Tales of the Crypts

A British journal documents peoples’ history in South Asian cemeteries

Published twice a year since 1977, Chowkidar has a current readership of approximately two thousand and is distributed free to BACSA members. COURTESY ROSIE LLEWELLYN-JONES
30 November, 2020

In 2013, the autumn edition of Chowkidar, a journal published by the British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia, featured the story of one of its readers, Edward Mitchell. Mitchell knew his grandparents were buried in Poona’s St Sepulchre Cemetery and Bombay’s Sewree Cemetery but was unable to find out whether the graves still existed. “I have very little information on these grandparents, and I wondered if the graves themselves could throw light on them through their inscriptions,” Mitchell asked in the journal’s column “Can You Help?”

The column, a fixture in every issue, addresses readers’ queries about family histories or the condition of a relative’s grave. The BACSA—which has been described as “the liveliest Society for the dead”—was founded, in October 1976, by Theon Wilkinson, a captain in the third Gurkha Rifles during the Second World War who went on to write books about the lives of the British in undivided India. Upon revisiting India in 1972, Wilkinson was appalled at the state of several European graves, especially the ones at the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta.

The BACSA’s principal objective is “to bring together people with a concern for the many hundreds of European cemeteries, isolated graves and monuments in South Asia.” Those buried include not only soldiers but also missionaries, civil servants, sailors, traders and other foreigners. The London-based organisation has facilitated the restoration and preservation of cemeteries, sarcophagi, obelisks and cenotaphs, as well as the transcription of gravestones, in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, among other countries in South Asia.