New Delhi, India
March 25, 2009
My brother-in-law Gourab, who’s spent a lot of time touring the cathedrals and cemeteries of Britain (mainly in the wake of my sister Swapna, who’s an ardent historian) decided he’d had enough of the past. My niece and nephew, who’d been hauled out of bed at an unearthly hour to visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, decided a siesta was in order. So it was Swapna, my husband Tarun, and I who eventually went exploring colonial Agra on our own—and ended up at the Roman Catholic Cemetery. The cemetery is just short of National Highway 2, the main road which links Agra to Delhi. A wall encloses the graveyard, but the red sandstone dome of one of the tombs inside the cemetery is a very visible landmark.
The cemetery is a protected site (the Archaeological Survey of India’s standard dark blue board stands outside). An ASI caretaker greeted us and was very keen on taking us around, though it later transpired he knew next to nothing.
The cemetery’s a relatively small one—not as huge as (for example) Meerut’s St John’s; but it has some amazingly historic graves. Just a few steps from the main gate is the highlight of the cemetery, the Tomb of Hessing (this is the one you can see from the road). Colonel John William Hessing was a Dutch mercenary who arrived in the Orient during the 1700’s, beginning his Eastern career in Ceylon. He moved his way up rapidly (literally up; he progressed north), taking up service with the Nizam of Hyderabad and later with the Maratha, Mahadaji Scindia. With the Scindia, he came to Agra, where he later died in 1803 (by which time Agra had fallen to the British).
Hessing’s Tomb is called the `miniature Taj Mahal’, and with good reason. Though this mausoleum is built completely of red sandstone, the basic architecture is decidedly Mughal: a domed, square-sided tomb on a high platform. Arched doorways lead out on all four sides, and arched niches decorate the exterior—which also has the requisite chhatris (domed pavilions) and small minaret-like guldastas. If it weren’t for the cross atop the dome, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Muslim tomb. There’s plenty of carving too: check out the very intricate, chrysanthemum-like medallions carved on either side of the arches. The cenotaph inside has a long inscription describing Hessing’s life, but is otherwise relatively plain.
Across the path is another somewhat smaller tomb which at first glance looks just as Mughal as Hessing’s. This is the Tomb of Ellis, a Britisher who died during the 1800’s. His tomb is made of buff sandstone and is eight-sided, with pointed arches on all sides and a clumsy, nearly spherical dome on top. There’s a good bit of carving here too (look at the floral medallions, and the intricate floral patterns carved into the bases of the pillars), and the spindly guldastas are each topped with a cross. Ellis’s tombstone is a fairly plain one, and the ground beyond the tomb is studded with the gravestones of other members of his family. [Aside: The guidebook we used—Lucy Peck’s Agra: The Architectural Heritage—refers to this tomb as that of Walter Reinhardt, better known as Samru, a famous mercenary. Samru (the name is supposedly derived from `sombre’, a reflection on his dour, dark demeanour) married a dancing girl who converted to Christianity and became a familiar figure in the Delhi-Meerut area: Begum Samru’s palace in Delhi is today known as Bhagirath Palace in Chandni Chowk, and the huge church she built in Sardhana near Meerut is an important place of pilgrimage. Reinhardt himself is, according to the book, buried in this tomb, but we couldn’t see any signs of that—the only inscriptions around testified to Ellis being interred here.]
The Roman Catholic Cemetery is definitely Agra’s oldest cemetery, and one of the oldest in India, with the earliest graves here dating back to 1550. Led by the ASI caretaker, we waded through dusty, ankle-high tussocks of grass to make our way to some of the older graves, behind Hessing’s Tomb. These are mainly the graves of Italians who died in Agra in the early 1600’s. The interesting thing about the graves is the carving. Looking at it from afar, you’d think these were Muslim graves: the carving’s the repetitive arabesques common in Mughal decoration, and many of the graves are topped with the wedge-like kalam used in Islam to denote a man’s grave. But a closer look—from the top—and you’ll see a crucifix carved, with a Latin inscription. The Latin looks like it’s been scratched by a child: the local stonecarvers were obviously all at sea with this alien script.
Deeper into the cemetery are other interesting graves. One is the Grave of John Mildenhall, an Englishman "...who left London in 1599 and travelling to India through Persia reached Agra in 1603 and spoke with the emperor Akbar...". Mildenhall died at Ajmer in 1614 and was buried here, though the white marble slab on his grave is much newer.
Beyond Mildenhall’s grave rises a spire-like structure of buff sandstone, atop a square-sided base: the Tomb of Perron’s Children. Inscribed on this are a few sentences in French and English that four children of Perron are buried here. General Perron, by the way, was a very famous and much admired French adventurer who, like Hessing, made a name for himself in the service of one of the Scindias. His children died in 1793-4.
Further along is one of the other intriguing tombs of the cemetery: the Tomb of the Tantric Baba. This is an octagonal tomb, its walls plastered white (but now with large splotches of black). The dome is a hexagonal one tapering to a very Western lantern topped by a cross. Two windows with screens of carved red sandstone pierce the walls, and entwined in the carving of these screens, we saw little coloured strings, threads, and strips of cloth. These are typically votive offerings at shrines throughout India, and are common at Hindu temples or Muslim dargahs—but at a Christian tomb?
Inside, the Tomb of the Tantric Baba consists of a floor that’s just one inscribed slab after another. Two relatively modern plaques on the wall opposite list the men—French, Italian, Belgian, Portuguese, even a Bavarian—who are buried here; nearly all were monks or priests in the 1600’s. The plaque on the left provides more information: this was originally the Tomb of Khwaja Mortenepus, an Armenian merchant; also in the same tomb are the remains of the Armenian bishop, Zakur of Tabriz. The inside of the tomb has more coloured threads, along with burning incense, a few candles, and garlands of fresh marigolds. The caretaker, who’s tagged along, pointed to one of the graves and said, "That’s the Tantric Baba’s grave." A closer inspection provided a clue: along with the Armenian script and the crucifix carved on the grave is a large skull. And skulls are a common symbol in Tantricism, which is why the locals appear to revere this grave so much.
Just beyond the Tantric Baba’s tomb lies a group of graves that are the oldest in the cemetery: the Armenian graves. The Armenians came, mainly as merchants and sometimes as missionaries, to Agra in the mid-1500’s and several of them are buried here. Like the early 17th century Italian graves, these too exhibit an odd combination of east and west: the beautifully executed floral and geometrical carvings on the graves are distinctly indigenous, while the Armenian script is comparatively clumsy.
All in all, a very interesting place, and definitely not to be missed if you’re at all interested in Agra’s colonial history. There isn’t an entry fee, though the caretaker will (as he did with us) probably hang around expecting a tip: Rs 50 should suffice if he does take you around a bit.
From journal The Colonial Face of Agra