South-Park-Cemetry

The Park Street Cemetery was one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world, and probably the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America in the 19th century. Opened in 1767 on what was previously a marshy area, the cemetery was in use until about 1830 and is now a heritage site, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The cemetery was opened to relieve the pressure on the old burial ground in the heart of the city. The road leading to the cemetery came to be known as the Burial Ground Road but was subsequently renamed Park Street after the park around Vansittart’s garden house. By the year 1785 the burial ground had been extended on the northern side of Park Street and by 1840 a vast new cemetery was opened to the east of the Lower Circular Road. The Europeans started to disuse it in the year 1790. It has been confirmed by a marble plaque at the gate which reads “South Park Street, Opened:1767, Closed:1790”.

“The South Park Street Cemetery (SPSC) is a splendid example of the eclectic tastes of British and Eurasians who were at the helm of affairs in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. The grounds, measuring some eight acres, are enclosed by a high brick wall. Within this, we find an array of 1600 tombs with cenotaphs, tablets and epitaphs, surrounded by a picturesque landscape of tall, shady trees, bushes and plants of many varieties. The tombs, raised on a brick plinth, are mostly of a square, rectangular or circular structure capped by a domical roof and fronted by Corinthian or Ionian columns that support an entablature contained within the pediment. Besides these, there are other types of monuments, including, obelisks, cairns, carved stone urns resting on fluted columns, and the most beautiful sarcophagi. We discern an admixture of the Gothic, and a rich flavour of the Indo-Saracenic style. Of the latter, mention may be made of a unique and composite brick structure built in the ‘panchyatana’ manner, with a central dome flanked by miniature replicas of Orissan ‘rekha deul’ on four sides. Coupled with this peculiarity, the black basalt carvings on the frontal façade indicate a distinct respect for the Hindu faith.

W hile Gorosthanay Sabdhaan the film has made many youngsters head for the South Park Street Cemetery, my interest in the imperial cemetery has more to do with the novel of the same name and St Xavier’s College.
As a student of the college in the mid-1990s, the cemetery, which is nearby, used to be my favourite haunt after bunking classes. The visits stoked in me an interest in history, art and architecture, with Ray Senior’s Feluda adventure acting as a catalyst.

I have gone back to the cemetery numerous times after graduation and also had the opportunity of photographing the premises after taking permission from the Christian Burial Board.
A recce, however, revels that the cemetery was operational till long after 1790.
Many of those buried in the cemetery died young. William Dalrymple wrote about this in White Mughals: “…two monsoons was the average life span of a European in Bengal; one year, out of a total European population of 1200, over a third died between August and the end of December.”
Here are some of the graves that those visiting the cemetery after watching the film can take a look at

William Jones (died 1794): According to Satyajit Ray, Jones had the tallest grave in Calcutta. While most of the graves in the cemetery are of soldiers and are marked with crossed swords or guns, Jones being an archeologist has his grave marked with crossed spades.

Charles Hindoo Stuart (died 1828): The major general of East India Company used to bathe in the Ganga regularly and perform Hindu rituals. His tomb is modelled on a Hindu temple with an ornate edifice and stone carving of deities.

Rose Aylmer (died 1800): Most of the graves in the cemetery are obelisks (tall narrow tapering structures), which Jatayu described as “Borkha pora bhut” (ghost in a veil) in the novel. Aylmer’s grave is a spiral obelisk. The lines on the gravestone written by Walter Landor are interesting.

Elizabeth Barwell (died 1779): She was a stunning beauty and the heart-throb of many European men. Barwell’s pyramid-shaped grave probably covers the largest area among graves in Calcutta.