Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sultanpet cemetery

A version of this piece appeared in Deccan Herald some months ago.

There is something appealing about cemeteries – it is as if the past adheres to them, unwilling to let go. On the road from Sultanpet to Nandi Hills, about 55 km from Bangalore, is a 200-year-old graveyard that is particularly alluring, perhaps because it feels like the place has not had a visitor in a 100 years. With no sign to suggest its existence, nor any defining compound wall, it is easy to miss, though it lies only a few feet off the road. The cemetery is tiny, with only 12 graves. The oldest marked grave dates back to 1805, the most recent, to 1904. Together, the graves evoke nostalgia, sadness and a sense of mystery, besides providing a glimpse of British life in the area 200 years ago.
The (British) Indian army had a presence here since 1791, when Cornwallis successfully ousted Tipu from the almost impregnable fort at Nundydroog, now known as Nandi Hills. They were stationed at Sultanpet and at Nandi Hills between 1799 and 1808. With Tipu’s defeat at Srirangapattana in 1799, the British set about the business of empire building in earnest. But life for ordinary soldiers and the intrepid wives who traveled to India with them was hardly a bed of roses. If the heat and mosquitoes didn’t get them, diarrhea, cholera and host of other tropical diseases probably would.
Is that what happened to Elizabeth, wife of William Prichard, who died in 1807 and lies buried in Sultanpet? The curt epitaph provided no details and I wondered if Elizabeth had been in India for long? Did she die of dropsy, hysterical mania or some other affliction peculiar to those times? I stumbled through the weeds to the oldest marked grave, that of Lt Col Ridgeway Mealy, who died at Nundydroog on 19 Sept 1805, aged 44. The newest grave, marked by a cross, was of William Henry Price, a driver in 25 Battery, Royal Field Artillery, who drowned in Wonaikal Tank in 1904, aged 28. The epitaphs of these soldiers were brief, yet poignant. Was it because the dead were all snatched early, in the prime of their lives? Nearby, lay Major John Edward Gabriel of the Wallajabad Light Infantry, who died in 1815, aged 35, and whose grave was “erected as a tribute of affection and respect by his disconsolate widow.” As I read the simple words of the brokenhearted widow written some 200 years ago, I could almost hear the ancient echoes of her sobs, and I felt a lump rise in my throat.
A family seemed to be buried here, with a group of one adult (parent?) and three children buried next to each other, their graves sharing walls. We will probably never know what took their lives since their memorial plaques have long been gouged out by vandals hungry for the granite or metal. Although all 12 graves in the cemetery are still intact, no trace of any ornamentation remains on any of them. All but five have lost their tablets or headstones and some are in a state of disrepair. The cemetery appears to have gone to seed, quite literally. Eucalypt saplings thrive around the graves and dot the spaces between them, and weeds grow wild everywhere. According to Barry Lewis, Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the UK High Commission in India abandoned the cemetery in 1963. Lewis, who is currently researching the history of medieval chieftains in the Mysore region, visited the cemetery in 2003, and in the hope of making contact with descendants of those buried here, put up a webpage on the cemetery at his site. But though thousands of genealogists and family researchers from the UK explore their links with the subcontinent, none have so far contacted him about the twelve graves here. The trail of the Sultanpet soldiers and their families appears to have gone cold.
As I left the cemetery that afternoon, it was with a sense of foreboding that the little cemetery would not exist much longer. The dead would fall prey to the thirst for land. Would the graves still be there the next time I passed by or would a small piece of our history have been built over?

1 comment:

RajaRajan said...

Yes, very true, the little cemetery will not exist much longer and will surely fall prey to the thirst for land. I remember my friend, while returning after a stint in Saudi Arabia, who observed the Saudi philosophy of life "jab zinda aadmi key liye zamin nahin hai tho moordo ko kyu ?" meaning when there isn't any space for the living, why should the dead occupy it !