South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

“In the midst of life, we are in death”, read an epitaph at the South Park Street Cemetery. Lying close to the busy Park Street of Kolkata are men and women from the small but closely knit British community of Bengal in the 18th and 19th century, the pioneers of what later became the British Raj.

Calcutta of those days was much different from the cacophonous metro we see now. Park Street was then called the Burial Ground Road, later renamed after a deer park built by Sir Elijah Impey, and was a raised path on a causeway in the middle of marshy land and patches of jungle. Warren Hastings used to hunt tigers near what is now the Free School Street near the Maidan. Centered around the Dalhousie Square between the Mission row and the Hooghly river, lay the hot and stifled lives of the European community. On a quest to win a fortune for themselves and England (mostly the former),they had none of the facilities modern India can provide, and no immunity to the tropical diseases which were otherwise business as usual for the natives. Malaria, typhoid and other diseases of Bengal took a great toll on them and it is no surprising that most of the tombs have people who could not even reach their forties. South Park Street Cemetery provide a rare and rather humane view of this side of the forerunners of the rulers of India. They too had their share of sufferings, the biggest of all – to lay buried alone in a land far away from home.

A look at some of the names engraved on the tombs will be of immense interest for those interested in the history of India. In this calm of oasis within the chaos of modern Kolkata lies Sir William Jones, the prodigious scholar, polyglot, Indophile and the founder of the Asiatic Society. In a corner lies the squeaking white decorated grave of Henry Vivian Derozio, an iconic radical thinker, poet and the soul of the Young Bengal Movement. Then there is Maj Gen Charles Stuart, also known as Hindoo Stuart, an officer of the British East India company and one of the White Mughals, who was a rarity in the way he embraced India and its culture wholeheartedly. Those with a literary bent of mind will start with an exclamation to realize that Walter Savage Landor’s Rose Aylmer person, a girl who was taken away by cholera in 1800 at a young age of 20. So is Lucia Palk, the heroine of Kipling’s ‘City of Dreadful Night‘. Lady Anne Monson, a great-granddaughter of Charles II and Elizabeth Sanderson, the most beautiful woman of Calcutta are also buried here.

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