Sunday, 06 January 2019 09:29

Beauty inthe garden of eternal rest

‘The world’s an inn, and death the journey’s end’ - John Dryden

The cemetery is not a place that one would choose to visit, except when attending a funeral or laying to rest a family member. But, many would agree that there is hidden beauty in the form of hand carved marble images that adorn the graves at the General Cemetery in Borella. When I asked a few friends to join me on this unusual assignment they all declined. One warned me not to venture into the necropolis in case I encountered someone from the paranormal realm.

I set off on Saturday afternoon, to Borella. The gate keeper clad in khaki uniform offered me a half smile, his teeth stained red by chewing betel. Where do I start in this vast domain of death? The cemetery covers an area of almost 40 acres. The gravel road leads to thousands of graves. Thankfully, there are large trees which gracefully offer shade from the sun. This is the final resting place for many of the city’s sons and daughters. Death embraces us all. A small tractor passes by disturbing the silence, like a predator intruding into this land where there is no worry, doubt or aspiration. One of the first marble images to stand out was that of a woman, dressed in a long frock, with a cloak on her shoulders like a character from the Elizabethan era. The Colombo Cemetery was commissioned in 1866. There are numbered lanes. Lane number 4 leads to the Commonwealth War graves, where rows of tombstones pay tribute to allied armed forces who died in the defence of Ceylon. I could make out the insignia of the Royal Ceylon Navy, Royal Ceylon Air Force and Ceylon Light Infantry. Near the main gate, behind the cemetery office is the first marble gravestone, bearing the names of the Ceylonese who died in the First World War.

Christian Buddhist sculptures

Moving back to the main road is a small chapel on the right side, maintained by the Catholic Church. The chapel has a black platform with a cross painted in white. Even in this landscape of grief the solitary stained glass window ushers in radiant colours. It depicts the Blessed Mary mourning the death of her son Jesus, whose body lay in her arms.

The artist shows the crown of thorns, fallen on the ground along with the three iron nails that were used in the crucifixion. The prudent craftsman is showing us the gospel revelation that the three nails could not restrain Christ, who according to the Bible rose from the dead, as victor over death and sin. This prompted hymn writers to often pen the words, ‘Oh death where is thy sting?’ which was later adapted into use in works of literature.

Walking around one can witness crosses depicting various styles crafted in cement and marble. The figures of angels, cherubims and celestial citizens are truly amazing. One little angel with a gentle smile is the marker on the grave of a child. The angel is holding a rose in his left hand, while the right hand is cut off at the elbow. Whether the broken hand was by years of neglect or willfully sculptured to reflect a sense of immense incompleteness in this statue would remain a mystery. Another figure rising almost five feet from the ground, mounted on a stone pedestal is of archangel Michael.

The left hand is holding onto a scroll and trumpet while the right hand boldly points up towards heaven. The facial expression is not of one focusing on the pain of mortal death, as his eyes are closed. His raised hand could be interpreted as a gesture of pointing the Christian to their eternal home in heaven. The sculptor has the archangel’s wings crafted more like that of an eagle to show the elevated status of St. Michael among angelic realms.

Walking amidst the neatly maintained garden another spectacular figure is that of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of soldiers. To the non Christian, at a first glance, this may look like the statue of a Roman centurion. Saint Sebastian holds a small cross in his right hand, with his helmet placed alongside the left foot. There is no sword. Navigating through the graves a magnificent sight rises out of the tombs, five figures in solid marble - The risen Jesus Christ, St. Anthony, the Blessed Virgin Mary holding Jesus the child, Saint Joseph and another marble manifestation of Mary with both palms open. These five images are the centerpiece in the cemetery. The sculptors must have spent weeks toiling hard to bring real life like features. Of the five figures the statue of Saint Anthony has an unusual element. The Christ child is adorned in a baby shirt with a collar, not in keeping with the ‘baby robes’ of the era of Jerusalem. His left hand points towards the statue of Mary.

Moving onto the Buddhist section the monuments reflect symbols associated with Buddhism. One grave had a dharmachakra on top of a single stone column. Another very old grave had four miniature towers and a dome, I am uncertain of its symbolism. There were signboards pointing to the crematoriums and wood pyre section used for the last rites of Buddhists, Hindus and even Christians. With a shortage of graves in Colombo, Christians who traditionally bury their dead have had to adapt to cremation.

Ghosts and gravediggers

I noticed a grave digger wearing a blue hat. Rathnapala has recently retired. He explained, “There are 30 staff at the general cemetery. We have to multi task. We dig and prepare graves for burial. Maintaining the gardens and clearing the paths is another duty. I have witnessed many funerals, but the one that stands out is the death of my own son, 33 years old. He was accidentally shot, where an assailant was aiming at another person. I had to bury him. Since then I realize in a deeper sense the grief of others”.

We join some of the cemetery staff during their tea break. One of them said, ‘People associate the graveyards with ghosts and stories of haunting. In my 30 years of service I have never seen such a thing. This is a place of sentiment for the families of the dead, which we must respect. We work in the night and have our meals here. We eat fish, chicken, beef and pork.

Meals are offered to us by grateful families. The only incident we know is of our foreman having witnessed a man in a suit walking towards the mortuary at night. There was a mortuary here years ago. The figure disappeared on reaching the mortuary’. Another bare bodied grave digger chimes in “There is a story of a woman wearing a white saree, with long hair hailing taxis for hire. This is false. We never saw such a thing. Today, the cemetery is well lit at night, and there are CCTV cameras. The area around the cemetery has buildings and vehicular movement. There is no need for fear”. The staff is close knit. The good work they do is marred by social stigma. They perform an important task for the denizens of Colombo. Dusk fell suddenly when I walked out of the garden of crypts. Bats began their nocturnal flight, taking off from the massive trees. This cemetery’s hidden beauty is indeed provoking.

(Sunday Observer)

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