Nicholson Cemetery

   - darkometer rating:  2 -
A wonderfully atmospheric cemetery and an oasis of calm in the middle of the noisy hustle and bustle of India's capital city Delhi. But it's not just the neglected cemetery atmosphere that is dark here ...   
More background info: Cemeteries are generally rare in India, and typically they are relics of the British colonialists (although there were/are Christians amongst the “native” population too, even today). 
They're rare because Indians traditionally rather cremate their dead, for religious reasons … something like “releasing the souls” so that they can “reincarnate”. Hence they find the Christian practice of burying bodies underground, complete with their thus unreleased souls, rather odd. For that reason cemeteries such as this one in Delhi also easily gain a reputation amongst the superstitious locals as being “haunted”. 
And in a way this is indeed so in this particular case, if only for metaphorical, historical reasons. That's because the cemetery takes its name from the most prominent person's grave here: Brigadier General John Nicholson. And his name is a blast from the past in that it is tightly linked with one of the darkest chapters of colonial India in the 19th century.
Nicholson was the British commander in the battles that defeated the rebels in the siege of Delhi at the time of the “Mutiny” of 1857 (what Indians these days call the “First War of Independence”) and thus a key figure in the reaffirmation of British rule when it was most threatened during the 19th century. Hence he was regarded by many as a “hero”, in particular amongst the British, of course, but not only. Even amongst some of his non-British subjects he was revered almost religiously, even after his death (he succumbed to wounds he sustained in the battles of 1857).
However ... and here come the dark bits: he was also a man full of racist contempt for the “natives” and had a cruel sadistic nature to boot. So his retribution against captive rebels was brutal: instead of simply hanging those sentenced to death he insisted on flaying or impaling or burning them alive. No wonder he remains one of the most controversial figures of the entire colonial heritage in India
So when the long neglected, overgrown and almost forgotten cemetery was cleared up in 2006 and Nicholson's grave, which was badly damaged, was restored, not everybody in Delhi was too happy about it. Especially given that all the money for the refurbishment came from Britain (mainly through sponsorship by a security company). Yet from a historical preservation point of view – and thus also that of dark tourism – it is of course only to be welcomed that this work was undertaken. 
In the meantime, the old part of the cemetery is becoming somewhat overgrown again. But there is also a still active section, where Christians in Delhi can bury their dead to this day. 
What there is to see: As you enter the cemetery you'll see an information panel right ahead of you, but this only specifies the “house rules” and contact numbers of the committee that looks after the cemetery (Indians love rules and bureaucracy!). But otherwise it does not provide any background information, let alone a plan to help find specific graves. 
Never mind, the one specific grave you'll probably want to see here is easy to locate, namely that of the man who the whole place is named after: Brigadier General John Nicholson (see background). You'll find his tomb to the right after stepping through the gate, near the living quarters of the caretaker. It is next to a big tree and is encircled by a metal fence, which helps in identifying the spot from a distance. It is additionally marked with both a blue Archaeological Survey of India panel AND a memorial plaque on a brick base next to the platform in front of the grave.
Other than that you can just wander amongst the more or less overgrown other graves and sample the inscriptions on the tombstones, as far as they are still legible, that is. You'll notice after a while that quite a lot of the people buried here had rather short lives. Even Nicholson was only 35 when he died, but many in the other graves show much shorter spans between birth dates and death – including many children too, some of whom never even finished a single year! One I found specified a mere “13 days”!
Apart from those kinds of dark aspects, you can just soak up the general atmosphere and visual aesthetics of the cemetery. There aren't that many especially elaborate graves or spectacular examples of sepulchral art, but many intriguing little details can be found if you keep your eyes open (see the photos below for a few examples). 
The north-eastern part I found to be still quite overgrown, so I couldn't proceed further given the clothes and shoes I was wearing. But the main paths and parts of the fields between them and the graves are fairly accessible. The paths in the easternmost section are completely clear. This is the still active part of the cemetery, i.e. where Christian burials still take place from time to time. 
As cemeteries go, this may not be the world's most impressive, but by Indian standards it is about the best you'll get. And in addition to being atmospheric and in places beautifully Gothic, it is also just a welcome, if sombre, refuge from all the hectic, dirty, noisy chaos just outside. I went in the late light of evening (i.e. rush hour outside) which further enhanced the serene atmosphere … and the photography.
Location: a bit north of Old Delhi, near Kashmere Gate, on the corner of Karnal Road and Sham Nath Marg.  
Google maps locator: [28.669, 77.226]
Access and costs: quite easy to get to (by Delhi standards), free. 
Details: To get to the cemetery independently you can take the metro (yellow line) and get out at the Kashmere Gate station. Head for Gate 4 and turn right, down towards Karnal Road and you'll immediately get to the entrance to the cemetery. It has a dark-red arch with a cross above it and black metal doors on which the name of the place is clearly painted in white. There is a caretaker on duty who actually lives on site with his family just inside the cemetery to the right of the gatehouse.  
Opening times: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. between October and March and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the rest of the year.
Admission free.  
Time required: depends entirely on how thoroughly you want to explore – but half an hour can suffice for just a visit to Nicholson's grave and a quick look around the main parts of the cemetery. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Delhi
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Delhi
  • Nicholson cemetery 1 - panel by the entranceNicholson cemetery 1 - panel by the entrance
  • Nicholson cemetery 2 - grave of the man himselfNicholson cemetery 2 - grave of the man himself
  • Nicholson cemetery 3 - atmospheric and calmNicholson cemetery 3 - atmospheric and calm
  • Nicholson cemetery 4 - headlessNicholson cemetery 4 - headless
  • Nicholson cemetery 5 - serene and quietNicholson cemetery 5 - serene and quiet
  • Nicholson cemetery 6 - detailNicholson cemetery 6 - detail
  • Nicholson cemetery 7 - columnNicholson cemetery 7 - column
  • Nicholson cemetery 8 - celtic crossNicholson cemetery 8 - celtic cross
  • Nicholson cemetery 9 - the part that is still in useNicholson cemetery 9 - the part that is still in use

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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