HP banks on dead to promote tourism

An estimated two million Europeans and Anglo-Indians are buried in the Indian sub-continent
Last Updated 19 November 2018, 09:38 IST

Imagine hills and the first thing that comes to mind are snowcapped towering peaks, meandering rivers, lush green slope meadows, serpentine roads, adventure and blissful nature. But if the idea of a haunted vacation excites you, hill state Himachal Pradesh banks on the dead--its graves. If that sends shivers down the spine, there’s a benevolent calm to all this.

Many British era cemeteries in Shimla, McLeod Ganj and other places in HP, some that date back to two centuries, are being showcased to attract tourists. Elsewhere in England, many travel companies have developed packages christened “mutiny tours” which offer to take Britons to burial sites of their ancestors, promising visitors tranquility in memory of their loved ones. Each grave has a story to tell and many gen-next Britons keen on knowing their roots have been travelling all the way to explore their roots.

Each has a history and heritage. More than 400 British soldiers who were killed in a devastating earthquake in Kangra in 1905 were laid to rest in Mcleod Ganj cemeteries, the home for the Tibetan government-in-exile. The experience promises plentiful emotions for visitors. It may leave one grappling with a haunt effect, or more likely an overdose of sadness. But the more gloomy part is the state of neglect these British era cemeteries are in. Damaged tombstones, moss-laden graves cry for attention.

As per data compiled by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), an estimated two million Europeans and Anglo-Indians--mainly British administrators, soldiers, merchants and their families--are buried in the Indian sub-continent alone. Out of those two million, many are laid to rest in HP, which is home to many British-era cemeteries. Shimla-based writer-cum-historian, Raja Bhasin has compiled a book, The Churches and Christian Cemeteries of Himachal Pradesh, for the state tourism department that provides an insightful experience.
The British loved the serenity of the hills. Shimla was the erstwhile summer capital during the British Raj days. There is plenty that these British graves in HP suggest of the fondness of those who lived and died here. One of it is a memorial to Penelope Chetwode in the state whose granddaughter returned after her death to trace the legacy.
Penelope was the daughter of Field Marshal Baron Chetwode who had served as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1930-35. All of Penelope’s life, she remained in love with the hills of Himachal till her death in 1986 at the age of 76 on a trek. Six years later, her granddaughter, Imogen Lycett Green, returned to India to retrace that journey. She found the memorial to her grandmother which apart from everything else reads, “In memory of Penelope Valentine… daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, Lady Chetwode… she died in these hills she had loved so long.”

Tombstones tell a lot. The grave of one British

officer’s wife, Mary Rebecca Weston, who died while she was pregnant, is made of marble and sculpted in the shape of a woman with an unborn baby being blessed by an elf.

At the oldest British era cemetery in the erstwhile summer capital of British in Shimla, 17 out of the 20-odd graves have little trace. Only three are left with inscriptions. The same holds true for other cemeteries in places the British had dominated
settlements. Some cemeteries have been encroached as well. On the insistence of Christian associations, the government has provided a grant of over Rs 50 lakh for restoration of historical British churches. The authorities say they are willing to provide funds for restoration of British graveyards, but would ideally want some Christian association to take the initiative.

Britain-based BACSA is prepared to support the restoration of Christian cemeteries. A fifth cemetery in Shimla has no trace at all, said sources. The BACSA is deeply concerned over the state of British cemeteries, especially the ones in Shimla. They have already worked on the restoration of some cemeteries in India with the assistance of the Indian

National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Sources said the association wants reliable local people to be involved so that restoration sustains.

One of the oldest burial grounds in the state is at  Subathu, a small town. It houses most of the graves of British army officers and men who were killed during the war with the Gurkhas in 1814. Even today, Subathu is a cantonment which has the 14 Gurkha Training Centre (GTC). In Shimla, the oldest Christian cemetery is near Oakover, the official residence of the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh.

“Grave tales” are many that at times surprise visitors. The grave of Mary Ann Hogan, wife of William Hogan, is one such. It is believed that William Hogan had been married seven times, but all his seven wives died and their bodies lay buried in a Shimla cemetery. Another famous grave here is of one of old Shimla’s most prominent residents, Major Samuel Boileau Goad. At the time of his death, he owned more than 30 important properties in the town, including the famous Barnes’ Court, Kennedy House and Holly Lodge.

The Sanjauli Cemetery in Shimla houses more than 600 graves of the British. A little short of Shimla is Sanawar where Sir Henry Lawrence, who died while defending Lucknow during 1857 mutiny, memory has been kept alive at the renowned public school Lawrence School Sanawar.

(Published 23 March 2013, 20:01 IST)

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