Looking down at the dead in Surat
The Graves of GujaratText and Images Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu
The lasting legacies of the Dutch’s time in 17th–18th-century India are most evident in the built heritage at their erstwhile ports of call along India’s coastline. No doubt the remains of forts, bastions, warehouses, and mansions are of unquestionable historical import. Yet, it is the ruins over remains of those who couldn’t make the homeward-bound Indiaman, which invite profuse poignancy for their serene, sepulchral splendour.

ELABORATE EDIFICES

The elaborate graves, tombs, obelisks and mausoleums in themselves present an interesting dichotomy. Though the Netherlands was experiencing its most golden period, ostentation of any sort was considered vulgar, to some a sin even. An increasingly Protestant Netherlands would have frowned upon such self-centred indulgences. That India was many maritime miles from the watchful gaze of the powers-that-be perhaps emboldened VOC aesthetes and their ‘disconsolate’ families to erect these splendid structures extant in Dutch cemeteries.

DIFFICULT TO IDENTIFY

Countless officials, traders, merchants, spouses, and children lie interred in tragic anonymity courtesy the vagaries of time. Natural reclamation and instances of apathy over four centuries have destroyed many records, gravestones, and epitaphs, leaving visitors with no recourse but to second-guess residents. Of the well-documented, less weather- and time-beaten funerary memorials, there are but a handful. Of these the red cenotaph of Jan Willem Hessing–an ambitious military man in the service of the Scindias–in Agra invites some attention. However, few occurrences of such extravaganza show up on the Coromandel Coast, and the flamboyance all but disappears by the time you hit the Malabar Coast. In Kochi’s sedate tomb-chests rest the tell-tale signs of a disapproving Church having finally caught up with an errant congregation.

The Ahmedabad graveyard

THE AHMEDABAD UNDERGROUND

Subdued sepulchral instincts are not something anyone can be guilty of charging the VOC in Gujarat with though, as I unearthed on a trip around the state not too long ago. Much to my monumental heritage-loving delight, the cemeteries here host very many impressive sarcophagi. They remain hidden from the average itinerant’s view unless you’re a graver, that is. I found the one in Ahmedabad with some difficulty despite assurances that the quaintly-named One Tree Hill is a well-known landmark. Set along a leafy ridge beside the
Kankaria Lake entrance across the road from Apsara Talkies, this tidy cluster is home to nearly 50 Dutch and Armenian graves. Other than an industrious gardener and a suspicious whistle-letting watchman who trailed
me, I was arguably the sole living being amidst the departed; of which the earliest went in 1642. While

many have gone to wrack and ruin and some were underway to the same fate, a few are still upright,
courtesy timely restoration. They are mostly unmarked excepting two gravestones which bear faint incised lettering identifying those interred there under. The site offers an undisturbed interlude from the world and stirs thoughts about the souls that may be wandering within its boundaries, restless for centuries in their longing for a country far across the continents.

Entrance to the Surat cemetery

SURAT’S SPLENDOURS

This tombstone tourist needed more and Surat’s cemetery provided it. Swarming with haunting beauties in all their Saracenic brilliance, it promised—indeed invited—to convert even the most soft-hearted into die-hard taphophilliacs. Juxtaposed by the much less impressive Armenian cemetery near the Kataragam Darwaza, the enclosure accessed via a typical Dutch gateway houses roughly the same number of graves as the one in Ahmedabad. Apart from the obvious grandeur in aesthetics, this one also had way more people: kite-flying kids, willow-wielding youth, casual co-visitors, and an on-site caretaker. The latter, though it was his day off, happily accompanied me around, sharing bits and bobs and pointing out germane stuff. He directed my attention to the oldest Armenian grave, of one Marinas who had passed on in 1579, and shooed away lurking loiterers simultaneously. A rather despondent mortuary chapel rose Phoenix-like from a sea of incised gravestones flush with the ground. “A man in his forties came every year with flowers for this one, used to sit for hours and cry,” the caretaker shared as we stared down at one with indecipherable characters impressed onto black granite. “He hasn’t now, for over two years.”

VINTAGE VAN RHEEDE

We strolled back towards the deceased Dutch; one
of who is Dircq van Adrichem, head of the Surat department from 1661–65. Under his stewardship the VOC was able with immense tact and patience to curry

Van Rheede's tomb

Aurangzeb. His cenotaph rests on a low square plinth, enclosed within arched columns and crowned by a pinnacle dome, and is at best modest. Especially when compared to the fine-featured, sophisticated and towering personalities of many of his anonymous neighbours. It is however the octagonal-shaped one of Baron Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede (died 1691), former Governor of Dutch Malabar, which truly qualifies as a funerary tour de force. Commissioned and paid for by his only daughter and heir, Francine, the handsome double-storied, domed structure with sturdy columns rises from a stepped plinth and has an encircling veranda. An intricately carved wooden door ushers you into a frescoed crypt with a flight of steps leading to an underground vault and another up to a benched parapet surmounted by a massive cupola. While peers and history may not have been kind to this top ranking VOC functionary, often criticised for his money spending habits, and believed to have been poisoned by other officials, his daughter evidently more than compensated for the ignominy, at least in the afterlife.

Van Rheede's tomb wall detail