It was a wild and dismal place, about a mile away from the city. Nevertheless, the bishop set forth to the cemetery, on July of 1824, to consecrate it. And even though he was an English clergyman, Heber was a traveller and poet at heart. One grand and beautiful mausoleum caught his attention. He was told that it belonged to “Colombo Sahib, Company ka Naukar.”
We don't know who this “Colombo Sahib” was; history left no trace of him or the reason why he deserved a mausoleum.
But we do know that in pursuit of wealth and vanity, people from different corners of the world had sailed to Dhaka and made it their own. It follows that after their souls departed, the bodies found final sanctuary in this city. On the other hand there were the 'natives'. Together, they achieved and failed, leaving us a rich heritage.
This week, Star Lifestyle walks you through their graveyards and cemeteries, visiting the long dead and revelling in the strange beauty and architecture that surrounds them.
Narinda Christian Cemetery, where the mausoleum of Colombo Sahib is located, is one of the oldest in our city. "Many claim that this cemetery was built in the 1600s. It is at least 350 years old for sure," says architect Taimur Islam, Chief Executive of Urban Study Group, an organisation that campaigns for the conservation of architectural and urban heritage of Old Dhaka.
As you enter the now expanded premises, the first thing you will notice is a splendid, white gate.
Built during the Mughal period, beautiful jafri bricks (thin bricks) which were used in those times can be seen as the plaster has fallen off in some parts. The multi-cusped arch and decorative motifs and other distinguished features mark the relic of a time gone by.
Now reclaimed by nature, the gate, partially covered by moss, has small plants shooting from the railing, edging over the decorative exterior of the uppermost part.
Open space and greenery help create a wonderful atmosphere. Large trees overshadowing the graves and moss covering up the paths make up a very green setting, creating a peaceful environment.
And just like Bishop Heber, you will also be awed by the sight of the tomb of Colombo.
On a square structure sits a large octagonal building, which is roofed by a dome. From inside when you look up, the grandiosity is best understood, complete with eight large windows on each side of the octagon. Once, there were perforated screens covering them. Now, roots and branches have entered and crawled all over.
On the walls are several gravestones. But where are their graves? The labelled ones we know of in the cemetery don't match these names. Most likely, the graves are out there in the field; the bodies are lying somewhere, without making their presence known.
Or are the bodies locked in a crypt -- a chamber for keeping dead bodies underneath the ground?
And where is the grave of the so-called "Colombo Sahib"? Who was he and what became of him? We don't know: history put a blindfold on us and kept it a secret, and nothing is known about this man or where his grave is.
The oldest dated grave of the cemetery belongs to Joseph Paget, Reverend Minister of Kolkata. He died in 1774.
Gravestones say a lot about people and their lives. Take for example the gravestone of Elizabeth, possessing an exquisite statue of Madonna. She was the wife of Marcar David, the "Merchant Prince of Bengal." The grave itself reflects the wealth her family enjoyed.
There is also the grave of Joakim G. N. Pogose, the man who built the first private school (established in 1848) in Dhaka. He died in December of 1876.
And epitaphs can be so touching. Engraved on a gravestone in the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, an epitaph reads, "As I loved him so I miss him/ In my memory he is near/ Loved, remembered longed for always/ Bringing many a tear." The second part says, "Weep not for me my sweetheart dear/ I am not dead but sleeping here/ I was not yours but Christ's alone/ He loved me best, and took me home."
This gravestone was made by the deceased's fiancée.
Saying the final farewell to a loved one is never easy. Going back to an empty house, or seeing that empty chair in the living room -- or having unfinished conversations and rages tamed inside -- make the living suffer.
The exterior of the Armenian Church is the cemetery, and so are parts of the interior. "The church was much smaller. Graves were laid down in the grounds. Since the church got extended, we can now see some graves inside and in the terrace," says Taimur Islam.
Many of the tombs have text written in Armenian, Latin and Portuguese. A lot of them mention that the deceased were born in Persia.
"The Persian connection becomes very obvious in the ornamentation of the tombstones," wrote Perween Hasan in her publication, Old Churches and Cemeteries of Dhaka. "…There are beautiful borders, vases with bouquets, and pavilions of a very Persian flavour. Some have angels blowing trumpets, or bearing aloft the crown of eternal life, all symbolising heaven."
Towering over one of the headstones is a marble statue of a standing woman with an anchor on one hand: this represents hope.
There are graves that are so symbolic and splendid, and then there are graves so simple.
Located in Begum Bazaar is the graveyard of the Nawab family. An attempt to keep graves simple is evident.
Nawab Ahsanullah, the man after whom the royal house (Ahsan Manzil) was named, lies in a modest tomb which is bounded by a tiny rectangular structure without any ceiling, let alone a dome.
The simplicity of this grave is what makes it elegant. It also reminds you that no matter how powerful and rich you become, one day you have to leave behind everything. Nothing is permanent until then.
People are fascinated by the mausoleum of Shah Jahan's wife, but we do not recall their son's grave. Emperor Aurangzeb, according to his Islamic understanding -- and he was a devoted Muslim -- ordered his burial place to be modest and in open-air.
Back to our city, the mausoleum in TSC in Dhaka University is a testament of the presence of Greeks. Built in 1915, this monument features around ten tombstones, the oldest being of Sultana Alexander, who died in 1800. The small, square-shaped structure has triangular pediments and extended facades on all sides, with the support of grand, traditional pillars. Although this building is about to reach a century in age, historical accounts prove an even older Greek cemetery and church.
The oldest existing church in our country was built around 1677. The Church of the Holy Rosary, located in Tejgaon, has an enormous cemetery. Striking features are its size and geometry. A large field has long rows of graves, almost all having the same blue cross sign as their headstones. So when you are in front of it, all you will see are long lines of crosses that stretch until the end, where there is a large crucifix. So from sideways too, all you will see are diagonal lines of crosses. There are some old headstones on the interior side of the walls of the church.
“The oldest Christian tomb in Dhaka dated 7 June, 1714 inscribed in Portuguese is here,” Perween Hasan writes.
Today, these people are long gone. Centuries later, can they feel or hear us? And can our deceased acquaintances hear us, or can that baby who died just a day after he was born?
We don't know. We are about to find out. "…with Allah's leave, we will also be joining you in the near future," our beloved Prophet (SAW) once said.
Special thanks to Taimur Islam, Chief Executive, Urban Study Group.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed