Updated: March 20, 2021 7:49:50 am
A plant has come out of the cracks on James Cummins’ grave in Nicholson Cemetery at Kashmere Gate. The 26-year-old telegraph master was killed by lightning on July 28, 1874, in Delhi, leaving behind “a widow and infant daughter to bewail their loss”.
A few steps ahead, a neem tree stands between two graves, obscuring them with dry yellow leaves that are hiding broken marble and bricks sinking into the ground.
At the northern end of the cemetery, dotted with broken headstones, wilting and overgrown vegetation, is the grave of Alexander William Murray.
A lieutenant in the 42nd Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, Murray “fell whilst encouraging his men to follow his own brave example on 14th September 1857” during the Siege of Delhi.
Bougainvillea vines droop over pieces of red sandstone on his grave that are falling apart, exposing the cement underneath.
A recent documentation of the cemetery by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a non-profit, found over 2,400 historical graves dating back upto 1857.
“Almost 99% of graves are in very poor condition here,” said Ajay Kumar, project director at the Delhi chapter of INTACH. “It may be bitter, but this place and the graves here are still part of our history.”
On August 15, 2022, India will complete 75 years of Independ-ence, for which celebrations have already begun in Delhi, 75 weeks in advance. The Central government has formed a committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to plan activities for marking the occasion.
Nicholson Cemetery’s establishment is linked with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which is considered the first war of Independence. The cemetery came up when the need for a burial place increased in Delhi, which was captured by rebel troops from Meerut and witnessed a series of battles over the summer of 1857. It was conquered again by the British in September 1857, as per INTACH.
The cemetery is named after Brigadier-General John Nicholson, who was wounded during the storming of Kashmere Gate and died a few days later on September 23, 1857. His grave is near the entrance, protected by an iron grill and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Other historical graves in the cemetery do not have the ASI’s protection tag, the reason behind which was not answered by a spokesperson of the agency, and have therefore suffered significant damage overtime due to neglect.
In 2018, INTACH started making a detailed project report for restoration of the place, funded by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA). The estimated total cost of the project came up to Rs 5.8 crore. As a pilot, about 8-10 graves were restored, said Kumar from INTACH, including that of Imre Schwaiger, an art-collector from Hungary, his wife Nelly and their son Leonard, who were buried together.
Seven thick volumes of books detailing each grave, the repairs required and how the project should be taken forward was also made. However, lack of funds has now brought operations to a close.
BACSA’s website states that the estimated project costs are beyond its resources. Denis Love, projects coordinator at BACSA, said, “We and INTACH are considering further work, and are in touch with the Delhi Cemeteries Committee. BACSA is a small UK charity supported by its members… in the case of the Nicholson Cemetery, any further conservation will depend on the generosity of more donors.”
Swapna Liddle, convenor of INTACH-Delhi, said, “The cemetery is an important cultural place and has a huge potential for tourism. Cemeteries also serve as a public space, which is something we should recognise.”
Besides the historical graves, which includes British soldiers and civilians, the 8.8 acre Nicholson Cemetery is also a resting place of Indians, which include many recent burials. These graves are segregated from the old section and are maintained from the funds provided by families of the deceased to the Delhi Cemeteries Committee.
Eugene Ratnam, secretary of the Committee, said they cannot take up restoration of the historical graves on their own due to financial limitations, except clearing the vegetation once in a year on All Souls’ Day.
He said the British High Commission has taken initiative in the past to better maintain the cemetery but over time the measures on ground have reduced. He also said that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on request of surviving family members of British personnel buried here, have relocated a few graves to the Delhi War Cemetery.
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