Buried in history

The first view inside the British Cemetery at Kathmandu as it looks today – the caretakers Prem and Durga Devi might ask you to sign their visitors’ book. Photo: DR MARK F WATSON.

The British cemetery at Kathmandu is little known but not hard to find.

Keep the imposing white sweep of the British Embassy gate on your left, and then walk past the well-guarded Indian Embassy entrance to your right. The lane shrinks dramatically between their towering walls and, if you are lucky, no passing vehicle pins you against the brickwork. 

Persevering on down the hill a little further than you think and avoiding a constant stream of bikes, the graveyard looms suddenly on your right. A mound of exotic trees, cultivated flowers and manicured lawns comprise this ‘corner of a foreign field’ that shelters a tantalising assortment of headstones and memorials dating back over 200 years.

Once through the gate with a helpful sign beneath a friendly arch, you might encounter the conscientious caretakers Prem and Durga Devi. Lingering amongst the meticulously tended graves, the shades of people buried here begin to manifest at the edge of consciousness. ‘The laughter learnt of friends; and gentleness, in hearts at peace.’ 

The atmosphere vibrates with the ghosts of times remembered, whilst the mind crowds with apparitions of historic figures, funerals and friends, long-stay residents and short-term visitors, whosoever fate decreed would never leave the valley of Kathmandu.

The main gate in 2007 is today more tidy and helpful with opening hours and full time caretakers. Photo: Dr MARK F WATSON.

Views of the nineteenth century memorial in the British cemetery taken in 1977. Photo: MICHAEL STOKES.

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This haven of tidiness was not always so. As we learn from this important new book, the fate of the British cemetery has ebbed and flowed with the tide of centuries at the whim of its diplomatic custodians. Sometimes neglected and overgrown, sometimes nurtured and cared for, it has always been at the heart of the history of foreigners in Nepal – ‘A pulse in the eternal mind”. 

For the first time, the facts about the British cemetery and its glamorous array of inhabitants are gathered together in this comprehensive volume. The first grave dates from 1820, and I attended the most recent funeral in 2014.

Elegantly written and highly readable, Andrew Hall, anthropologist and former British Ambassador to Nepal, and Mark Watson, keen historian and Himalayan botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, have collaborated with Vajra Books. Initially conceived as a modest booklet to resolve the incomplete listings and jumbled records of the historic graveyard, it later expanded to include the wider context of Nepal’s complex relationship with the outside world.

Details of a panoramic sketch by Residency surgeon, HA Oldfield in 1854 annotated ‘British Residency among the trees …’ showing Shivapuri as the highest hill behind the Residency. The first three graves in the cemetery can just be made out as white pinnacles in the middle image. Photo: ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY.

As might be expected, such a formidable combination of scholarship has done a very thorough job. The evolving changes to the physical site are documented with maps, drawings, paintings and letters dredged from London collections, and identities clarified that have been disrupted by earthquakes, fallen branches and general dereliction that damaged the marker stones, rendering some unreadable.

Every grave in the British cemetery in Kathmandu is catalogued, but there are others further afield. The Gurkhas had burial sites in Paklihawa and Dharan, the Jesuits at Godavari, two memorial parks mark the terrible 1992 air disasters in Kakani and Lele, each facing the direction of the catastrophe, and there is even a solitary grave in the grounds of the British bungalow in Kakani.

We find exhaustive descriptions of the British cemetery graves, headstones, location maps, names, dates, images, stories and anecdotes, and even details of trees and shrubs that grow there; a glossary, bibliography, sources, endnotes and index; and a list of the British heads of mission assigned to Nepal, responsible for this patch of ground ‘that is for ever England … A body of England’s, breathing English air’.

But not really. Of the 100 or so people laid to rest here only about 40% are British, the remaining represent at least 16 nationalities and several religions other than Christian. Their causes of death are an eye-opener into the Nepal of their lifetimes.

The entire Wilkins family, Helen and Andrew and their children Hannah, Simeon and Naomi, photographed in UK a few days before they perished in the PIA air disaster in September 1992 (above). Their grave pictured on the 25th anniversary of their death (below). Photos: SARAH WILKINS AND MELANIE HICKS.

Joint author Dr Mark Watson contemplates the oldest monument in the graveyard, that of Roger Stuart who died on 14 March 1820. Photo: ROGER HYAM.

Although the British were first to put down roots after the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, the truth is that over the centuries this remote Himalayan country received a wide variety of visitors from all corners of the globe and the cemetery’s eclectic occupants reflect this – missionaries, mountaineers, military, traders, adventurers, eccentrics and dreamers.

The earliest grave belongs to Robert Stuart, the Assistant Resident who died suddenly one spring evening in 1820 of ‘a violent cold’. His superior, Hon Edward Gardner was devastated but had no choice but to inter him beneath the nearby hillock that the British were hastily given to bury their dead.

Hardly ‘that rich earth, a richer dust concealed’ of Rupert Brooke’s iconic First World War poem The Soldier, but a sandy wasteland unsuitable for cultivation, situated not far from the uninviting piece of land on the then-distant outskirts of Kathmandu that had been grudgingly granted for the British residency – now given over to the Indian mission after Independence.

British Ambassador Richard Morris at the 2016 inauguration of the replacement memorial to Gilbert Deatker, the only Commonwealth War Grave in Nepal, which had been damaged in the earthquake. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL.

By 1857 the cemetery contained only three graves. The grandest monument commemorates Brian Hodgson’s deputy, Ensign Hastings Young, aged only 20 and the first child burial, seven-year-old William Nott Nicholetts. The only official Commonwealth War Grave in Nepal, belonging to Gilbert Deatker who died in 1942, ensures a funding commitment which proved crucial to the garden’s maintenance during the leaner years of British government support. The grave diggers’ busiest period was the tourism times from the 1970s to 1990s, before mortuary freezers enabled repatriation and local cremations became more generally accepted.

Some incumbents remain more mysterious than others, but the authors’ investigations have culminated in this highly readable account that spans not only the history of the British and other early foreigners in Nepal, but also curious, sad and sometimes extraordinary stories of how they met their end.

Sketch map of the British Residency by Brian Hodgson dated 1828 showing the solitary monument in the cemetery on the bottom left Photo: BRITISH LIBRARY.

Some of these tales are tragic and extreme. Particularly heart-breaking are the babies and children, including the infant son of Henry Ambrose Oldfield the Residency surgeon and artist dated 1861. In addition to the occupational hazard of illness, as might be expected in harsh mountain terrain, fatalities feature mountaineering, rock falls, drownings and air accidents. On the back wall, a plaque remembers the New Zealand pilot of the flight that killed Sir Edmund Hillary’s wife and youngest daughter in 1975.

Boris Lissanevitch’s well attended funeral in October 1985 during Dasain had to be arranged with the help of Mountain Travel Sherpas to dig the grave. The service was conducted by Jesuit Fathers Eugene Watrin and Tom Downing. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL.

This peaceful garden is the last resting place of a roll call of Nepal’s early tourism, conservation and development pioneers. Familiar and colourful characters who left their mark include Boris Lissanevitch (plus his mother, mother-in-law, wife and son), Desmond Doig, AV Jim Edwards, Mike Cheney, Freddie Bowles, Robert and Cecille Reiffel, Peter and Margaret Ross and many more. Unearthing some buried recollections of my own having known them all (full disclosure), I helped the ever-erudite Doctors Andrew and Mark with research, editing and proof-reading.

British Ambassador and co-author, HE Dr Andrew R Hall speaks at the funeral of Tiger Tops tourism entrepreneur, AV Jim Edwards in 2009. In the background is the imposing neo-classical column in memory of youthful Hastings Young who died only weeks after arriving as the British Assistant Resident in 1840. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL.

A collaborative and diligent research effort, many have contributed to this slim volume packed with information. Dedicated to the late great Charles Allen with a foreword by current British Ambassador Nicola Pollitt, both the Nepal Britain and Britain Nepal Societies supported its publishing, along with the British Association for Cemetaries in South Asia (BACSA), Bon Travel and Tours, Vajra Books and the personal generosity of Pratima and Prithivi Pande.

My only niggle is the misleading title. This useful book reaches far beyond the confines of the British cemetery enclosure, now a hidden and forgotten island in an ocean of concrete urbanisation down that narrow Lainchaur lane – which perhaps you will be inspired to discover. By using the graveyard and the circumstances of its existence, the chapters expand to encompass the entire early history of Nepal’s convoluted interaction and engagement with outsiders and the international world.

Corner of a Foreign Field: The BRITISH CEMETERY at KATHMANDU 

by Mark F Watson and Andrew R Hall

Vajra Books 2022

Rs2,500

168 pages

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