What a forlorn spot - a sprawling, semi-derelict graveyard in a forgotten corner of Chennai. This is St Mary's cemetery - first used as a European burial ground in the 1760s, and still put to use occasionally for fresh interments.
This is the cemetery linked to St Mary's church in Fort, which dates from 1680 and is reputed to be the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. The initial cemetery - in a guava garden much closer to the church - was cleared to improve the fort's defence against French incursion.
This more distant spot - it's in an area called Island and is owned by the Indian army - was established in 1763 and was the main burial spot for the more wealthy and influential Europeans in what was then Madras for a few generations. By the 1850s, some much grander churches had been built and the prestige of St Mary's dwindled - and the number of burials here started to diminish accordingly.
These photographs don't fully reveal just how overgrown and unkempt this cemetery has become. It's used occasionally for film scenes - I would imagine for horror movies. It really is a spooky place. Click on the video and see for yourself -
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It's striking how many of the graves are of children, and how few of the adults lived beyond fifty. There was nothing glorious about Empire - either for its agents or its victims.
Tucked away in a corner of the cemetery are two beautifully tended Commonwealth war graves - what a striking contrast to the rest of the graveyard, a wilderness where the memorials are slowly crumbling away or being consumed by shrubs and creepers.
The smaller of these war graves is for the dead of the First World War. This is the larger plot, largely for those who died in 1939-45 -
Walking along the silent ranks of gravestones, I can't help wondering about the tragedies and personal heartbreaks concealed behind the inscriptions -
Service men from West Africa who met their deaths in South India ... a soldier who died in a shark attack while swimming in the sea off Fort ... those who were deeply mourned by their family ... those whose names are entirely unadorned.
What a terrible thing war is!
Although the cemetery is vast, it's not marked even on the most detailed online map - but the red marker gives an indication of its location. It's not too far from Chennai Central station. The caretaker lives with his family in the shack just inside the cemetery - he'll let you in and if necessary unlock the war graves plots.
Finally a peek into the cemetery! We lived in Chennai from 2011-2004 and often visited St. Mary's Church . Unfortunately we were never able to access the cemetery although we visited many British cemeteries all over the sub-continent. Most of them, of course, untended and overgrown but with their very own mystery and drama. So glad you had the opportunity to visit and then to share your experience with Radio 4 listeners!
This is wonderful, thank you for posting this. Someone I've been researching for years is buried here, and I hope to make it from Seattle to visit someday. Now I know where to go! Thanks!!!
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