Andhra's English past

colonial remains

Bheemunipatnam is a tiny township about 24 km north-east of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

IN MEMORIAM : Pagoda-like pyramidal tombs in Bhimli. photo by author

As one drives up along the coast, the quiet sea beach welcomes the visitor.

But Bhimli, as the town is fondly referred to, has more in store. Said to be the second oldest municipality in the country, Bhimli has a slice of history too. An old church, a lighthouse and a clock tower give a hint of the colonial era that reigned here once upon a time. A cluster of imposing pyramidal cemeteries would surely prompt one to dig into the history of the place.

Towards the end of 15th century, it was Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese
explorer, who discovered a new route to India by circumventing the tip of Africa. That discovery became a historic turning point as European nations began their forays to resource-laden India, with the intention of developing their trade and colonisation in the Indian subcontinent.

Though the Portuguese were the pioneers who founded settlements along the western coast, it was the Dutch who arrived first in the eastern coasts, particularly in parts of the present state of Andhra. Their initial colony was at Masulipatnam, but they soon expanded their territory to Bheemunipatnam, Visakhapatnam.

The safe and smooth beaches of the Bay of Bengal and the merging of River Gosthani with the sea proved to be an ideal location for their colonisation. As early as 1602 AD, a charter was passed in Holland to acquire territories in India and expand the trade.
As the Netherlanders arrived in batches, a full-fledged colony sprung up.

They went on to become a major power in the coast, under the Dutch East India Company. However, the British, who arrived later, overtook them pretty soon. There was constant rivalry and conflicts between the two. Elsewhere, a few Anglo-Dutch wars were also fought to achieve colonial supremacy. Eventually, the Dutch lost all their holdings in India to the British. But their legacy still remains here in the form of armoury, fort ruins, etc. Even many of the shops and buildings built in typical Dutch style symbolise the colonial influence.

But the group of cemeteries built by them, nicknamed ‘Hollanders Green’, in honour of numerous soldiers who had given up their lives in severe conflicts with the locals, is the one imposing sign of the settlement that stands tall even today.

At least 100 soldiers had been killed in their fight for survival. More than 50 such cemeteries had been built in different locations. A large barricaded area in Bhimli houses a series of 13 pyramidal tombs, like pagodas, that have been erected over the graves, with names of the soldiers who lie there, written in artistic Dutch script on marble plaques.

It is interesting to note that even the cause of death of the soldiers has been recorded. The floral motifs and figures of birds feature in the artwork. Some have the skull and crossed bones, the symbol of pirates. The prominent among them are dedicated to Charles Simpson, the chief of settlement, and Alexander. The tomb of Frederick Kesslerus, who died on 8th October 1661, seems to be the earliest. Built of mortar in reddish brown, these structures are getting ruined by the day. 

The tombs stand like sentinels, watching over the sea in stark silence, while the occasional splashes of the waves and the gentle breeze are the only sounds that one can hear.

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