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Blow a lament

The St John's cemetery in Kalpally is the last resting place for many colonials, and a draw for their descendants

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An evening ramble through the St John’s cemetery, Kalpally, near the Cantonment, is like a walk through the Bangalore that was, now alive only in old photographs, memories and monuments. The cemetery has a Protestant part, which is the St John’s cemetery, a and a Hindu burial ground. The exact date of its opening is not known, but there are Protestant graves dating back to the 1860s — the names include Pettigrew, Bunyan, even a Ronald McDonald.

The tombs are laid out in an orderly fashion. Some of the inscriptions are fascinating. One tomb belongs to a John Robson who was chief inspector and secretary of the Bengal Smoke Nuisance Commission, Calcutta. He died in July 1933. Another is “in affectionate remembrance of William Thipthorp, pensioned colour sergeant, 4th King’s Own Regiment who departed this life on the 23rd of April 1892.” (A colour sergeant carried the flags.) There are a few graves of “pensioners”, who retired from the railways, the army and telegraph services and settled in Bangalore.

The Kalpally cemetery is not the oldest in the city. That honour belongs to a cemetery supposed to be near Bangalore Fort, of soldiers killed in an 18th-century battle against Tipu Sultan. Now there is no trace of it, says David Barnabas, a former member of the Kalpally Cemetery Committee and a photographer by profession. The next in chronological order are the Agram cemetery, now off-limits to civilians, the cemetery on Hosur Road, and Kalpally.

Kalpally came into being because it used to be a whole-day affair to transport bodies by bullock cart from the Cantonment all the way to Hosur Road, prompting the chaplain of St John’s to ask the British government to grant a plot of land closer to the church, explains Ronnie Johnson, a project consultant with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Both he and Barnabas, says Johnson, were “foot soldiers” of the man responsible for cleaning up and organising the St John’s cemetery, the late Admiral Oscar Stanley Dawson, former chief of naval staff. “He marked every grave, row by row, up to the year 2000 and documented each plot, marking it on a map,” says Barnabas. With his credentials, Dawson was able to get the armed forces to clean up the Agram cemetery. The Kalpally cemetery, too, was similarly overgrown but Dawson enlisted the support of the Madras Engineers Group regiment, or the Madras Sappers as they are better known, to clear it of bushes and brambles.

Though overcrowding is a concern of cemeteries everywhere, Barnabas says that at the current rate of about 10 funerals a year, there is enough space at St John’s for many years “unless the church collapses during a Sunday service!”

Descendants of those buried in Bangalore’s old cemeteries do come hunting for the graves. Barnabas says it’s hard to estimate how many such expeditions happen in a year and very often, it’s nearly impossible to trace the graves unless there has been proper documentation. One of the more unique visitors was Bill Jenkins from Liverpool, a 42 Commando Royal Marines, who came to “blow a lament” on his bagpipes, at the graves of soldiers who died during the World Wars. Jenkins has travelled around the world on his mission and in 2006, visited the cemeteries in Bangalore as well.

The commissioner of the Bangalore Bruhat Mahanagara Palike had remarked a year ago that cemeteries could be developed for “graveyard tourism”, but Barnabas and Johnson say the church is yet to be told of any such proposal. “If the Archaeological Survey of India were to chip in with the maintenance, the cemeteries could be developed for tourism,” says Johnson. Dawson planned to develop the Agram cemetery and even build a “Hall of Remembrance” there, but the efforts came to naught.

Dawson is buried at Kalpally and, fittingly, his gravestone features an anchor etched in the black granite. Pride of place, though, is taken by the coffin-shaped grave of John Wheeler Cleveland, a general in “Her Majesty’s Indian Army”, who served for an incredible 75 years and died in 1883 at age 92. With so much history on its tombstones, this cemetery is well worth a visit — or several visits — for anyone interested in the history of the city.

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