In the hills the dead too have a lot to offer
In the hills the dead too have a lot to offer. The British left a rich legacy in Himachal Pradesh and part of it were some graveyards that have fascinated many a soul. Most of these graveyards are located in the cantonments established by the British during their rule in India.
Come to think of it certain graves like the 'Mem ki Qabr' in Dagshai is high on the itinerary of any tourist visiting the quaint and pristine cantonment just off the busy Kalka-Shimla highway. What makes this grave a place of interest was reported earlier by The Citizen.
These graveyards have been in the past the most sought after spots by avid readers and poetic souls as there was no one to disturb them. Yes, the solitude offered by them also made them a meeting point of lovers.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these graveyards was the epitaphs that the graves bore. Now epitaphs and poetry have always had a deep connection – sample the poem 'Epitaph' by Emily Dickinson –
Step lightly on this narrow spot!
The broadest land that grows
Is not so ample as the breast
These emerald seams enclose.
Step lofty;for this name is told
As far as cannon dwell,
Or flag subsist, or fame export
Her deathless syllable.
Another one by the name 'An Epitaph' by the famous Walter de la Mare that goes‚
Here lies a most beautiful lady:
Light of step and heart was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country.
But beauty vanishes;
beauty passes;However rare—rare it be;
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country?
If not such lines, there was a lot of verse written on the graves that dotted the cemeteries of Himachal Pradesh. The verse told something about the deceased, how they died and also the place of death.
Take for example the grave of Charles Wilson of the 39th Royal Engineers Company located in a cemetery in Dagshai whose epitaph reads, "Was accidentally killed by falling on this road from the road above, 24 May, 1875".
One can recall visiting these cemeteries in the past to jot down the quotes engraved on the graves on notepads that would later be quoted in social gatherings. Those were the days before mobile phones and the internet came on the scene and socializing was a norm.
But the saddest part is that the cemeteries in this hill states are now in a shambles calling for upkeep. And their epitaphs have worn away to the vagaries of nature and also vandals to the extent that they are hardly visible at all.
This writer was once fond of copying out epitaphs and spending time among the buried reading. The notepads were misplaced and a revisit to the graveyards in Solan, Dagshai and Dharamshala was a painful experience to see the withered away epitaphs and also the graves. Except for some effort visible in restoring some graves in Dagshai, the others were in a sorry state. It is learnt that scenario is same in graveyards in other parts of the hill state.
Many people feel that these graveyards too are part of our rich heritage and the epitaphs are also pieces of literature on the stone graves. But this is an age where history, heritage and literature are being treated with contempt. It is reflected in the graveyards.
I reached out to author and historian Raaja Bhasin who has done a lot of work on the churches and graveyards of the state. He has authored books including 'Graveyards and Churches of Himachal Pradesh' and 'Some Memorials and Burials in Shimla'.
He pointed out that a large number of cemeteries in the state stand vandalized, and those responsible for their upkeep have not been doing their jobs.
"The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia has repeatedly approached us for restoration of some of the cemeteries in the state. They have got some wonderful work done in the north east in places like Kohima. But it is a difficult task because of several conflicting claims and there being no clear cut information on who is in charge of these sites.
"There are so many conflicting issues. We can restore and document the historical aspect of these sites but cannot go beyond that," said Bhasin who is co-convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) for Himachal Pradesh.
He disclosed that things have come to a pass that some months ago there was the issue of encroachment on one of the cemeteries and even excavators were put to use by the encroachers.
Some of the people managing different churches have been pointing to the acute paucity of funds when it comes to managing churches and graveyards. But Bhasin said that while money can be an issue for individuals and churches there are funds available provided their optimum utility is ensured.
He said people across the world have often been fascinated by the epitaphs. "There have been delightful words written on the graves across the Christian world," he pointed out.
Epitaphs have always been something that have denoted creative writing and need not be always make very serious reading. An example is 'Epitaph on Bookish Style' by Ben Franklin that goes—
The Body of Benjamin Franklin (Printer)
(Like the cover of an old book
Its contents torn out
And stripped of its lettering and gliding)Lies here, food for worms
But the work shall not be lost
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition
Revised and corrected
But the delightful words have vanished from the graves of Himachal. These epitaphs spoke of an era when Solan was spelt 'Solon' and Shimla was 'Simla'. One of the oldest graves in Solan of Elizabeth Law dating back to 1890 reads,
Some have gone from us forever
Longer here they might not stay
They have reached a fairer region
Far away far away.
Those were the times when British rule was firmly in place. Most of the cemeteries that have somehow managed to survive are the ones located either inside or adjacent to the cantonments where there is a military presence, like the ones in Subathu, Solan, Dagshai and near McLeodganj in Dharamsala.
One can only hope that some of these vanishing graves and epitaphs are somehow salvaged so that future generations get to know about their heritage as well.