Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The South Park Street Cemetery

Located at the corner of Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani) and Lower Circular Road (now A.J.C Bose Road) is the South Park Street Cemetery, known to many as “the great cemetery”. One of the largest colonial cemeteries of its kind, it is today one of the many tourist attractions of Calcutta (Kolkata). The South Park Street Cemetery replaced the St. John’s Church graveyard as the principal burial ground of Calcutta and the road leading to it, which is today called Park Street, was originally known as Burial Ground Road. It is perhaps difficult to imagine that this part of the city was a jungle back then. Clive hunted tigers in what is today Free School Street. Indeed, so far away was this from the main city, that the Bishop who had to be present for the burial, had to be paid a special allowance so he could maintain a carriage and horses. The reasons behind siting a cemetery so far away from town are not difficult to understand. Calcutta was a malarial swamp, and in an era where there was no understanding of tropical disease, poor hygiene and poorer diet, the mortality rate was shockingly high. The monsoons were particularly bad, and every year at the end of the rainy season, feasts would be organised by those left living to give thanks to God. In such a scenario, repeated reminders of death in the form of funeral processions were thought of as undesirable.

Graves in the South Park Street Cemetery

Monument to Lt. Col. Valentine Blacker
When the South Park Street Cemetery was officially opened in 1767, burials would happen at night, by torchlight. The lights had to be sufficiently bright to keep the tigers away. The entire area then was irregular and swampy. The first burial was on the 25th August, 1767 of a certain Mr. John Wood, who was a writer in the Customs House. But his grave was levelled to make way for the Western crossroad. The oldest existing grave today is that of Mrs. Sarah Pearson, who was buried in 1768, at the age of 19. The vast burial ground today, within its 8 acres, houses the mortal remains of some 1600 Europeans. Many among them are civil servants, many from the armed forces, there are wives and mothers and sisters, and sadly, there are many, many children. The massive mausoleums erected above the graves are examples of the eclectic tastes of India’s British masters. While many are Gothic, many are excellent examples of the Indo-Saracenic style. But why such gigantic monuments, often over the graves of not-so-distinguished people? One possible explanation for the obsession with masonry is the concern that diseases may spread from bodies buried in the marshy land. The masses of masonry may have been viewed as a way of sealing things in. Apart from this, things such as petty vanity can also not be ruled out.



Grave and tombstone of Sir William Jones

Towering above all other monuments is that of Sir William Jones, Anglo-Welsh philologist and scholar of ancient India. Jones was one of founding members of The Asiatic Society, and it is their money that pays for the maintenance of his grave, which explains why his is the only monuments which is always spotlessly white, while every other one is covered in velvety green moss. Jones was also the first person to propose that there once existed a group of Indo-European languages, from which both Western and Indian languages originate. He died on the 27th of April 1794 at the age of 47 and was buried in the South Park Street Cemetery. He had written his own epitaph, which may be seen on his monument today.


Grave and tombstone of Elizabeth Jane Barwell

The “celebrated Miss Sanderson”, daughter of a Colonel in East India Company’s army, was widely known as the most beautiful girl in Calcutta when she arrived. She was also notoriously mischievous and a popular story about her is that she told sixteen of her suitors separately that she would be going to a ball in a Parisian dress and it would be marvellous if they wore a similar costume of pea-green, with pink silk trimmings. All of the men turned up in the exact same ridiculous outfit! But she laughed and danced with them all, and the men were sporting too, standing on both sides of the road with torches lit, and singing to her all the way home. H.E.A. Cotton in his “Calcutta Old & New”, writes of “the lacquered palankeen of beautiful Miss Sanderson, the belle of the settlement, escorted by sixteen attendant beaux in her livery colours”. She married Richard Barwell and went on to live in the house known today as Kidderpore House. Barwell was a gambler with a reputation for womanising. Elizabath bore him two sons and was dead at the young age of 23.


Grave of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio

Derozio’s humble grave is in stark contrast to the ones that surround it in the South Park Street Cemetery. The contrast is even greater when you think of the contribution that Henry Louis Vivian Derozio made to the Bengal of his time. Born in Calcutta on 18th April, 1809, Derozio eventually rose to become the Assistant Headmaster of Hindu College (now Presidency University) in Calcutta. A poet, and a radical thinker, Derozio was among the first to disseminate Western ideas, science and learning among the young men of Bengal. Although of Portuguese descent, and considered an Anglo Indian, Derozio had a great love for India and Bengal, and thought of himself as an Indian. After his death, his former students formed what is known as the Young Bengal Movement. His teachings were to have a profound influence on the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. He died at the age of 22, of Cholera on 26th December 1831. Derozio’s is among the most visited graves in the South Park Street Cemetery.


Tombstone and plaque of Lieutenant Walter Savage Landor Dickens

Named after his Godfather, English poet Walter Savage Landor, Walter Dickens was Charles Dickens’ fourth child, and second son. He was born on the 8th of February, 1841 and early on showed promise as an author. But his father discouraged any progress in this direction and instead got him to join the East India Company as a cadet even though he appeared unsuitable for the job. Walter left for India in the year of the mutiny, and in its wake would be part of the reorganized British Indian army as a Lieutenant, serving in the 26th Native Infantry Regiment, and becoming attached to the 42nd Regiment of Foot. Unfortunately, while being stationed in Calcutta, Walter developed an aortic aneurysm and died on New Year’s Eve, 1863. His father would not hear of his death until his own birthday in 1864. An article published in the New York Times on 18th February, 1911, states how the grave was discovered, near the entrance to Bhowanipore Cemetery, embedded in masonry and covered in grass. In 1987, a group of students from Jadavpur University put together funds to have the decaying tombstone removed and placed in South Park Street cemetery. The marble plaque under the original tombstone is now so obscure that the writing on it is illegible. But arrangements have been made for a new plaque to be placed there, again by JU students.


Grave and Plaque of Major-General Charles "Hindoo" Stuart

Better known as “Hindoo Stuart”, Charles Stuart, allegedly the son of Thomas Smyth, the Mayor of Limerick, left Ireland for India in his teens and was so attracted to Hinduism that he adopted it within a year of arriving in Calcutta. In his book White Mughals, William Dalrymple writes how he would walk, “every morning from his house to bathe in and worship the Ganges according to Hindu custom”. His deputy, William Linnaeus Gardner writes that he “regularly performs his pooja and avoids the sight of beef”. Stuart amassed a large collection of Hindu idols, and would even encourage European women to adopt the “sari”. Stuart referred to himself as a convert to Hinduism, and his elegant tomb is one of the most unique in the South Park Street Cemetery, shaped like a Hindu temple.

Grave and tombstone of Lucia Palk
Also to be found is the grave of Lucia Palk, who features in Rudyard Kipling’s “City of Dreadful Night”. Her husband Robert Palk was the judge who first committed Maharaja Nandakumar for forgery (details here). There is Sir John Royd after whom Royd Street is named, Samuel Oldham, Bengal’s first undertaker, and the well-known Major-General John Garstin who gave his name to Garstin Place. Garstin was the architect who designed Calcutta’s Town Hall, details about which may befound here. He is buried alongside his wife, Mary Lufftie, who died nine years before him, in 1811. The really inquisitive will also find a cluster of Armenian graves.

The first burial (left) and the last burial (right)

Although the marble plaque at the South Park Street Cemetery’s gate states that the cemetery was closed in 1790, it must have been extended because the last burial to take place here was on the 15th of June, 1903. The deceased was the young Doris Aileen Rothwell, aged only 5 months and 11 days. On her tombstone is a touching poem dedicated to her by her grandmother.

The entrance to the cemetery
According to websites, the South Park Street Cemetery opens at 8:30 am and shuts at 4:30 pm. However, the Christian Burial Board, custodians of the premises, informed me on the phone that the opening time was 10 am. There is no entry fee, but if you do want to contribute towards the maintenance costs of such a vast site, do consider picking up the slim but excellent book about the cemetery, available for Rs. 100. Also, while a board clearly states that still photography is permitted within the premises, and video photography is prohibited, the cemetery staff often attempt to stop photography of any kind, especially when the visitor is an Indian. I have friends who were not even permitted to enter the cemetery because they were carrying cameras. The solution to this is either to hide your cameras inside large bags and carry them in, or, if you are more honest, to have a word with Ash Kapur, President of the Association for Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India. His email address is You can also have a word with the Christian Burial Board; their phone number is 2284-7685. For any help regarding locating tombs, ask the friendly caretaker Kenneth.

“These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched furs and flowers and cheeks. All this is ended”.

The Dead – Rupert Brooke

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


I am grateful to my friend Amartya Saha for accompanying me on this trip.


A.P.H.C.I.                                   The South Park Street Cemetery Calcutta
Banerjea, Dr. Dhrubajyoti            European Calcutta
Cotton, Harry Evan Auguste          Calcutta Old & New
Dalrymple, William                      White Mughals
Dasgupta, Prosenjit                      Ten Walks in Calcutta
Skempton, Sir Alec Wesley            Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers, Vol. 1

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