Kolkata: The Greek community has long vanished from Kolkata. Besides the Greek Orthodox Church at 2A Library Road, the Panioty Fountain (named after Demetrius Panioty) at Curzon Park that is featured in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Paras Pathar’ still stands testimony to Kolkata’s Greek connection. Tucked behind the Metro construction at Phoolbagan rests the only cemetery meant for this community in India.
Locals vouch for its historic relevance and claim that the Greek President had also visited it in 1998. All the above addresses are Grade 1 Heritage Buildings in KMC records.
Yet, today the cemetery lies in neglect. Father Raphael, priest of the Greek Church which also takes care of it, is keen that the either the state government or any private organisation takes up the initiative of renovating this dilapidated cemetery that is a Grade 1 heritage building by KMC records.
In 1777, this cemetery had started functional at 105 Abul Kalam Azad Sarani. Curiously enough, the first tombstone belongs to that a Greek businessman named Alexander! In 1771, Alexander Argeery was sent to Cairo by Warren Hastings on a diplomatic mission to obtain permission for British merchants to trade with Egypt. Once he managed to do that, he was rewarded by Hastings with a permission to build a Greek church in Amratollah Street. Eventually, he shifted his business to Dhaka, where he died on August 5, 1777. Later, his body was buried at this Phoolbagan cemetery on August 7, 1777.
A blue tarpaulin sheet almost hides the entrance. Passers-by can easily overlook the inscription mentioning ‘Greek Cemetery’ beside the gate. Even those staying in the residential apartments, which literally surround the cemetery, wouldn’t think that this can be an attraction for tourists and students of world history.
But in reality, it deserves all their attention and more.
Built on 26 cottah of land, this cemetery is now home to some 300 odd graves. Caretaker Basanta Das, whose grandfather and father also worked here, says this includes even those that don’t have a tombstone.
Unfortunately, most of the tombstones are broken. They are either nameless or have illegible inscriptions. Some have inscriptions written in Greek as well. “Not all the graves have bodies buried underneath. Even when some Greeks died in other India cities and were buried there, their tombstones were erected here. That has been done so that memorial services for all Greeks in India can be collectively held here,” says Raphael.
A small chapel – Prophet Elias – stands inside the cemetery. Few sculptures still remain. Among the first one to draw the attention is the sculpture on the grave of Sir Gregory Charles Paul who was the advocate general of Bengal. Next to this grave rests his widow Lady Aglaia Elizabeth Paul. At the far end of the cemetery rests another grave with inscriptions written in Greek. A striking sculpture of a lady kneeling and holding on to a cross looks arresting.
The once-beautiful garden has now been reduced to just mini bushes. A well has been dug right inside the premises. That’s where Das and his family take a bath and wash utensils. Sometimes when guests come visiting, the graves serve as dining tables for their sumptuous lunches. Ask them if they are scared of spirits on rainy nights and Das and his family break into a peal of laughter. “Never have spirits bothered us here,” Das insists.
The fund crunch in renovating this cemetery is obvious. “The Greek community abroad has been financially supporting our church as well as the upkeep of the cemetery. But in recent times, Greece has been reeling under economic crisis. The community is still trying to help us but currently, we have had to cut down 50% of our projects because of the financial crisis,” says Raphael, adding that any initiative for the upkeep of the cemetery is welcome.
The only Greek representative in Kolkata is 66-year-old old Sister Nectaria Paradesi who is responsible for looking after two orphanages. In the absence of Greek families in Kolkata, the church allows people of other faith who now belong to the Greek Orthodox Community to get buried here. “It is difficult to get burial space in this city. Since this cemetery still has space to accommodate tombs, we allow those who have converted to our congregation to get buried here,” Raphael says.
That’s why one spots the tombstone of Philoythei Tina Khatoon. “The last burial – that of a lady in her 40s – happened some six months ago,” says Das, who gets a meagre salary of Rs 4,500. He is now pinning hopes on the Metro rail authorities to help with the renovation. He had heard that once the Metro Rail station gets built, the authorities might be interested in renovating this place. Das is now hoping these words will not just rumours.