By Finding beauty in ceme | 16 Apr 2003
Munnar: About 50 ancient tombs stand in the absolute silence of the 109-year-old graveyard in the 103-year-old Christ Church in Munnar, the old British tea town in the high range of Kerala. All of them were that of British nationals who lived in and around this plantation pueblo many decades ago, some even a century ago.
The graves look simple with no elaborate ornamentation in a neat layout of ground with grand old trees all around that reflects the impeccable manner with which the British conducted their life and death. This is the only church of its kind in the world where a cemetery was set up before the church was established.
Graves of important personalities are grouped together in a perch at the top of the hill with characteristic privacy. First of this lot was that of one of the first few British ladies to come to the high range way back in 1894, namely Eleanor Knight, who died of cholera.
The last Britishers to be buried here were two young assistant managers — James Mayfiedl and Andrew John Payton — who were drowned in a tragic car accident while driving down the road and skidding off into the river near the High Range Club.
Eleanor Knight trekked to the high range as the young bride of Henry Knight, an enterprising pioneer planter, who acquired large blocks of land in the high range, and who later became the first general manager of the famous Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company, a subsidiary of James Finlay.
The young couple came to India via Sri Lanka with a dream to reach the high range and settle down there with the rest of the Brits who were busy establishing plantations in these lovely mountains.
Their first camp was in the Planters Association bungalow at Bodinayakanur, a town that is set in the plains of Tamil Nadu with the high ranges as its backdrop. The following day they undertook the journey up the hills to reach Munnar.
The bewitching beauty of the place dazzled the young bride, who enjoying every moment walking around the hillside with her husband. The hill at a short distance behind their bungalow, which was overlooking the Munnar River, was particularly charming. Eleanor stood there in a trance and exclaimed: “Should I die, I should be buried here.”
Those words were prophetic. Eleanor fell ill and died two days later on the midnight of 22 December 1894, at the prime age of 24. Without her knowledge she had been carrying the killer disease cholera, which she had had contracted during her stay in Bodi.
This event pulled a shroud of grief over the plantation district. A shell-shocked Henry decided to fulfil his deceased wife’s desire to be buried in that same beautiful spot. The funeral took place on the following day at 2 pm. A simple grave came up at the exact place where they stood a couple of days ago.
Henry arranged to photograph his wife’s grave a couple of times from all angles with the help of a young assistant who visited Munnar with Sir John Muir of Finaly to do the historic purchase of the shares of North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society, which was formed by the pioneer planters in the high range to consolidate their efforts under one umbrella.
Later Henry presented the ground where his dear wife lay buried to the Christ Church of Munnar for being used as a cemetery attached to it. Even though Eleanor was buried in 1894, the cemetery was formally consecrated on the Easter day on 15 April 1900 by Rt Rev E Noel Hodges, who was the first Bishop to visit the high range in 1898.
The burial register of the cemetery opens with a record of Mrs Eleanor Knight’s burial in 1894. Before the formal consecration of the cemetery five other deaths had also been recorded. After the consecration of the cemetery in 1900 only six of the 27 burials up to 1929 had the benefit of the services of the clergy.
One other grave of importance in this cemetery was that of Aylmer Ffluke Martin that was constructed in 1926. Martin, who was known as Toby in the high range of yore, was a dynamic pioneer planter, who opened estates, did extensive survey of the region, served Finlay Muir & Co as its first labour manager and later helped establish a labour recruitment office in Tamil Nadu for the company to recruit Tamil workers for the plantations.
Toby lived and worked in India for 31 years with a single break and went to England on furlough at the end of this period. He returned to become the director of the famous United Planters’ Association of South India (UPASI) in 1914 and later manager of an estate. He died there in 1926.
The Munnar Christ Church cemetery may be one of the firsts of its kind in the world in that it was established long before the church was constructed. This beautiful church in black basalt with prominent nave and bell-tower, located at vantage point with an axial view in Munnar, is dated 1911 — 11 years after the consecration of the graveyard.
Sir A Kay Muir, chairman, Finlay Muir & Company, laid the foundation stone for this church at a Grand Masonic Ceremony by Lodge Heather S C 928, the Masonic Lodge affiliated to the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
The Munnar Christ Church belongs to the Church of South India’s North Kerala Diocese since 1981, the year when the British left the high range. The cemetery is listed in International Directory of Cemeteries brought out by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia.