To the Memory of...Kathmandu's British Cemetery

Features Issue 76 Jul, 2010

For an historically enlightening walk one day, a friend and I went to see something quite unique in Kathmandu—the British Embassy Cemetery.

Not only did we want to see this quiet garden with its grey tombstones and scarlet poinsettias, but we also sought a glimpse of history available through the names and dates of some who lie buried here. To visit the site we first sought permission from British Embassy staff who guided us along the narrow lane behind the Embassy in Lainchaur and down the hill to the edge of Samakhosi. On the north side of the road we came to a gated archway with a simple sign: ‘British Embassy, Founded 1816’ (in English and Nepali). The site is called ‘Kapur Dhara’, which literally translated means ‘camphor waterspout’.

More likely, however, the name is a corruption of kapardar, an old Nepali word for ‘cemetery’. To passers by the site is known colloquially as the Belaiti chihan, the ‘British graveyard’, but many who pass this way each day probably have no idea what, or who, lies within.

Each society has its own way of putting its dead ‘to sleep’, so to speak. Some cremate, others bury, and some turn the bodies over to vultures to dispose. Unless a body is buried with a headstone, or a memorial plaque is installed somewhere to remember the deceased, it is difficult to learn much history from the disposal of the dead. European and American societies, however, have cemeteries dedicated to the eternal sleep of the dead by interment, with engraved headstones to remind visitors who’s who, resting underfoot. The notion of ‘sleep’ is a common euphemism for the final rest of the deceased and ‘cemetery’ ultimately means just that. It is derived from Middle English cimitery, with origins traceable back through French and Latin to Greek koimeterion, or ‘dormitory’, from koiman, ‘put to sleep’.

Apparently, it was early Greek Christians who first applied the term to a burial ground. The notion of a cemetery as a ‘dormitory’ harks back to an obsolete meaning of that word as ‘a place for repose of the dead’, from Latin dormire, meaning ‘to lie dormant’ or ‘sleep’. (I wonder how many college and university students who reside in ‘dormitories’ know this archaic meaning of the term—as a place for the dead.)

In recent years, the study of cemeteries has become popular among school children in the West, and by historians and anthropologists around the world, all seeking a glimpse into a community’s past. In Nepal the choice is limited. There’s a memorial plaque at the site of the Thai Airlines crash of 1992, and there is a cemetery near Lele at the site of the Pakistan Airlines crash of the same year; but not all who died in that crash are buried there. One entire family of the Pakistan air crash casualties, Andrew and Helen Wilkins and their three children, are buried in the British cemetery. Seeing their tombstone temporarily put a somber edge on our visit.

Nepal also has numerous Muslim graveyards, especially in the Terai, as well as Gurung and other ethnic graveyards near villages in the mid-hills. But, there is only one British cemetery, and (with rare exception) you have to be a British citizen to be buried in it. If you have any notions or curiosity about the past two centuries of British presence in Nepal, you’ll appreciate the significance of some names on the cemetery’s oldest headstones.

Long before a proper embassy, a British Residence was established in Nepal in 1816 (though a representative was sent briefly a few years earlier). The original Residence compound is now the Indian Embassy. In 1954, seven years after Indian Independence (1947), the old Residence was turned over to the Goverment of India for their embassy. The current British Embassy was built after that, a short distance away. The cemetery stayed with the British, though it is physically separate from the embassy compound.

Our first impression upon entering the cemetery gate was of peacefulness in the midst of the cacophony and commotion of the surrounding neighborhood. Just outside the gate cars and motorcycles roar by, taxis queue for passengers and farmers sell produce on the street side. Once we were inside the cemetery gate, however, Samakhosi seemed far away.

We were aware of several recent burials, from the late 20th century, but were curious at first about those from the preceding century. We commented on the fact that several of the graves are for children of early British Residence staff. One from the early 1800s reads: “Sacred to the memory of Alice Mary youngest daughter of Captain William Boyd Irwin.”

Alice Mary’s tombstone says that she died 13 days after birth. Life in Kathmandu in those days was not easy, and many children succumbed to disease and infection, a century before the discovery of penicillin. The relatives of other Residence staff are also interred here. One is the wife of Dr Daniel Wright, MD. Her grave monument is one of the largest and most prominent in the cemetery. It reads: “Sacred to the memory of Ceclilia Ann Broughton the beloved wife of Surgeon D. Wright M.D., Residence Surgeon at Katmandoo, obiit 17, 1873.” Wright’s son, Alexander, is buried under the same monument.

Daniel Wright served as the Residence Surgeon, or chief medical officer, for ten years, 1866 to 1876. He, like others posted to the isolation of Kathmandu, not only performed his official duties but also pursued intellectual interests. He is noted for collecting and preserving a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts and Tibetan block-printed books, all of which he donated to the Cambridge University Library. Wright also wrote the extensive History of Nepal: With an Introductory Sketch of the Country and People of Nepal, published by Cambridge University Press in 1877 (available today in reprint editions).

Remarkably, he wrote it in Parbatiya (Nepali; translated by Munshi Shew Shunker Singh and Pandit Shri Gunanand). In it he notes that “in Nepal the Resident has nothing whatever to do with the Government of the country. In fact, he merely acts as consul, in the same way as the British consul at any European Court.” Then he makes an observation that is as true today as it was in his day: “The Nepalese”, he wrote, “are particularly proud of their independence, and most jealous of any interference with their domestic policy.”

Other early Residence personnel also interred in the cemetery include F.G.F. Deatker of the Indian Medical Department who died age 51 in 1842, and Hastings Young of the 63rd Regiment, Bengal Native Infantry, who briefly served as Assistant Resident. We know nothing more about young Hastings other than he was only 20 years old when he died in March 1840.

The oldest inscription in the cemetery is that of “Robert Stuart, Esq.”, son of one Sir John Stuart. Robert served as Assistant to the first British Resident “At the Court of the Raja of Nipaul”. He died and was buried in March 1820.

Since the cemetery was established in 1816, we assumed that there are graves older than Robert Stuart’s. We searched and found one small monument on the knoll that looked very old. It is so badly weathered, however, that no inscription is discernible. Given its small size, it may also have been for a child, perhaps the first to have been buried here.

We then turned away from the old gravestones and looked for those, more recent, whose names and lives were more familiar to us. Here lies our old friend, the Russian hotelier Boris Lissanevitch. Boris was born in Odessa in 1905 and died in Kathmandu in 1985. His great grandfather was a prominent Russian soldier and, in his youth, Boris, too, was a cadet, headed for a career in the Tsar’s army. During the Russian Revolution, however, he fled the country.

His life then took on a series of very different and seemingly unpredictable directions. For some years, for example, he was a dancer in the world famous Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. During the 1930s he found himself in Calcutta without citizenship or passport. Thus stranded, he and a few friends decided to open the (soon to be famous) Club 300. There Boris met royalty and politicians of several countries, especially Nepal. His friendship with King Tribhuvan and other prominent citizens of the realm eventually drew him to Kathmandu where he opened the first hotel, the Royal (with its Yak & Yeti bar), on Kantipath (where the national Election Commission office is now).

We knew him in those days, and enjoyed sitting around the Yak and Yeti fireplace in winter, sipping drinks and listening to Boris, always the raconteur, telling stories. Later he built the Yak and Yet Hotel in its present location at Lal Durbar. Boris’ long and eventful life is described in his biography, Tiger for Breakfast by Michel Peissel (1966). Somewhere along the way, Boris took British citizenship, which made him eligible for interment in the British cemetery. Beside him are the graves of his mother and the mother of his second wife, Inger, who still lives in Kathmandu.

Another of Kathmandu’s memorable characters was Frederick Ralph Bowles, more well known simply as ‘Freddie’ to those who knew him as the jovial bartender at the Malla Hotel. Freddie (1913-94) is actually buried elsewhere in the valley, but his plaque in the British cemetery serves to remind us of his wonderful character. It reads, in part: “Freddie, the bartender bard... the first Englishman to become a Nepalese citizen and who found his Shangri-la in Nepal”.

One of the more interesting graves is that of Mike Cheney (1928-1988): “In loving memory of Micheal John Cheney 10th Gurkha Rifles and Friend of Nepal.” (Was his name really ‘Micheal’, or is that a misspelling of Michael on the stone?) In the British Army he rose to the rank of Captain in an artillery regiment. After retiring, ‘Mike’ stayed on in Nepal working in the mountaineering and trekking industry, with Himalayan Rover Treks, Mountain Travel and the Sherpa Cooperative. Mike Cheney was a bit flamboyant, occasionally riding through the streets of Kathmandu on his bicycle, dressed in a Scottish kilt. His tombstone, too, is distinctive, the most unusual in the cemetery. It has a white cross along with a miniature Buddhist stupa all freshly painted when we saw it. And someone had thoughtfully left a bouquet of fresh flowers.

Desmond Doig (1921-83) is also here. Born of Anglo-Irish parents in Calcutta, he worked for some time on The Statesman newspaper, and later moved to Kathmandu. He was well known in both cities as an artist and writer. While in Calcutta he wrote a biography of Mother Teresa (Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work, 1976) and in Nepal he co-authored a mountaineering book with Sir Edmund Hillary (High in the Thin Cold Air, 1962).
As an artist he also published two books of nostalgic sketches of neighborhoods and landmarks in both cities (Calcutta: An Artist’s Impression, 1976, and My Kind of Kathmandu, 1994). His book, Look Back in Wonder (published posthumously in 1995), relates his impressions from travels in Europe, Africa, Tibet and South Asia.

Although a main requirement for interment in the British cemetery is British citizenship, there are exceptions. Robert Rieffel (1913-2000) and his wife, Cécile (1913-85), for example, were French citizens. The Rieffels first came to Nepal when Robert served as the Air France representative. Later he became Managing Director of Royal Nepal Airlines, and Honorary Consul-General for Belgium. Robert published two books, Nepal Namaste (1975 and 1987) and Nepal: Collection Les Grands Voyages (1978). The Rieffels expressed their wish to be buried at Kapur Dhara and because they were such long time residents of Kathmandu and out of respect for Cécile’s dedicated social work and, perhaps, for her closeness to the expatriate British community, an exception was made. The Rieffels lie buried together amidst the trees in the peaceful ambience of this unique resting place alongside so many other expatriates of the past.

We closed the gate behind us when we went out, leaving the deceased to ‘Rest in Peace’, knowing, full well, that there are many more stories to be told...