Where do modern cities in India place cemeteries and graveyards? Especially ones that sit uncomfortably on memories of a bloodied colonized past. Are they just a play field for revisionist historians, taphophiles and “bhoots” or ghosts that roam aimlessly around? The ghost aunty in white who waylays men, the orphan child seeking his parents, the spurned lover crying out to his sweetheart, whispering trees, invisible gaze have been part of our grave imagination for ages. If nothing else, it exposes our own fascination with everything dark and under!
And when a majority of the population cremates and believes the act frees the dead from the physical world whilst burying doesn’t, is it even a wonder that most ghostly activities on a new moon night find their way to burial spots…
A fascination with cemeteries
My fascination with cemeteries and graveyard has lasted more than two decades for our house lay somewhere off-centre between a Cemetery and a British India Bazaar. In the little mofussil town, these were treasured places, colonial landmarks really that defined a certain pocket, a sociology. I learnt my first two lessons on the subject here; that they were spaces of unsuccessful dates if your fascination with gravestones, epitaphs and the dead in general was far greater than the lanky boy at your side who turned white at your suggestion of eating the packet of chips, sharing Thums Up and chatting (Aka dating back then) beside an old grave that read “FOR HE WAS A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW!’.
The second, and perhaps more relevant lesson was that though graveyard is a type of cemetery but a cemetery is not a graveyard. Often used interchangeably, graveyards are typically part of a churchyard used for burials. At first, most burials took place in graveyards but with growing population and unsustainability of church burials, new places for burying people, independent of graveyards, were built. Napolean Bonaparte was the first to decree landscaped cemeteries in 18th century Paris. The first opened in 1804. The word cemetery itself comes from the French word ‘cimitiere’ which means a graveyard and the root Greek word ‘koimetrion’ or sleeping place.
The second lesson came back to me when I began researching cemeteries in Delhi and Nicholson Cemetery popped. It is not on any popular to-do or to-see list in Delhi because it lies in a part of the city made irrelevant, as new Delhis have cropped up elsewhere.
The Strange tale of Headless Nicholson
It lies conveniently and uncomfortably beside Kashmere Gate Metro Station Gate No.4 and much has been written about it. Named after Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, it was built in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or the First War of Indian Independence. The numbers killed in 1857 were so many that there was a need for a new cemetery and the area outside the Kashmere Gate, which had seen a lot of bloodshed, was chosen. Nicholson was the first to be buried here. It is said that one can still see the ghost of headless Nicholson galloping through the cemetery on his otherworldly steed. Strange, for he had been shot in the chest and died with his head pretty much intact…
At that time, Nicholson was hailed as the hero who breached the defences of the rebels, controlling the walled city, sustained injuries and succumbed to them – only after he had heard of Delhi’s capture by the British. Today, he is more infamous as the ultimate racial psychopath who despised Indians. In his words, “ I can inflict most excruciating tortures with perfectly easy conscience.”
Be it an unpleasant or a kind one, Nicholson Cemetery is a repository of memory that shouts out to be preserved. It is part of our colonial past. It came under a lot of storm when Group 4 Securior, A British Company, funded its restoration in 2006 and the word went around that the act was an “insult to Indians who died in the First War of Indian Independence”. But as someone said “ One doesn’t need to settle scores with history.”
Epitaphs that tell a story in poetry
Galloping ghosts apart, Nicholson Cemtery is non-denominational space where you come face to face with unexpected architecture, silent stories, shared open space, and a wild flora. What catches your attention the minute you step in are the Epitaphs that tell a story in poetry – of love, romance, comfort and grief. Here are a few:
“Born on earth, Bloomed in Heaven”
“An angel took our flower away
Why should be then repine.
For Jesus on his bosom wears,
A flower that once was mine.”
Possibly written for the untimely death of a child or the one for a much loved wife and mother:
“Not gone from memory
Nor from love,
But to prepare a home
For us above.”
Many graves just read “Jesus Says Weep Not” or “Thy Will Be Done” or yet others hold descriptions of the personalities of the dead or even their death. A large number of graves bear “Deo Notus” or known only to God. These are graves of soldiers who died anonymously in 1857.
Symbols of Society and Status
Nicholson Cemetery’s art moves from words to visual as you wander around seeing the different headstones, Celtic Crosses, ornate symbols and statues. They not only stand as a form of art but also give an insight into sociology, as certain symbols can be associated with society, status, personality and religious identity. For example an anchor stands for an Ancient Order of United Workmen, Eagle for military career, Lamb for children etc. Gravestone carvings, Gothic keystone heads, poems, bright bougainvillea trees, wild grass both unsettle and overawe as they hide the fragility of life that cemeteries stand for.
The new part of the Nicholson Cemetery is far more homogeneous than the older part with rectangular black and white marble/ stone slabs over the graves. The divide is unmissable, the loss visually evident almost as if the New has no place for things beyond ancestry.
It is that urban space that Nicholson Cemetery occupies. A silent, marginalized one, hemmed by development (read construction), noise and chaos of our growing city.
Did someone say RIP? Ha!
Shriti K Tyagi runs the Of Ghosts, Ghouls and Graveyards walk that explores cemeteries in New Delhi – not just as places of lurking ghosts or spirits as the stories go, but also gorgeous resting places that are part of our urbanscape. To register, email [email protected]