Relics of the Raj

Article excerpt

All Souls Day -- 2nd November 1993

A good plan to learn of the history of an Indian town or city to which you are new is to make a bee-line to its British cemetery. Almost all major towns of India have one or two. You can get a clear idea of the people who lived and worked there in days gone by. What is past is prologue. You could therefore, gain an insight into the sort of men and women who moulded and shaped its civic infrastructure and its educational infrastructure. This approach to history is, apparently, unknown even to many well educated Indians.

No doubt, you ought to read the epitaphs earnestly at leisure for an hour or two: get back home to ponder. Take notes undoubtedly, whilst you move round and through the graves, tombs and obelisks. Read up further in a good library and synthesise your understanding. You would note most of the men and women buried would be in the prime of youth and beauty. Besides the English, there would be some American, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish and other European graves. But the majority in such churchyards are, predictably, British.

India is profusely dotted by British graves and obelisks from Mussorie to Madurai, Calcutta to Calicut. It might cause lively surprise to readers to learn that there is a lone British grave in Lakshadweep where I live and work: that is in little-known Chetlat Islet, an arid little derelict spot indeed. Here is the grave of a Captain Carpenter Primrose of the Vizier wrecked in Cheriyapaniyam in 1853, who stayed here waiting to be taken off. Unfortunately, after about a month he died on this dreary islet. The crew of the General Simpson wrecked on this island in 1863 erected a roughly carved stone over the tomb. Such relics of the raj are logical clues to the past.

Now to Sir Winston Churchill's Bangalore. For was it not here that Sir Winston had his most plastic period of his life? Aptly did the BBC comment on his death in January 1965, 'The World War II was won on the playing fields of Bangalore'. This superb city is not wanting in relics of the British raj. Holy Trinity Church off South Parade (mis-called Mahatma Gandhi Road!) and St. Mark's Cathedral grip and focus the attention of the historically minded visitor. No doubt, there must be many more buildings and statues which yield invaluable clues to the days of the raj, clues to what happened and why. Dear reader, view these not today, through a narrow lens! At St. Mark's you will find a tablet erected by his friends to the memory of Captain N. B. E. Dawes of the Royal Engineers who on the 30th July, 1909, while employed as Officiating Chief Engineer, Mysore PWD in repairing the Krishnarajkatte Anicut was upset from a boat in the flooded Cauvery and, after himself reaching safety, swam back go help an Indian workman and was drowned in his gallant attempt at rescue.

Another which particularly fascinates me is of Lt.-Col. Robert Frazer Standage, CIE, FRCS, IMS District Grand Warden, Madras, erected in fraternal and affectionate esteem by his Brother Freemasons, died in London on January 16th, 1927.

In Holy Trinity Church many of the plaques and bas-relief monuments couched in dignified old-fashioned English: Major General Hill -- By a rare union of firmness with suavity he upheld and secured the dignity of his office, the discipline of the troops and the affection of all those who worked under him.

Yet another moving memorial is: 'Cholera victims on march from Donab and Magral' (dated 1882). Another plaque is of an official who worked with Christian resignation: 'John Band, Esq., high esteem for his very faithful services'. Yet another which would seem of particular interest and of special value is: 'Mr. Dobbie of the Mysore Revenue Service died 1875 of wounds inflicted by a tiger at Shemoga'.

Coming to the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Couchin: St. Francis Church, Fort Cochin -- irresistible is its appeal built by Europeans in 1503 and as such, steeped in history. …