Growing up in a small town in the 1990s and 2000s meant learning how to keep myself entertained without TV during day-long power cuts. One way of doing this for Kodai kids was taking long walks. Roaming around in 2006, my friend Pavi Sagar and I finally explored the old American Missionary Cemetery (AMC) or ‘the old cemetery’ as it’s often called—hidden on a bend on Tapp’s Road behind an overgrown fence.
It became a refuge, a place to escape to. The cemetery was overgrown, a seemingly forgotten monument to the missionaries who had set it up and made it their final resting place. We crawled through one of the many holes in the fence (presumably made by bison) and wandered through the tombstones, trying our best to make out the faded inscriptions.
The AMC lies behind the PHCC headquarters, close to Shelton Cottage, the oldest missionary house in Kodaikanal, home to the first six missionary families who came here in 1845. Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky (2014) tells us that the cemetery also once held the town’s first church, called the Church under the Hill, built in 1858. It was assembled piecemeal—the structure made out of flattened biscuit tins, the bell brought over from America and the spire erected by a Swedish ship’s carpenter. It was demolished in 1896, and the site is marked by an obelisk. Dozens of graves, mostly bearing Western surnames, fill the plot; the name ‘Henry Francis Mutukisna’ stands out, but little is known about him.
Today, the AMC is well-tended, managed by its unofficial caretakers, Beulah Kolhatkar, Mr Sundarlingam and Sara Ann Lockwood, all of whom worked to clear out mounds of weeds and clean the gravestones to make the epitaphs visible. Recently, St Peter’s Church also cemented the sides of several graves. Of all its keepers, Beulah is the best known.1 A retired educator with a penchant for adopting strays, she has a close connection with the memorial she lives next to.
During the recent lockdown, I visited the graveyard again, after a gap of four years. Given the dangers associated with interacting with the living, the graveyard seemed like the safest place to be, once again. This time, I entered through Beulah’s side entrance, escorted by her and her dogs. She guided me through the different parts of the cemetery. Thanks to Sara Ann’s dedicated tombstone cleaning, their stories were finally visible. First, we came across the grave of John Edward Tapp,2 after whom the old cemetery road was named.
We went on to another grave I’d seen before, marked by an anchor. Pavi and I had always believed that this meant a death at sea. It turned out to be the grave of Eliza, whose name was dwarfed by the text proclaiming her to be the ‘Widow of Thomas Adamson, Priest of S.P.C.’. In my head, I formed an image of Eliza (bearing a likeness to Dame Maggie Smith) rolling her eyes, resigned to spending eternity labelled as her husband’s widow rather than as herself.
One of the enigmas of the cemetery is the identity of ‘Baby’. Unlike most of the graves, the tombstone doesn’t have parents’ names. Beulah speculated, ‘Is it an illegitimate child? Maybe the baby died before it could be christened? Who does this baby belong to? There are no clues in the archives.’
Another mystery is the joint headstone of Reverend James Edward Tracy and his wife, Frances Sabin Woodcock Tracy. United in death, the tall stone that marks their final resting place quotes Song of Solomon 2:17—‘Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away’. What’s unusual about this grave is the burial dates—they were interred in the 1920s, but the cemetery was closed in 1904.3 Reverend Tracy had been ordered to tear down and deconsecrate the old Church under the Hill. Given this, it’s strange that he and his wife were buried here instead of in the newer cemetery on the ghat, which they had helped set up.
Some mysteries were solved on this walk. Growing up, Pavi and I had heard about a foreigner buried here, who was killed by a bison. We had come across the tombstone of John Adamson and struggled to decipher the inscription, finally making out the word ‘bison’. The obvious conclusion: John Adamson had been killed by a bison. Now, as I walked to John Adamson’s grave with Beulah, the newly cleaned headstone revealed that it actually spelled out B.I.S.N. Co. (British India Steam Navigation Company). In another corner of the cemetery, I found Dudley Linnell Sedgwick’s grave, giving his cause of death as ‘killed by a bison, whilst shooting in the Pulney Hills’.4 While the animal lover in me saw karma in this, it was still sad to see that Sedgwick had only been 31 when he died.
A few feet away, we find the grave of one of the site’s most well-known inhabitants: Reverend John Scudder II, MD. The son of Reverend John Scudder Sr., (the first medical missionary in India), he volunteered to take the cholera vaccine during the trial phase.5 He did this primarily to help others overcome vaccine hesitancy—a story that strikes home during the current pandemic.
I turned back to visit a grave whose lettering has always been more distinguishable: David Coit Scudder. I was surprised to learn that he was, in fact, not related to Reverend John Scudder Sr.; rather, he was inspired by Reverend John to travel to India as a missionary.
The tombstone sums up his rather short stint in India. He landed in Madras in 1861 and drowned in the Vaigai River in 1862, less than a month after he turned 27. Further research would paint a picture of a zealous young man who, when he came to Kodaikanal, had apparently waved a US flag at the British collector (like DiCaprio exulting in Titanic, I imagined), yelling, ‘Long may it wave!’
Farther down, we came across Eleanor Chamberlain’s grave. Her grave marks her death in 1904 at the age of 11—one of the many children buried in the cemetery as a testament to the hardships of a different time. Her family had installed gates from America to honour her. Sadly, the original gates no longer stand guard. They were stolen in 1994, along with other relics of different tombstones—a metal cross and some metal adornments.
The process of clearing the cemetery unearthed several ‘lost’ graves. Beulah recounted the time Sundarlingam found Mary Anne Carey’s grave, hidden behind weeds. Cleared of the overgrowth, the grave is one of the prettiest in the cemetery, with flower engravings, a white scroll describing its inhabitant and bearing the word ‘Peace’ written on its cross—reflective of the serenity that enfolds the graveyard.
Another ‘lost-and-found’ grave is that of ‘The Stone Man’ (christened so by Beulah). After clearing the debris on top of the grave and digging around five feet, Beulah and Sundarlingam found a grave marked by stones. Beulah observed, ‘That makes me think this was a very old grave. What they seemed to be doing was stuffing the grave with these huge [stones] so that the carnivores couldn’t get the body. I believe if I would have dug another four or five feet, I would have found bones.’
Sitting on the steps leading to the obelisk, I was acutely aware that Beulah and I were the only living people in the cemetery. Around us, her dogs lolled on gravestones; one was perched on the obelisk with his butt sticking up. Before that, Beulah had pointed out the grave of James Grimes, who had died of a heart attack on the billiard table at the Kodaikanal Club. The grass-covered grave was marred by a deep hole, left by a bison’s hoof. We walked a few feet to Charles Frederic Keays, a British major general of the Bombay army.6 A pile of dried bison dung on the grave immediately caught my eye.
Indicating an unusually pointed log at a sharp angle, Beulah explained, ‘The cemetery is [the bison’s] sleeping point. They come, sit, sleep, putter around. I cleared a lot of wood, but I left this because it’s a bison scratching pole. They do their thing and I let them do their thing.’ While clearing up the cemetery, she had filled most of the holes in the fence. But she left ‘bolt holes’ for herself in case she was ever cornered by a bison. These have often come in handy—she was accompanying Laura Kaiser Fischer (great-granddaughter of John Scudder) and her daughter, Adelaide, along with several other family members who had come to the AMC to pay their respects, when they were unexpectedly confronted by a herd of bison and squeezed through Beulah’s bolt hole to safety just in time.
Finally, at the bottom of the cemetery, Beulah brought me to the oldest graves—the ones that no amount of weeding could rescue from the plants that had claimed them. I had to strain my eyes to make out the faint outline of stone hidden under the moss, Ozymandias-like. The plants have been the bane of all the graveyard’s caretakers. Earlier, Beulah had pointed out that despite Sara Ann’s best efforts, the moss had already begun to encroach on the tombstones again. Pointing to the high hedges that separated the cemetery from the PHCC compound, she talked about the constant battle to beat back the eupatorium and raspberry bushes.
There are, however, some bushes that are welcome. She pointed to small sprigs of wisteria.7 ‘It’s not something that grows in Kodaikanal—these are old plants that must have been planted here by the missionaries. This is part of my 200-year plan. Someday when you come with your grandchildren, this should be covered in wisteria, purple roses, honeysuckle—the cherry blossom [that’s] growing. For me, this has to be a garden cemetery. Once the weeds have been cleared, all the other plants will grow. All these plants grew on their own. All I did was clear the weeds.’
These missionaries were foreigners, but they created the town. They were adopted by the land—like most Kodai residents today. After speaking to other Kodaiites over the years, I have discovered that the cemetery I had viewed as my private space had offered sanctuary to many others. It was a writer’s haven for one, a drinking spot (unfortunately) for many, a meeting point for illicit lovers, a place where friends gathered to tell ghost stories. This common sense of ownership over the legacy of the AMC links us to the history of Kodai in a unique way; we might not be descended from that first group of outsiders, but the missionaries are a valuable part of the joint heritage of the more diverse Kodai we live in today.
Click here to learn more about the AMC. The site has been meticulously compiled by KIS alumnus Julian Donahue, who worked with Beulah Kolhatkar to digitise the details of those buried in the cemetery.
1 Beulah began clearing and weeding the AMC in 2002. She was later joined in her efforts by Sundarlingam, Sara Ann and Merrick Lockwood and other volunteers in 2018.
2 He’s best known for working with Sir Vere Henry Levinge to create Kodai Lake in 1863. Not to be confused with his son, John Tapp, who started a popular tearoom.
3 The last funeral in the cemetery was in 1904. (Badri Vijayaraghavan: Veil of Mist. 2016)
4 The writing wasn’t clearly visible on earlier trips to the graveyard.
5 This is based on information from his great-great-grandson Terry Sherman.
6 The Bombay army was stationed in 1852 at modern-day Bombay Shola, giving the lane its name.
7 As pointed out by Badri Vijayaraghavan in Veil of Mist, wisteria was popular among gardeners, ‘probably a way of re-creating a tiny corner, in this new country, of what they had left behind.’