Sunday, 14 January 2018

Agra's Roman Catholic Cemetery and the Red Taj Mahal

Anyone unfamiliar with the early period of Christianity in India will likely be shocked upon first entering the Roman Catholic Cemetery of Agra, because it does not resemble any of the better-known colonial era cemeteries, such as the South Park Street Cemetery of Calcutta (Kolkata). Here in Agra, with its Mughal legacy, the tombs are built of sandstone more than marble, and their design makes them appear more Muslim than Christian. Added to this is the fact that inscriptions on many of the headstones are in Persian script. Furthermore, if it were not for the crosses atop these tombs, it would be difficult to identify them as actually Christian.


In the early days of European contact with India, it was quite common for Europeans to adopt Indian customs. William Dalrymple writes in White Mughals, about English factors in Surat who were encouraged to adopt Indian dress and diet to keep from falling sick in a foreign country. It was common for Europeans to take on Indian wives or “bibis” and even maintain harems. For a while, there was panic in certain quarters as English factors began to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam. With the British, the contempt for all things Indian would come much later, especially in the early half of the 19th century. If “Indian-ness” was leaving its mark on diet and dress, there is little surprise that it would show up in tomb architecture as well, as it does in the tomb of “Hindoo” Stewart in Calcutta’s South Park Street Cemetery. Stewart was an officer of the East India Company who adopted the Hindu culture and religion, bathing in the Ganges daily, worshipping Hindu deities and foregoing beef. His tomb looks like a Hindu temple.

Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery is the oldest Christian burial ground in North India, but before we take a look at some of the important tombs in the cemetery, it would be useful to look at the history of Christianity in Mughal India.


While Christianity arrived in India in the 1st Century CE, thanks to the efforts of Apostle St. Thomas, who established the first seven churches along the western coast of South India. The Roman Catholic Church would arrive much later when King John III of Portugal sent Francis Xavier to India. Xavier arrived in Goa on 6 May 1542. Although he did not have tremendous success, the mission he established continued after his departure for the Far East. But the first Portuguese priest to meet the Mughal Emperor Akbar was not from Goa but from Bengal. Julian Pereira arrived in Fatehpur Sikri in March of 1578. He had been introduced to Akbar by Pedro Tavares, the Portuguese commandant of Satgaon, today’s Adi Saptagram. Seeing that Akbar was deeply interested in Christianity, Pereira advised that he should send for Jesuit missionaries from the College of St. Paul in Goa. Akbar despatched an ambassador to Goa, with the following message:

Order of Jalal-ud-din the Great, King by God appointed. Fathers of the Order of St. Paul, know that I am most kindly disposed towards you. I send Abdulla, my ambassador…to ask you in my name to send me two learned priests who should bring with them the chief books of the Law and the Gospel, for I wish to study and learn the Law and what is best and most perfect in it…

A committee of bishops was convened to decide on the matter and they chose three priests for this mission - Rudolf Aquaviva, an Italian from a noble family, Antony Monserrate, a Spaniard from Catalonia and Francis Henriquez, a Persian from Ormuz who was a convert to Christianity from Islam. They set off from Goa on 17 November 1579, arriving in Fatehpur Sikri around 27 February 1580. Since it was Emperor Akbar who had invited them to court, the Jesuits hoped that it was he himself who wished to convert. There was precedent for this. The Kings of the Maldives and Ceylon had converted to Christianity, but while Akbar engaged in many debates and discussions with the three priests from Goa, he remained a Muslim.

The second Jesuit in Akbar’s court would not appear until 1590. On 6 April, a Greek sub-deacon named Leo Grimon arrived at the Mughal court in Lahore and reported to his superiors in Goa that the situation there was favourable. Grimon found Akbar deeply respectful of Christianity, even celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin that year. Once again, a team of three was sent by Goa: Duarte Leitzo, Christoval de Vega, and a lay brother named Estevzo Ribeiro. They were received cordially, given a house within the palace in which to live, and were even permitted to start a school for the sons of noble families. But once again, Akbar would not be converted, and the team returned to Goa.

Having failed twice before, the Jesuits decided to put together a “dream team” of missionaries for their third attempt: Jerome Xavier, a grand-nephew of Francis Xavier, Father Emmanuel Pinheiro, and Brother Benedict de Goes; all supremely competent men. They were met at Cambay (Khambhat) by Akbar’s second son Murad and finally arrived in Lahore on 5 May 1595. This team would remain with Akbar, moving with him from Lahore to Agra in 1598. The emperor permitted them to build a church, and thus, “Akbar’s Church” was erected in Agra the following year. After Akbar’s death on 17 October 1605, Emperor Jahangir was even more liberal, permitting them to preach and convert. By this time, i.e., the early 17th century, there was already a significant Christian settlement in Agra consisting of both Europeans and some native converts. As a result, several churches and cemeteries sprang up all around the city.


How many Christian cemeteries are there in Agra? I called Father Eugene Moon Lazarus of the Archdiocese of Agra, and he tells me that there are only three active cemeteries: The Roman Catholic Cemetery near Bhagwan Talkies, another one near Tota Ka Taal, and the third being the Cantonment Cemetery. Locals call it “Gora Kabristan”, since a large number of whites, i.e. “gora” were buried there. The Roman Catholic cemetery is called the Lashkarpur Cemetery in some texts, Lashkarpur being the name of “mauza” it is situated in. Sir Edward Maclagan writes in his book The Jesuits and the Great Mogul, that on All Souls Day in 1610 or 1611, several earlier Christian tombs were exhumed and their contents reinterred in the Catholic cemetery in Lashkarpur. Apart from these, there are two small cemeteries attached to Akbar’s Church and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with priests being buried in the former to this day. This is referred to in various texts as the Padritola Cemetery, after the neighbourhood it stands in.

Among the inactive cemeteries, there is the Protestant cemetery, now in ruined condition, attached to St. Paul’s Church, in a neighbourhood called Bagh Farzana. This was the burial ground of the old Dutch factory that once stood on the land now occupied by the Church. Although the Dutch and the English were bitter rivals in trade, the Dutch “never carried resentment beyond the grave” and since the English Anglicans were considered heretics by the Catholic Church, they were allowed to be buried alongside Dutch Protestants. There is also the cemetery inside the Agra Fort, in an area occupied by the Indian Army, therefore out of bounds for tourists and visitors. In his book, List of Inscriptions on Christian Tombs and Tablets of Historical Interest in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, the British civil servant Edward Arthur Henry Blunt mentions several standalone burials hereabouts: Frances Elizabeth Ellen Halhed, an infant, buried behind the civil court in 1818; Maj-Gen. Sir J.W. Adams, buried in the cantonment gardens; and John Russel Colvin, buried in front of the Diwan-E-Aam of the Fort. To this list must also be added the name of Maj. John Jacob, who was killed in the Mutiny of 1857 and was buried in his own front lawn. The beautiful Mughal-style chhatri above his tomb stands to this day.

But mystery surrounds another cemetery mentioned in several texts as having been a mile north of Lashkarpur on a road that Maclagan calls “Puya Ghat Road”. This is, in all likelihood, Poiya or Pohiya Ghat Road in modern Agra. Maclagan writes that it “includes the tomb of at least one descendant of Mirza Zulqarnain”, which was covered by a dome. He even mentions that the cemetery is adjacent to a “Muslim burial-ground and the tomb of a Muslim saint”, but this cemetery has proved difficult to find. My source in Agra, the intrepid Wasim Beg, assures me that it does indeed exist, in the Dayal Bagh area, near a residential colony called “Basera”. At any rate, it was a very small cemetery and Blunt writes that this particular cemetery appears to have been operative between 1730 and 1770 since the Catholic cemetery at Lashkarpur conspicuously lacks tombstones from the years 1728 – 1771. Another factor which might explain this gap is that Father F. X. Wendel petitioned Emperor Shah Alam in 1775 to restore the Lashkarpur Cemetery to the Jesuits, implying that it had not been in their possession all that time. A report published by the Hindustan Times in 2009 states that several monuments in Agra have vanished, including Christian cemeteries. Has this cemetery been lost? I hope not.


The land upon which Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery stands today is traditionally thought to have been granted by Akbar, but Maclagan writes that it was actually Jahangir, via a firman issued in 1609. This seems to be borne out by the fact that the oldest tombstone is from 1611. It is likely that the land was originally acquired by Padre Joseph Da Castro during Akbar’s reign and Jahangir later made it rent-free via a firman. Every cemetery is like a time capsule, reflecting the history of the city it happens to be in. Here, we see how cosmopolitan Agra once was, with names like Geneva, Isfahan, Tiflis (Georgia), Venice, and Constantinople popping up on tombstones. Among the dead are several members of the Bourbon royal family of France. Of the headstones, apart from the ones inscribed in Persian, there is a large number that are in Armenian. Armenian merchants settled in India long before the Europeans got here, and Akbar is said to have encountered an Armenian by the name of Jacob while in Kashmir and invited him to settle in Agra. Armenians even built a church in Agra in 1562. A large number of headstones are also inscribed in Portuguese and Latin, which makes it challenging to discern anything more than names and dates.



Without a doubt, the Red Taj is the star attraction of the cemetery. This is the tomb of the Dutch mercenary John William Hessing. Hessing was born in Utrecht, Netherlands on the 5 November 1739 and came to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1757 in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Five years later he returned to The Netherlands, then came back to India in 1763, this time joining the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. By 1784, he was serving the Maratha chieftain Mahadji Scindia. He fought in several battles for Scindia, was wounded multiple times, and earned a reputation as a good man and a brave soldier. Disagreements with BenoĆ®t de Boigne, the French commander of Scindia’s forces, would compel him to resign his commission. However, Mahadji had taken a liking to him and made him the head of his “Khas Risala” or personal bodyguard. It was a position he held until Mahadji’s death in 1794 but continued under his son, Daulat Rao. Hessing would attain the rank of Colonel in 1798 and become the commandant of the Agra Fort, where he remained until his death of “prolonged illness” 21 July 1803. His son George Hessing is described by H.G. Keene as “a man of crude tactics and doubtful military merit”. Notwithstanding this, he was a rich man, with a personal fortune of more than 500,000 rupees. At the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, when Gen. Lake laid siege to Agra, George’s own men imprisoned him, suspecting him of having associations with the British. They would ultimately have to release him, so as to negotiate their surrender. Col. George William Hessing retired to Chinsurah and from there to Calcutta, after the surrender. He died on 6 January 1826 in a house in Garden Reach. He lies buried in the South Park Street Cemetery. His infant son, R.W. Hessing, died when only three years, eight months, twenty-one days old, and lies buried in the Dutch Cemetery in Chinsurah.

Hessing’s tomb is a reduced-scale copy of Agra’s famous Taj Mahal but in red sandstone. Stone steps allow access to the upper deck where an ornamental grave may be seen under the dome. However, this is merely for show, with the actual grave being on the lower level. The ground level is surrounded by “jaali” screens on all sides and has doors to the “taikhana”. Unlike the Taj, however, the tomb has no corner freestanding minars. Over the entrance is a verse in Persian, which translates to the following:

When Colonel John William Hessing departed from this world he left many sorrowing for his absence.

By race he was from Holland and was born in that country. In India he became through the kindness of the Almighty, famous.

The poet asked the inspiring genius of the unseen world to favour him with a taarikh, which was to contain the year, the month, and the day.

When he searched for a date according to the Christian era, the inspiring genius said, 'The date is the 21st July [1803]’.

It cost 100,000 rupees and was erected by his widow, Anne. John Hessing’s younger son, Thomas died in Deegah, Bihar and his estates were made over to John Palmer of Calcutta, the “prince of merchants”. George’s widow Anna died in 1831 in Barrackpore. Several generations of Hessings would continue to live and work in India as traders, teachers and even signalmen in the Telegraph Department. A quick search on Facebook reveals Hessings still living and working in India today.


This octagonal domed tomb is commonly misidentified as the tomb of Walter Reinhardt Sombre, aka Samru, the infamous mercenary from the 18th century. But this beautiful monument is actually the Ellis family tomb. The yellow mausoleum was built on a red sandstone plinth. Inside is the gravestone of Francis Ellis who died in Agra in 1868. Surrounding the edifice, on the plinth are the markers of seven more members of the Ellis family. From those of the men, it would appear that this was a family of English merchants settled in Agra, but no other information is readily available about the family. They were probably not historically significant, though they must have been very rich to be able to afford such an elaborate tomb. The final burial is comparatively recent: Christopher Ernest Ellis died on 9 April 1921.


Marty’s Chapel is the oldest structure inside this cemetery. It gets its name from Khoja Mortinepus, an Armenian merchant who was buried here in 1611, along with the Armenian priest Zakur of Tabriz and four other Armenian priests. They all must have served the Armenian Church that once existed in Agra. From the Persian inscription on Mortinepus’s tomb, it seems that he too may have been a priest. Along with the Armenians are buried twenty-six Jesuits, giving the structure its other name: the Padre Santos Chapel. The octagonal, domed monument has an arched entrance and jaali screens on two sides. It is commonly visited by Christians who light candles and incense sticks and leave flowers on the tombstones.


Image courtesy
John Mildenhall holds the unique distinction of being the first Englishman to be buried in India. Mildenhall was born in 1560 in Little Bedwin, Wiltshire, England. Nothing is known about his early life except the fact that he was a trader in the Levant. He was one of the first to take the overland route to India. His arrival in Agra in 1603 as a self-styled ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I. It marks the beginning of a contest for royal favour among the English on the one hand, and the Portuguese, supported by the Jesuits, on the other. Mildenhall's objective was to obtain free access for English ships to the Mughal ports and in this, he claimed to have ultimately succeeded. However, the East India Company declared that he had acted without authorisation and all his agreements were null and void. It was ultimately Sir William Hawkins who obtained permission from Jahangir for the English factory at Surat in 1609. Mildenhall’s tombstone declares, “On a second visit in 1614 he fell ill at Lahore, died at Ajmer, and was buried here through the good offices of Thomas Kerridge merchant”. From letters from EIC factors, we learn that this trip was undertaken sometime before April 1611 with goods belonging to various merchants that were meant for sale in Persia. However, instead of selling them, he fled with them and two Englishmen, Richard Steel and Richard Newman went after him. They caught up with him in Persia and compelled him to return goods and money to the tune of £ 9000. Steel then accompanied him to India where he fell sick and one report says that his illness was due to a botched up poisoning attempt, where he tried to kill three fellow-travellers but accidentally ended up drinking from the same cup. While contemporary commentators say that this is unlikely, he was severely ill when he arrived in India, travelling to Lahore, Agra and finally arriving at Ajmer, where he died in June 1614. This was a time when great importance was attached to being buried in sacred ground, writes Maclagan. Many Catholics preferred to be buried in Agra, even if they died as far away as Lahore. Mildenhall's body was conveyed to Agra for burial. In his will, he left most of his property to two children he had had by an Indian woman in Persia. Most of the goods and money he had on him at the time of his death were confiscated and by order of the Emperor, handed over to the EIC, which then used them to settle his dues in London.


Walter Reinhardt Sombre, aka Samru, is one of the most infamous soldiers of fortune from 18th century India. No details of his early life are available and he is thought of as being French or German. Murray’s Handbook says he was of Walloon (French part of what is now Belgium) origin and came out to India as a carpenter in the French navy. He served in the French colony of Chandannagore in present-day West Bengal and was present there in May 1757, when Clive overran the city in his campaign against Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. He was part of a small body of soldiers that escaped the conflict. For some time they wandered the Gangetic plains, serving whoever would have them, finally managing to enter the service of Mir Qasim, then the Nawab of Bengal. It was in Mir Qasim’s service that he picked up the nickname “Samru”. Qasim had ascended the throne after the East India Company had deposed his predecessor Mir Jaffar, who in turn had been placed there after the overthrow of Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey. A dispute with the EIC over taxation enraged the Nawab and he ordered his troops to overrun the British settlement at Patna, which they did in 1763. But after that, when he ordered all British prisoners to be executed, his Armenian commander Gurjin Khan refused. “Arm the English and we will fight them like soldiers. Butchers we are not”. Samru, however, had no qualms and he and his men gathered the English in a courtyard and shot them all down from the upper terraces. The only survivor of this massacre was the British doctor, Fullerton and this incident led to Samru gaining widespread infamy as the “butcher of Patna”.

With the defeat of Mir Qasim in the Battle of Buxar the following year, and the English placing a bounty of 120,000 on his head, Samru realized Bengal was too hot to hold him and fled, first to Oudh and finally Bharatpur. Here he formed a mercenary army of Jats who would enter the service of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. In 1765, the 45-year-old Samru sauntered into Khanum Jan’s “Kotha” in Delhi’s Chawri Bazar for an evening of entertainment and ended up falling in love with a fourteen-year-old Kashmiri “nautch” girl by the name of Farzana Zebunnisa. He married her and they moved to Agra, where she converted in Akbar’s Church to Christianity, taking the name Johanna Nobilis Sombre, Begum Samru to Indians. He was to become the Governor of Agra and ruler of the principality of Sardhana before his death. He died in Agra on 4 May 1778. His wife would take over his mercenary army and rule Sardhana after him, becoming spectacularly rich. His tomb is an elegant, octagonal, domed monument with a stone tablet in Portuguese and Persian. There is another grave next to his as well, that of Paul Frederic, killed in the siege of a place identified as “Kama”, on 3 October 1792. Outside Samru’s tomb is a sandstone pillar marking the graves of four children of a General Perron, who served under Scindia.

Whether you are a history buff, or whether you’re just looking for something offbeat to do in Agra, the Roman Catholic Cemetery is a must see. It is a pity that it is poorly promoted and figures in so few itineraries. However, the experience for all visitors could be improved if signage would be put up throughout the cemetery, explaining in English (and other appropriate languages) the significance of each tomb.

-  by Deepanjan Ghosh (Edited by Brian Paul Bach)


  • Like all monuments in Agra, the Roman Catholic Cemetery is open from sunrise to sunset. There is no entry fee and no restriction on photography.
  • There is a caretaker who resides on the premises. If you find certain tombs locked, he will open them up for you on request. He will even give you a guided tour if you so desire, but keep in mind, he will expect a tip.
  • Keep in mind, this is a cemetery, and an active one. So avoid smoking, drinking and eating inside. Be respectful.
  • Getting there – ask any taxi or auto driver to take you to Bhagwan Talkies. From the crossing, move south into Mahatma Gandhi Marg and take the first turn to the east. Or, copy paste the following GPS coordinates into your Google Maps and hit search - 27°12'32.3"N 78°00'16.6"E.


  • My sincere thanks to Wasim Beg, who drove me around Agra. Wasim Bhai knows Agra like the back of his hand and if you are going to explore the city, you can have no better guide.
  • My thanks to journalist Fahim Khan of Amar Ujala.
  • Thanks to my friend Utpal Pathak, one of the finest journalists in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Thanks also to Father Eugene Moon Lazarus of the Diocese of Agra for providing valuable information for this article.
  • Thanks to Bodhisattwa Mandal for his help with locating texts crucial to this article.


Fanthome, Frederic - Reminiscences of Agra (Thacker, Spink & Co., 1895)
Foster, William, Sir - Early travels in India, 1583-1619 (Oxford University Press, 1921)
Goldie, Francis - The First Christian Mission to the Great Mogul (M.H. Gill & Son, 1897)
Havell, E. B. - A Hand Book To Agra And The Taj (Longman, Green And Co., 1904)
Hosten, H - Jesuit Missionaries in Northern India and Inscriptions on their Tombs, Agra (1580-1803) (Catholic Orphan Press, 1907)
Keene, H.G. - Hindustan Under Free Lances 1770-1820 (Brown Langham & Co., 1907)
Keene, H.G. - A Handbook for Visitors to Agra and Its Neighbourhood (Thacker, Spink & Co., 1888)
Maclagan, Edward - Jesuits and the Great Mogul (Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd, 1932)
Mukerji, Satya Chandra - The Traveller's Guide to Agra (Sen & Co., 1892)
Murray, John - Murray's Handbook, India, Pakistan, Burma & Ceylon (Thacker, Spink & Co., 1911)
Nevill, H. R. - District Gazetter Of The United Provinces Of Agra And Oudh Vol-viii (Govt Press United Provinces, 1905)
The Calcutta Review No. 267, 268(January, April)1912
Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1874

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