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Vol. XXXII No. 1, April 16-30, 2022

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

The Guava Garden Cemetery

Much of this article is a repeat of what I wrote in Madras Musings Vol XXV, No 13, Oct 1-15, 2015, under the Know Fort St George series. I have now reprised this article with some additions given that the Hynmers’ Obelisk is now back in the news for all the wrong reasons.

– Sriram V

A high rate of mortality was one of the features of early colonial life in India and today, the sole remnant in many abandoned settlements is a graveyard. Madras is different, for its first British graveyard has completely vanished, the Law College having stood on that site till recently and the land and building now to be handed over to the High Court of Madras to house many of its offices and institutions.

The early records speak of ‘the English Golgotha or Place of Sculls’ as having been near the North West angle of the Native Town – not to be confused with present day George Town but the old Black Town which straggled to the rear of the Fort and occupied much of what we would today recognise as the Esplanade. A vast guava garden existed at the spot and from Dr. Fryer’s writings based on his stay in the city in 1673, we do know that the last resting place of the first English settlers here was no open yard but an enclosure with distinctive architectural features. HD Love, in his Vestiges of Old Madras (1913) has it that the tombs ‘occupied the floor of a long battlemented cloister. This had arches on each side, supported by pillars, which also carried a vaulted roof. The roof consisted of a series of domes, each dome rising from a square base of four columns, and terminating in a ball carrying ornamental iron work.’ The last named has been described by Dr. Fryer as a globe riveted by ‘an iron wedge sprouting into a Branch’. All the monuments and funerary slabs were of Pallavaram gneiss, the local stone.

In 1680, when Streynsham Master was in charge of Madras, the burying ground was cordoned off from the rest of the guava garden by a wall. The garden itself was handed over for development and on it came up Garden and Merchant Streets, Merchant Lane and Back Lane, none of which survive now. ­Arriving in Madras in 1702, Charles Lockyer penned a ­detailed account of our city and in it also included a description of the burial place, which ­according to him was ‘adorn’d with many stately Tombs in honour of the Defunct. Some with lofty Spires carved into different Fancies, after the Indian manner; others in a lower Sphere gravely express the Merits of the Person for whose sake they were erected; and all in general have the most curious Workmanship in India bestow’d on them.’ Lockyer also evidently attended a couple of burials there and recorded that ‘ When a Person of Note dies, his Funeral is solemnised with the greatest Magnificence. The Governour, Council, and Gentlemen of the Town attend; nor are the fair Sex wanting in their Duty to their deceas’d Countryman.’

The encircled area was the Guava Garden.

Even after the construction of St. Mary’s, burials continued to happen at this designated place, outside the Fort. In 1711, John Legg, Member in Council and whose wife Hannah would be buried at the guava garden six years later, wrote that the place had some old toddy trees (probably date palms) which gave the Church an annual income of twenty pagodas. Even while that note was being written, the church wardens had begun to complain about the cemetery going to seed. Evidently nothing has changed in our city when it comes to use of public spaces. The toddy tappers worked whenever they felt like and the gates had to be kept open at all odd hours. The tombs had become stables for buffaloes and night shelters for beggars. To prevent ingress of cattle, a shed was built for them close by but within a few months the Company requisitioned that structure for shops and the buffaloes were back at the cemetery.

The Board of Directors interested itself in the matter and from their correspondence it can be gleaned that the cemetery was put to the usual purposes that such a place would be even ­today. The Board noted that there were ‘grievous excesses and disorders committed there.’ Eventually it was agreed that the Guava Garden be made over to the Church permanently, as part of a larger transaction. The Company had taken over a Church house in Fort St George for extending the hospital and the free Guard House in 1711. The Church demanded compensation and it was given the Guava Garden, in addition to ‘the Sum of three hundred pagodas … paid out of cash, in full of all demands for the House aforemention’d.’

The French besieged Madras for the last time in 1758. A detachment of their troops was stationed at the burying ground. A battery was erected behind the convenient shelter that the tombs provided and from this, and other locations, the bombardment of the Fort began. When the siege was lifted, a thorough study of the Fort’s security was made by John Call and in it he noted that the officers suffered ‘great Inconvenience from the Tombs at the burying Ground, which, being large arch’d Structures placed in a line, almost close to each other and opening into one another, not only protected the Enemy from our shot, but afforded them a cover equally safe against our Shells.’ He requested that the Council ‘be pleas’d to give ­Orders for removing this Evil’.

His words bore fruit and the tombs and enclosure walls were levelled, even as the inscribed stones were transferred to the pavement around St Mary’s Church in the Fort. Among the interesting ones were Elizabeth Baker’s, considered the oldest British inscription in India and that of Lazarus Timothy aka Thaniappa Mudaliar. The latter is the only Tamil tombstone and commemorates a Dubash of the French East India Company, who died in 1691. He belonged to the Capuchin Church that flourished at one time in Madras and was buried at the Guava Garden. Eventually, his tombstone made its way to St Mary’s, becoming the Tamil tombstone of a French Dubash which now lies by the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez!

Two monuments were left standing. One was the Yale Obelisk, a giant piece of masonry beneath which rest Elihu Yale’s son David, and his close friend Joseph Hynmers. Alongside was a circular vault enclosed with a railing and this contained the remains of six members of the Powney family. Today, the latter is untraceable, probably sacrificed in the interests of the Metrorail. Even by the early 1800s, all memory of the old burial ground had gone, and people considered the Yale and Powney monuments to be isolated structures. The Yale monument however was a significant landmark, and the entire road became known for a while as the Monument Esplanade. It was one of the must see spots of the city for years.

It was only when excavations for the Law College began in the 1880s that quantities of bones were discovered, leading to renewed interest in the Guava Garden cemetery. It faded once again from public memory thereafter. And now it is back in the news.

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