THREE years ago, late August in 2010, I undertook my first visit to a European graveyard in Malabar, attached to the cemetery of St John’s Anglican Church, Cannanore, to see what remained of the people who ruled over India for over two centuries. Dr John C. Roberts, social anthropologist and genealogist in New York, had encouraged me to undertake this trip.
The torrential monsoon rains had just abated, the cemetery grounds were still moist and full of puddles of water-- it was difficult to move about as the thick undergrowth clung to your feet and wild plants pulled at your sleeves. My friend Antony, a reporter with an Oman newspaper who guided me, warned me of snakes-- they lurk in the shades and better keep a watch where you step, lest you disturb the peace-loving creatures.
Inside, we could see dozens of gravestones, some of them almost two hundred years old--mostly covered with lantanas, wild plants and moss. No one took care of them and rarely someone came looking for them -- it was a depressing scene.
At the church, Rev. Leeson was courteous and he showed us the death registers that had documented the burials from 1857, the year of the revolt in north India. The book was kept in good order, the writing legible and the memorials on the church walls were impressive.
Three km away, at the centuries old Holy Trinity Church that dates back to the early 16th century when the Portuguese arrived in Cannanore, it was a different picture: The old structure had been pulled down, and a new and glamorous building had come up. The old church walls had many memorials, some of them very old, and the priest had kept all of them in a small room behind the church. He did not know what to do with them-- they were part of the past and the past is gone. And I found them there, huge granite and marble slabs that bore elaborate writing, which were difficult to move. And the registers were also there--from 1847 and they ran into ten volumes. Difficult to read as pages were mostly torn and smudgy, and the paper quality quite poor. The cemetery was in better order, each year the churchgoers doing voluntary service to clean it up on the day of remembrance.
Then I visited Tellicherry and Mahe, two other towns that had a big European community for centuries-- both were centers of trade and theatres of war; the first a British garrison and the second a French fort; most of the European wars were played out in miniature here with rival forces lining up the northern and southern banks of the tiny Mahe river.
At Tellicherry, on a promontory that overlooks the beautiful beach, stood the two churches-St John’s Anglican and the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic-- with their centuries old cemeteries, in between.
Thanks to the intervention of the local municipality and the State Government, part of the old cemetery had been taken over by the Archeology Department and it was beautifully maintained. The grass was often cut and the wild growth kept under check; lights were put in various parts of the place. Between the memorials of the town’s past doyens like philanthropist Edward Brennan and the old magistrate Thomas Hervey Baber and his great rival the planter Murdoch Brown, I saw kids from the nearby school playing hide and seek-- a scene that reminded me of the final resting place of that unforgettable girl, Nellie, in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop.
But very little of records were left. There was nothing left at the St John’s, a church that had been under legal dispute and uncared for, for a long time. At Holy Rosary, again a new structure at the place of the old church, the amiable priest Fr. Peter Parekkattil showed me what is left--a bunch of old books mostly moth eaten and in tatters. It was next to impossible to garner anything from them. There were old memorials, pulled down, and again they were kept in a corner room of the church, away from public gaze.
My friend Shaji Pandyala, another local journalist who guided me in the town, took me to the earliest graveyard of the Basel Mission in a nearby village, called Illukkunnu, for long the main station of missionary and scholarly activities of Rev. Hermann Gundert and his followers in Malabar. The graveyard was in a small piece of land on the side of a hill, and it appeared practically abandoned. One could see a few tombs hidden in the wild growth, among them some of the early missionaries and their families from Germany and Switzerland who came to Malabar, keen on missionary work.
At Mahe, my friend Dr Mahesh Mangalatt took us to what the locals called irimees, the corrupted form of a Portuguese word for cemetery. The old French and Anglo Indian tombs were neatly maintained, and the gates were normally kept under lock and key to keep off loiterers in this town, famous for its booze shops. But the old records were all gone, and luckily, the entire French records from the church’s beginning in 1720s were recovered from an archives in southern France by the volunteers of the LDS library at Salt Lake,US, later on.
So after this initial search, I came back, depressed. Here was a key to our past--a large collection of historical documents that needed to be retrieved and recorded before they were all gone. Most of it was already gone and were beyond repair- what we could think of was how to retrieve and record what is left.
Then we decided to launch a three-year programme -- to travel to all those towns again and take photographs of the records and gravestones and memorials wherever possible, try to decipher them with the help of experts and then bring them into a book that will give a comprehensive picture of the European and Anglo Indian life in these three towns that were the first European settlements in north Malabar.
It was not easy. It was not an academic research with support of grants, but a labor of love undertaken because of our love for our past and our composite culture, with our own limited resources. There was something unique and compelling in those solitary gravestones and memorials that reminded you of a distant past, a past with all its glory and also its darker and bloodier sides; still that was what we had in our past. So we decided to take it up, before it was too late.
My young son Praful took the steering wheel of our four-seater Hyundai Xing and we took off again --with a camera. Dr John Roberts, who retired from Columbia University, and his friend Thomas Maida, an art director in New York, flew down to Malabar for a vacation and they too joined us in some of the trips. In addition to the field trips, Dr. John Roberts had to conduct extensive searches in libraries and archives-- like the OIOC records at British Library where the quarterly returns from Indian churches are kept, the IGI (International Genealogy Index) database at Salt Lake, US, and a number of university libraries with India collections. To cut a long story short, in an effort that continued for over a year, we were able to retrieve and record quite a lot--that later came out in the form of a book, Malabar:Christian Memorials 1737-1990, now released by South India Research Associates (SIRA), a voluntary network of scholars and researchers.
We received support from many-- like Dr Rafael Moreira, historian at New University of Lisbon, who read those 18th century Portuguese script on a set of three tombstones that lay buried in seashore sands at Holy Rosary, Henry Brownrigg of London who has travelled all over the Malabar coast in search of the old European burials and memorials for many decades, Dr K S Mathew, a Portuguese scholar of eminence in Malabar, Dr M G S Narayanan, historian and former chairman of Indian Council for Historical Research, Abdul Majeed, the friendly librarian at Calicut Archives, P Sudhakaran, the inquisitive reporter for Times of India in Cannanore who wrote some interesting newspaper stories on our work, and many others.
So the first volume of Malabar memorials is now out; then in the past two years we continued our work in the Nilgiri Hills and the southern parts of Malabar--from Calicut to Travancore, and Fort St.George, Madras. The work still remains a labor of love and a purely voluntary effort. But those travels are better told in a different story.
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