Fine-looking sculptured graves interspersed with lush flora-fauna and the circular Cemetery — a tranquil ‘resting place’ is set in a background of overwhelming natural beauty
By Seema Anand Chopra
As the winter sun bravely shone on a chilly November afternoon we reached the beautiful 18th century Arnos Valle Cemetery in Bristol England. We drove through majestic stone pillared Entrance of the Cemetery on a curved track towards the back of the Cemetery as the car park was outside the splendid architecture Church at the rear. We noticed that all around us were fine-looking sculptured graves interspersed with lush flora-fauna and the circular Cemetery – a tranquil ‘resting place’ is set in a background of overwhelming natural beauty!
We were in Bristol to visit the Temple-tomb of Indian Social reformist Rajah Ram Mohan Roy who lived between 1774 to 1833 and is famed as the abolisher of the cruel Sati custom in India where women were forced to enter the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. From the car park we walked towards the memorial Tomb of the Reformer from Bengal popularly known as the ‘Father of Modern India” whose work inclined towards the spheres of Law, Women’s rights and Theology. I recalled reading about his initiative to come to England in 1831 as an Ambassador of the Mughal Emperor of India Akbar Shah II to ensure that Lord Bentick’s law to ban Sati was not rejected in the Parliament. The Emperor had bequeathed the title of Rajah on him in 1829.
Rajah Ram Mohun Roy had moved to Bristol for the quiet village-life away from the bustling activity of London but he received numerous Invites everyday as his fame preceded him from London !Just 20 days later to his arrival at the Beech Home in Stapleton Grove in Bristol unfortunately he died of Meningitis . It is said that with his last breath he said the sacred word ‘Om’! He had given clear instructions for his quiet cremation and was laid to rest without any ceremony under Elm trees in the shrubbery of the lawns of his home Stapleton Grove on the 18th of October 1833. Later he was re-buried at the Arnos Vale Cemetery.
The beautifully carved limestone Chattri has a silhouette of a small all side open temple. The Stone tablet on the Chattri wall threw light on the Rajah’s life – born in 1774 in Radhanagare Bengal , he grew up to be a distinguished scholar and mastered multiple languages . He endeavored to promote the moral, physical and social condition of Indians. Importantly he was a believer in one Godhead and worshipped the Divine Spirit alone. It saddens the heart to acknowledge that this feeling is still unacceptable to most people today.
As we read the Stone Tablet under which lay the last remains of the Rajah that ‘records the sorrow and the pride with which his memory is cherished by his descendants’; my thoughts reverted to the life of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy who was born in a Brahmin family, received liberal education and worked in the East India Company for a while. Influenced by European Liberalism he soon left work to be a religious reformer. So he established the Brahmo Samaj at Calcutta in August 1828; a renaissance movement of the Hindu religion. It’s a Sanskrit word that means people who worship the ‘Brahman” the Highest Reality without discriminating between caste and creed.
After ten years of the Rajah’s death his close friend Dwarkanath Tagore commissioned a Tomb inside the Arnos Vale Cemetery. On 29th May 1843 the coffin was dug and reburied in this beautiful Chattri, a Memorial designed by William Princep that is a worthy tribute to him and justifies his memory. Today it is a national landmark where each year a public commemoration of the Rajah is held. Since September 2006 when the representatives of the Indian High Commission participated in the Death Anniversary of the Rajah, funds have been raised to maintain it and the ruined structure was restored to its present look.
Next we walked towards the Tea Shop inside the Cemetery complex with the thought that Indian History would always remember the Rajah as an inventor of secularism in India!
Reflective, we reached the Tea Shop in the complex and found many people reading and sipping tea. While placing our order for tea we chatted about the Arnos Vale and were informed that the 175 year old spot was a place to remember the loved ones and Celebrate Life – a unique interpretation of a Cemetery! Since 1839 the marvelous cemetery and wildlife of the ‘green Oasis’ of the Arnos Vale has been maintained from complete ruin. Further we read on a Board close by that it was a Heritage Site that was run by a small staff and an army of volunteers to uphold its beauty but facing deficit income. There was a special request for Donations to help continue its preservation.
We were also made conversant with the other Bristol -spots allied to Rajah Ram Mohun Roy life – the Museum, the Painting, College Greens Statue and his Beech home in the Stapleton grove which is a modern expensive apartment today with the Grove almost gone!
The Arnos Vale is Bristol’s precious- stone that is enveloped in 45 emerald acres of resplendent Victorian Gardens. The iconic working cemetery is an award-winning heritage attraction that has won the Visit England Quality Marque granted to those sites in United Kingdom that meet the national standards for visitor experience. They are proud of being the first in England to do so.
CHAPEL CRYPT CREMATORIUM
Before we left we came upon a Crematorium outside the Toilets that had been created in the crypt of the Chapel in 1929. It was a ‘big turning point’ for the locals as most Victorians found the idea of cremation as shocking contrary to the Christian Burial! Now it is slowly getting accepted as a convenient and hygienic way. The practice of cremation is being capitalized by laying out ‘Gardens of Rest’ and putting Memorial – Cloisters.
As we drove back to London I could not help but think of the lonely unexpected death of scholarly Rajah Ram Mohun Roy so far from his birthplace with so many unfinished endeavors!