September 13, 2012

Charnock's Tomb, Calcutta

This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church


"Calcutta, founded amidst the vilest climate, the remotest marshes, and the most intemperate people in India, embellished and aggrandized by successive Viceroys with monstrous buildings and preposterous statues, and breathing a preponderantly commercial opinion upon the fate of 300,000,000 people.."
– Robert Byron, "New Delhi", The Architectural Review Magazine (1931)

Inside a walled compound in a forgotten, desolate corner of St. John’s Church stands a diminutive octagonal structure – painted a serene white throughout and possessing a small dome and arched doorways, this unique structure is both a tomb and a memorial dedicated to the memory of Job Charnock. Surrounded by several more uniquely constructed memorials, Charnock’s tomb looks different – peaceful, otherworldly and charming in its own way. Pigeons coo around the obscure structures, scores of them perching on the numerous electrical wires hanging about the high rises that dwarf the church complex. One gets the strange sensation that only Charnock’s tomb is maintained and cared for in the walled enclosure while the rest have been forgotten, ignored. An administrator for the East India Company, Job Charnock was one of the first English traders to set foot in Calcutta – In fact, it is contended that Calcutta did not even exist that time and Charnock was the one who stubbornly merged three adjacent villages (Sutanuti, Kalikata and Goindpur) in the militarily strategic Sutanuti region on the banks of river Hooghly into one administrative unit christened Calcutta (from “Kalikata” – the land of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death & destruction, but not in any way associated with the ancient temple of Kalighat, refer Pixelated Memories - Kalighat Temple) and established it as a British military and commerce stronghold in the face of administrative opposition and persistent run-ins with fellow English bureaucrats. The theory has been contested by many scholars, as well as the Armenian community of Calcutta who claim to have settled in the city over half a century before Charnock and his team; most notably, the Calcutta High Court noted in its rulings (2003) that Calcutta was already a full-fledged city on the trade route by the time the British arrived. Yet the lore goes on.

The compound housing Charnock's and Admiral Watson's memorials

Resisting arrest and evading pursuance by the armies of the Nawab of Bengal with whom he had differences arising out of alleged injustice in taxation and imposition of cruel custom rates, a physically strained and mentally fatigued Charnock arrived in Sutanuti in August 1690, after much harassment and trouble with the Mughal and Bengal forces, and assumed command as the Company’s Chief Agent in Bengal. His persistence in establishing the Co.’s stronghold and associated port in Bengal paid handsomely and within a few years the Co. gained the enviable position of a regional territorial power possessing a proper seafaring route. However, aggrieved and heartbroken at the demise of his Indian wife (supposedly named Maria, however no records exist regarding her identification – she is said to have originally been a Hindu Rajput princess Charnock rescued from the horrific tradition of Sati where a wife is forced to burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her (usually decades older) husband while he was posted in Bihar; she later converted to Christianity) and the consequent death of his son, Charnock passed away two years later and did not live to see the Co. he so loyally served yield fruit from his extensive labours. Upon his death, his eldest son-in-law Charles Eyre constructed this structure in his memory with black stone for the tombstone specially brought all the way from Chennai (then Madras) – the rock from which the stone was chiseled has since been identified and isolated as an individual geological formation not found elsewhere and named in his honor as “Charnockite” (Pallavaram black gneiss). Charnock had served the Company for 34 long years – a period in which he was maliciously and often falsely accused of corruption, mismanagement, weak control over the British establishment and policy paralysis besides possessing questionable morals and supplicating to pagan (Hindu) religion to appease his wife. To please the subcontinent’s puritanical English society whom Eyre was required to interact with and manage as the Co.’s Indian Agent and President of Bengal territory (positions once occupied by Charnock), the memorial stone makes no mention of Maria who too is buried with her beloved husband. Overtime, several other relatives and other prominent personalities who demised in colonial territory were also buried close to Charnock in the small compound. The small octagonal tomb sits on a low plinth and is built in two distinct levels, the upper being considerably smaller in its cross-section than the lower; externally the tomb is marked with slender pillars along each corner, simplistic battlements at the interface of the levels and horizontal embossments running all over its otherwise plain surface. Within the tomb were erected the three jet black stone tablets, each etched with fairly artistic Latin, English and Arabic calligraphic obituaries in white paint. The English translation of the central tablet commemorating Charnock reads – 

“In the hands of God Almighty, Job Charnock, English knight and recently the most worthy agent of the English in this Kingdom of Bengal, left his mortal remains under this marble so that he might sleep in the hope of a blessed resurrection at the coming of Christ the Judge. After he had journeyed onto foreign soil he returned after a little while to his eternal home on the 10th day of January 1692. By his side lies Mary, first-born daughter of Job, and dearest wife of Charles Eyre, the English prefect in these parts. She died on 19 February AD 1696–7”. 

The obituaries within, carved on a unique rock since christened "Charnockite"

Another tablet commemorates William Hamilton, a surgeon who gained prominence in the Mughal court by treating the then emperor Farrukhsiyar (reign AD 1712-19) when the British Co. officers visited the royal court in order to discuss trade rights and factory privileges, in the following words –

“Under this Stone lyes interred the Body of William Hamilton, Surgeon, who departed this life the 4th December, 1717. His memory ought to be dear to his Nation for the credit he gain'd the English in curing Ferrukseer, the present King of Indostan, of a Malignant Distemper, by which he made his own Name famous at the Court of that Great Monarch; and without doubt will perpetuate his memory, as well in Great Britain as all other Nations of Europe." 

On the ground around the tomb, blanketed by a meager layer of fallen dead and dry leaves and trampled regularly by unaware visitors, are several thick iron plates that on first observation appear to be rectangular manhole covers, but on close inspection can be identified as tablets engraved as memorials to the deceased. These too are part of the tomb, these too have been forgotten in the midst of the numerous tombs and memorials, many of which belong to more historically-renowned personages, that litter the hallowed grounds of St. John’s Church. 

Memorials around Charnock's mausoleum

Flanking Charnock’s modest mausoleum are two even smaller memorials – the first is made up of three connected but successively bigger memorial tablets enshrined in enclosing masonry rectangles while the second and the most ornate of all memorials commemorates Admiral Charles Watson, Commander of His Majesty’s Navies in East Indies. Relegated to a mere footnote in India’s colonial history, Admiral Watson played a noteworthy role in commanding the naval segment of the forces led by Colonel Robert Clive during the retaking of Calcutta after the British fortress had been seized by Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, and its occupants confined to a small dungeon prison where supposedly 146 Europeans, including officers, women and children, died due to asphyxiation. This strange and horrific event was termed “Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta” and prompted indignation and outrage among the British, leading to a treacherous war against the Nawab and subsequently his grisly murder – the entire event later was proved to be a hoax where a small incident had been blown out of proportion in order to generate an atmosphere conducive for military and territorial expansion in India. Incidentally, a memorial commemorating the said event was also erected nearby and can be read about here – Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial. Outside the small enclosure and keeping these forgotten memorials company are beautiful but even lesser known commemorative structures dedicated to Lady Charlotte Canning, the Second Rohilla War and Lady Johnson (see links below). The Church came up close to the memorials much later in 1787 AD and was consecrated to St. John.

(Left to right) An indecipherable memorial commemorating three individuals, Admiral Watson's memorial and the spire of St. John's church looming behind the tree line

Location: St. John's Church, BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/avail a taxi from Esplanade. Buses are available from different parts of the city for Esplanade and BBD Bagh.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 for visitors on foot (parking charges extra)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sight seeing: 20 min
Relevant Links - 
  1. - "A History of the Church of England in India" by Eyre Chatterton
  2. - Calcutta Diary: Roots of Calcutta
  3. - Article "Calcutta was not founded by Briton, court rules" (dated May 18, 2003) by David Orr
  4. - Article "A memorial at The Mount" (dated May 27, 2002)
  5. - Article "Armenians in search of Kolkata roots" (dated Nov 20, 2010) by Ajanta Chakraborty
  6. - Article "Job Charnock not Kolkata's founder: Expert committee" (dated Jan 31, 2003)
  7. - Article "Job Charnock (1630-1692): The story of the Englishman who founded present day Kolkata and his connection to Madras" (dated March 1, 2013) by Anand Lakshmipathi
  8. - History of Kolkata
  9. - Job Charnock

No comments:

Post a Comment