Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are, however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1550s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city.
I have just finished exploring the Agra Fort at sunrise. Following a compelling recommendation by my travel blogger friend I find myself, next, walking through a Mughal arched doorway on a quite lane off MG Road, Civil Line, near Bhagwan Talkies. Paan chewing, beaming Suren Singh, an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India welcomes me.
Completely confused by my presence but equally eager to show me around, he patiently introduces me to graves, tombs and mausoleums that are centuries old belonging to European adventurers, artisans and soldiers, and one just buried a few days ago, opening grizzly doors and pointing out both the unusual, and the perfect photo opportunity.
The oldest structure is Marty’s Chapel, a simple octagonal edifice topped with a dome, housing the cemetery’s very first grave, that of Khwaja Mortenepus Armenian who died in 1611. The first Englishman to be buried on Indian soil (1614), John Mildenhall, often referred to in historical records as a ‘brave scoundrel’, rests peacefully under the trees nearby. As I wander around, I stumble upon more ornate tombs with urns and decorative carvings, and simple gravestones with crosses and Armenian and Persian scripts. Every now and then Suren assures me, “Take your time. Ask whenever and whatever you need to.” 🙂
The star of the cemetery is without a doubt, the Mughal Red Taj Mahal or tomb of John William Hessing replete with four chatris, a gesture of love from a wife to a husband and one of the finest European tombs in India. Hessing, a Dutchman and Commander of the Agra Fort, died on 21 July, 1803 during his service to the Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, who then ruled Agra. Just as beautiful is the family mausoleum of Francis Ellis facing it, his tomb dated 14 January, 1868 surrounded by 23 graves holding numerous generations of his family.
As I stroll, read, ponder, an interesting revelation seems to emerge on how easily the early Europeans welcomed and embraced India and Indian-ness, rarely attempting to create a hybrid format with their own culture, but adopting it in its authentic form. Much in contrast to the stance taken by their later counterparts, who endeavored to ensure the divide was always clear and tangible, and representative of the ‘Raj’.
Most tourists to Agra flock to see the more popular sites, and often only one site, the Taj Mahal. The 450 year old and North India’s oldest christian cemetery, meanwhile offers an oasis of history to those who venture to take the road less traveled, giving a glimpse of the other Agra that existed. Come on, take the quiet side lane.
Islamic mausoleums for christian souls… The Red Taj Mahal (1803)
Taj Mahals in white plastered walls
And others with filigreed, exquisitely carved edifices; Francis Ellis’s burial place (1868)
The Red Taj Mahal, John William Hessing’s mausoleum, from outside and inside
This tomb had inscriptions in four languages, one on each wall – English, French, Arabic, Hindi reading “Here lies interred the 4 children of Gen [RL] Perron Com [MDG] 3 BRI [GDS] in the service of Mahraje Sindiah, AD 1793”
Left: Final resting places. Right: An Armenian Christian grave; there are over 80 Armenian graves in the cemetery
The sweet, simple, and personal grave
Our guide Suren Singh
View through a window in Marty’s Chapel, the cemetery’s oldest structure (1611) – looking out and looking in, mannat (wish) ribbons tied to the stone lattice work