Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dignity of Life

The presence of gravestones as perches, flowering plants as food and the quietude due to absence of milling crowds make cemeteries a popular post for birds and other wildlife. Being largely undisturbed these niches become a playground for more uncommon fauna which feel particularly protected here. And if they be old war cemeteries then, befitting their veteran years, they also host trees gnarled of age lending grandeur to their ecology. I have always been drawn to cemeteries, not unlike the wildlife that is attracted to this unique and undisturbed habitat, especially those near cantonment areas where I have lived.

Nairobi War Cemetery

In the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains of South India, a local photographer friend introduced me to an enchanting walk winding through a tea estate in Upper Coonoor not on a regular tourist’s radar. The trail began at the isolated and “forgotten” Tiger Hill Cemetery hidden in a kind of a cove. The cemetery entrance was a charming, compact stone building with an arched doorway and lancet windows housing the graves of WWII soldiers. With not a soul around, the place seemed dead, and yet, with plenty of birds, so alive, that it was a surreal experience to be just standing there! Weeping cypresses and firs towered over the dwarf facade and dry leaves littered the ground providing a haven for lower life. Nilgiri verditer flycatchers could be seen weaving in and out of the gravestones that also served as props for other avifauna. In my earlier sojourns through the beaten pathways of Nilgiri, plaintive calls and whistles had only hinted at the presence of the Asian blackbird and the thrushes, but it was here that I actually got to spot these skulking birds. I was warned of bison lurking around in this part of the tea country, as also the secretive leopards, but thankfully, I did not come across either!

In Mumbai’s Colaba region, as you enter the southernmost neighbourhood of Navy Nagar, you instantly span the chasm between the city cacophony and the serenity of leafy environs. The nearly 170-year old majestic Afghan Church takes this tranquility to another high altogether. This stone edifice tucked away amidst greenery was built as a memorial to commemorate the dead – British and Indian soldiers - in the first Afghan War. The spire of Afghan Church, as it stands today, is completely cradled in the capacious canopy of more-than-a-century old rain tree. The tree with its wispy pink flowers is a habitat for several species of birds and mammals from pariah kites and owls to fruit-bats and squirrels.

What intrigued me on my visit to a cemetery in the heart of Nairobi’s (Kenya) City Centre was the flora nursed at each grave. Usually, plants with colourful or perfumed flowers adorn graves, but at the Nairobi South Cemetery, a WWI burial ground, myriad species of rosy-tipped succulents are planted by the headstones. I sought the enterprising gardener who revealed that often there was no water to maintain the greens and therefore, his ilk adopted this innovative way of dry gardening to keep the cemetery spruced and flourishing at all times. In fact, I actually got strands of succulents such as kalanchoe and sedums from him to propagate in my garden rockery. For some reason, by doing this I felt that in my own way I was paying homage to the departed souls!


On Armistice Day and ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) Day, I get the privilege of visiting the Commonwealth War Graves at the Nairobi War Cemetery by the Ngong Forest. These early-morning ceremonies are solemn, just like the place with its attendant flora and fauna, lending great dignity to the remembrance of martyrs. If you look carefully, you can see tree hyraxes and squirrels scurrying about.  Marabous and other birds of prey such as augur buzzard and eagles are in the sky carrying out reconnaissance sorties, as it were. The Nandi flame bursting with its flaming orange tulips and bird calls add poignancy to the ritual.

The birds spotted or heard among the tree canopies during the brief ceremony can fill a who’s who of avifaunal species! Yellow wagtail, Ruppell’s robinchat, white slaty flycatcher, tinker bird, brown-backed woodpecker, tropical boubou, amethyst sunbird, cisticolas… the list trails on. There is something to be said about birds and birdsongs serenading spirits in the silence of a graveyard. Or perhaps, the birds are the spirits of the dead and gone!



The resting place for WWI and II soldiers from Commonwealth countries including India


Armistice Day, CWGC cemetery in Nairobi

1 comment:

  1. lovely, evocative piece, Paddy!
    S

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