Monday, March 24, 2014

Agra 3: Roman Catholic Cemetery

The rather splendid late Mughal style tomb of John Hessing, the most prominent mausoleum in Agra's 460 year old Roman Catholic cemetery. The information available about Hessing is vague and often contradictory, but from what I've been able to find, it seems that he was once a soldier in the Dutch East India Company army who fought the British in Ceylon during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. After the British victory, they took possession of the Holland's territories in India, but Hessing decided to stay in the subcontinent and  find employment as a professional soldier. He entered the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and then moved on to serve with the Marathas, fighting as an officer in their army against both other Indian armies and those of the British East India company. In 1799 he assumed command of Agra Fort and held it until his death. The tomb was commissioned by his wife Anne and their family. It is usually said that, like the Taj Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing was built out of grief at the loss of a loved one. For this reason, and also because Anne Hessing was apparently inspired by the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing is frequently referred to as the Red Taj. This is rather unfair, as it makes it sound as though Hessing's Tomb is little more than a cheap imitation of the Taj, when in fact it is very much its own mausoleum. The architecture is similar in certain respects, but the design of the tomb is, in the final analysis, just not that much like the Taj.  The building itself, which betrays hardly any European architectural influences, is considered one of the finest European tombs in India. In style, the mausoleum is entirely Mughal, despite the fact that Hessing was a Christian.

Agra's Roman Catholic cemetery is one of the city's most interesting and most overlooked historical sites. The graveyard is in a part of the Agra that is not often visited by tourists, and if you ask an autowallah to take you there, he'll probably either look at you with a blank expression and then drive away, or take you somewhere else entirely (and then try and make you pay for it). 

The cemetery is remarkable for a variety of reasons, the first being the exceptional character of the inmates. Many of the more prominent tombs are those of European mercenaries and adventurers, such as John Hessing, Walter Reinhardt, and the first Englishman ever to buried in India, John Mildenhall. While many of the graves are British, the most prominent tombs are of a Dutchman and a dark-skinned European of indeterminate origin, both of whom were at one time or another actively fighting against the British East India Company. Though the cemetery is Catholic, many of the internees were from other Christian denominations. 

 The graveyard dates all the way back to the 1550's, when Armenian Christians who had moved to Agra during Akbar's reign started burying their dead there. A great number of the most prominent Europeans who died in North India during the Mughal and colonial periods followed, and the burials continued all the way into the early 20th century. Therefore the graves here span the vast majority of the history of European political involvement in India. 

The styles of the graves and tombs say a great deal about both the people buried in them and the historical periods they inhabited. The centerpiece of the cemetery, Hessing's Tomb, along with that of Walter Reinhardt, belong to men who, through their military abilities,  rose to prominence in India during the second half of the 18th century, a time during which Europeans in India were more likely to embrace Indian culture than in the later phases of European colonialism. Walter Reinhardt even went so far as to marry an Indian woman, who would go on to become rather more famous than he ever was. However, the graves dating the from the mid-19th century onward become increasingly European in style. 

What's perhaps most interesting about the two most prominent tombs is how completely the builders embraced Mughal architectural sensibilities. In the case of John Hessing's tomb, there is not even a stylistic synthesis. The tomb is entirely Mughal in design, and you wouldn't know just by looking at it that it contains a Christian. Walter Reinhardt's tomb, frequently referred to as Samru's tomb, would be the same were it not for the crosses on the top of the otherwise thoroughly Islamic looking structure. 

The information available about the graveyard is not so much limited as it is confusing. This is brought about both by the obscurity of the place as a tourist attraction and also by the lack of agreement on the events of the exciting, but frequently not entirely wholesome, lives of many of the people buried here. For example, when reading about Walter Reinhardt, different sources will claim we was from France, Germany, Switzerland, and virtually every other country in Western Europe.  To make things even more confusing, most of the sources online seem to make mistakes as to who is buried in which tomb. Many of the people who have visited the graveyard have had an A.S.I. guard show them around, and I suspect that this one guard's tours have provided a large proportion of the information available on the internet. But, while I was there, there was nobody to guide me. I had to figure out who was who and where they were buried after the fact.

I got lost on the way there....Auto drivers from Taj Ganj don't seem to know where it is, so I had to navigate via landmarks in a part of the city I had never been to before. By the time I got there, it was late in the afternoon, with an overcast sky. I put a bunch of these photos in black and white, not just to be pretentious, but rather because with the colors being so fuzzy and muted under those lighting conditions, the pictures often just looked better without any color at all. 

Samru's Tomb, right, along with another unidentified European Tomb.

The Tomb of Walter Reinhardt, also known as Sombre or Samru, a European Mercenary of dubious nationality.  The name Sombre, of which Samru is a local corruption, comes from his dark skin. No one seems to be quite sure where he came from. Apparently the strongest evidence points to his having been from Germany, though other sources claim he was from France or Luxembourg. The events of his career are similarly confusing. A formidable professional soldier, he appears to have arrived on the subcontinent in the 1760s  and become something of a professional turncoat, fighting at one time for both the British and the French, along with a variety of Indian rulers. He wound up in the service of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, who granted him the Principality of Sardhana, now in Uttar Pradesh. He married a Muslim nautch girl, who later converted to Catholicism and is usually referred to as Begum Samru. When Samru died in 1778, his wife wound up in command of the mercenary army that had been raised in Sardhana, which consisted of both Europeans and Indians. She led this force in combat, fighting on the side of the Mughals. As such, she is considered to have been India's only Catholic ruler. 

Other, later, Christian Graves in the cemetery.

The early 20th century grave of a certain Captain Pierce Henry.

Another Christian Tomb. I'm afraid I don't know who's it is. 

The Marty's chapel. This is the oldest building in the cemetery, dating from Akbar's time. It was built around 1611 to honor the memory of an Armenian merchant by the name of Khoja Mortenepus (A.K.A. Khwaja Mortenepus or Khoja Martyrose). There was evidently a large Armenian community in Agra during the period. Many of them came either as traders or as missionaries. Akbar allowed Catholic priests to preach openly and attempt to make conversions, though they don't appear to have made much headway in Northern India. Also buried in the chapel is an Armenian Bishop by the name of Zakur of Tabriz, along with a large number of other priests of various nationalities. Looking at the door to the chapel, you can just make out some small ribbons that have been tied to the bars. This is a common practice at Sufi shrines. Also, inside the tombs, there are places where Hindus and Muslims have been burning offerings. Apparently the chapel has become an Tantric and/or sufi shrine over the years, though the information available about this aspect of the chapel's history is very sketchy. 

A floor slab inside the martyr's chapel, marking the burial of a priest who died in 1664. The writing is in Portuguese.

Another floor slab, in rather poorer condition.

A floor slab where the inscription is almost gone. Most of the inscriptions inside the chapel are in fairly bad shape, having been stepped on repeatedly for the past 350 years or so.

What I think, if memory serves, is the burial vault of Zakur of Tabriz. You can just make out an inscription in Persian below the cross.

This is another chapel, presumably from the late 18th century. Try as I might, I wasn't able to find any solid information about its history. The building is rather more Mughal in style than the Martyr's chapel.

Inside the unidentified tomb/chapel. Like the other tombs in the cemetery, this one presents an interesting mix of Christian and Indian motifs.

The grave stone in the tomb. I think the inscription is in Portuguese, though "Mementomori" is Latin, a phrase meaning, roughly, that no matter who you are, you're going to die. 

The recently restored grave of John Mildenhall, an early English traveler to India and the first Englishman known to have been buried on the subcontinent. He is, again, rather a murky character, and the information available on him onlinle is frequently rather incoherent, though fortunately there is a whole chapter of the book Early English Travelers in India by Ram Chandra Prasad available on Google, which deals with him. Mildenhall made two great journeys to India. During the first, he attempted, entirely on his own recognizance, to negotiate trade concessions for Great Britain with the Mughal Emperor Akbar, apparently claiming to be an ambassador of Queen Elizabeth and the newly formed English East India Company (which he was not). Exactly how much success he had is not clear. While in his own account of his time at the Mughal court he claims to have achieved his goal of obtaining from Akbar the same trading rights for England as had been granted to the Portuguese, the fact that representatives of the East India Company had to negotiate with the Mughals several years later for the same rights casts serious doubts on his assertions. Jesuit priests at Akbar's court were apparently suspicious of the man, and advised the emperor against negotiating with him. Still Mildenhall, upon returning to England, attempted to sell whatever concessions he had gained from Akbar to the East India Company, though after some negotiations the company declined, being suspicious of his character and unwilling to meet his price.  Later, Mildenhall was entrusted by the Company to sell a large consignment of goods in the Levant, but Mildenhall, after arriving with the shipment in Aleppo, stole the goods and headed with them back to India. There he died, though only after men from the East India Company had caught up to him and confiscated at least some of the goods. He's not an especially famous traveler, nor one who can be said to be massively important. His effort to expand English influence in India failed, as did his robbery attempt. One of the few details that most sources agree on is that he was a scoundrel, though he seems to have been rather a brave one.

The interior of  John Hessing's tomb, with the graves arranged as they might be were they in a typical Mughal Tomb.

Corner chatri on the top of Hessing's Tomb.

Hessing's Tomb, just before the point when it became too dark to take photographs.

In a city that absorbs a large portion of India's tourism, Agra's Roman Catholic cemetery goes largely unnoticed. Yet, as a repository of interesting though obscure history, the graveyard is just as fascinating as any of the other, more frequented, parts of the city, while the two principal tombs, those of John Hessing and Walter Reinhardt, are worth visiting solely for their architectural merits. 

It may not be Agra's most overwhelming or spectacular historical sight, but it's more than worth visiting. 


It was unusually difficult tracking down information on the cemetery and the people in it. What I've written above is as close to the facts as I felt I could get, though I don't guarantee that it's all correct. 

I originally learned about Agra's Roman Catholic Cemetery from Lucy Peck's Agra: The Architectural Heritage.

While searching for information, I used online excerpts from the books Early English Travelers in India by Ram Chandra Prasad and Jesuit Missionaries in Northern India and Inscriptions by Henri Hosten.

I used a wide variety of websites, most importantly:

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