"Whose graves these are I think I know. Their homes were in a faraway land though; They will not see me stopping here To watch as age wash over their bones..."
At the corner of BBD Bagh’s Kiran Shankar Ray Road and Council House Street, not too far from Raj Bhavan, stands Kolkata’s third oldest church — St John’s Church. Let those rosy yellow walls and parked sleek cars not fool you — this place holds bones and memories from the 1600s.
Walk in through those tall iron gates on a lazy, late afternoon. The further you walk down the deserted, rocky driveway, the farther the pandemonium of the 21st century city will get. The louder the chorus of bird calls will become; the longer the shade of the tall trees will turn.
On your right will be the church building, in all its Neoclassical glory, standing there since its foundation stone was laid in 1784... on the ground that once was a graveyard.
Around the corner, on your left, will be a few ‘newer’ graves, the Second Rohilla War Memorial and the much-controversial Black Hole Memorial. But keep walking.
At the very corner in the north-west end, shadowed under drooping canopies on a sunny day, remains a small part of the original burial ground from the 1600s. Here, underneath an octagonal mausoleum, lies Job Charnock, the so-called “founder” of Calcutta.
Now, he’s not alone in this grave; there’s his ‘Indian’ wife, and many others from his time.
To your right, with Charnock’s mausoleum in front, you’ll find more, bit smaller cenotaphs.
On your left, with Charnock’s grave in front of you, you’ll find the most interesting bit of this cemetery – the mausoleum of Frances “Begum” Johnson, “the grand old lady of Calcutta”, who, after 89 long years and four marriages, was laid to rest here. Take some time and read her epitaph; it will be worth it.
In this tiny corner of St John’s Church, littered with fallen leaves and lack of strong care, lie the remains and memorials of many from the colonial era. The ground you walk on itself is etched with epitaphs and dedications to countless dead soldiers and family members, almost all of them snubbed out of life in their 20s or early 30s.
On a late, lazy afternoon, when the breeze is cooler and the sun is mellow under the shade of the trees, walk around these graves. Around these eternally fast asleep foreigners, the city has grown up; its walls, pillars and streets encroaching into their last resting place with each passing day.
But for the shortest time, you’ll know of a time, from centuries before you, when Kolkata was still Calcutta, still young.
Tip 1: Don’t forget to take a peek of the church too. It’s a treasure chest of history in itself.
Tip 2: Did you know a sequence of Parinita’s ‘Piu Bole’ was shot here, around Lady Canning’s grave outside the church? Don’t forget to stop by that either.