Entering Admiral Dawson’s residence generates a feeling of stepping into another era. The high wooden gate opens to a driveway, lined on either side by huge trees and colourful hedges. A vintage car stands at the entrance. The bungalow itself is straight out of history – tiled roof, monkey-tops and a small veranda leading to the inner rooms.
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The antique teak furniture – a small wooden table, a couple of chairs and a pair of sofas – add to the beauty of the place. Plaques and photographs from the Admiral’s long and outstanding career in Indian Navy decorate the walls. The Admiral himself is very punctual in that typical armed forces way, courteous and very earnest.
The Admiral is fighting another battle after retiring as the Chief of Indian Navy – that of restoring old war cemeteries like Agram (Army Grounds Royal Artillery Maidan) Cemetery in Bengaluru. “Every soldier fights for the country, for you; he saves your life by giving his and the least we can do is to remember him for his deeds” – the Admiral’s words rang in my mind for a long time.”
“There are many war cemeteries in India. Except for the two cemeteries in Delhi and Kohima Palel that receive substantial funds from War Graves Commission, the rest are not up to the international standards. What we don’t realise is that these cemeteries, apart from honouring the dead, reflect the events, society and architecture of those times. In Agram, for example, apart from the military, there are graves of entire families who sadly succumbed during the cholera and plague epidemics that hit the city during the 1820s. The cemetery has graves that are almost 200 years old,” he says.
“When did you start revival work on these forgotten cemeteries?” I interrupted. “It started with my efforts to maintain my parent’s graves in Kalpally. I have done a lot of work there and eventually a letter from one of the descendents led me to Agram. The problem at Agram then was that no one knew its significance or under whose jurisdiction it fell. The cemetery cannot be viewed or entered into by anyone because the area belongs to the Indian Army”.
The Admiral then displayed huge plastic folders full of old photos, newspaper clippings, letters, maps, documents and other details pertaining to the Agram cemetery and his restoration efforts.
Agram Cemetery is situated behind the ASC Officers Mess, off Trinity Road. It is an L shaped plot covering an area of 4.8 acres and located in the triangle created by Richmond Road, Trinity Road and Lower Agram Road. Behind the cemetery are the quarters of Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP).
An old map from the Admiral’s dossiers, however, has landmarks of the cantonment era.The ASC Officers Mess was a riding school back then and the KSRP is shown as D&S Club. This land was used as a Protestants Cemetery until 1870 and is a part of the earliest cantonment base in the city. It contains graves with numerous architectural and sculptural features.
The most striking of them are two 40 feet Ionic pillars that stand out as sentinels to this place. Under one of them, amid the thick vegetation, is an inscription that reads, “Beneath a tomb close to this pillar rests the mortal remains of Lieut. John Pott, HM. 13th Dragoons, who died on 31st January 1822.” The cemetery has a total of 824 graves, out of which only 380 can be identified. Most of the names are Anglican – British Military and their families.
The oldest grave is dated as far back as 1808. The latest one is that of Major General PKD Kapur buried here in 1991. The tomb inscriptions reveal some interesting tales of the past era. One of the soldiers buried here was executed because he refused to drink his tot of rum! (Rum was considered to ward off infection from plague or cholera epidemics and by refusing to drink, the soldier paid a heavy price)
Admiral Dawson has single-handedly led a decade long fight in saving and restoring the Agram Cemetery. Until the Admiral started the revival efforts in the late nineties, the cemetery was in a very bad state. Some area had been encroached by Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP) and many granite tomb stones were missing. Vandals had removed the brass and metal inscriptions on many tombs.
Some graves also bore the brunt of tree fells during heavy rains. The Admiral’s collection of photos show loose slabs scattered over the area, tombs with missing granite slabs, thick vegetation, shrubs and garbage. The Admiral played a key role in setting up a committee that had representatives of all concerned establishments – the KSRP, Madras Engineer Group (MEG) and Army Service Corps (ASC) to preserve the area. MEG assisted him in mapping all the graves and listing the names.
Due to his sustained efforts, the Karnataka government has declared the cemetery as a ‘Heritage Site’. David Bernard of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia visits Bangalore frequently to seek assistance and funds towards maintenance of the military graves. Another gentleman who assists the Admiral is Ronnie Johnson; his website provides many photographs and details from the Admiral’s dossiers.
The Admiral, Mr Bernard and I entered through the ASC Officers Mess entrance. Havaldar Rajbir greeted us at the canteen area. A small entrance in the back of the premises led us to the cemetery. On the left was a well-maintained grave of Major General PKD Kapur. On the right was a very old simple tomb, its inscriptions almost faded. The soldier solved the problem by rubbing brick on the granite slab and the letters came to life! It read, ‘In the memory of the Farrier John Roberts, The Kings Dragoons’. Mr Bernard explained that the Farriers were the cavalry – horse regiment of those times.
The cemetery was a mix of Spartan graves like this one with just a granite inscription and others that ranged from stupa-like structures, obelisks and the two 40 feet Ionic columns. As we went further, the vegetation grew thicker. The Admiral told us that the trees and shrubs have grown back since the last time he visited and the place would need a bulldozer to clear the thicket.
In some places the trees have grown over the granite tomb inscriptions with its roots very firmly entwined around it. He narrated a strange case of one tomb which was intact as the tree roots had grown around it giving an artistic touch to the grave. Clearing such trees has to be done carefully since it can damage the graves. We walked ahead until we reached an old gate at the KSRP boundary wall and the Admiral discussed the possibilities of using this entrance for the visitors. On the way back, I saw the two huge columns standing tall. The tombs near its base, however, were covered in thick shrubs.
“There is still a lot of work to be done. Restoration work has to be started. Since the graves are built using traditional lime mortar, cement cannot be used. Proper conservation has to be ensured”, explained the Admiral. He showed me a newspaper clipping of the Srirangapatna Garrison Cemetery restoration done by the Swiss De Meuron family. “I have contacted them to get more information on the restoration work and the estimates”. Mr Bernard was also in Bangalore recently to meet an architect who has experience in cemetery architectures/sculptures. All this requires adequate funding.
Initially, the Admiral approached the church establishments. The Catholics backed out as it was a Protestant cemetery. “Will the soldier ask the caste or religion of a person whom he safeguards? But my ideals were not shared by many”, he remarked sadly. His discussions with INTACH also did not help much. His ambitious plan, the ‘Agram Hall of Remembrance’, a memorial that houses an art gallery and an exhibition space was canned due to lack of funds. Still he has hope. At 85, he doggedly pursues this huge task with tenacity and dedication. Hopefully, with his efforts and more funds, Agram Cemetery can be restored to a better condition. ⊕
Agram Cemetery – by Admiral O.S.Dawson, PVSM, AVSM