Love over death

Love over death

A church and a cemetery in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh bear witness to two great love stories

Our first stop in the historical, colonial port town of Machilipatnam was St Mary’s Church. It was located at one corner of a huge cemetery. My guide said that the church had an interesting past and took me inside.

It looked like any other old church. At one corner on a wall was a stone mentioning the date of its consecration: January 10, 1842. Right in front of the altar, a big wooden cabinet contained a marble plaque that read: ‘This monument sacred to the memory of Arabella Robinson, daughter of Capt William Robinson, of the honourable company’s military service who died on the 6th of November 1809, was erected by her ever-grateful and affectionate friend Major General John Pater’.

On the floor in front of it lay a tomb.

Several questions reared in my head. Why should a general build a monument for a captain’s daughter? And why was the monument consecrated 33 years after it was built? Sensing my curiosity, my guide recounted the story.

In 1800, Major Gen John Pater was the top-most military officer of the British Garrison in the town. He fell in love with Arabella, his subordinate’s daughter, and in 1804, both decided to get married. But society and their religion were against their marriage as General Pater was a Protestant and Arabella, a Catholic. Besides, Pater had a wife back in England. No church agreed to solemnise their union.

Undeterred, the lovers started living together. But in 1809, fate struck a cruel blow in the form of malaria and Arabella died. Again, no Christian cemetery in Machilipatnam agreed for her burial, terming her relation with Pater as unholy.

What now?

Finding no alternative, Pater embalmed her body, laid it in a glass casket, and kept it at his home. A month later, he bought a piece of land and started building a church as a private chapel to bury his lady love. It took him three years and his entire lifetime's savings to complete the task. He buried her body within the new premises in 1811.

Pater would visit the chapel every day, open the tomb lid and see his beloved’s body in her bridal finery, and feel gratified. He had, in fact, developed an ingenious pulley mechanism to open and close the tomb lid.

St Mary's Church Photos by author 

Three years later, when he was promoted and transferred to Madras, he handed over ‘Arabella’s Church’ to the East India Company. In 1816, he died in Madras. In 1842, the church was consecrated and renamed St Mary’s Church, starting a regular service.

Completing the story, my guide said, “This church is known as the ‘Taj Mahal of Seemandhra’.” I could not but nod in full agreement. While leaving the premises, we meandered through the unkempt cemetery, and among the many British nationals buried there, I found the grave of a collector of Machilipatnam district, Patrick Grant.

Our next stop was the spic- and-span Dutch cemetery. It had about 30 graves of Dutch nationals, all of whom had died in the 17th century. Their tombstones, similar in shape, were huge and had Dutch inscriptions. My guide led me to a tomb in the corner and said it told a story similar to Pater and Arabella’s; I was curious to hear it. He mentioned that after the Dutch established their factory and trading post in Machilipatnam in 1605, there was a sizeable presence of Dutch families in the town.

In 1670, John Kruijff, 29, a clerk working with the Dutch East India Company, fell in love with a compatriot Catherina van den Briel, 21, the only daughter of a Dutch merchant. They both were engaged to be married and were waiting for a suitable date for the wedding. Meanwhile, a friend of John arrived in Machilipatnam from Amsterdam.

On learning of John’s engagement, he expressed surprise and shock, and revealed in hushed tones that the girl whom John was to marry didn’t carry a good reputation. Having implicit faith in his friend, John broke his engagement with Catherina and developed hatred towards her.

I don’t know for how many more poignant love tales Machilipatnam is a mute witness.

This sudden move shocked the entire expatriate community. Catherina and her parents were shattered, but resigned to their fate. But the broken engagement took its toll on both youngsters and they both fell ill at the same time. Out of humanitarian consideration, Catherina’s mother brought John to her house and nursed him. Though staying under the same roof, both didn’t talk to each other and continued to nurse a grievance towards each other.

And what of climax?

Soon, John recovered and left, but Catherina succumbed to her illness and died in October 1679. Her last words were, “I die and go to God. He is aware of everything I have done in this world, and I appear before Him as pure as I came from my mother.” On hearing about this, John was so overcome by guilt and grief that he became a physical and mental wreck, and died within two months. On his death bed, he expressed a wish that he should be buried next to Catherina. “The grave below is where both lay together in death,” said my guide.

I heaved a sigh and marched out of the cemetery recalling Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

‘Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of e pire might have sway’d, Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.’

I don’t know for how many more poignant love tales Machilipatnam is a mute witness.