If you look at old maps of Calcutta, you will find much that has changed. Many roads aren’t how they used to be, buildings have vanished, ponds have been filled up, and what used to be open fields have become apartment blocks. (Also, the city is now known as Kolkata). But one thing, in particular, makes me very curious: cemeteries that seem to have vanished. Either they are in the old maps and not in the new ones, or I find graves and tombs in all kinds of odd places in the city. Either people don’t know, or they don’t notice the tombs. These are the invisible cemeteries of Calcutta, hiding in plain sight. How many such cemeteries are there? You’d be surprised to know.
The North Park Street Cemetery has disappeared entirely, save for one grave—the Robertson family tomb. The cemetery was cleared in 1953 and the land is currently occupied by the Assembly of God Church and the Mercy Hospital. But the map of Calcutta prepared by Frederick Walter Simms in 1847 identifies two more cemeteries at this end of Park Street. Located on the south-western corner of the North Park Street Cemetery was the Mission Cemetery, which has also disappeared. Further north was the small French cemetery, which is now the site of the Apeejay School. One tombstone that has been preserved is that of Anne Kiernander, wife of the Swede, Johann Zachariah Kiernander, who was the first protestant missionary to Bengal. Her tombstone is inside the Assembly of God Church building and has been cemented into a wall. Among the tombs lost when the French cemetery was razed was that of Josephine Tiretta, wife of town planner Eduardo Tiretta, after whom Tiretti Bazar is named. Her tombstone cannot be located, although several tombstones from the French cemetery are now on the walls of the South Park Street Cemetery.
Nazrul Mancha, adjacent to the Dhakuria Lake or Rabindra Sarobar, is the venue for concerts such as the Dover Lane Music Conference. Rabindra Sarobar remains one of the most poorly documented areas of Calcutta and information about its history is sketchy at best. The lake was excavated in 1920 by the Calcutta Improvement Trust under the leadership of Cecil Henry Bompas, which led to it being initially named Bompas Lake.
What is Nazrul Mancha today began as an open-air amphitheatre that was created in the 1970s. This was later covered to allow performances during the monsoon season and has recently been air-conditioned. But little is known of what the area was like before the lake was excavated.
The mosque on an island predates the lake itself and old maps point to a Muslim cemetery in the area.
Somnath Ghosh, a retired bank employee, is a voracious reader, has travelled the world, and is something of an authority when it comes to old Calcutta. “I found in several maps that the plot of land where Nazrul Mancha stands today was a Mohammedan Burial Ground,” Ghosh babu confirmed, “at this moment I can refer to the Map No. 40 of the atlas ‘Calcutta in 45 Sections’ published by Map & Chart Sales Concern, 66 College Street.”
Only one grave from that cemetery now remains. As one enters Nazrul Mancha auditorium from the artist’s entrance to the right—near the ladies’ toilet, next to a large tree—is what looks like a “bedi” or platform, covered in marble. This is, in fact, the sole surviving grave. No information is available about who was buried there and why the grave was preserved. It could have something to do with the family of Saif Ahmed, which owns the Lake Mosque, but there is no evidence for that. Most young people who visit Nazrul Mancha for a college fest or rock concert have seen the grave but are probably unaware of what they are looking at.
The only record of the Jews Burial Ground on Colootolla Street (now Maulana Shaukat Ali Street) is found in the famous Simms map of Calcutta, which is for survey years 1847-49. The burial ground is to the east of the corner of Harinbari 1st Lane and Colootolla Street, one building over. But a Google maps image reveals that the spot currently has a building. I went down there to have a look with my friend Iftekhar Ehsaan of Calcutta Walks and found that there was nothing remaining of the old cemetery. The building that had taken its place was a commercial one, locally known as Kabristan Bazar, meaning cemetery market. Old timers remembered a cemetery being there but say that it was cleared and the land was acquired by the current owner on a 99-year lease. But that is where the trail ends. Calcutta’s Jewish Board has no records whatsoever of this cemetery and I haven’t managed to find out who it was that leased out the cemetery’s land.
The so-called “Jews Burying Ground” on 24 UC Banerjee road is surprisingly well-maintained and almost completely unknown. The only known documentation of this was done by Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah for his book On The Banks of the Ganga: The Sojourn of the Jews in Calcutta. Musleah found seven graves, of which two were those of children. All the graves remain in good shape, but what was once a cemetery is now the courtyard of a man’s house. The man and his family offer daily prayers at the graves in the Hindu fashion, with marigold flowers and incense sticks!
“I met some persons who were eyewitnesses of horrible scenes of human bones coming out of the ground while excavating for building foundations, resulting in panicky masons refusing to work anymore,” Ghosh told me. “Sukumar Sen mentions in his book Diner Pare Din Je Gelo that the entire area around Hari Nath Dey Road and Yogipara Lane was a kabar khana (cemetery).”
Armed with this tantalising piece of information, I visited Hari Nath Dey Road and found that he was absolutely correct. The sole surviving grave from this cemetery is now the mazaar (mausoleum) of Hazrat Mehtab Ali Shah Baba, located at the crossing of Hari Nath Dey Road and Yogipara Lane. Local Muslims are aware that the area was once a cemetery, but cannot provide any more details about the man, Mehtab Ali Shah, or when he died. It is likely that the villages in the area were all originally Muslim populated. Even today, there are several old mosques in the area and the Nakhoda Kabristan, where freedom fighter Maulana Azad’s father is buried, is also close by.
One of the strangest cases is that of the Pir Baba Ka Darga, located under the Narkeldanga railway tracks. Old maps prove that the tracks were built over what was once a Muslim cemetery. Local legend says that no matter how hard the engineers tried, a particular portion of the track that was elevated above a street, would keep collapsing. Then a local man told them that a certain Pir, or holy man, was buried right under the spot where they were having trouble, and until his memory was honoured in some way, the bridge would never be completed. The engineers, being God- (and deadline) fearing men, built a recess right into the wall of the tunnel under the track marking this spot. The tracks held, and all was well.
Over time, that little recess has become the object of some serious veneration, and in a touching demonstration of communal harmony, the spot now contains both Hindu and Muslim religious symbols and people of both faiths worship there. The Pir Baba’s real name is not known. Neither is anything known about his life or when he died. All I could find out from locals was that his Urs, or festival, was on July 15 and attracted a large crowd.
Throughout the day, people pass by the little shrine, often stopping to leave offerings of sweets and pouring coconut water into a hole built into the recess. The Baba, it is said, grants wishes. I was told that a woman who had been childless for many years was blessed with a little bundle of joy after praying to him. The lord works in mysterious ways!
I had noticed a grave smack in the middle of the Kona Expressway while returning to Kolkata. Somnath Ghosh confirmed my findings: “While laying Kona Expressway in Howrah at the junction of Currie Road near Padmapukur railway station, work was stopped for a big kabar khana. A few tombs have been allowed to stay in the middle of the expressway.” I found just one tomb and was surprised to see that it was fairly recent. The tomb, which is in the middle of the Kona Expressway, near the crossing of Currie Road (spelt Carry road in Google Maps), is of one Marhum Sheikh Ishaq Ali. The tombstone mentions that he died on Sept. 15, 1972. It isn’t surprising that the grave is that recent because so is the Kona Expressway.
It was once a narrow local road, which was widened and realigned to carry traffic from the Vidyasagar Setu that only opened in 1992.
However, what made this particular grave special enough to be preserved is unknown. It is completely covered in marble and is at a lower level than the surrounding road. Locals throw money on it, which would mean that they consider Sheikh Ishaq Ali to be some sort of holy man.
The Kaseabagan Muslim Cemetery has disappeared entirely. In its place stands Woodburn Park and the Calcutta South Club. Thankfully, a detailed record of it is available in P. Thankappan Nair’s book A History of Calcutta’s Streets. The cemetery “was given as a wakf (an endowment) to the Muhammadan community by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Oudh,” writes Nair. “It was closed in July 1858 on sanitary grounds and the commissioners provided another cemetery at Tiljola, at a cost of Rs4,272”. In 1888, the Muslim Burial Board approached the chairman of the corporation to demand that the old cemetery be saved from encroachment and preserved, and ultimately in 1903, a portion of the land was handed over to the corporation to be converted to Woodburn Park, named after Sir John Woodburn KCSI, lieutenant-governor of Bengal between 1898 and 1902. The interesting thing is that the colonial government in 1901 sued a certain Fazlar Rahman, who was, it would seem, illegally occupying a portion of the land. The suit was compromised and Fazlar was left in possession of 12 bighas (four bighas is equivalent to an acre) of the land. Woodburn Park occupies 19.5 bighas. The cemetery was originally 37 bighas. It doesn’t add up, does it? And how did South Club get into this? Haven’t the foggiest, old chap!
Does an abandoned Hindu cremation ground belong on a list of abandoned cemeteries? It does if it contains tombs! I discovered the Tarpan Ghat Shoshaan quite by accident. I was in Pran Krishna Chandra Lane photographing the Kamarghat Dwadosh Shibmandir, when locals approached me and volunteered to show me around.
Tarpan Ghat Shoshaan is located right next to the Tolly Canal, which is also known as the Adi Ganga since this was the original course of River Ganges. All along the Adi Ganga, there are temples and crematoriums, including the Keoratala and Shiriti crematoriums, which are modern and active.
Tarpan Ghat Shoshaan, locals say, had been abandoned for a long time. But it was a favourite with tantriks, or practitioners of the esoteric Hindu ritualism called Tantra, who would use the space for meditation. Several of these tantriks are buried within the premises. But don’t Hindus burn their dead? Not all of them, apparently. Sadhus, holy men and ascetics are often buried and that too in a seated position, which explains why the markers on their tombs are square and not rectangular. The crematorium premises have been walled off by locals to save the land from squatters and it is currently used for social functions and marriages. There are two temples dedicated to the Goddess Kali within the premises, and one of them has an actual human skull at the feet of the idol.