GRAVE DIGGING

Rishi Majumder visits two of the city’s oldest European burial ground sites, and gauges where they stand today

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

The classical pillar at Madonna colony

The classical pillar at Madonna colony

   All the graves here are really old,” informs Rizwan. The 13-year-old and his mother, after his father’s demise, live with his Naani—a local bai—in Madonna Colony, Antop Hill. The colony was set up, post independence, on an ancient British grave yard. So, amidst cramped two-storied hutments and open gutters stands a classic stone pillar, with sculptured Roman motifs. The remains of a tombstone, found while digging a drain in one house, acts as floor stand for a makeshift roadside stall. It reads: “John Cowa… Who Died September 1…” Some testify to the adjoining year having read “1753”.

Abbas Akhtarkhavari at the Armenian section of the graveyard

Abbas Akhtarkhavari at the Armenian section of the graveyard

 
Abbas Akhtarkhavari, employed by the Baha’i Spiritual Assembly, maintains the nearly two centuries old Armenian cemetery between this settlement and another newer one. This burial ground lost 3,000 square feet to the other hutment group. “And was about to lose more, before Shaapoor Rowhani and Dr Aram Yegiazarian changed things,” says Akhtarkhavari. Rowhani, a Baha’i, owned Fountain Sizzlers at Fort. Dr Yegiazarian, an Armenian, ate there post-Sunday service at the Armenian Church. Both their graves lie in this cemetery. Their friendship sprouted the idea that the Baha’is should manage the graveyard of the dwindling Armenian community, keeping encroachers at bay, in return for shared space for Baha’i funerals.
   But old grave encroachments aren’t new. The destruction of Armenian and Baha’i cemeteries in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Iran has caused much outcry. In Mumbai, the grand Byzantine building that’s gone from being the Royal Albert Sailor’s Home to the Maharashtra Police Headquarters today, was built on the site of the city’s first British cemetery. Antop Hill was chosen as a site for Chinese, British, Armenian, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim cemeteries because it was uninhabited. Today, the city’s growth sheaths an underlying clash in the area between it’s most voiceless: the immigrant poor and the ‘departed’ dead.
   “In memory thoult cherished be/While a spark of life remains/Till the dawn I long to see/ when we both shall meet again,” reads a wistful epitaph on an Armenian grave, under a white marble cross with flower-and-leaf sculptures. “Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved,” spells a Baha’i reciprocal. Akhtarkhavari explains the different attitudes: “The Baha’is see this life as a ‘womb’ that people leave to go to God.” Another difference is that unlike the Christians, the Baha’is build vaults where they lower their coffin into the ground. “I’ve often created ‘double vaults’ to bury two family members vertically – with one lain to rest above or below a relative,” says Akhtarkhavari, as a boy carrying buckets of water (one of the colonies still lacks tap-water sanction) looks curiously over the cemetery wall. “But this isn’t tradition – it’s to solve the space problem.”
 

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/c8y3

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