Sunday, November 17, 2013

Garrison Cemetery

On the North end of the Bogambara lake is the hot-bed of Kandyan history. The Sri Dalada Maligawa, the old Courts Complex, St. Paul’s Church, the museum and the Queen’s Hotel all lie clustered together here. And in their midst, nestled against a hillside, lies the British Garrison Cemetery, almost forgotten.

From its establishment in 1822, this cemetery was the designated final resting place of many British and European greats from Sri Lanka’s colonial era. Despite the 1873 ban on burials within the municipal limits, special provision were made to allow relatives of those already laid there to be buried in the 3/4 acre plot. Then after Annie Fritz’s burial in 1951, even death seems to have died to the Garrison cemetery.

But Charles Carmichael, the 62 year-old caretaker at the grounds for the last 16-plus years, still lives.  And he lives to tell it’s tale to any and all who give ear, be it a simple gardener or the crown prince of the United Kingdom.

Carmichael was working on a building site at Primrose Hill in 1997. The site happened to be the home of Durand Goonetilleke's brother. Goonetilleke was (and still is) a trustee at St. Paul's Church in Kandy, which is the custodian of the British Garrison Cemetery. At the time, schools, businesses and local government were preparing with great enthusiasm to celebrate Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary, and the arrival of Prince Charles of Wales for the occasion. On the prince's itinerary was a visit to the old commonwealth burial grounds.

Unfortunately, the cemetery wasn't exactly a pleasing sight.

"It was like a big jungle," Carmichael is unmoved at the memory. "Everything was down, graves were broken. I think during the perahera time elephants had also been kept here."

Archived images of the pre-restoration cemetery hang in the caretaker's office, telling a ghastly story of disrepair. Gravestones and monuments lie in bits and pieces, all over the grounds, stealthily but violently taken over by weeds and mana. The cemetery's British origins probably made it a favorite site of grave robbers. And if the scores of monkeys rioting on the premises even with four or five gardeners and a backhoe making a commotion are any indicator in 2013, their ancestors have left them a legacy and heritage here too.

Goonetilleke signed Carmichael on to undo the damage. It took a whole year with 20 people working day in and day out to restore the place. The broken gravestones had to be pieced back together, the demolished marble and granite replaced with bricks and mortar. But they made do. On what date? the restoration project was completed and celebrated in the presence of British parliamentarians, and arrangements were finalized for Prince Charles' visit.

On January 25, 1998, days before the celebrations, a bomb-blast shook Kandy's relative isolation from LTTE activity, causing damage to some of the city's best known historic sites. Prince Charles never arrived, but Charles Carmichael had found a permanent job as caretaker of the cemetery.

"There were no people around, and it was difficult," Carmichael remembers his first few months of work. "But I started taking walks in the area, and I got used to it."

Carmichael's regular days are easy going. He opens up the gates at the end of the long windy road past the Cultural Triangle Office, at 8am, and gets to whatever maintenance work must be done. Then he must employ himself until late in the evening, around 6pm, when he closes up and makes his way home to his wife, children and grandchildren. In between, he's got himself JP Lewis’s 'List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon’ to keep him occupied. Over the years, Carmichael has read, learnt, filled the gaps in, and internalized the stories of those long gone, who travelled thousands of miles over weeks and months, lived a hard life in an alien environment, and died far from home.

Now when visitors arrive at the British Garrison Cemetery, Carmichael gives them an insider's tour of the nearly 200 graves. When Prince Charles of Wales finally visited the British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, on November 16, 2013, 15 years after the original tour date, he did it again.

"I consider him a regular tourist," Carmichael shrugs, "except I had change the words a bit, add a 'Your Majesty' or a 'Your Highness' here and there!"

Captain James McGlashan was the first dead person the prince was introduced to.

McGlashan, Carmichael says, was a distinguished soldier who made a name for himself in many battles. There are question about who this McGlashan really was and where he really fought, but one thing is for sure; he was somewhat reckless. The story goes that, confident of his physical prowess, McGlashan accepted a wager, and walked from Trincomalee to Kandy. On the way, he was drenched continuously in the tropical rains, and four days after his arrival in the city, forced to accept his fate at the hands of a violent fever.

"He won the bet, but he lost his life," Carmichael shrugs, bemused.

If the records are correct, McGlashan was 26 when he died. And if the records are correct, many others of those buried here died that young.

Alice Higgs, wife of Francis Wharton Le Marchand, died on January 24, 1859, giving birth to her first child. She was 20. A brochure printed by the Friends of the British Garrison Cemetery says John Robertson was the seventh and last recorded European to be killed by a wild elephant in then Ceylon. Robertson was 33 years old, possibly out hunting, when the elephant gave chase. Reports are divided but he was either killed by the creature or all the running caused sunstroke that led to his death.

Having dwelt in these stories for years, Carmichael has earned some license with them, and guesses that "maybe he was fat" and just almost laughs as he says it.

Others have died at 35, 30, 27 and a William Sydney Smith "21 years and 9 months" as one inscription reads. It hints at a bittersweet awareness that one pays in some way or the other for the privileges of a colonial life in the tropics.

William Elleray, surgeon, died at 33. "How could the others have survived?" Carmichael asks, half joking, but evidently stumped.

Worse still is a memorial stone erected in the memory of the "five infant sons" of "G and M Wait." But Carmichael knows the story is not as sad as it seems; there were 14 children in that family, he says.

And in the stillness of the midday sun, the weathered caretaker still has stories left to tell, all heart-filling in some way.

Margaret Griegson knew at 69 that she didn't have much time left. She was determined to see her son, serving on the forces in Ceylon, one last time before she quit the earth. So she boarded a ship at London, survived the trip to the tropics, and after three or four blissful months spent living her final wish, died where her child was.

Not much is known of Oteline Rudd except that she died at 37 years, and that she was the wife of William Rudd, a wealthy merchant. Carmichael says our own Robin Hood, the well-known Saradiyel once decided Rudd's treasure was extravagant enough to deserve his attention and plunder. He imagines the robbery "didn't even touch Rudd" who, it is said, owned whole mountain ranges and provinces in India and Sri Lanka. But as many great men have fallen, it is also said of him that he was ultimately not left with a chair in his name to sit on.

It is hard, very hard indeed, to imagine the richness of the history that lies buried in the grounds of the British Garrison Cemetery. Some are tales of simple folk, some of such greats as John D’Oyly, John Frasier and Lady Elizabeth Gregory. Carmichael loves telling their stories, and teaches them to 22 year-old Harsha who he believes will take his place when it comes his turn to live on the other side of the grass. But not many venture their way.

As the sun sets on the hills, Charles Carmichael locks up the small wrought-iron gate, closes up the caretaker’s office and prepares to leave. He walks down the windy road, freshly-tarred for Prince Charles’ visit, making a wish: “that more people will come tomorrow.”

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