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Vol. XXVII No. 10, September 1-15, 2017

Lost landmarks of Chennai

Sriram V

A ‘missing’ cemetery found again

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The entrance to the Armenian Cemetery

This one is truly lost in the sense that it has disappeared off most maps. But the wonder is that it is still there, barely surviving.

Time was when the Stanley Viaduct was just that – a causeway at ground level through which vehicles drove across the Island, over the Cooum and on to Central Station. In the 1980s, when I travelled by bus to Tondiarpet for my summer training stint at the Best & Crompton dynamo and starter factory, this was my daily beat. You could see both sides of the Island as you crossed the viaduct. On the left was St Mary’s cemetery and on the right the Armenian. Even then, the former was better known, what with it having starred in the climax of Rajinikanth’s Billa. Co-passengers would point at the tombstones of the English cemetery and recognise some outstanding ones behind which the Superstar had crouched.

Then came the over-bridge, constructed sometime in the late 1980s. For some reason, whoever planned it decided to cut off all access below the structure between the two parts of the Island that it divided. Thus, the Armenian cemetery is no longer accessible and not even visible from St. Mary’s cemetery. Those going to the station can even now see the latter, whose Gothic arches jut out from below the over-bridge. They can shudder at the hideous square tower topped by a statue of Jesus that the neighbouring Roman Catholic cemetery of St Patrick’s has sported in recent times. But nobody can see the Armenian cemetery. People driving to the station have their view of it cut off by the traffic returning from the station. Those who are returning can see it only if they turn back as they drive down the over-bridge, an attempt that is fraught with risks.

What is more, there is no way you can access the Armenian cemetery from Pallavan Salai, the road leading to the over-bridge. The only way to do it is to go up to Central, make a U-turn, come back down the over-bridge, park your vehicle opposite the Bodyguard Muneeswaran temple and then walk back, to the over-bridge itself. On the right of this PWD/Highway Department delight is the Kendriya Vidyalaya. Walk on in the shadows of the over-bridge through Satyavanimuthu Nagar, a teeming slum that the Corporation and everyone else has forgotten. You will then see a partially blocked brick and mortar gateway in white, its classical lines attractive despite years of neglect.

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Tombs in the Armenian Cemetery

This structure is at the end of a cul-de-sac. At one time, the arched gateway must have dominated this narrow street but now it is practically blocked off by encroachments that have come up on both sides. The one on the left is actually built on the gateway itself and cuts off one part of it from view. The residents of the houses on both sides find the arch a convenient structure to stretch clotheslines on. On seeing a visitor they obligingly remove a garment or two to enable a closer look at the cemetery.

The date on the arch is 1862. That was the year when the Armenians petitioned the Government that the cemetery in their churchyard was full and a new place was needed to bury their dead. The Anglicans who worshipped at St Mary’s in the Fort had been allotted a burial ground on the north-western corner of the Island in 1763. Now, the Armenians would keep them company at the same spot. Satyavanimuthu Nagar was, in fact, once Burial Ground Road, for it connected Mount Road near Munro Statue to Pallavan Salai (formerly Band Practice Road) where these four cemeteries (St Mary’s, St Patrick’s, the Armenian and the Commonwealth War graves) lie.

A grille gate whose metalwork is now twisted protects the Armenian dead. A lock prevents ingress of casual visitors and one look at it shows that it is a long while since it was opened. The number of Armenians in the city was down to forty when this burial ground was allotted and so there are very few graves inside. The grass is really tall here and perhaps hides some more tombstones. It is also evident that the surrounding areas have all risen in height as compared to the cemetery and so it floods during the rains.

It is not clear as to who is in charge of the place. Is it the Corporation? Or is it the Armenian diaspora? The latter has maintained their church in the city in splendid fashion. Can the same generosity not extend to the cemetery? As for the residents of Satyavanimuthu Nagar, it is clear that only the presence of tombstones prevents them from encroaching upon the space. Chennai still fears the dead. And thank God for that.

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