Odisha was an inhospitable place for the early English settlers. Many of them fell to tropical diseases like malaria and typhoid. Among the missionaries who went to uncharted territories to spread the gospel, there were many fatalities. Cuttack was the Capital of the Odisha province for years. Both the East India Company and later the English officials administered the territory from here. Obviously, they built churches, missions and cemeteries for the Christians. Even today, Cuttack has the highest number of Christians in the state.
In the early years, many of the coffins were sent to Kolkata, some were even sent back home to England. The Gora Kabar was set up in an area of five acres by the banks of the Mahanadi on the outskirts of the City by the East India Company in 1822. The presence of the English officials and their families had become significant after the occupation of Cuttack in 1803. The site already had graves of a few Englishmen before it was walled in and designated as a graveyard. Initially it was a cemetery for all Christians, but later on it was used only by the Baptists. Even seamen and merchants, who perished at sea, were brought to the cemetery for a proper burial. Besides soldiers and officers, there are many graves of engineers of the Old Jagannath Road who lie buried here. Some of the dead had originally been buried in other places and were later transported to the Gora Kabar.
The graveyard was below the low embankment, amidst a thick forest of huge trees. Till 1902, only Englishmen were buried inside the Gora Kabar, the earliest grave of an Indian is in 1903. It used to be regularly flooded until the high embankment was made. For years, locals would avoid the place at night; there were many stories of ghost sightings and paranormal activity. It was occupied by bootleggers, gamblers and ganja smokers, who found the deserted place fit for their nefarious activities. The graveyard is now kept locked, and permission is needed for entering it.
There are many trees in and around the compound, with pathways among the graves. There are three entrance gates, two of which have now been locked. The tombs are of various types, plain slabs to cenotaphs, bottle graves, spires and exquisite pedestals with marble floral engravings etc. The arched entrance way leads to the rooms of the graveyard keeper.
The Gora Kabar, which translates as “white graveyard” is one of the biggest and oldest cemeteries of the State. Many famous Englishmen lie buried here. A nephew of English author Somerset Maugham too had been buried here. A few years ago, his successors from England tracked the tomb and visited Gora Kabar to pay homage to him. It also houses the tomb of Madhusudan Das, the architect of modern Odisha, which is known as the Madhu Smruti.
The cemetery is managed by the Odia Baptist Church; however the Cuttack Municipal Corporation is entrusted with the job of cleaning and maintaining the cemetery. Most of the tombs are covered with wild grass and vegetation, which is causing damage to the tombs and the engraved epitaphs. Many of the Obelisks, Cenotaphs and Spires have collapsed. The old section of the cemetery has been neglected and is in its original form. The section that is being used for the modern burials has been renovated and a few of the old graves destroyed. The entrance and the rooms are original. The cemetery gets waterlogged during the monsoons. Weathering and natural elements have caused erosion of the dates and names inscribed on the tombs, most of them are now indecipherable. The Church maintains a register of all the burials at the Cemetery. A proper study of it would reveal many important names that lie buried here. Most of the tombs belong to the colonial period. There has not been an accurate count of graves, if the underbrush is cleared, it will reveal many more headstones. There is an urgent need for repair of the pathway, which has been damaged at many places.
I went to the different graves and found that from the 1800 till 1900, half the discernible graves were of children and many of them infants. One of the early graves had the marker: Sacred to the memory of Charlotte, wife of Charles Becher Esq. of the Honourable Company Civil Service who departed this life at Juggernaut on the 26 September 1816 at the early age of 25 years. A little distance away was another grave which said : Sacred in the memory of Charles Becher who departed his life at his residence at Chouwliaganj, Cuttack on the 16th October 1826 aged 37 years.
There was a grave of the Sepoy Mutiny too. It read: Sacred in the memory of the Under mentioned Officers who departed this life at Sumbulpoor when the 11th Madras was on Field Service during the Bengal Mutiny and Rebellion which broke out in May 1857. Major John Bates, Died of Dysentery, Captain Arthur Barry Woodbridge Killed in Action on 12th Feb 1858, Ensign Pulteny Malcolm Laurie died on 5th July 1858. The first Indian to find place in the Gora Kabar has the epitaph : In memory of Anam Chunder Das, originator of the organised Sunday School work in Orissa and for 30 years the beloved superintendent of the Sunday School. Born 1838 died 14th April 1903. The old grave of Dr. William Day Stewart founder the Stewart School who had died on 23rd Nov 1890 was renovated by the School authorities in Nov 2002.
A sense of deep worship and respect comes to the heart of anyone who visits the graveyard. One initially feels the awe at the grandeur of the place, but as one walks around and looks at the many white marble crosses and plaques that surround that area, this feeling turns into a sense of wonder, sadness and deep sorrow.