Conservation on the cards

Conservation on the cards

Govt wakes up to save the Taj Mahal of coastal Andhra

The oldest church of South India (1809) in a sleepy coastal town is no match for the marble Taj Mahal.

But the cemetery and the church in the midst of the tombs built according French tradition is fondly termed as the Taj Mahal of coastal Andhra Pradesh.

Even after three centuries, the natives of Machilipatnam even now recall the love story of a French soldier who built a burial ground in  memory of his beloved wife.

The forlorn church opens for prayers every day. It takes back the odd visitor to the 17th century the coastal region ruled by the French and the battles between the British empire and the French army.

The burial ground, tucked amid hundreds of palm and coconut trees, is now a part of St Mary's Church.  Machilipatnam, also known as Masulipatnam or Masula, is a city on the Coromandel Coast. Situated on one of the mouths of the river Krishna in the Bay of Bengal, Machilipatnam is the administrative centre of Krishna District in Andhra Pradesh.

Machilipatnam was a 17th century port for French, British and Dutch. It was a small fishing town; had a carpet-weaving industry; other products include rice, oilseed, and scientific instruments.

Masulipatam was a station of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).  After the independence, it got unionised into the Church of South India.

The love story
It was blasphemy for a Catholic to marry a Protestant in the 17th century. But in the days of French rule in India, a young French Protestant soldier not only loved and married his superior’s daughter who was a Catholic but also built a cemetery especially for her in the port town of Bandar, as the Catholic Church refused burial rights to his outcaste wife.

Locals say that schisms between Protestants and Catholics were common until the 18th century. Once they got married, the soldier's superior banished his daughter. However, tragedy struck soon after. The soldier's beautiful wife died suddenly leaving her husband crestfallen.

What added to the sadness was that the local Catholic Church refused to perform the burial rites as she had married a Protestant. Undeterred by the developments, the soldier bought a huge piece of land on the outskirts of the town, embalmed the body of his wife and laid her to rest in a tomb that would open when a lever was depressed. Every evening, he would go there, depress the lever and have a look at his dead wife.

He continued in this manner till his death. With his death, the entire land was handed over to the Church of South India, which built a chapel around the tomb. The visitors can clearly see the tomb's cover panel near the Preacher's pulpit. This tomb was kept open for public viewing until a person died of shock while viewing the embalmed body. Now, the lever has been sealed and people will not get a chance to see the body of the woman who charmed the soldier.

Historian DV Raghava Rao, who wrote a book on the history of Machilipatnam and made a mention of the St Church, said “There were no efforts made to record the events that led to the construction of the cemetery. I could only gather information about the French soldier from a few Anglo-Indian families before they left this remote town.” Stressing the need to protect the French tombs, Raghava Rao has been opposing the usage of the cemetery as a regular burial ground.

Restoration
Now efforts are on to protect not only the Taj Mahal of Coastal Andhra but also  Dutch, the British, and French cemeteries in and around the port city, according to Assistant Director of Archaeology and Museums K Chitti Babu. The cemeteries were spread over five acres and dated back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Once we get clearance from the government, we will take up fencing, internal pathway, landscaping, and other conservation measures,” Babu added. He said a European tomb located near St John burial ground in Machilipatnam was also high on priority for conservation.

“This 17th century tomb was built by the East India Company and comes under the protected monument. The Collector's bungalow and the Collector's office and record room in Machilipatnam are the other ancient structures, which are in the pipeline for protection and conservation,” he said.

Efforts are on to conserve the cyclone tidal wave monument near the Bandar Fort.  The structure was constructed by the then District Collector G Thorn Hill in memory of 30,000 people who perished in a tidal wave that struck Machilipatnam on November 1, 1864.

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