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All Souls' Day at Mumbai's biggest Christian cemetery
Once only for Europeans, Mumbai's Sewri cemetery provides an enlightening, if chaotic, visit on All Souls' Day
It is November 2, All Souls' Day, and Mumbai's Sewri Cemetery, the city's biggest Christian burial ground, is buzzing with hymns, crowds, candles and flowers.
Sixty-two year old Dorothy Pinto walks slowly, supporting herself on a crutch, carrying a bag full of rice and fish curry and some banana leaves.
"Mummy and Daddy are buried here, fish curry was their favorite dish," she says, smiling.
Nearby, 11-year-old Cookie places a bunch of roses at her grandmother's grave. She has come from Andheri with her mother.
An exasperated Lucy Raj has come from even further away in Goregaon. "I have told my husband not to bury me so far away -- it took us two hours to come here," she says. Raj has come with her family to visit her mother-in-law's grave. Her sons Shane and Shaun are busy cleaning their grandmother's grave and lighting candles.
"Who are all the dead people?" asks one nine-year-old named Coraline of her mother who is clutching a bunch of flowers.
A blue and red coffin bedecked with flowers waits silently by the path, surrounded by a small group of grieving family and friends.
Reverend Alfred Tiwade bustles about in his white robes, a Bible in hand. It is 1 p.m. and he has already conducted five group services for the visitors, and some individual ones as well.
"There will be many more," he says. "We get more than 100,000 people every year."
Reverend Tiwade has been here since early morning and will soon be relieved by another priest from the nearby Byculla Church.
Sewri: Celeb cemetery
The Sewri cemetery is situated minutes away from the diesel wastelands of the dock road, and is the largest Christian cemetery in Mumbai. Sewri was established by Arthur Crawford, the first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay as a location for European burials in 1865, but today Indian Christians are buried here too.
One section houses the graves of Europeans from the British Raj era. These are subdivided according to Roman Catholic, Protestant, and so on. There's even a Church of England, Scottish section here.
The gravestones in this section look older and more intricate. Also carved in stone are angels with wings, stone hearts, cupids, and lots of sailor motifs like anchors.
FW Stevens, who designed Victoria Terminus station, lies here. So does Thomas Blaney -- justice of peace, sheriff and coroner of Bombay and president of the municipal corporation. George Wittet, the architect who designed the Gateway of India, also rests here.
Well-known Indians like artists Francis Newton Souza and writer Dom Moraes are buried here.
There are several graves of children -- some as young as five months -- with epitaphs like "Her stay on earth was short but sweet…" A group of graves belong to "the beloved children of William Henry Woodham, who died in rapid succession" -- Celia Blanch, William Henry, Edith Sarah and Charles Edmond.
Some of the epitaphs list bizarre causes of death -- like 26-year-old Edward Mansfield who died in 1891 from "the bursting of his balloon."
English and East Indian ancestors
The cemetery gets regular visitors from England who are trying to track down great grandfathers and great aunts. Online forums like ancestry.co.uk have many entries like these: "I noticed from the message boards you are close to the Sewri Cemetery Bombay. I am seeking information on ancestors who more than likely are buried there. Please advise if you are able to help me. Morag Lawrence, Johannesburg."
The other section in the Sewri cemetery is the final resting place for Indian Christians. "Only East Indians are buried here," a Goan friend tells me. "Goans are buried at the Worli cemetery."
Italian prisoners of war turned artists
An imposing Grecian structure stands on top of a hill. Bright red plastic chairs are arranged in a circle on a red carpet.
"That’s where the Italian soldiers are buried," says Reverend Alfred, referring to Italian prisoners of war. "Every November, people from the Italian consulate come down to honor their dead."
These Italian soldiers were captured by the British and brought to India in early 1940s. Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten decided to use the skills of these men and a unit called Murart was set up in Andheri. Here the Italian prisoners made decorative mural panels. Naval Tata hosted a party at his bungalow in Juhu to sell the works -- at Rs 500 each.