The South Park Street Cemetery, located at Park Street amidst the heart of the city contains many hidden jewels in the form of tombs. It is one of the earliest non-church cemeteries of the world. In its heyday, it was the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and perhaps one of the first ones where Christians from different strands – Catholics, Protestants, etc. were buried simultaneously. Park Street was previously known as burial ground road due to the presence of two burial grounds. The Cemetery was in use between 1767 to 1830.
In 1785, the cemetery was extended along the northern and eastern edge to accommodate more burials. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, mortality rate was high among the Europeans due to the Tropical hot and humid climate coupled with mosquitoes and diseases like cholera, malaria, typhoid and dengue. There was a saying that, ‘No European could survive in Calcutta more than two monsoons’ i.e. two years. Most of the people resting here, died quite young under thirty years of age. There are many graves of infants and babies, some of which are unnamed.
The burials only used to take place after dark, when the procession took place with lighted torches and the coffin was carried on the shoulders of friends and family. During the burial of army soldiers, gunshots were fired in the air. The high walls around the cemetery was aimed to prevent contamination from the dead bodies. In 1955, when the North Park Street cemetery was demolished, some of its gravestones were brought and attached to the walls of this cemetery. Currently only one grave of the North Park Street cemetery survives, edged at one corner of the Mercy Hospital. Again in 1977, when the French or Tiretti cemetery (Figures 1 and 2) was razed to the ground, a few of its gravestones were given place here at a corner.
The cemetery houses some of the earliest graves of the colonial times in India. Spread across 8 acres of land and surrounded by high walls, the enclosure has about 1600 tombs with cenotaphs, tablets and epitaphs. The tombs lack the basic elements so synonymous with a traditional Christian grave like a cross. Instead they consist Classical, Gothic and Indo-Saracenic elements. Overall, the cemetery doesn’t look like a traditional Christian cemetery.
The columns are mostly Doric and Corinthian. Some cenotaphs resemble some Greek or Roman Temples (Figure 3 and 4) or buildings. A few resemble the spires of the churches of medieval Europe. Whereas others have been completely built in Indo-Saracenic style with domes, chhatris resembling the Indian temples and mosques (Figures 5 and 6). In some grave lotus flower is used to decorate the surface (Figure 7). One cenotaph looks exactly like the ‘Ark of Covenant’ (Figure 8). Another one resembles the India Gate (Figure 9), but is smaller in dimension. One can find a subtle expression of Indian philosophy in some of the tombs. Some tombstones are shaped like tall obelisks. Others have Romanesque cupolas, Grecian urn, pyramids, cairns. A few graves placed in pairs side by side, are graves of couples. (Figures 10 and 11)
The tombs have been built of bricks covered a thick layer of stucco. Some were painted upon. The epitaphs were mostly made of black and white marbles. The Europeans could afford such gigantic tombs due to the easy availability of cheap labour and materials.
Currently, most of the tombs are in dilapidated condition, urgently in need of repairs. A few like those of William Jones (Figure 12) and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (Figure 13) are well maintained. Others like those of Charles Dickens’ son Lieutenant Walter Landor Dickens (Figure 14) are gradually fading and may one day completely vanish like some other gravestones in the cemetery if proper maintenance works are not undertaken.
The Cemetery was closed in 1840, due to lack of burial place. Instead the Lower Circular Road was opened, which is still in use. The South Park Street Cemetery continues to be an important historical and tourist attraction of ‘the City of Joy’ with its quite and serene landscape with tall shady trees and flowers and bushes surrounding the Tombs (Figure 15). It is a great place for spending some quality time in a picturesque setting, knowing about a forgotten and hidden Calcutta.
Note to Visitors
The cemetery is located at Park Street area, opposite to Assembly of God Church School and Mercy Hospital. It remains open from 9 am to 5 pm every day. The ticket price is 20 INR, for taking a professional camera inside, an extra charge of 50 INR is levied. Many tour companies like Heritage Walk Calcutta conduct heritage walks in the cemetery both for tourists and locals.
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