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Kolkata eyes graveyard tourism

kolkata Updated: Jul 26, 2008 14:12 IST
Sujoy Dhar
Sujoy Dhar
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The dead are an unlikely tourist attraction, but authorities in Kolkata are promoting the graveyards of India's former colonial capital to woo foreigners trying to trace their roots.

At one end of Park Street, lined on either sides with bars, night clubs and chic eateries, lies a walled cemetery with rows of mossy graves shaped like pyramids, pagodas and obelisks. Many of its occupants were interred during the British Raj.

A rising number of tourists, especially from Britain, who are looking for ancestors in this cemetery and a bigger one in the same neighbourhood have spurred the "tourism of the dead" drive.

"Graveyard tourism sounds gross but we want the graveyards to be part of the city's heritage tourism circuit," said Manab Mukherjee, tourism minister of West Bengal.

He said authorities were keen to promote the graveyards as a tourist draw similar to Highgate Cemetery in London or Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

And to make it easier for tourists, the Christian Burial Board (CBB), which runs four major cemeteries, has begun transferring the burial records of graveyards where many Britons were interred, some nearly 200 years ago, into a computer.

"An arduous process to digitise records of more than 100,000 burials and 20,000 graves has been undertaken so that the foreigners visiting the city to trace their ancestral roots can locate them at the click of a mouse," said Ranojoy Bose of CBB.

Finding grandfather

Every day, at least 20 foreigners visit the cemeteries in Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta and the capital of British-ruled India from 1772 until 1911.

The city, home to about 15 million people, bears vestiges of its British past through its grand Victorian architecture, buildings, churches and cemeteries.

Michael Grover, a middle-aged Briton who now lives in Australia, says he found his grandparents' graves in Kolkata.

"It was a great feeling," said Grover, whose grandfather was a sergeant in the British army in India.

Among the many tombs are those of famous Britons like William Jones, the educationist who founded the Asiatic Society, and unorthodox poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio.

People could search the digitised database using date of burial and, in more recent cases, names.

Arijit Mitra, whose firm is involved in the data transfer, says the process would be over by the end of the year.

"Tourists can locate the graves from abroad and plan their visits, unlike in the past when they had arrived here clueless and searched aimlessly," he said.