Home Feature Dehradun’s Book of the Departed

Dehradun’s Book of the Departed


Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

At not too distant a time, when the British and tigers were still abundant in the Doon Valley, it was in vogue for the civil servants and those in public life to write big tomes dedicated to recording their memoirs or official gazetteers. Penning memoirs, both personal as well as official was par for the course for the British residents and often this peculiar colonial and Raj genre took a few thick volumes to satisfy the sense of obligation that its authors felt towards committing their thoughts for posterity. However, there is no field of human endeavour in which there is no exception to the common tradition.

Residing at Dick Road in Dalanwala, the serene and sylvan suburb of Dehradun, AR Gill put together a very modest and slim volume with an equally unexceptional title, “The Valley of Doon” in 1952. This work of AR Gill defies the usual genres by being not a history, a memoir or a travel guide or just a compendium of useful data. Yet it manages in its modest word count to touch upon all these aspects.

That Gill was at heart a pucca Doon-wala is evident from his writing fondly of the Valley, its rivers, its monuments, the historically important places and also a brief note about some of the eminent personalities that lived, prospered and died in the Valley.

Where AR Gill’s achievement soars above those of his contemporaries was in the fact that he very patiently and painstakingly created a wonderful catalogue of the people who lie buried in the different burial grounds and cemeteries that are spread across the Dehradun District. I will revert to Gill’s specific contribution in this field a little later but before that we need to contextualize the effort and its cultural and social implications since the major portion of the book is about cemeteries in the district, their location, their management and the records of the burials.

Cemeteries have been around since the earliest days of socialisation of the homo-sapiens. In real terms, burial grounds and specifically graves and their contents have aided the progress of archaeology and given empirical evidence of the cultural practices of civilisations as dispersed as Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Prehistoric cultures were defined by their burial culture, for example the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age.

The word cemetery has its origin in Greek, meaning “sleeping place”. Initially, the term cemetery was applicable to Roman underground catacombs but about the seventh century AD onwards, burials in Europe were regulated as per the dictates of the Church. This meant that Christian burials were largely in churchyards, also known as grave yards. Over time this led to a host of problems in succeeding centuries.

The Agricultural Revolution, which later aided the Industrial Revolution in Britain and also in Europe, resulted in population increase as well its density in urbanised and industrial centres. The consequence of this was that the limited space available in churchyards was found to be too meager to meet the burial needs of this human influx in the domain of the various churches. Overcrowded graveyards became insanitary and were the cause of epidemics and outbreak of infectious diseases. This crisis in finding burial places for the dead was felt right across Europe where burial practices were overwhelmingly decided by the Church. The situation was indeed grave and a consensus was building for taking a pragmatic approach to finding a solution.

As a measure to combat this social problem many European nations legislated to ban burials in the congested church graveyards. As an alternative to the graveyards, municipal authorities provided new sites outside towns and cities for the burial of the dead. These cemeteries were run by the local municipal body or by special corporations, independent from the Church. The British Parliament in 1832 specifically acknowledged the need to establish large municipal cemeteries outside the city of London.

As per the estimates of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, over two million men, women and children of European origin lie buried in the different cemeteries and church graveyards in the subcontinent and the implication of this is that genealogies and family trees of innumerable families, famous and ordinary, would be incomplete if their ancestors or descendants were not traced to their final resting places in the subcontinent. The sense of emotional fulfillment that is experienced by the researcher of family history on locating the tombstone, monument or simply the entry in the burial record registers of his forbears is nothing short of a miracle. Such discoveries by family history researchers complete a broken bond with long lost dear ones. At such times, researchers often get a bonus for their painstaking effort when they realise that neighbouring graves are the ones of other relatives as it was often the case that close relations were laid to rest in adjacent spots in the cemetery. Locating the graves of ancestors also helped in establishing the place where they lived since in yesteryears most people were buried in proximity of their usual place of residence. Establishing the actual place of burial of an ancestor completes a page in the family history. Further, there was the chance to glean more biographical information about the buried relation as tombs and headstones often had inscribed the profession or name of a loved spouse.

While an inquisitive mind and modern tools like cameras and GPS devices are positive assets in searching for ancestors among the headstones in cemeteries and graveyards, AR Gill’s work is indispensable. His list of burials starts from 1821 though the British had got possession of the Doon Valley only in 1815 on the conclusion of the Anglo-Gurkha War. For those whose ancestors toiled and took pleasure in the valley of Dehradun, Gill has done unabridged yeoman’s service by discussing and cataloging the district’s cemeteries at Chandernagar, Clement Town, Prem Nagar, Rajpur, Kailana, Kalsi, and Chakrata along with a list of persons who are interred at the different burial grounds. Interestingly, Gill mentions that a hotel in Rajpur, the Caledonian Hotel, was a popular halt for travellers to Mussoorie or Landour. Many who stopped at the hotel were sick and elderly and at times they made peace with their maker at the Caledonian which provided a unique amenity to such guests. The hotel had its own private burial ground to lay to rest its recent dear departed.

In an age that had not yet seen public parks and gardens, cemeteries often took their place for those who sought the seclusion and scenic calm amongst the carefully tended grassy spaces, trees, shrubs and flower beds spread across acres of enclosed space that the cemeteries provided for the peaceful repose of the dead. Particularly in the USA, the so called rural cemeteries were landscapes of unusual charm and beauty. Interestingly these cemeteries were called “Memorial Parks” instead of the pedestrian ‘cemetery’.

AR Gill’s, now obscure, ‘Valley of the Doon’ deserves accolades for its valuable service to the countless families that are connected with their invisible ancestors in invisible places, who passed away in the lovely and lush green valley of Doon and whose mortal remains forever mingled in the grit and gravel under the grass. JE Carrington Turner, a retired Conservator of Forests and author of some interesting shikar and jungle stories visited one of Doon’s cemeteries on 11th April, 1951, and noted: “I was at the cemetery on April 11, 1951, the anniversary of my wife’s death, and the flowers were truly a sight to behold. I stood in admiration which increased with every moment. It was just wonderful. The loveliest spot in Dehra Dun.As it should be.”

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of ‘The Suswa Saga; A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun (2011) and The Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun (2017). He can be reached at: chpradeepsingh@gmail.com)