Scottish team in Kolkata to restore 200-year-old cemetery


Kolkata : An eight-member team of conservationists from Scotland has flown into this city to restore its 200-year-old Scottish Cemetery, a relic of British rule, with at least 1,800 graves.

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The team from the Scottish Heritage Society, which arrived here Sunday night, is led by Edinburgh-based conservation architect James Simpson.

The conservationists are in the country at the behest of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust and the Church of North India (CNI), which administers Protestant churches.

On Monday, members of the St Andrew’s Church (part of the CNI that manages the cemetery), representatives of Intach’s Kolkata chapter and the team from the Scottish Heritage Society met here to draw up a tentative blueprint for the restoration project.

The blueprint, said project head James Simpson, divides the project into three components – training local workers in use of mortar as lime and plaster; creation of a green lung in the city modelled on the urban plans developed by Patrick Geddes, a 19th century Scottish town planning and ecology pioneer; and the actual restoration of the cemetery.

“There is so much work to be done. The most important thing is to train the local workers in lime mortar and lime plaster work so that they can restore the wonderful heritage buildings in the city,” Simpson, who represents the Scottish conservation architects’ firm Simpson & Brown, told IANS.

“Moreover, the government in Scotland is very keen to restore the historical links between India and Scotland,” he said.

The Scottish reconnaissance team comprises members of the Simpson and Brown Architects with Addyman Archaeology, The Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), the Scottish Highland Council and the Kolkata-based Manish Chakraborti architects.

The Scottish Heritage Society and Intach will set up a Lime Training Centre to train masons from the neighbourhood of Kolkata and Murshidabad district – which supplies the bulk of the masons to the city – in the use of lime as mortar and as a plastering medium, the way it was used in the European buildings 200 years ago.

The dense overgrowth covering the graves and the 20-feet high vegetation on the premises have been cleared by St Andrews’s Church and Intach to facilitate documentation and assessment of the property.

Simpson said it was touching to read inscriptions about people from remote parishes in Aberdeenshire, Paisley and Glasgow – all those who died far from home. The team, said Simpson, will return to Scotland at the end of the week to prepare a project report and raise funds.

“By early 2009, we will be ready with a workable restoration model,” he said.

Simpson, however, refused to divulge the estimates saying the cost would run to a “big six figure sum in sterling pounds”.

The cemetery located on Karaya Road in the bustling Park Circus area of the city has at least 1,800 graves, including that of economist James Wilson, founder of The Economist magazine, Rev. James Jones, whose 1849 epitaph describes him as the founding father of the Khasi alphabet and the pioneer of the Welsh Presbyterian Mission in the Khasi Hills.

The graves are old and are of high antique value – as some of them are made of Aberdeen granite and marble. The cemetery was founded when the first batch of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries arrived in the country in 1815.

According to the convenor of Intach’s Kolkata chapter G.M. Kapoor, who is part of the project, the Scots laid the city’s commercial foundation – its jute mills along the Ganga, tea gardens and the early processing units.

“They were hardy people from the highlands. Post independence, when the relatives of those buried here left the country the graves fell on bad times with no one to tend to them. It became derelict,” Kapoor, who is the driving force behind the project, told IANS, explaining the historical significance of the project.