It is mentioned everywhere, in tourist info sites, brochures , historical notes. There are sign boards directing one to it, all over the old town. One is convinced The Dutch Cemetery is one of the not -to -be -missed sights in Fort Kochi.
However, when one does land up at its gates, one finds it firmly locked, with a forbidding notice looming above : Tresspassers will be prosecuted.
No intention to tresspass ofcourse. But feeling cheated all the same, one trudges up the street wondering why they should plant sign boards everywhere if they had no intention of allowing it to be seen .
.......at the other end of the street stands a handsome old church . Would this Portuguese church have the keys to the Dutch cemetery ? Would they open it if requested ? No harm in asking .......
Bingo. The key is indeed in the custody of the priest, says the smiley faced Watchman, but priest is away attending a funeral.
The next day, after exploring the quaint old town , while returning to the resort, one runs into not one but three sign boards shouting out Dutch Cemetery.
No giving up now. March into the church again and confront the smiling watchman. He remembers. Points to a youngman at the desk scribbling away in a notebook. Priest ? Looks more like a resting backpacker. Mr.Smiley does the requisite intros.
'why do you want to see a graveyard ?' smirks Priest.
'Historic site, written about .....'
'Whats there to see, he wonders , some foreigners come looking for buried ancestors....'
Well, no ancestors buried there - or anywhere else - ofcourse. Still, want to have a look.....
He smirks some more, despatches Mr.Smiley with the precious key.
Throughout the walk to the place, the good man chatters about how it was open to public once, but " hopeless" people started doing hanky panky there , worse , using it as public lavatory.....and carrying away stones too. Really, what will they not steal ! ....so, forced to lock it up.
The chain lock clangs and the metal gate scrapes on pebbles . Open, at last, just enough to slip in.
Small compound. Overgrown with weeds. Grey and black gravestones. With brittle, crumbly surfaces. Peculiar tower like head stones. Some scroll work. Ancient lettering . No Cross anywhere. Nor any flowers for any grave. Except the little blossoms of the wild growth scattered by the salty wind.
Some are English too , says Smiley. . And someone got buried here even in 20th century.
The cemetary was consecrated in the year 1724 and has 104 graves of traders and soldiers. It is the oldest European Cemetary in India. Built mostly of laterite, a couple of granite ones. The script seen is old dutch. The gravestones of certain prominent people have been shifted to the Church , so the names left here are all of common people .
Seeing the gate open, a van screeches to a halt and three people with cameras rush in. Mr.Smiley loses his smile and shooes them away with a strict admonition. When they argue, pointing at us, he tells them curtly we have special permission. The vanload leaves disappointed, imagining that we are some privileged beings, historians and archeologists perhaps, studying the remnants of ancient ,vanished colonisers........whereas we are just gaping laypersons gingerly peeping into history.
Standing there, staring at those story telling stones feels strange . Vaguely thrilling . Sort of eerie. Especially when a well camouflaged speckled gecko darts off from the speckled stone, as though someone below had shuddered.....
Who were these people, resting so far away from home .......what made them brave all the uncertainities and land in unknown destinations .....what sense did they make of life here ......?
Dusk falling, we leave. Mr.Smiley locks up the gate and accepts a tip graciously . We suggest he tell his authorities that making this place a ticketed site could bring in enough money to at least keep it weeded and cleaned.
He warms to the idea and urges us to write to the Bishop. Noted.
Long after dinner, thoughts of those courageous young men and women who crossed the seas keep splashing about like the gentle waves of the Arabian Sea.