A requiem for dead as Himachal Pradesh cemeteries to be restored

Reviving culture

At Oakover cemetery, the oldest British era cemetery in this erstwhile’ summer capital of British India that was opened in 1828.

Seventeen out of the 20-odd graves have simply vanished. Faded epitaphs, damaged tombstones and moss-covered graves are the condition of other cemeteries located in Dharamsala, Kasauli, Dalhousie, Dharampur, Dagshai and Subathu, the once British-dominated settlements in Himachal Pradesh. Now the Britain-based British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) is ready to support the restoration of Christian cemeteries that lie in a sad condition.

Raja Bhasin, a Shimla-based writer-cum-historian who has compiled a book “The Churches and Christian Cemeteries of Himachal Pradesh” for the state tourism department, said the Oakover cemetery, which was closed for burial in 1841, has only three graves with inscriptions. “The rest are either damaged or encroached upon,” he said. The condition of three other British cemeteries in Shimla - Kanlog, Sanjauli and the nun’s cemetery in Navbahar - is also bad. “There is no trace of the town’s fifth cemetery.

It was located somewhere below the old bus stand. The entire cemetery has been gobbled up by slumdwellers,” he said.

Honorary secretary,BACSA, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones said: “We are particularly sad about the condition of the Shimla cemeteries because, as you know, this was the seat of the British government during the summer months. We have worked on the restoration of some cemeteries in India with INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), but have not previously been involved with the Himachal Pradesh government, except to provide information on the Shimla cemeteries,” she said.

But she said BACSA is keen to restore and preserve the cemeteries in the hill state. “We are more than willing to support reliable local people with restoration. We believe that if there is local involvement, then the cemeteries have a much better chance of survival,” Jones added. Many towns still attract descendants of British Raj officials who are eager to know about their roots. “The cemeteries have really fallen on bad days. Moss is eating into the remains of the graves. Seeing faded epitaphs and missing gravestones is really distressful,” he said. Tourism Director Arun Sharma said, “On the demand of Christian associations and bodies, we provided a grant of over Rs 50 lakh last year for restoration of historical British churches, including the St John’s Church in McLeodganj in upper Dharamsala”.

“He said the tourists, mainly foreigners, who visit the cemeteries have been complaining about the deteriorating condition of graveyards. Even BACSA has expressed concern over these.The department is keen to provide funds for restoring British graveyards.

There are 23 prominent cemeteries in the state. Some of them are two centuries old. One of the oldest burial grounds in the state is at Subathu, 65 km from here. It houses most of the graves of British army officers and men who were killed during the war with the Gurkhas in 1814.

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