A 7,000km journey in search of an ancestor’s final resting place ended in a derelict Nainital cemetery overrun by undergrowth for Susie Gilbert of Britain. But her visit to a cemetery in Uttarakhand’s lake town opened a window of hope for British-era burial sites.
Gilbert shared pictures and her experience through a Facebook group, Nainital Nostalgia, which highlighted the neglected cemeteries. She was disappointed and quite naturally so because graves help establish an emotional bond with long-lost loved ones.
“This is the Christian Cemetery on The Bhowali Road out of Nainital. I came here in 2011 looking for my Great Great Grandmother’s grave. (Emily Eliza Lewis). She died in 1897. I searched to no avail with my son (but amazingly found the grave later at the cemetery on The Kaladunghi Road) ... this is an extract from my diary,” she posted.
The pictures and posts led Shikha Chaki, another member of the Facebook group, to approach a UK-based non-profit, the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA).
BACSA honorary secretary Peter Boon responded and the organization has now offered help to restore the British burial grounds in Nainital and shown similar interest in the Camel’s Back cemetery of Mussoorie.
According to British Library records, five cemeteries existed in Nainital, a Raj-era summer retreat. British soldiers, officials and members from the Christian community were buried there.
At present, only two graveyards exist — one along Kaladhungi Road and another at Pines, which was meant for British soldiers but lost its exclusivity after Independence. Squatters have taken over a couple of cemeteries at Anyarpata and Sukhatal while a landslide buried the one at Baliyanala.
“The growing local interest in the heritage of the old European cemeteries in India is a welcome development. BACSA is ready to support committed groups and communities wishing to conserve their historic sites worthy of preservation,” Boon told Hindustan Times via email.
He said the organization is already supporting the conservation of the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, the Nishatganj Cemetery in Lucknow and the Skinner graves at St James’s Church in Delhi.
According to BACSA, nearly two million people of European-origin lie buried in the Indian subcontinent.
The effort could compliment the state tourism department’s plan to promote tourism around noteworthy British-era personalities who lived, died and lay buried in the hill state.
“But details of the plan are still being worked out,” said AK Dwivedi, additional director (tourism).