Not many of those who found a berth at Kensal Green ever moved on. Maharani Jind Kaur is a rare exception.
She is one of the vanishingly few laid to rest here for whom this corner of west London is not their final abode.
Jind Kaur was one of the wives of Ranjit Singh, who in the first half of the 19th century built a Sikh-ruled empire based in Lahore. After his death in 1839, three successors were assassinated one after another. In 1843, Maharani Jind Kaur herself became regent, ruling in the name of her infant son Duleep Singh.
When two rival empires clashed, she led Punjab in resisting the British. But in 1846, defeat in war marked the eclipse of the Sikh empire. Jind Kaur was imprisoned and separated from her son. In 1861, they were re-united but forced into exile in London, where she died two years later, still in her mid-40s.
Duleep Singh was refused permission to take his mother’s body back to Punjab. Her remains were placed in catacombs under the Dissenters’ Chapel at Kensal Green cemetery – at that time, cremation was illegal in Britain. After some wrangling, the body was taken to India the following spring and the last rites performed near Bombay – though it was another 60 years before her ashes returned to Lahore.
A plaque was installed 12 years ago to mark a resting place of the maharani who, in death, eventually escaped the clutches of the Raj.
Kensal Green once had claim to be the most fashionable of London’s cemeteries. It dates from 1833 – the oldest of the ‘magnificent seven‘ garden cemeteries built in a ring around the city to take pressure off the central London burial grounds.
As many as a quarter of a million people are interred in more than 65,000 graves amid the 72 acres of burial grounds. It is still in use. A new grave in a prime location will cost you £22,000 (Rs 22 lakh), with charges for the funeral service and the burial fee on top.
Jind Kaur is not the only Indian to have found a resting place here. In the same year that she was losing an empire, a pioneering entrepreneur and trader from Calcutta, Dwarkanath Tagore, was interred here. He was Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather.
Tagore’s commercial interests, which included a very profitable role in the opium trade (not mentioned on the board by his grave), made him extravagantly wealthy. He was well-connected too and a celebrated philanthropist. The Bengali community in London still has occasional gatherings and commemorations at the burial site.
Strolling along the avenues of the older and grander graves, there are quite a few generals who served in India, and administrators and civil servants who ran the Raj. It is striking how large India must have loomed in the lives of the British elite in the 19th century.
The most imposing of these tombs is that of Major-General Sir William Casement, who died in India of cholera in 1844 on the eve of his final return home to Britain. The stone canopy above the grave is borne by four Indian bearers, each wearing a turban and with arms crossed. You can see the design as indicating affection for India, or reflecting the subjugation of India – perhaps both. But the memorial is outlandishly exotic in its London setting.
There’s also a memorial to Casement in Calcutta – though Kensal Green is where his remains rest, interred here two years after his death.
Not far away is the mausoleum of Sir William Molesworth – the inscription laments how his death in 1855 meant that he didn’t live to see the completion of his purpose, ‘to regenerate our colonial system’.
The truth, as ever, is more prosaic. Molesworth was a radical politician whose radicalism appeared to ebb away once he achieved office. He was appointed the British government’s colonial secretary just five months before his death.
If you recognise that name, Molesworth, it’s not Sir William you may be thinking of, but his young namesake, Nigel – a pupil, though not a very promising one, at St Custard’s prep school. His fictional exploits – set down in his name by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle – feature in such classics as Down with Skool! and How to be Topp (which he wasn’t often, top that is).
The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery – in normal times – conduct a range of themed tours of the graves. None focus on the India connection of those buried here. That’s a pity – there’s certainly enough interest to justify a tour round the graves and memorials of those who served the Raj … and those who escaped it.
Andrew Whitehead was a BBC journalist and editor for many years and is currently a visiting professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.