Sunday, 3 July 2016

Forgotten European souls !! - Agra's earliest Catholic cemetery, India


Fairytale like  earliest European graves built in Mogul style, Agra returnoftheprodigal.wordpress.com

The mogul style tomb of Walter Reinhardt, also known as Sombre or Samru, a European Mercenary of dubious nationality. 
photo credit: evenfewergoats.blogspot.com
India has innumerable historical monuments, spanning several centuries  and connecting us with its past history,  and  its gradual development of  various cultures from other nations that were heterogeneous in nature. Though Christianity came to  India  in 52 AD with the arrival of the Apostle St. Thomas who was instrumental in establishing seven and half churches on the coastal Malabar in South India, in the northern  states, it took roots  pretty late. The city of Agra has several historical Muslim monuments which are often being visited by the tourists. None is aware of the Christian monuments such as British buildings, churches, etc. Among them, the  Roman catholic cemetery is an important and interesting historical site, for  here we find one of the earliest Christian  Cemetery, dating back to 1550. Unfortunately, it is the most overlooked historical site because of poor publicity by the tourist department.  Further, the Roman catholic grave is not visible, as it is hidden behind a stone wall in a secluded area. The  tourists in a hurry will certainly miss them unless they have keen eyes. Even the local taxi and auto rickshaw drivers are not aware of this site.
The Marty's chapel.- the oldest building in the cemetery, dating from Akbar's time. built around 1611 to honor the memory of an Armenian merchant by the name of Khoja Mortenepus.photo credit: evenfewergoats.blogspot.com
The oldest grave site  with  epithets is an interesting one for the History  freaks. You come across a myriad of  centuries old Christian graves of mostly Europeans  who were once mercenaries, traders, monks, soldiers, etc., hailing  from different nations  and they  long lived  and perished here far away from their mother land. Perhaps they came here,  seeking adventure, fame and fortune, but finally ended up  being a lump of  clay and dust in their graves, leaving behind  only the inscription of their names intact on the grave stone. 
The mogul style of tomb of William Hessing, one of the earliest Roman Catholic Cemetery,  note the  chatris on the corners, Agra. thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com

begum Samru's tomb along with unidentified European grave. photo credit: evenfewergoats.blogspot.com
If you are curious and drawn by the attractive red sand stone building with a beautiful red dome that looks like mini Taj, often referred to as Red Taj,  you will realize that you have stepped on the oldest Christian grave built in this part. This 460 year old structure built in Mogul style is the most prominent Christian mausoleum in India. There were many early European travelers, traders and others who used to visit India and many of them lived here and  after their death, they were buried here. John William Hessing’s Tomb was built by his wife  Anne in  memory of her beloved husband.  William Hessing was a soldier from Holland and  he once served the Dutch East India company and fought against 
The interior of  John Hessing's tomb, with the graves arranged in a typical Mughal Tomb. photo credit:evenfewergoats.blogspot.com
the British. Later he worked for the Indian rulers, including the Marathas.  He got a name when he defended the Agra fort as a commandant in 1799. He died on July 21 July, 1803 during the reign of Maharajah Daulat Rao Scindia who then  ruled Agra. The cemetery is a protected site now. 

The amazing thing about these oldest graves is the inscription, epithets are clear, readable and kept clean and tidy. For some reason, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Christians, after their death,   were brought to Agra from various places exclusively for burial and perhaps, the church authorities might have found Agra was a blessed place for the departed souls. There are more than 80 Armenian graves  well modeled and designed. It is apparent that there was a large Armenian community here during the period. Many of them were either  traders or  missionaries. The Mogul ruler Akbar  allowed them to preach Christianity and also  religious conversion.Though they could not succeed in their attempt to covert the native Indians to Christianity in the northern states, they continued to live here till their death.  One may be surprised to come across the  graves of  Jerome Veronio, and  Hortenzio Bronzoni; both were Italian jewelers during the Mogul period. There are many Italian graves  here, each with distinctive inscriptions displayed both in eastern and western style. It is worth mentioning here that there is a grave for one Walter Reinhardt who worked for a local ruler and had his own army. He married an Indian woman Begum Samru, a Muslim woman, who became a Catholic later. She happened to be the only catholic ruler in India. There are graves of Jesuit monks of various nationality who died in Agra in 1600s. 

The impressive  tomb dated January 14, 1868 of Francis Ellis, an Englishman  draws our attention. The architecture of this tomb is unique. It is an eight-sided structure made of sand stones with beautiful carvings and pointed arches. Around this tomb. one will find the graves of the Ellis family members who lived here and  died on the soils of  India. 

After a visit to this earliest  historical European  cemetery in the city of Agra, the lines from  Thomas Gray's poem of 1751 "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" will linger in your heart:

"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave. The paths of glory lead but to the grave". 


The Indian Tourism department should make wider publicity about this historical site and takes steps to preserve it for our future generation. The heroes of by-gone years whose mortal remains lie buried in the graves, are now forgotten poor souls and their places of eternal sleep -  tombs  need to be preserved and taken care of.  
Ref:
https://returnoftheprodigal.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/agra-catholic-cemetery/