Sunday, December 4, 2016

Park Street Cemetery: No longer welcomes the dead, but attracts the living

“Sacred to the memory of Henry Davies who departed this life on the 8th December 1823. Aged 32.”

“This life”, the phrase transfixed my attention to a great extent when I first saw the epitaph. Bible opposes reincarnation. I am not going into details but ‘this life’ phrase implies there would be another life. This was the first shocker in a Christian burial ground, but during the meandering walkabout in the cemetery, I found many other surprises. One thing that surprised me a lot was the age of people who buried there. There may be more, but I found only two people who crossed 60 and not even crossed 70, otherwise most of them died at a very early stages of their lives. It was also noticeable that women generally died young; I saw teenage girls epitaphs, women in their 20s, 30s and a few 40s buried in the cemetery. I thought for a while, but couldn’t find a possible explanation except that probably women and children couldn’t tolerate the hardship and disease laden in Indian tropics.

The cemetery is located at Mother Teresa Sarani amidst cacophony and traffic, but inside, the place reminds me of archetypal eerie cemetery type environment. It was unusually silent, and those crumbling colonnades, mossy mausoleums, obelisks, stone cupolas and sarcophagi created an idiosyncratic image of the cemetery. I saw lots of youngsters in that place, the credit goes to Satyajit Ray and his son filmmaker Sandip Ray who created a movie based on father’s famous book ‘Gourasthaney Sabdhan (Beware in the Graveyard). The story features famous household sleuth Prodosh Mitter aka Feluda solves a mystery that involves Park Street Cemetery. Also, there are a few horror stories revolved around this graveyard that attract college goers to the graveyard, which is otherwise a heritage place.

History of Park Street Cemetery

The history of this cemetery is also very interesting along with the architecture. The cemetery began in the year 1767 and initially closed, but then again reopened. It continued for a while and the burial board was formed in 1881 to look after about 7 public cemeteries. All of them were active cemeteries except the South Park Street Cemetery, which was closed before 1881. The cemetery represents cross section of human civilization of a period spanning of 3500 years of colonial cemetery culture. The cemetery architecture is a cauldron of all kinds of tombs, obelisks, cupolas, sarcophagi, gothic structures including one Hindu temple. It is one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world. It is very special in that sense.

This was the colonial cemetery in the sense that at the point of time when British ruled most parts of the world, they wanted to perhaps build the cemetery, which would reflect the colonial sentiment and colonial architecture across the board of 3500 years of various civilization Egypt, Greece, Rome, Turkey and others. So, this colonial sentimental aspect had been kept in mind while constructing each of these tombs, so you can witness very much heterogeneous structures, not homogeneous like in church cemeteries.

Architecture of South Park Street Cemetery 

Colonel Charles "Hindoo" Stuart Tomb
The most remarkable feature I noticed in the cemetery was the culmination of diverse architectural presentations through tombs. These tombs are essentially a collection of various ancient and medieval Gothic and Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Even there is a temple tomb of Colonel Charles “Hindoo” Stuart who was famous for his love for this religion. He was considered by many as an eccentric when he had constructed a temple and married a Hindu woman. His bizarreness went berserk when he urged the military to start wearing Indian attire. In his article, he had urged upper class white women to leave heavy corset and embrace the sari. His tomb is constructed in the form of a Hindu temple and the lotus motifs seem odd among overwhelming Gothic cemetery.

These tombs are unique in a sense these were built in the ‘Panchyatana’ manner with a central dome flanked by miniature replicas of Orissan ‘rekha deul’ on four sides.

The loneliness of this cemetery was somehow inescapable. Those tall tombs, big trees, birds chirping and fading light, all of these elements created a peculiar sense of vacuum in heart, which was not sadness but a sense of comforting feeling – with all great deeds, intensity, luxury – in the end, it doesn’t matter.

“From earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

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