Graveyard Shift

Exploring Delhi’s burial grounds.

Delhi War Cemetery

spiritual trails
Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi’s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Click to read with pictures.

Headstones in neat lines mark the graves of mostly Christian soldiers (though we did find a Jewish doctor) who died during World War II, with the soldier’s number, rank and regimental seal engraved on it. A tall, colonnaded entrance plaza has, on one side, a book with the names of 25,000 Hindu and Sikh soldiers and airmen who died in WWII. The other end contains an engraved plaque with the names of soldiers, buried in Meerut, who died in WWI. The graveyard is maintained by the army and managed by the Commonwealth Graves Association, and is a peaceful, tidy place with trellises and benches to sit on. Behind this is the in-use, hodgepodge Cantonment Cemetery, under the Delhi Cemeteries Committee. Just ahead of Brar Square, to the right, Cantonment, Dhaula Kuan.

Rajpura (Mutiny) Cemetery

This early nineteenth-century cemetery was on the original ASI list of protected sites, but only one of the old gateways remains and the graves are much newer. Encroached upon and poorly maintained. Across from Maurice Nagar/Vijaynagar Bus stand, near Miranda House, Delhi University. Metro Vishwavidyalaya.

Nicholson’s Cemetery

Though this British cemetery from 1857 was cleaned up in 2006 with considerable fanfare, it is in less than perfect shape today. Washing hangs on the railings surrounding John Nicholson’s grave. The monument to the Corcoran family (which helped finance St Mary’s Church) is falling apart. A pile of tombstones lies heaped near the entrance. What the graveyard is wonderful for, though, is browsing through Delhi’s who’s who of 150 years ago. Boulevard Road, near ISBT. Metro Kashmere Gate.

Skinner Family Cemetery

This small plot within the compound of St James Church holds the remains of James “Sikandar” Skinner, who built the church, as well as the graves of several of his family members. Well-maintained, but small. William Fraser and Thomas Metcalfe are buried nearby. St James Church, Kashmere Gate. Metro Kashmere Gate.

Lothian Road Cemetery

According to INTACH, this 1806 cemetery is the first British one in Delhi. In a pocket of raised land next to Kashmere Gate, this graveyard – though gated – is not locked, and has not aged gracefully. There are constructions inside and the ground is filthy. The most notable grave is the tomb of one Thomas Dunnes, constructed by Skinner. Lothian Road, Kashmere Gate (next to the Post Office). Metro Kashmere Gate.

New Delhi Cemetery

This Mansingh Road cemetery dating from 1920 is a landmark, mostly because of the convenient flower sellers outside. The entry gate has recently broken down. The cemetery contains some interesting graves from the mid- 1900s, but is mostly full of more recent burials. Behind this, the Parsi Cemetery and Jewish Cemetery are better maintained and the strongest visual presence of these small communities in Delhi. Corner of Shahjahan Road and Humayun Road, off the Taj Mahal Hotel roundabout.

Indian Christian Cemetery

This serene cemetery is a bit of calm in Paharganj. It is a modern cemetery and is quite well maintained and in use. Nehru Bazar, Paharganj. Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Karbala Aliganj

This area around Lodhi Colony and Jorbagh, originally known as Aliganj, has several Shi’a sites. The Karbala graveyard is largely swallowed up by the Rajdhani Nursery, and the remainder is overgrown with tall weeds. However, Tazia processions from Shahjahanabad, Nizamuddin and Mehrauli still visit here during Muharram. The wall was built in the late eighteenth century. When we visited, the gate just before Rajdhani was overgrown and recent rain made walking through the nursery towards the mosque within difficult. The eastern gate, through which lies the tomb of Mah Khanam, seems to be sheltering some furniture makers. Off Jorbagh Road, near the Aurobindo Marg intersection.

Cryptic Clues

D’Eremao Armenian Cemetery, Kishanganj

A visit to Kishanganj unearthed quite a cryptful of worms, though we found only the ruins of what may be Delhi’s earliest Christian cemetery. Referred to as the “D’Eremao cemetery” by the ASI, this site is documented as having several Armenian Christian graves from the 1700s.

Mesrovb Jacob Seth, who visited Kishanganj in 1919, described it thus in his 1937 book Armenians in India: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day: “deserted and snake-infested cemetery… in a jungle about 15 minutes drive from the Ganesh Flour Mills in Subzimundi.” He goes on to say that “after a long and tedious drive, over trackless fields, in a bone-shaking country carriage… we were determined to see the place with the sole object of rescuing from oblivion the landmarks of the Armenians at Delhi… There are in all 24 graves, with tombstones… the oldest bearing the date 1782. In that isolated cemetery lies interred the Carmelite monk, Father Gregorio… who baptised the famous Begum Samru of Sardhana on the 7th May 1781, at Agra.”

We arrived in Kishanganj over crowded Old Rohtak Road rather than trackless fields. The wide dome (topped by a square cross and four minarets) of the Armenian Chapel peeps out of a well-established basti called the Kishanganj Christian Complex. A sign above the door reads “Armenian Chapel” and lists worship timings. In another wall is a stone, which reads “Armenian Cemetry, Rama Park, Kishanganj Delhi-6, Trustee: Armenian Association, 5 Outram Road, Calcutta- 16”. We didn’t see any graves though.

The minute we started taking pictures, the sleepy basti erupted. Eventually we were shepherded to the house of one Vinod Dayal, from one of the families who live here. Dayal told us that both he and this compound had been here for a long time – the latter perhaps since before 1947. According to Delhi High Court records, the chapel at Partition was under the aegis of the Armenian Association, whose representative allegedly allowed uprooted Delhi Christians to stay in the compound. Though in 2007 the High Court ruled in favour of a government order issued by the ASI to vacate the premises, the community seems to be thriving.

According to Dayal, the Armenian church in Kolkata used to take care of the property until the 1960s, but now the community holds Sunday services for “Methodists, Catholics and all Christians”. Interestingly, the website of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata makes mention of the chapel, saying that it “will soon have work commence on it”.

As we walked back to the main road from the other side of the chapel, we suddenly came upon a few extremely weathered graves, some of them piled with bricks, boxes and other junk. Dayal was emphatic that the Christian Complex was in no way related to the D’Eremao cemetery, but – no matter how long ago – it certainly was.

Metro Sabzimandi or Kishanganj Ring Railroad station. Ask for Christian Complex.

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi‘s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Read more here.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2008.