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India: Nicholson Cemetery

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Nicholson Cemetery > India > Asia

[Visited: June 2019]

When I am still underground in the Kashmere Gate metro station, there is no sign for my destination: Nicholson Cemetery. After climbing the stairs to arrive at street level, I see the entrance on the opposite side of the street, and given the hectic traffic and the high concrete blocks separating both sides of the street, I decide to cross the street using the underpass. I am now only a few steps away from the entrance. It is telling that, in a huge city like Delhi, proudly independent since 1947, in a country where people are cremated after death, an anomaly like a cemetery founded after a rebellion against the erstwhile colonial power is not given much attention. After pushing the black door open, entering through the gate and leaving the noise of the city behind, I find myself in a seemingly abandoned lot where plants and trees rule. There is a board with the rates of the cemetery for erecting and maintaining a grave.

Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Tombs in the oldest section of Nicholson Cemetery

A few tombstones are incorporated in the red brick gate building. The year 1857 is omnipresent: the Indian rebellion, also known as the First War of Independence, started in that year. Military officer John Nicholson was one of the many who died, and the cemetery took his name, although it is also called the British cemetery. I start walking towards the west in the afternoon heat, and discover more and more tombstones in the thorny grass and shrubbery. Many of the graves are in a bad condition: broken tombstones, erased engravings, some almost completely covered by vegetation. Reading the texts, I realize how many youngsters are buried here. Infants who only lived a couple of months, kids who only grew to be eight years old - a weeping angel next to the sad engraved words. How much grief is represented in each grave. All the time, I am completely alone, which in a metropole like Delhi is a strange sensation in itself. Alone, well, if I don't count the monkeys running around. In any case, the integration of tombs and vegetation, and the sheer silence, give this cemetery the peaceful feel that makes it a good resting place for all those interred here.

Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): 8-year old girl who passed away commemorated in a tombstone

When I approach the western side of Nicholson Cemetery, I see two persons. One is cleaning the cemetery, the other is engraving a tombstone. This is the new section of the cemetery: the dates on the tombstones indicate that people were buried here recently. This is, after all, a Christian cemetery, property of nearby St James Church, and still in use for the small Christian minority. I walk over to the Indians, who unfortunately don't speak any English. I watch as the old man, with a white turban and standing on the black marble plate, carefully cuts out letters that he probably cannot even read himself. I then take one of the paths that is almost completely covered by vegetation, and walk around the cemetery. The further I get, the higher the vegetation: I sometimes see the top of tombstones or crosses sticking out of the grass, and often see flat tombstones on the ground only when I am looking through the dry grass. When I reach the far side of the terrain, a peacock takes off, and I hear breaking branches. Two more peacocks fly away: one male, with his precious tail hanging behind him in the air. What a sight. Near the entrance, I finally discover the grave of John Nicholson himself who, according to local legend, haunts the cemetery as a headless body. Close to his grave, more comrades who lost their lives in the uprising. And next to the wall, a small house where the caretaker and his family live. Clothes drying on a line. I wonder how it must feel for this family to live in a place which, according to locals who do not bury their dead but cremate them, is haunted.

Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Office building of Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Office door of Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Plaque for a Mr Peacock who died in the 1857 clashes
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Tombstone for a soldier who died at the 1857 clashes at Kashmere Gate
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Low vegetation and tombstones at Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Detail of the tombstone of John Nicholson, the 19th century military officer after whom the cemetery is named
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Close-up of a tomb at Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Peacock taking off from Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Detail of a marble tomb at Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Shrubbery growing over tombs at Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Tombstone at Nicholson Cemetery
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): The entrance building of Nicholson Cemetery with tombstones
Picture of Nicholson Cemetery (India): Indian man sitting on a tombstone, engraving a text for the deceased

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