The Baha’i section of the graveyard. Photographs by Nayan Shah/Mint
In death, the occupants of the Antop Hill cemeteries are packed together more cosily with other members of their communities than they had been in life. Though people in the same profession or belonging to the same ethnic group tended to converge on the same neighbourhoods in Bombay, as they did in other large cities around the world, these enclaves were rather porous.
The city had always been thrown together too tightly for rigid boundaries to endure. For the most, housing colonies that restricted ownership to members of specific religious groups had renters from other communities. Bungalows in affluent parts of town had smaller structures in the back for domestic workers or entire pockets of homes for the service staff. Significantly, the edges of most neighbourhoods were fuzzy, leaving intermediate zones in which no particular group was dominant.
Of all the groups buried on Antop Hill, only the Chinese had their own residential cluster—a single lane near the docks in Mazagaon they shared with Parsi, Catholic and Maharashtrian neighbours. On Chinese New Year, some of the 5,500 members of the community still gather outside the Kwan Tai Shek temple in the area to light crackers and perform dragon dances.
The earliest Chinese settlers had arrived in Bombay around 1850 to work at a factory the Parsi merchant Framjee Cawasjee had opened in Powai to manufacture silk, tea and sugar. Other Chinese people found employment as carpenters in the docks. Their graves, relocated to Antop Hill from Shuklaji Street in Byculla, are testimony to their ability to retain a sense of identity in an environment that has occasionally been overtly hostile, and to adapt to their changing circumstances.
While the older gravestones bear inscriptions in Chinese, the newer ones are in English. Over the decades, fewer community members have learned how to write the old script, and sculptors with the ability to engrave these on the tombs have vanished.
The Armenians, whose ancestors came to India as traders, have lived in Bombay since 1676, when they were offered concessions by the East India Company to settle in the islands. At first, they buried their dead in the compound of a home in Byculla, but in 1813 were moved to a burial ground in Girgaum.
Many Armenian graves in the Antop Hill cemetery are marked by crosses decorated with vines, a motif that symbolizes regeneration—a state of grace that is sadly beyond the community’s grasp.
In 1983, with their numbers dwindling, the Armenians allowed the Baha’i community to share their cemetery, just as they would later grant Bombay’s Syrian Christians use of their ancient church on Medows Street in the Fort.
The Chinese section
Today, there’s only one Armenian left in the city, Zabel Joshi née Hayakian, who found a home in Bombay after she married a city businessman she met in Beirut.
The Baha’is were allotted space on Antop Hill in 1905, just twelve years after the death of the founder of their faith, Baha’u’llah, in Akká in present-day Israel.
Bombay has always had a close association with the young faith. Baha’u’llah’s son, Mirza Muhammad Ali, travelled here in the early 1880s to supervise the publication of his father’s texts.
Baha’i texts teach that cemeteries must look like a gulistan (‘garden’ in Persian), so floral motifs are common on the Antop Hill graves. Flower plants fill the plot, a burst of serenity in the concrete-laden neighbourhood.
City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay: By Naresh Fernandes, Aleph, 120 pages, Rs 295
Next to the Armenians and Baha’is lie members of the Prarthana Samaj, the Maharashtrian sibling of the Brahmo Samaj reform movement started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal only two decades before the Antop Hill cemeteries were opened.
The men and women who rest here were passionately involved in India’s intellectual life. Narayan Chandavarkar, for instance, served as president of the Indian National Congress in 1900. Near him is the grave of Balwant Nagarkar, who accompanied Swami Vivekananda to a meeting of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
Reflecting a very Bombay desire to be modern without completely discarding tradition, the Prarthana Samaj devised its own death rituals, cremating members and then burying their ashes. That was entirely in keeping with the vision of the Prarthana Samaj pioneer, M.G. Ranade. ‘The dead and the buried are dead, buried and burnt once for all, and the dead past cannot, therefore, be revived except by a reformation of the old materials into new organised beings’, he had written.
The most intriguing of all the graveyards doesn’t exist anymore. The burial ground for Jewish prostitutes was first encroached by slum dwellers and then requisitioned for a transportation project.
A Baha’i grave
It started operations in 1869, the year the Suez Canal was inaugurated. Trade and passenger traffic to India grew significantly. But the establishment of regular steamer communication, a book on the Bombay police complained later, brought ‘the riff-raff of Europe’ to the city.
‘Before the opening of the Suez Canal… the foreign prostitute from Eastern Europe was practically unknown in Bombay and such immorality as it existed was confined to women of Eurasian or Indian parentage’, the book said.
So many Eastern European women found their way to the Kamathipura red light district that Cursetji Shuklaji Street, where they settled, came to be known as safed gully or white lane. (Japanese women also had their own quarter in the neighbourhood, but they mainly entertained their compatriots. Some of them lie in a plot on Haines Road in Worli.) Though there’s no trace of the Jewish prostitutes’ graveyard, the classified ads in today’s tabloids make it clear that the charms of women from Eastern Europe still hold considerable appeal in Bombay.
Naresh Fernandes is the former editor of Time Out Mumbai and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age. City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, will be released on 1 October.