Ghosts of Empire – Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

IMG_5918One way of looking at this evocative, if mildly disturbing, place is as a hidden enclave populated with the ghosts of colonialism. Situated right in the middle of Kolkata, tucked away purdah-like from the mayhem of the city streets, the Park Street Cemetery seems like another world. It really is another world: one in which time has coalesced to leave a thick patina on the colonnades and obelisks that commemorate the colonists who created this tropical city in their own image. The colonials mostly died young – easy victims of the disease-ridden, febrile climate that characterised this distant outpost of the East India Company. In true Victorian manner, those who were unfortunate enough to die young and never be able to return to their temperate homeland were interred here in magnificent mausoleums among lush, very un-British vegetation – a tropical Highgate transposed a quarter-way round the world. The cemetery is reputed to be the largest Old World 19th-century Christian graveyard outside Europe. It is also one of the earliest non-church cemeteries, dating from the 1767 and built like much of Kolkata/Calcutta on low, marshy ground. The overall effect is one of Victorian Gothic, although there are also some notable flourishes of Indo-Saracenic vernacular that reflect the influence of Hindu temple architecture. IMG_5919Arriving at the gatehouse my name is recorded in a ledger by a lugubrious guard, an action that in itself carries the hint of entering some sort of forbidden zone, a place where the living are only tolerated and should not outstay their welcome. The cemetery seems largely deserted of visitors, although I do inadvertently stumble across a spot of surreptitious man-on-man action taking place in the deep shade of one of the tombs. Despite the funerary setting, there is nothing occult at work here, and I conclude that the young men are simply taking advantage of the privacy offered by the cemetery in this most crowded of all India’s overflowing mega cities. There are signs prohibiting ‘committing nuisance’ attached to some of the trees and I wonder if this is a warning against this sort of clandestine liaison, although in India the expression is usually a euphemism for public urination. IMG_5780There are, of course, those who take full advantage of the cemetery’s concentrated occult power – fakirs who use it for training apprentices by making them spend the night here alone, an experience that could never be a comfortable one however much one was inured to the idea of djinns being hyperactive after dark. Even for hard-nosed rationalists, the sense of the numinous here is quite tangible, and the cemetery is without doubt a thoroughly spooky place. This is true even in broad daylight when the taxi horns and traffic thrum from the manic thoroughfare of Mother Teresa Sarani (formerly Park Street; before that, Burial Ground Road) cuts through the trees to provide a background drone for the tuneless squawks of the urban crows and parakeets that loiter here. IMG_5917Not requiring of any such thaumaturgic rite of passage, a short afternoon visit suits me just fine. I am left alone with just the crows for company – dark portentous forms that swirl and scatter in the trees above, occasionally coming down to perch scurrilously on the sarcophagi as if they were extras from an Edgar Allen Poe film adaptation. Indeed, this would be the perfect location for a Gothic horror film, especially one that required a steamy colonial setting. Park Street Cemetery is the sort of place where dead souls rising from the ground can seem a distinct possibility – an eerie realm where the hubris of the Raj confronted its own vulnerability and the sad ghosts of empire still linger. IMG_5784IMG_5920

Kyrgyz Graveyards

IMG_8525You see them everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. From afar they resemble hillside villages of mud-brick dwellings but a closer look reveals them to be cemeteries. Usually located a little way outside a village, sometimes on top of a low bluff, they are often more impressive than the villages they serve. With a mixture of mud-brick, shrine-like tombs, gravestones with etched images of the deceased, and Islamic crescent moons intermixed with communist five-pointed stars, they represent an odd amalgam of funerary styles. What makes them unmistakably Kyrgyz, though, are the large, wrought-iron, yurt structures that mark many of the graves.

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A nomadic people until well into the 20th century, the Kyrgyz used to be buried without fuss wherever they died. Although important nobles and warriors were sometimes honoured with showy mausoleums, most Kyrgyz graves were simple and basic. However, when this nomadic lifestyle was forcibly abandoned during the Soviet period the erection of large memorials to the dead started to become fashionable with the newly sedentary Kyrgyz. It may seem ironic that a wandering people like the Kyrgyz should choose such an earth-bound dwelling after death but a new practice emerged in the 1930s of erecting monuments that recalled their former nomadic lifestyle. As well as the wrought-iron yurt frames that reflected nostalgia for the old way of life, etched portraits – a Russian custom – also started to feature on gravestones. Traces of an altogether more ancient culture became prevalent too: the tradition of pre-Islamic shamanism in which antlers, animal skulls and horses’ tails are used to decorate tombs.

IMG_8530In Kyrgyz graveyards disparate traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, communist – intermingle freely. Gently crumbling as their mud-brick mausoleums slowly decay back into the earth, such cemeteries can be seen far and wide in this central Asian country. Some of the finest are those that can be seen in villages along the Suusamyr Valley in Chui Province. The photos here were taken in two villages in this isolated valley – Kyzyl-Oi and Suusamayr.

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There will be more on graveyards and many other aspects of Kyrgyz culture in the forthcoming third edition of my book Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide, which will be published early next year.

More information on Kyrgyzstan, including photographs and extracts from the forthcoming book, is available on the Kyrgyzstan page of the Bradt website.

Gloomy Sunday

It is Sunday in Edinburgh and the city streets are filled with Frenchmen in blue shirts and black berets all come for the Six Nations rugby match against Scotland at Murrayfield stadium. Preferring the game that favours a more spherical ball it seems like a good opportunity to take the train to Glasgow for the day.

The previous day, on our mentioning Scotland’s largest city, Colin, our bed and breakfast host, remarked, “Well, I’m Edinburgh man so I’m biased but I think Glasgow makes the most of what it’s got to be fair.” It is no secret – Edinburgh and Glasgow may be less than 50 miles apart – one hour on the train – but there is a cultural gulf between the two cities. Or so they would have you believe: rough, working class Glasgow versus genteel, middle-class Edinburgh; Billy Connolly versus Miss Jean Brodie; deep-fried pizza versus herb-infused foccacio. This is, of course, a misleading generalisation but it cannot be denied that the two cities do have a markedly different feel. Edinburgh is no longer ‘Auld Reekie’ but a stylish European capital with a beautiful skyline. Glasgow, on the other hand, remains a Victorian city par excellence – famously, the second city of the British Empire. While Edinburgh seems to thrive on its glorious past and embody the spirit of the Georgian Enlightenment, Glasgow, like Manchester and Sheffield over the border in England, is a place in post-industrial transition, a city trying to find its rightful place in the 21st century. Despite its City of Culture makeover a decade or so ago, Glasgow still manages to look a bit threadbare around the edges in a way that central Edinburgh does not. This is only part of the picture though – take a bus out to one of the outlying ‘schemes’ in either metropolis and peripheral Edinburgh looks every bit as unattractive and dysfunctional as the wastelands of outer Glasgow.

In Glasgow, the Willow Tearooms still operates in the city centre, a working shrine to the distinctive secessionist style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the city’s most famous sons. The Glasgow School of Art designed by Mackintosh when he worked as an architect in the city lies just around the corner. The ‘Room de Luxe’ at the top of the stairs is a delight – elegant high-backed chairs, roses in vases and a view through stained glass windows down onto Sauchiehall Street below.  The window glass (original we are told) distorts a little, affording a slightly twisted view of a boarded-up Pound-Mart store opposite, humdrum 1960s and peeling paint. A solitary busker, clearly audible from the tearoom, plays the trumpet to passers-by, belting out jazz standards like Summertime in fast rotation. But summertime it is not – the day is dreich and chilly, the sky the colour of cold porridge – Gloomy Sunday might be a more apposite choice.

A mile or so to the east, beyond Queen Street Station and George Square with its Modern Art Gallery, St Mungo’s Cathedral sits next door to the Royal Infirmary, a proximity that is surely no mere coincidence. Beyond the dark glowering sandstone of the cathedral and across a footbridge (‘the Bridge of Sighs’ utilised by funeral processions) lies the Necropolis – Glasgow’s city of the dead. The most obvious monument, looming high on a Doric column at the top of the hill is a memorial to John Knox, the Protestant reformer but the first that we pass on the winding road uphill is a monument to William Miller, ‘The Laureate of the Nursery’ responsible for the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie, which was originally written in Scots:

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Upstairs and doonstairs, in his nichtgoon,
Tirlin’ at the window, cryin’ at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed? For it’s now ten o’clock.”

We climb the path to the top. Low cloud has drained all colour from the view apart from that of the glowing rust brown of the neo-Norman Monteath mausoleum, which brings to mind an Armenian church but was apparently modelled on the Knights Templar Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Further up, the William Rae Wilson mausoleum is decidedly Moorish, a fitting monument to someone who travelled and wrote about the Middle East. Next to this, the entrance of the Graeco-Egyptian mausoleum of John Houldsworth is flanked by stern white angels, Hope and Charity, while Faith lies within glowing almost praternaturally in the gloom.

The view is the thing here. From the vantage point of the Necropolis it is easier to grasp the scale of Scotland’s largest city, even on a dull day such as this. The concrete, brick and stone of the city centre sprawls to the west beyond St Mungo’s spire and buttresses. Elsewhere, the land dips and rises gently to trace the valleys of Glasgow’s rivers, the Clyde and Kelvin. High-rise housing schemes dot the horizon east and north, an architectural echo of the serried ranks of tombs that line the Necropolis thoroughfares – a world of folk that once belonged to Glasgow’s inner city but now find themselves detached and isolated. If you believe the clichéd image, a realm of ne’er do wells – bampots, malkies, and chiv-wielding neds – but also pensioners, terminally unemployed steel workers, young single mothers and beleaguered immigrants. Whatever the reality, it is a long way from the fancy designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and certainly no place for Wee Willie to wander alone at night.

Heading back to Edinburgh our train squeezes past another returning to Glasgow at Croy station. Not quite as crowded as those we saw heading for Edinburgh on the way there, its carriages are full of middle-aged men in kilts and Scotland rugby shirts. They look somewhat subdued – clearly Scotland has lost the rugby.