Cemetery Details

Tehkal Cemetery in Peshawar

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The gate house
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Photo by Dr Ali Jan
View from the East End
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Photo by Dr Ali Jan
Cemetery middle section
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Photo by Dr Ali Jan
The oldest graves in the cemetery
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Photo by Dr Ali Jan
The rear gate
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General view of the cemetery
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The following is taken from "Peshawar Cemetery" By Dr Ali Jan

Peshawar’s Gora Qabristan is a vestige of a Victorian era that is disappearing tombstone by tombstone through vandalism and religious intolerance

“The romance of the North West Frontier of undivided British India is legendary. Peshawar was the forward base of the British for a little under one hundred years and by taking an hour or two to walk round the cemetery, it is possible to absorb the whole history of the border area without the need to plough through history books, or struggle with complicated military analyses. Here, engraved on stone and marble, the story unfolds in a poignant and vivid manner — the soldiers who died in action in the confrontations with Afghanistan and the Tribal people, their wives and children who followed them to the heat and discomfort of what was then, and to a certain extent still is a classic “frontier town”, civil administrators, businessmen, medical staff, clergy — all are represented and are part of the jigsaw which makes up the Peshawar Cemetery.” (Susan Maria Farrington, BACSA 1988)

The first recorded English burial in India took place in Bengal in 1631. In the following centuries the number of graves in the subcontinent peaked at two million. However, today, most of these cemeteries are in various stages of decay while others have entirely disappeared. [1] The Christian cemetery in Peshawar or the ‘Gora Qabristan’ is one such surviving cemetery of the Victorian Era.

Reverend James Worthington Jukes in his reminiscences Missionary work Peshawar 1873-1890 recorded the following graveyards in the 19th century: Old City Cemetery (no longer exists); Saddar Cemetery (at the back of the CMH, no longer exists); Old Jamrud Road Cemetery (inside the PAF base since the aerodrome’s extension); Tehkal Cemetery (present ‘Gora Qabristan’, located on the busy Jamrud Road).

About the old city, the Reverend noted in 1876 that there was a cemetery in the North East of Kohati Gate of the walled city: “...in which many English officers and soldiers were buried at a time when Peshawar was first occupied, before the present cantonments were laid out”.

The Tehkal cemetery (Gora Qabristan) lies at the entrance to the Khyber Pass. It is sheltered by tall peepal, sheesham and palm trees that are as old as the cemetery itself. As soon as one enters the elegant lych-gate, fine marble crosses in various English and Celtic styles greet the visitor. A bit further, various coloured square headstones and obelisks abound far and wide. They chronicle Peshawar’s history and bear the epitaphs of battles fought and British lives lost in the region. In the distance one can see the Khyber Hills, snow-capped in winters. It is mainly for its historical importance that the cemetery has now become a kind of a tourist destination and finds a mention in most travel books and regional guides.

Whilst wandering amongst the graves, one often comes across interesting epitaphs:

“In the loving memory of Sub Conductor CEW Waters, IASC. Died Peshawar, 28 October, 1933, as a result of burns received in gallantly fighting a fire. Aged 30 years”.

The British had this urge to carve a bit of England here. Unable to find foxes, they engaged in sporting eccentricities such as jackal hunting — ‘Frontier’ style. One headstone evokes memories of the famed ‘PVH’:

“Lt. Col. Walter Irvine IMS. Chief Medical Officer NWFP who lost his life in the Nagoman River when leading the Peshawar Vale Hunt of which he was Master; 26th January, 1919. Ever faithful to duty, ever loyal in friendship”.

Among many notable personalities buried here, one distinctive grave belongs to Isador Loewenthal. It bears a Pushto inscription on the side. He was an oriental scholar and an Evangelist missionary who led a remarkable life. Under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, he translated the New Testament in Pushto and embarked upon compiling a Pushto dictionary before he was killed accidentally on 27 April, 1864, aged 37, by his chokidar who mistook him for an intruder.

The British Army had launched hundreds of campaigns and Frontier expeditions from 1840s onwards. Many military regiments are represented here. Companies and battalions whose names still evoke the pomp of monarchy: 10th Royal Fusiliers, 42nd Royal Highlanders; Royal Horse Artillery; King’s Dragoon Guards. The names also indicate the extent of the spread of the Raj: Bengal Artillery; Queen’s Own Madras Sappers; 11th Sikh Regiment and so on.

Although, these magnificent monuments aptly portray the pomp and show of the empire, yet a deeper study of the inscriptions also reveals harrowing tales of the hardships faced by the English in this harsh and hostile land. Life was not easy on the Frontier. Perhaps no other place in the subcontinent offers such a striking snapshot of the mortals in their dying moments as this: “stabbed to death”; “shot by tribesmen”; “assassinated by Ghazi”; “fell from horse”, “killed in Afghan war”; “shot by accident”; “drowned”. The non-violent causes of death were often: ‘heat exhaustion’, ‘influenza’, ‘enteric fever’, ‘dysentery’, ‘malaria’ and so on.

Adding poignancy to the setting are a number of graves belonging to women and children — families of those who left their pastoral homelands and are buried here:

“In the loving memory of our darling baby boy Lindsay Owen. Son of Sergeant and Mrs Hyson. E Divisional Signals. Died 1 Dec, 1922. Aged 5 months. We loved him well. God loved him best”.

“...In the loving memory of Susan, the dearly beloved wife of Frank Brooks, chemist of Peshawar, who died 12 Dec, 1928”.

Alas, with the passage of time, the cemetery has declined due both to natural and man-made causes. Media columnist, Susan Taylor Martin, gives an apt description. She writes: “Today, the cemetery looks forlorn and abandoned. Weeds straggle up through parched, bare earth. Dead leaves skitter over broken hunks of marble. Many of the tombstones are so caked with dirt it is impossible to read the inscriptions. Others are so old that time and weather have worn off any clue as to who lies below.”

The lovely bougainvillea, creeping over the main entrance has been chopped. Water seeps through the roof of the stylish lych-gate during rain showers. Moreover, trespassers can easily scale the boundary walls at the back and hundreds of priceless decorative monuments have been stolen or vandalized. Many pipal trees are afflicted by, what appears to be a form of plant disease and are dying. Since the cemetery is still in use by the local Christians for burials, haphazard encroachment of new graves over older ones is a major problem.

The cemetery has been desecrated on more than one occasion. In 1979, a rowdy mob, reacting to a false rumour of a Christian takeover of the holy sites in Mecca, ransacked it and damaged several crosses. Similar scenes were witnessed in the aftermath of the recent American attacks on Afghanistan. A perturbed gentleman wrote a protest letter in a national daily:

“This is with reference to the desecration and vandalism of the Christian cemetery at Peshawar on Eid day. It did not ever occur to me that even the dead have their share of the vile hatred which is overtaking the country. As a Christian native of Peshawar, where I have family members buried, I strongly condemn in no uncertain terms what was done.” (Dawn 2002)

In order to preserve cemeteries in the subcontinent, a UK based charity, British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA) was established in 1978. A need was also felt to document all headstones before they perished. It was a seemingly daunting task and Susan Farrington of BACSA deserves the credit for undertaking this good deed. She set out on an ambitious project in 1980s to record and photograph nearly 1200 inscriptions in Peshawar alone. Although her exhaustive survey has included 260 other cemeteries and churches all over Pakistan, but she confesses that the Peshawar cemetery occupies a special place in her heart. During the course of her research she discovered that some of her own ancestors had served in Peshawar.

Peshawar Cemetery & Monumental Inscriptions II published by BACSA in 1988 (reprinted 1989/2001) are the outcome of her painstaking research. The books are the best-known resource on the subject. They carry detailed inscriptions and plans of the cemeteries and other useful information. Cherry Godin, a scion of A. Godin’s Piano & Record Store fame — which is the last surviving vestige of the Raj days in Saddar — is also in charge of the Peshawar Cemetery Board. Godin has been highlighting the plight of the cemeteries and has drawn the attention of concerned quarters towards their preservation on many occasions; but on the contrary, they keep deteriorating further. The funds available for the upkeep are modest, so if you ever visit the cemetery do not forget to tip the caretaker, Fakir Hussain.

Years back, tombstones from the old city cemetery were salvaged and had been set into the boundary wall of Gora Qabristan. They all dated from the earliest days of the British presence in Peshawar, so in their way they were quite historic. The earliest stone was from 1849. Sadly, when the expansion work on Jamrud Road began recently it took a large chunk of the burial ground and the wall was raised to rubble. It also endangered the 150-year-old peepal trees lining the sidewall, but better sense prevailed in the end and they were spared.

The Victorian cemeteries are of immense importance from a historical point of view. They are irreplaceable landscapes and have been neglected for decades everywhere in Pakistan. They must be included in the threatened monuments and the heritage lists. Besides local initiatives by citizens, the British and Pakistan governments and their agencies need to play a more proactive role in their upkeep. Moreover, the involvement of national and international NGOs in their conservation is also necessary to seek a broader base of support.

Recently, a group of school children in Karachi cleaned up the 19th century Wallace Bridge on McLeod Road. Surely, we can launch similar campaigns in other parts of the country to salvage our surviving heritage sites and historic landmarks before they are erased from our collective consciousness.

Source: © DAWN Group of Newspapers 12 June 2005

Note: All surviving tombstones in the cemetery have been photographed by Dr Ali Jan of the Sarhad Conservation Network.


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