‘Pompous Graves’ – A heritage walk through South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

Anirban Bhadra, author of the BACSA publication ‘Pompous Graves’ recently led a very successful heritage walk through South Park Street Cemetery, organised by Ms Vibha Mitra from Own the Past.

Here Anirban describes the reactions of his ‘fellow countrymen’ to the tour, and explains his choice of the word ‘Pompous’ in the book title.

Pompous Graves, South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta)
South Park Street Cemetery: Anirban talking to the heritage walk group
(Photo: Mr Harakh B Shah, 23 Mar 2024)

‘In the past few years, heritage walks have become a common sight in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and there are various organisations and individuals offering such guided tours. Recently Ms. Vibha Mitra from one such group, namely Own The Past (OTP), invited me to publicise my book Pompous Graves: A History of the Park Street Cemeteries of Calcutta (BACSA: London, 2023) with her group through a book-reading session and a walkthrough of the South Park Street Cemetery – the very locus of the book.

I promptly accepted the offer since it was a golden opportunity to talk about my research to a wider audience, share my thoughts with them, and to get to know fellow history-enthusiasts.

Pompous Graves in South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta)
Some thought-provoking questions, and answers
(Photo: Ms Vibha Mitra, 23 Mar 2024)

During the advertising for the event, a few people were curious about the reason behind my usage of ‘Pompous’ in the book title – in their opinion, a disrespectful act. For clarification, the phrase is borrowed from the following lines of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall (1658) – the very lines also invoked by Lord Radcliffe during his 1947 visit to South Park Street:

‘Man is a noble animal,
Splendid in ashes,
And pompous in the grave’

Anyone who has been to the cemetery once will undoubtedly approve of the usage, and this does not necessarily imply disrespect for the departed.

The event took place on Saturday, 23rd March 2024 at South Park Street at 8 am (in order to avoid the heat of the approaching Indian summer). OTP had targeted for at least 20 people, but the next day being Holi, many people were away on holidays. 11 people, ranging from youngsters to senior citizens, had signed up and attended the event.

Although I have had the opportunity to accompany foreign tourists a few times prior to this (thanks to BACSA), this was my first time leading a group of people who were my own countrymen. The main attraction was that every attendee was to receive a complimentary signed copy of Pompous Graves and in the course of storytelling, I was to read out parts from the book for the sake of illustration.

I had an excellent time. One thing was different in today’s walk: we seldom talked about any celebrity buried or their feats, although as a rule, we did pay a visit to some of their tombs. The main focus remained largely on the cemetery and its numerous aspects: its historical and cultural significance, the architecture of the tombs, the monumental tomb culture, Calcutta’s European funerals and the undertakers, and so on. The attendees were amazed, satisfied and genuinely interested in the talk. They actively interacted with questions, such as why there are no crosses in this Christian cemetery etc, which I tried my best to answer.

The session lasted for more than one and a half hours. In the end, they congratulated me for working hard on the book, which I believe is one of the greatest achievements on an author’s part, and this does give new meaning and energy to my work. Their first impression of the book is favourable and encouraging.

Pompous Graves, South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta)
The group, with their signed copies of ‘Pompous Graves’
(Photo: Ms Vibha Mitra, 23 Mar 2024)

Finally, after signing the copies, we called it a day and said our goodbyes. Ms. Mitra looks forward to having some more walks like this one in the ensuing months, including one specifically for school kids, which I think will be a rewarding experience too.’

Anirban Bhadra

Ed. note: ‘But man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature’

Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia
Title page of Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, 1658

A survey of ancient and current burial and funerary customs, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk, was written in 1658 by Thomas Browne, after the discovery of around 40 Anglo-Saxon burial pots in Norfolk. (Greek ‘ὑδρία’ (hydria) – large pot, urn; ‘τάφος’ (taphos) – tomb).

Lord Radcliffe visited ‘the old British cemetery off Park Street in Calcutta’ in 1947. Extracts from his talk (recalling Browne’s words), were broadcast on 28 September 1947, and printed 30 years later in the first issue of Chowkidar, Vol 1 No. 1, September 1977.

A review of Anirban Bhadra’s book ‘Pompous Graves – A History of the Park Street cemeteries of Calcutta’ (ISBN 978 0 907799 95 5) appeared in the Autumn 2023 issue of Chowkidar, Vol 16 No. 6. Copies of the book, which is now in its second print run, may be purchased through the Shop facility on the BACSA website.

Rachel Magowan