The British Empire Library

Corner of a Foreign Field: The British Cemetery at Kathmandu

by Mark Watson & Andrew Hall

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The British cemetery in Kathmandu may be less well known than others, but it has a history as long as our diplomatic relations with Nepal and our unbroken friendship with that country. As an independent country to the north of India, Nepal was long an irritant to the East India Company, involving niggling hostilities. But these ended with the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 which also established a (for decades solitary) official British presence in Kathmandu.

Following Independence, and after a tussle with Pakistan over ownership, the new Indian Government inherited most of the British legation premises in Kathmandu. But, when they built their new Embassy, the British retained the nearby cemetery. This has now found two able chroniclers in Mark Watson, a distinguished botanist, and Andrew Hall, a former ambassador to Nepal.

Quite how the three-quarter acre cemetery was acquired is obscure, but unchallenged. The first burial there in 1820, under a monument and inscription typical of the time, was that of Robert Stuart, the Assistant Resident, who died of pneumonia. There was then a trickle of burials during the nineteenth century, most of them dependents of the small British official community, but very few in the first half of the twentieth. It was after 1950, with the opening of Nepal to aid agencies, tourism and mountaineering, that the cemetery began to fill - to the point where some terracing has been needed to keep space for future burials.

Among earlier burials there are some unexpected characters, including Henry Gaye, one of a succession of bandmasters brought to Nepal by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur after his visit to the United Kingdom in 1850. Jung Bahadur, whose portrait by a Nepalese artist long graced the Foreign Secretary's office in Whitehall, also got a taste for bagpipes - a tradition inherited by the Gurkhas. Another burial is that of Gilbert Deatker, surgeon to the resident Minister, an able doctor from the Indian Army who could not rise above warrant officer status because he was of mixed race.

Coming forward in time there are several graves of people well remembered by lovers of Nepal: Boris Lissanevitch ('Boris' to everyone), who pioneered the hotel trade (when he was not out of favour or even in gaol); Jim Edwards, who developed Tiger Tops and did so much for tourism in Nepal; and Amar Rana, whose marriage led to ostracism from the royal family for years. But there are monuments and graves for many others, including residents, missionaries, mountaineers and, sadly, victims of air disasters.

Aside from the Kathmandu cemetery the authors do well to detail other relevant burial places in Nepal, including the several Gurkha cemeteries and the resting place of the Jesuits who founded St Xavier's School - among them Marshall Moran, known to ham radio operators world-wide by his call-sign Micky Mouse.

The maintenance of the cemetery was for many years sporadic, involving bureaucratic tussles with Whitehall which must have cost far more than the pittances wrung from them. But in recent years, thanks to more enlightened official attitudes and private generosity,

the situation has been much improved. There is a permanent caretaker who takes much interest in the trees and plants, which Mark Watson catalogues in great detail. The net result is the pleasant and well-maintained 'comer of a foreign field ' of the book's subtitle. The story of the early years is not very eventful, and the authors rightly link it to the history of British relations with Nepal. Indeed the book might have made more of this. One would have welcomed a fuller description of the fluctuating tension between the royal family and the prime minister. lt occupied a lot of the Residents' time - when they were not, like the most famous of them, Brian Hodgson, doing so much to advance our knowledge of the fauna and flora of the country as well as its beliefs . And in discussing the arrival, post Hodgson, of wives and families, they sadly consign to a footnote Hodgson himself and his long-standing relations hip with a Muslim lady which produced two children whom he fully acknowledged. Indeed his son has a handsome tomb in Darjeeling.

The book contains biographical notes on all those buried and their parentage where this is available and detailed descriptions of all the graves. These are valuable, but the arrangement involves a good deal of overlap with the narrative, so that the reader has rather to jink to and fro to get the full story. A stronger editorial hand might have been helpful in getting more cohesion in the narrative. But the story is a fascinating one, and a visitor to Kathmandu might well find time to follow the road between the British and Indian Embassies to visit the cemetery. lt is a detour well worth making.

British Empire Book
Mark Watson & Andrew Hall
Vajra Publications, Kathmandu
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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