Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Colonial ghosts

It's no secret that I'm fascinated with death, so I was thrilled when S suggested a picnic in the Himalayan foothills at a site a convenient saunter from an old English graveyard.

The place was closed, but we were not to be deterred. We climbed over a short brick wall, only to discover that the place was in quite bad disrepair.

Despite the broken crosses and disturbed stones, there was much to see. Most of the graves were of women and children, many of whom did not live past the age of five or six. The oldest graves were from the 1830s; the most recent was from 1997 and was littered with half-burnt Diwali candles and a box of poor-quality matches. Though the early graves were of the English, a number of Indians were also buried on the site.

Having visited a number of cemeteries, I was quite surprised by the relative modesty of the graves. Most were slabs of concrete, engraved with a few simple words. A few were marble, and even fewer had the ornately carved headstones invoking Jesus and the saints that are so ubiquitous in my memory. No angels were trumpeting for the fallen. Perhaps it was practicality -- lavishly mourn the dead, or feed ourselves for another year, keep ourselves warm in the shadow of the mountains.

Even the inscriptions were subdued; take, for example, that of James John Annett, "the dearly beloved husband of Bessie Annett." It is written:

"Who fell asleep 24 March 1881
Age 39
'So he giveth his beloved sleep'"

There is no wailing, there is no rancor. Just a change in the state of being, a passing from wakefulness to sleep, routine and familiar

I'm sure this cemetery is no different from any other colonial graveyard, in fact it was rather nondescript. But it's a fascinating way to spend a day, ruminating on what lies behind us and what lies ahead, on what blood means and how it runs into the earth a hundred years, a thousand years after we're gone.


Chandu said...

a similar spot is near my home also, but that was an annexe to an old british fort. Both the fort and the tombs are in bad shape now, with weeds grown all over and encroachments made by residents nearby.

And another thing, the photo with that cow was SUPERB!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Zoey

Thank you for this! James John Annett and wife Bessie were my Great Grandparents. Would never have found the gravestone in a million years and couldn't believe it when it turns up on your blog! Just goes to show taking a photo and posting it on the internet might always help someone! Would love to where the exact location in the Himalayan foothills might try and go there myself someday.
Anyway thought I'd say thank-you.


Zoey said...

Hi Tess,
This cemetery was in Sanawar in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is part of the grounds of the Lawrence School; their Web site is http://sanawar.edu.in/. Hope some of that helps! It's a beautiful part of the country and I can't recommend the place enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Zoey!

You've saved me years of searching! This information will certainly help a lot.

Best Wishes