another mercury which was given, mercury being the only effective treatment against infection. But mercury was very debilitating.


And then the third important thing was the use of Cinchona Quinine. And quinine again in large quantities didn’t help unless it was malaria.


Then of course the next thing was to use opium in large quantities to kill pain. Particularly laudanum which was opium distilled with alcohol.


But here is something very poignant. This is the tomb of the little boy, four years old, Warren Hastings Larkins.  The intense pain of theirs, they write about him as a child of uncommon intelligence, uncommon perception.

This is the tomb of Sir William Jones, the most famous person in South Park Street Cemetery. He was celebrated for his knowledge of India, of Indian languages and literatures. It is appropriate that his tomb should be the tallest one and easily identifiable. Of course, it has been looked after with great care. As we walk upto the tomb, I would like to draw your attention to the very unique sculpture—we have the urn, two reversed shovels. William Jones died of an ailment which was not diagnosed. Of course, diagnosis was very poor at that time. He suddenly realised that he had a tumour of the size of a fist on the right sight of the abdomen. This grew worse overtime until he suddenly died. It was thought at that time that he was getting better but he didn’t. So, here is William Jones’ tomb: appropriately flourishing architecture with pyramid representations.