British Raj churches litter the lanes and streets of Kolkata, ancient cemeteries house gigantic mausoleums, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the old empire's mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these nostalgic reminders of an earlier time are squeezed between twentieth century concrete and glass houses, offices and shops. Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Writers Building, home to the Secretariat of West Bengal Government, is one of the city's best. It was built in 1790 to house the clerks of the ubiquitous East India Company; now its heroic red and cream façade dominates the area, and is the office of current day paper pushers.
Biplabi Trailakya Sarani, BBD Bagh, Kolkata
Google map: bit.ly/TaF5at
Conceived by Lord Curzon, and built long after the British had already moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. Some describe it as India's modern day rival to the Taj Mahal. The interior is bland (if you want to see inside, avoid Mondays) but for two rupees you can walk round the formal grounds in which it stands. It's an imposing piece of late Victoriana in white marble, extremely well tended – not a crisp packet or plastic bottle in sight – and cleverly showcased among the gardens and lakes. Although impressive, its voluptuous curves don't quite match the splendour of the Taj Mahal.
Escape the madness of the city to a strange place, like an ancient lost city, damp and shaded, hidden on South Park Street in Kolkata. The gatekeeper to the British Cemetery will open the huge metal gates for a small donation and let you into a different world, a quiet tree filled oasis, where the huge graves themselves will tell the story of the Raj and The East India Company.
Here you will find Anglicised versions of Cenotaphs dating back to the 17th century. More than 800 old tombs remain of the original 2000, which will take your breath away. Wander through this eerie place and think about the many British who eventually succumbed to accidents, illness and disease, often at a very young age while the early Imperial outposts were being established.
Take time to ponder about how difficult their lives must have been before emerging back into the chaos of Kolkata.
65 Park Street, Park Street, Taltala, Kolkata, West Bengal 700016, India
+91 33 2217 2861
Google map: bit.ly/SDsIRn
Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, with its 18th and 19th century monolithic tombs, is full of the tales and tribulations of Britain’s earliest pioneers.
India was filled with danger for early settlers, and tropical disease was a common cause of death for many of them. Soldiers died in relentless skirmishes and shipwrecks took the lives of many mariners. Nevertheless, enough settlers thrived (or were replaced) to oversee the original three villages gradually turn into The British Raj’s great nineteenth century metropolis, Calcutta.
Built in 1767 for the early East India Company pioneers and their attendants, this latter day necropolis is packed with giant mausoleums, all vying for top billing: pyramids, colonnaded temples, oversized urns, obelisks, sarcophagi and stone cupolas. The cemetery is a roll-call of the soldiers, sailors, civil servants, merchants, women and children who succumbed to the rigours of an unfamiliar and disease-ridden life in the tropics.
I felt nostalgia for a time I had never known. One hundred and fourteen years before I arrived there, Sir William Wilson Hunter’s eloquent words summed up the oppression which descended on me as I walked between the tombs.
“Most mournful of graveyards are those walled-up ghastly settlements, desolate spaces of brick ruins, and blotched plaster, reproachful of forgetfulness and neglect. It was difficult to restrain some retrospective pity for the inmates of those squalid tenements — for their hard, hot lives more than a hundred years ago, solaced by none of the alleviations which have become necessaries of our modern Indian existence; with few airy verandahs or lofty ceilings, without punkahs, without ice, without possibilities of change to the hills, or respite to their exile by visits home.
The mental stagnation of a small society given to arrack and heavy dinners in the heat of the tropical day, and dependent for their news of the outer world on three or four shipments a year, produced a tedium vitae even harder to bear… If the world dealt hardly with them in life, it has made no amends to their memory. As I thought of how much they achieved, and how little they have been honoured, I found myself involuntarily composing an apologia for the dead.” (Sir William Wilson Hunter, ‘The Thackerays in India and some Calcutta graves’.)
There were not many visitors to the cemetery on the day my partner and I were there, but then you do have to make a particular effort to go, it is not a place that you pass on the way to anywhere else. We bumped into one other western tourist, a few Indian couples and a small group of Indian soldiers during the two hours we spent there. But we were never alone, the caw-cawing of a hundred flapping crows accompanied us over the whole eight acres.
Among the monoliths, the prosaic British names on the oversized tombs are a long way from home: Elizabeth Jane Barwell, James Addison Webster, Captain Dennis Bodkin, Harriet Chicheley Plowden, Major George Dowlie, Thomas Cotterell, Capt W Mackay.
Edward Wheler Esq, “In his political character which will be best learned from the Pages of History he was an upright, just, and honest Man. And as his disinterested conduct garnered the esteem of all Ranks of Men So in the Memory he is honored, beloved, lamented.”
Near the entrance, and smothered in the edible scent from a curry leaf tree, lies Hastings Impey Esq, “son of Sir Elijah Impey, Factor in the Service of the Eaft India Company who died in the 24th year of his Age February 4th 1805″. His father — the most prominent name on the stone, and former Chief Justice of Bengal — fared rather better than his son. He left India and became the parliamentary member for New Romney, before retiring to Brighton. In 1809 he died, and was buried in the family vault in Hammersmith.
Much of the cemetery was overgrown, and many of the tombs are decaying: inscriptions no longer legible, corners falling off and columns crumbling. Someone is keeping the jungle at bay, though, because the pathways were reasonably clear and at over 250 years old the tombs would have been swallowed up without some attention.
As you read each new story in the names, ages, dedications and tomb designs, you are reminded of the bravery and stoicism shown by these settlers. The journey alone would have been a hardship, and then to end up in such inhospitable and unknown terrain would have been an even greater trial, especially for women in their layers of clothes and corsetry. For all their jingoism and arrogance, you can't help but feel humbled by their intrepidness. We call ourselves travellers today, but catching a flight over to the other side of the world for a quick jaunt up to Machu Picchu, or a guided tour round a wildlife park, doesn’t compare to the terrifying adventure into the unknown these individuals must had endured for the sake of commerce.
Mother Teresa Sarani, Kolkata, India
A must see, the temple is made out of mirrored glass. Thousands upon thousands of pieces of mirrored glass inset into the walls - if you have ever been to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.
Off Ras Dinendra St and down Badr Das Temple Rd
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