Written by Duncan Marks, Conservation Studies alumni (2015-17)
Following recent restoration work by YCAA alumnus Ravindra Gundu Rao at two cemeteries in South India that hold close-association with the British Empire, and the wider work of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), this article uses such conservation work to reflect upon the overlap between memory, place and commemoration.
As similar built heritage with imperial connotations has recently been seen by some as ‘contested heritage’, the parameters of such conservation are explored here in relation to time and space. Parallels are drawn with other cemetery conservation and community initiatives, such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, and Israel’s Youth Delegations to Poland programme. Ultimately, we need to ask for whom should this built heritage be conserved, what purpose might it serve, and how might knowledge of it be better promoted?
British Cemetery, Lovedale, Ootacamund, Tamil Nadu
The British Cemetery at Lovedale, Ootacamund, in the Tamil Nadu state of South India, was opened in 1832. The site of the cemetery is in the high hills of an extensive 750-acre campus of The Lawrence School.
The School was founded in 1858 in memory of Major General Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence, KCB, who died in the First War of Indian Independence against British Rule in 1857 (more commonly known in Britain as the ‘Indian Mutiny’). It was created to provide vocational education to the orphans and the other children of European soldiers in India, and operated on a strictly Protestant Christian basis. Despite the end of British rule in India in 1947, the connection of the school, and hence the cemetery, with the military continues today as a public school with a 40% pupil allocation reserved, and a 20% fee subsidy, for children of Indian Defence Personnel.
The cemetery has 124 tombs of which approximately 110 are of the British Christians who lived and passed away in India in the C19. The work is currently in progress and soon to be complete.
The cemetery has suffered from exposure to monsoons, foliage growth on the stones, and other encroachments by nature; a common problem for cemeteries in India. The scope of this project is to conserve the graves, statues and landscaping through repairs using traditional stone restoration works, structural repairs, restoration using traditional brick lime mortar, paving, stucco and lime plaster works. As in many urban areas of India, a shortage of available local stone meant the British designed structures that were made of brick covered by plaster. This only makes them more prone to deterioration from the effects of water ingress during monsoons.
The conservation project is being done in conjunction with the BACSA and funded by the school’s alumni Old Lawrence Association. Indeed, the alumni association petitioned the school in 2016 for the restoration and maintenance of the school cemetery. A sense of continued connection between alumni and the cemetery is evident in their petition comments, with ‘integral to the school’s heritage’ being a frequent remark made. The comments made are on a personal and emotive level, with fond memories of the cemetery on the campus from their school days and a reverence to honour former pupils buried there. There is little, however, offered to suggest the cemetery holds value in a wider national or political narrative.
Garrison Cemetery, Srirangapatna
Ravindra Gundu Rao’s work at the British Cemetery in Ootacamund follows on from the work his architectural practice, RGR Architects, undertook on a number of significant graves, cemeteries, monuments and buildings in southern India on behalf of the BACSA. These include the restoration of the Garrison Cemetery (1801-1864) in the island town of Srirangapatna. There are 307 tombs here of the British Army, including members of the de Meuron Swiss Regiment who fought for the Dutch East Indies Company and assisted the British by playing a vital role in the famous late-C18 Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (which the British, under General Cornwallis, won against the feared Tippoo Sultan’s army). Sixty-eight members of the de Meuron Swiss Regiment died in the campaign. They are joined in the cemetery by other soldiers of the regiment who stayed on and eventually died in Srirangapatna.
Many of these tombs are ornate and quite beautiful. Like other European cemeteries dating from this period in India, Neoclassical and Egyptian motifs were popular, such as the use of obelisks, urns, columns and pyramids.
The cemetery had fallen into a serious state of decay before RGR Architects carried out work in 2007. The decision was taken to restore the tombs to their original form, using traditional materials and work practices. This included the use of traditional lime mortar, organic additives, fine masonry tools, and finished with a coat of lime wash made from shell lime as per the tradition of the period.
The Garrison Cemetery project has been generously funded and initiated by the Swiss-based members of de Meuron family, especially late Luis Dominic de Meuron, his wife Monique, the direct descendants of the de Meuron family associated with the de Meuron Regiment in India, who continue to care and upkeep the site. The completed restoration has been widely admired.
British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The Garrison and British Cemeteries are but two of thousands of British and other European cemeteries, isolated graves and monuments in South Asia. Indeed, compared to their homelands back in Europe, early British colonialists in India created cemeteries (as opposed to church graveyards) far earlier. For example, South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata was established in 1767, whereas the famous Père-Lachaise in Paris only opened in 1804, and cemeteries in Britain were only really created during the first half of the C19. And so, South Asia has been seen (Mytum 2003, 156–57, 167) as ‘effectively play[ing] a pioneering role in what ultimately became predominant trends in European burial practices and commemoration of the dead alike’ (Buettner 2006, 10).
While the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintains military cemeteries of the two World Wars in many countries, including India, there is no official body to look after the graves of the thousands of soldiers killed in action during other wars and campaigns fought by the British in India, let alone the hundreds of thousands of British civilians who died in South Asia between the C17 and C20. Since 1976, BACSA has acted as a watchman for many of these non-CWGC cemeteries. Without its vigilance and financing of conservation work, many historic graves and monuments in India would continue to decay and ultimately disappear (Wilkinson 1976; 1984).
Often a crucial first task in cemetery restoration is to secure the boundary walls of the site, and BACSA has made a number of grants for work of this kind. This helps to define the site physically as well as psychologically. It establishes a physical barrier against wildlife. It can also help keep away the unwanted attentions of land developers and others with undesirable intentions, such as petty vandalism, the theft of tablets or headstones for alternate uses, or vagrants or animals using mausolea for shelter.
Considering Indian independence from the British Empire came about in 1947, and the use of mercenary military units seems anachronistic to our own times, the presence of the cemeteries at Srirangapatna and Ootacamund might be considered ‘contested history’ and raise questions such as whose heritage?
Recent scholarship on the ruins of the British Residency at Lucknow (Hannam 2006) has explored how a site holding strong historical associations with the British Empire (and during the ‘Mutiny’ events of 1857, very much so against Indian interests!) today holds multiple meanings and narratives, making it a contested site of heritage. Additionally, the commemorative naming of memorial parks in this city have been seen (Sinha 2010) as perpetuating imperial connotations, despite it being sixty years since the withdrawal of British sovereignty in India.
By asking whose heritage, we raise uncomfortable questions about identity and contested historical narrative, and any consensus is unlikely to be reached. History, politics and emotional connotations associated with these cemeteries as loci of the dead and sacred spaces are likely to prevent this.
To suggest, say, that the significance of these cemeteries is best associated with those that used the cemeteries for the purpose of which they were built, could readily raise accusations of perpetuating European hegemony in former colonial lands. For, as Benedict Anderson argued, the cenotaphs and tombs of unknown soldiers are ‘the most arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism’ (Anderson 1991, 9). Indeed, the choice focusing on the importance of cemeteries as representative of British imperial endeavour can be to also read them as ‘materially attest[ing] to the Raj’s human contributions: Britons who died in India and can be depicted, literally, as giving their lives on its behalf’, consequently turning agents of imperialism into victims of it (Buettner 2006, 17-19).
Alternatively, to say that as the cemeteries are on (and of) Indian soil, and therefore Indian heritage, invites us to question if British imperial history should so easily be forgotten or how seamlessly it can be absorbed in the history of India?
Finally, to emotionalise the land itself as sacred space, and therefore the heritage of the dead, might be a historical answer in itself, but this would offer no answer as to whom should maintain these cemeteries? And by compartmentalising them as a piece of history, it gives no answer as to what they should mean today to European or Indian nationals alike.
A possible way to circumvent such a question of whose heritage these cemeteries are, but yet to still engage with it as heritage, is to ask what does this heritage as a space mean, and to whom?
In reflecting on her personal experience as the BACSA representative in the districts of Srirangapatna and Nilgiris in South India, Phillida Purvis considers that in terms of local Indian citizens and the European cemeteries there, she has “generally experienced benign disinterest, even mild curiosity, often arm’s length sympathy – in the sense that Indians generally are keen on religious monuments, which remain the object of most regular tourism and can see why some British people might care about their preservation”. There is, however, “sometimes enthusiastic support (from historians and church cemetery committees etc) and, here and there, passionate interest – from land developers looking to encroach on government-owned land, if they can get away with it!”
Indeed, research suggests that Indian public attention focuses ‘primarily on contemporary concerns rather than the political and cultural ramifications of colonial heritage and its material remains’ (Buettner 2006, 23-24). Any politically motivated attacks on Christian cemeteries by right-wing Hindu nationalists are today being targeted at cemeteries used by the minority Christians in India, not long unused ones holding C18 and C19 Europeans; consequently, the latter have not yet become ‘ideologically charged spaces’ (Ibid., 24) in South Asia.
While far from a empirical research exercise, comments left on Tripadvisor for another former European Cemetery in this region, Tiger Hill in Coonoor, are largely in agreement with Phillida Purvis’s remarks. There is an appreciation for Tiger Hill for what might be called ‘subaltern Gothic’ – a haunting or spookiness arising from a forgotten and rarely visited overgrown place holding sacred connections to the dead (exoticised, perhaps, due to their origins and now distant in time and space from their far away homelands, we might speculate?), providing an exhilarating sense of adventure, as well as wondrous views. This might explain Tiger Hill Cemetery’s rumoured use as a favoured filming location in numerous Bollywood films.
Even a cursory Google search of believed haunted sites in India reveals an intriguingly high number of sites associated with, and especially haunted by, former British Empire solders, administrators and their families. Such sites include British C19 cemeteries (beware of South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata after sunset!). And we might wonder how the desired aesthetic of newly lime-washed restored tombs are reconciled by those who like their ghost stories situated in decaying, untouched cemeteries?
Current engagement with colonial cemeteries in South India amongst Europeans is harder to ascertain. Where there is known familial association – such as in the case of the de Meurons family, the Swiss Regiment, and the restoration of the C19 Garrison Cemetery at Srirangapatna – the importance of these heritage sites is clear.
The rise of family history in the age of the internet might also be accounting for an increased awareness of former empire cemeteries in South India among European descendants of those whom are buried there. Phillida Purvis’s reflections mirror this, saying that there is “starting to be a glimmer of interest in some Christian memorials from [Indian] local government and the tourism industry for their foreign tourist destination potential”. Information provided by BACSA on their website is minded towards aiding such family history, including physical visits to the cemeteries, caution in accessing them, and difficulties in finding specific graves. Indeed, be it fatalism or simply pragmatism, the BACSA website concedes that ‘it is inevitable that many cemeteries will either return to nature or be built over with the growth of urban development’. Therefore, one of ‘BACSA’s purposes is to record the names of those interred in South Asian cemeteries’ and so far has published over forty Cemetery Record Books.
The wider difficulty in measuring European and in particular British engagement with cemeteries in South India as heritage is the poor awareness in Britain of its imperial past, including its rule in India. This form of collective amnesia is the legacy of half a century whereby the British Empire has not been part of the National Curriculum in British schools (Yeandle 2015) – a poll in 2015 found that only 8% of 12,000 respondents had learnt about the empire during their schooling – and Britain’s postwar history of rapid insularism in the face lost empire and then a new orientation as part of the European Union (Darwin 1988; Ward 2002). But there’s also evidence that even at the zenith of Britain’s global empire in the early C20 there was already only an apathetic interest in Britain for maintaining the cemeteries of its forefathers in its dominions, including in India (Metcalf 2003; Buettner 2006, 12-13).
Such apathy or amnesia suggests that the immediacy of geographical location and memory (or its absence) are important factors in the level of public engagement with British cemeteries in India as heritage.
The paradox is thus: those most likely to be interested in the significance of European cemeteries in India are those who have immediate historical and cultural connections – the European (former colonial) nations. Only, with the concept of imperialism today denigrated by Europeans, and a cultural amnesia of their colonial pasts, they are largely unaware of the existence and therefore significance of C19 colonial cemeteries in India.
In comparison, Indians have an awareness of these places due to their geographical immediacy, but largely have a benign and disengaged interest in them beyond their potential for development and setting for creepy stories. This disinterest might partially be the result of no easy way to appropriate the meaning of these fundamentally colonial places, or perhaps just the result of more pressing and threatening matters in life in general.
Considering some Indians are starting to see the cemeteries as potential tourist heritage to attract European visitors, there is a further misunderstanding amongst such Indians that Europeans hold a strong awareness, and thus interest (for better, or worse), in their colonial histories and its built heritage; ordinarily, they do not.
From such transnational misunderstandings, cultural amnesia and disinterest, education of Europeans would seem the most immediate step to help solve where next for the future preservation of European cemeteries in India. However, Britain and Israel offer leading examples of how contemporary European nations currently use sacred spaces associated with their forefathers in lands beyond their own frontiers.
The British Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme (FWWCBTP), led by the UCL/Institute of Education and the Ministry of Defence, is ‘the youth “flagship” of the UK government’s centenary programme’ (Pennell 2018, 93). It is designed to provide the state-funded opportunity for a minimum of two students and one teacher from every state funded secondary school in England (approximately 8-12,000 pupils and teachers in total) to be funded to visit battlefields on the Western Front between 2014 and 2019. The battlefield tours are a key part of the Government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
All students visit the major British memorial sites – the Menin Gate, the Thiepval Memorial and the largest CWGC cemetery at Tyne Cot – and the German war cemetery at Langemark (Pennell 2018, 84). However, due to the reclamation of WW1 battlefield sites on the Western Front by nature and agriculture, it is not easy for pupils to read such landscapes as battlefields. The many associated WW1 cemeteries conserved by the CWGC are therefore used in place of battlefields to give a visual impact of the huge numbers of casualties in the battles and the brevity of this loss. This is evident in the prominence of war graves and memorials in promotion material of the scheme and the activities undertaken by pupils during their school visits.
The project is forward and backward looking. With all human participants of the First World War now deceased, young people need new approaches to learn about the history of the First World War, a key part, unlike the British Empire, of the National Curriculum. But it is also forward looking with aims of creating ‘an enduring legacy’ through ‘post-visit commemorative projects’ with their communities (FWWCBTP 2018), and generally perpetuating the history of WWI in the public conscience and promote active participation of the next generation in Remembrance Sundays.
Any analogy between British troops on the Western Front and the Holocaust (let alone the British Empire in India) is not strong, and nor intended, but Israel operates a similar desire as Britain to educate its next generation of citizens through tours to sacred spaces associated with death and trauma in other countries. Since the collapse of the Communist Bloc in 1989, each year tens of thousands of Israeli high-school students and those whom are about to do their national service in the Israeli Defence Force, volunteer to take part in the Israeli Youth Delegations to Poland.
Coordinated through various organisations and agencies, these trips are supervised by the Israeli Education Ministry. They allow structured visits to Poland in order to go to Holocaust extermination camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Treblinka. In addition, for the last thirty years there has taken place an annual ‘March of the Living‘ event on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), with a 3-kilometre walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. Even though there are no cemeteries of Holocaust victims, in a formal sense, at these sites, the locations are considered sacred spaces. They are central to the remembrance of the Holocaust, and therefore of high significance for descendants of Jewish victims, the vast majority who now live in counties outside of Poland, and predominantly in Israel itself.
These projects are not without criticism. The Israeli Youth Delegations to Poland have been accused by fellow Israelis of being used to shape young Israelites towards an domestic nationalist agenda and principally aligning the fate of European Jews with justification for the origin of Israel as a Jewish State (Starkman & Dattel 2016). There has also been disquiet about the inflexibility offered in the programme for the existence of multiple interpretations and meanings of the sites to the participants (Lehrer 2013, 54-90).
Likewise, rather than being apolitical, the WW1 Battlefield project have been seen as attempts to install set ideas of British character in the next generation and the moral right of the British Army then and now (Danilova 2015). Furthermore, are not the war cemeteries being used here to manipulate young minds towards certain narratives, such as the pity of war, the importance of peace and warnings of (non-democracy) militarism? As it been observed (Englund 2011), ‘it is hard to feel anything other than a sense of tragedy and veneration when standing in the neatly kept cemeteries of the CWGC, in front of a sea of headstones’ (Pennell 2018, 92).
And yet, undeniable is the effectiveness of these British and Israeli educational programmes to engage their youth, making these sacred spaces in foreign lands important to their identities and national histories.
Making a Statement
As way of a conclusion, the involvement of descendants of European colonialists who were stationed in India when it was part of the British Empire – such as the example of the de Meuron Swiss Regiment and the Garrison Regiment at Srirangapatna, as well as the central administrative and funding role played by the BACSA – show that South Indian cemeteries associated with the colonial era can continue to have resonance on both personal and (inter)national footings, and from mixture of private and charitable bodies.
It remains to be seen in our current age of attacking symbols of colonialism, such as (Cecil) #RhodesMustFall protest campaign, and pockets of growing Indian Nationalism, that the fate of British Empire heritage, home and abroad, may be less assured than it was in recent years. Fortunately the work of BACSA and the professional conservation skills of Ravindra Gundu Rao and his practice help maintain such cemeteries for now, and permit it for future generations to decide on their fate.
Educational programmes in Britain and Israel show that cemeteries in other nations can be used effectively to engage citizens as to their significance, and in doing so give them value for future conservation. Unlike these educational programmes, the conservation of South Indian colonial cemeteries are likely to suffer from geographical remoteness, preventing a state-funded school visiting programme like that of First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme. The history of the British Empire is also harder to align with C21 Western sensibilities than the pity of war pacifism/vigilance narrative of the First World War, again restricting the likely willingness of the British Government to implement such a visiting programme.
This is not to say that more cannot be done to promote the built heritage of these South Indian cemeteries and help combat collective amnesia of the British Empire amongst the British. Taking inspiration from the last two generations of land and conceptual artists, especially in their use of re-appropriation of natural resources or material culture, one way to make a statement on the forgotten European cemeteries in South India could be through a symbolic, ambitious but highly restricted repatriation project.
The relocation of a portion of a former British cemetery, similar to that of the Garrison or British Cemeteries at Srirangapatna and Lovedale, complete with mausolea, pyramid tombs, obelisks, inscriptions and lime wash render to Britain, might act as a visual reminder or prompt pertinent questions about Britain’s colonial past, its material and human effort (and cost), and that the legacy of empire should not be akin to out-of-sight/out-of-mind.
And where might be an appropriate symbolic location for this repatriated pocket cemetery? London, as the former colonial Metropole, certainly, in which there are likely to be many prime symbolic locations. However, the charming grass in the southeast corner of Her Majesty the Queen’s St James’s Park (Grade I listed), between Birdcage Walk and Horse Guard Road, and, more importantly, directly opposite the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office building (or, until 1966, known as the Colonial Office), would be highly suitable. The decision then would be should the British choose to ‘restore’ their new addition to St James’s Park, or preserve it in the state it inherits it?
In return, the charming grass might well be rolled up and relocated to stand in place of the particular British Empire cemetery in India that was used in the ‘exchange’, with an understanding that it is the Indian State’s responsibility for its maintenance; setting in motion similar questions of what, from where, for whom, and why?
It is of course highly unlikely such a project could be secured. But asking such questions, and letting the next generation resolve them, is a healthy way of beginning a dialogue between India and Britain, as equal partners, on the future of these cemeteries. It also invites us to consider the use of the built heritage of, and in former lands of, the British Empire as part of more profound questions of identity, responsibility, and ownership.
[The author would like to thank Ravindra Gundu Rao for his conservation work in South India and permitting the use of images from his practice’s conservation work at the British Cemetery, Lovedale, and Garrison Cemetery, Srirangapatna, and Phillida Purvis for her personal reflections on the condition and public interest in some of South India’s European C19 cemeteries.]
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