The Grave-seekers of the Raj

“Oh a maple leaf, I wonder how that wound up here. They will not believe it back home in Canada,” says Henry S, as he clicks away in the grounds of the Kanpur Memorial Church, like a man on a mission. The ceaseless rain does not deter him. He is here, a thousand miles away from home, looking for the grave of his great- grandmother who died in 1857.

She was among the hundreds of British women who were killed during the siege of the city, then Cawnpore, in 1857. The Memorial Church, a sprawling Gothic structure, in the quiet cantonment area of Kanpur is a tribute to those who lost their lives in the uprising of Indian soldiers against their British masters. It is among Henry’s first pit stops today.

A pensive angel, with two palm leaves hung over her bosom, stands guard at the memorial and the 62-year-old is charmed by the familiar insignia all around. It reminds him of home. I don’t have the heart to tell him that it is, most probably, an artist’s impression of the Chinar leaf, a motif which can be found across Indian monuments, from the Taj Mahal to obscure temples strewn around the countryside.

The middle-aged man, who proudly describes himself as a “colonial product”, has spent the past year researching the events that led up to the death of his foremother. “Never in the Empire’s history were women butchered like this, only here you know,” he says, his voice angry, his expression one of disgust.

Tracking the dead of the Bibighar massacre has been an emotional, often difficult journey. During the Siege of Cawnpore, hundreds of British women and children were held hostage in a building, which was locally known as Bibighar. As the British fought their way into the town and the Indian rebels ceded, as a parting shot, the occupants of Bibighar were put to death.

The graves of the deceased are hard to find. Most of the women and children, who were killed in the controversial incident, were consigned to a dry well. The well itself has been razed to the ground and the spot stands in a park, which is dotted by statues of lesser-known figures from the Indian independence struggle.

Incidentally, the park is named after Nana Rao, the man who allegedly signed the death warrant of the unarmed women. The irony is not lost on Henry.

His family had moved from Britain to Canada, a more promising Commonwealth than India, while he was still a child. He has made this journey alone. It is a long-lost connection he is desperate to find.

And there are many like him. Every year, they descend on the memorial, the Gora Qabristan and other nameless ruins, seeking the final resting place of loved ones lost during the Raj.

The Gora Qabristan of Kanpur is an important pit stop in the itineraries of the grave-seekers.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Kanpur and Shimla are part of the genealogy tourism trail, which sees descendants of the Empire looking for their lost legacies in India. Both these former bastions of the British are where family histories now lie covered in Indian soil. For many, Kanpur, one of the first outposts of the East India Company and the setting of one of the fiercest battles between the imperial masters and their rebelling subjects, is where many searches begin and end.

Kanpur, the urban sprawl of haphazard buildings and serpentine lanes, is very different from the Cawnpore left behind by the British. This dichotomy confuses all visitors, especially those who are looking for a long-forgotten connection in a place where lines between the past and present are not clear.

But Valmay Young, also on a quest like Henry, felt at ease in these contradictions. Having two sides felt natural to her. Young’s mother was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1940s. The Anglo-Indian family traces back its roots to one Lewis Andrew Collett, who came to the promising colony in the 1790s and settled down with a Maharashtrian woman. The family travelled around a lot and left traces all over northern India where they were born, baptised, worked, and died.

Valmay grew up with her mother recounting stories of her days as a child in India. Her grandmother, who was born in Jabalpur, told a young Valmay, “My feet are here, but my heart is in India.” And Valmay grew up between these two worlds – one dreamed up from the remnants of old memories and a real one, which was universes apart from the former. So when she finally landed in Kanpur in September last year, with her mother and twenty-something son, the duality did not confuse her.

The Memorial Church is where we run into Henry S, whose great grandmother was killed at Bibighar

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Valmay came looking for one of her ancestresses, Ann Matilda Robertson, who was born in Kanpur and died here. Her father Charles Duncan Robertson, who was a hospital steward, died of a sudden illness in 1827. He never saw the daughter who was born soon after. Both father and daughter lie buried somewhere in the many cemeteries that dot the city, some preserved and marked, others among the nameless ruins which are everywhere in Kanpur.

Valmay chronicled her journey online, the churches, the graveyards, and the one place which is on the itinerary of every ancestor trail in the country, the Gora Qabristan of Kanpur.

The graveyard has many names — Portuguese cemetery, Katchery shamshaan, or simply ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) office. The current residents of the plot include a large family of underfed dogs and two equally scrawny maintenance men.

The grave-seekers come during the tourist season, when the messy deluges and the hot days have given way to early winters. Next door, at the ASI office, Manoj Kumar Verma, a senior conservationist, estimates the number of graves to be around 400. From the early 19th century to the fateful years around 1857, which saw the cemeteries fill up, all those who never got back home are interned here. From tiny tombstones dedicated to infants with no names to elaborate vaults, they are all lined up here.

Neither Valmay nor Henry found what they were looking for. Valmay left an online trail – maps, images, and contacts – for those who were sure to follow her in this journey. All the Instagram posts were lovingly hashtagged #IncredibleIndia.

Henry, who continues to live the nightmare of the Bibighar massacre, will probably never find India incredible. And neither will he find closure. What he may find instead, is that elusive emotion comes from an acceptance of history and the passage of time. And that will have to be enough.