An Indian laid resting amidst Europeans
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
The historic town of Seringapatam -the seat of the viceroy of the ancient kingdom of Vijayanagar, the first capital of the Wodeyars and also the seat of power of Hyder Ali and his legendary son Tipu Sultan – the Tiger of Mysore (1), the town has been a witness to innumerable historic events and has numerous memorials - monuments, palaces, ancient temples, mosques, churches, obelisks, armouries, tombs, gardens, etc - some of these very apparent and famous therefore thronged by visitors and tourists, some obscure and lost in oblivion.
One such memorial is the Garrison Cemetery located in an unfrequented place, standing solitary in the interiors of the town besides the banks of the flowing river Cauvery.
At the gates of the Garrison Cemetery beside Ms. Vidyalakshmi - its caretaker, a couple of years back
This cemetery has an extremely interesting history, the cemetery came into existence after the fall of Tipu Sultan in the 4th Anglo Mysore War and was used for the burial of soldiers of a particular regiment– obviously most of us would think it would be a British regiment of soldiers however that was not the case this cemetery was used for the burial of soldiers of the Regiment de Meuron– a Swiss Regiment!
The Regiment de Meuron were mercenary soldiers from Switzerland and the regiment was named after their commander Colonel Charles- Daniel de Meuron from Switzerland.
These mercenary troops were initially in the service of the Dutch East India Company at Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which was a Dutch Colony until 1796. With the throw of the Dutch Republic by France in Europe the pay of these troops fell in arrears and when the British entered Ceylon negotiations were held between both the sides and the Regiment defected to the British incidentally whom they had fought in India on the French side few years back (2).
It was a win-win situation for both sides – the Regiment needed money to pay its soldiers and the British needed men to fight its most fearsome enemy – Tipu. For they had realized that it was not possible to defeat him single handedly.
The British had lost the first two Anglo Mysore wars and General Charles Cornwallis had to make a hasty retreat initially in the 3rd Mysore War. The British had already stitched alliances with the Marathas, Nizam of Hyderabad, Nawab of Carnatic, the Travancore Kingdom, etc against Tipu and these mercenary troops would also prove handy against him.
As thought the troops were first used in battle by the British during the 4th Anglo Mysore War which led to the ultimate defeat of Tipu Sultan who laid down his life defending his capital of Seringapatam. 80 soldiers of the De Meuron regiment had also lost their lives in that battle. These troops were the first ones to be buried in the Garrison Cemetery and in subsequent years most of the burials in this cemetery were of the other soldiers and members of their families – all Europeans except One!
Tombstone of Naizer Rattan at the Garrison Cemetery
" Erected to the memory of Naizer Rattan. Girl native of Tallenga. Deceased 1st December 1803 aged twenty two years, by her good friend A. Mieville, Quartermaster-Sergeant of H.M. Regiment De Meuron "
Quiet recently a friend of mine who does historic walks and whose better half was involved in a project to restore these graves shared a photo and pointed out in a history group forum that there appears a tombstone of a young Indian girl by the name of Naizer Rattan – a native of Tallenga.
Very soon a full-blown argument cum discussion happened – about how this Indian girl got buried in this all-European Christian Cemetery and if the tombstone actually belongs to an Indian or not. Another friend commented that Tallenga is a place in Peru and it could be that she is a Peruvian National. However, none from the Regiment had been to Peru so we were wondering how this girl from Peru landed in India, someone also commented that it could be the result of slave trade and who was this friend of her A. Mieville who laid her to rest here – though the tombstone clearly mentions his position - Quartermaster-Sergeant of Her Majesty’s Regiment de Meuron, as this regiment now swore allegiance to the crown.
But the name especially her surname ‘’Rattan’’ was a common South Indian name, also if the girl was a native of some other country then that would have been pointed out rather than the name of a small town in Peru. On the flip side of the argument was that the first name does not appear Indian and the biggest question of why and how could an Indian be buried in a European Christian Graveyard especially considering the racial society of 19th Century.
We left the argument there however this fact intrigued me and a couple of days later I emailed Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones who is the editor of the BASCA Journal ‘Chowkidar’. BASCA is the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia and who were involved in the restoration of the Garrison Cemetery along with the descendants of the de Meuron family.
Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones very kindly responded to me confirming that the tombstone indeed belongs to an Indian girl from Telangana and had the following to say:
“……………… this is undoubtedly the grave of an Indian woman from Telangana. It was not uncommon, as you know, for British men to take native women as bibis. There are many examples. What is unusual is for such a woman to be buried in a Christian cemetery. So we can speculate that Naizer Rattan, as she is called here, may have converted to Christianity, or it may be that ‘her good friend A. Mieville' arranged for her burial in this cemetery. It is possible the Swiss were more relaxed about ‘unorthodox’ burials in Christian cemeteries. In either case, it is a touching tribute to what was clearly a loving relationship.”
A couple of days later Dr Llewellyn-Jones very kindly again got back with the reference that she got from the secretary of BACSA about this particular tombstone (3).
The initial response from Dr Llewellyn-Jones cleared a lot of questions in mind as to how this girl landed in the European Cemetery.
It was indeed very common for British and European soldiers to get in relationships with local women as can be seen in the White Mughals by William Dalrymple whose main theme is about the relationships of an East India Company officer and a native Indian princess (4). Recent studies have also shown that one third British men then had Indian wives and they were also leaving them possessions in their wills (5). The number of British men getting into relationship with Indian women had become so common that Cornwallis passed a law stating that the children of these British men who had Indian wives will be excluded from employment by the Company fearing what had happened in America where the revolutionaries were not Native Americans but descendants of European settlers (6). Not just that a lot of these Indian women were also travelling back to Briton and getting anglicized so it is not strange that Nazar or Nazia to become Naizer Rattan, It does appear her actual name would have been Nazar Rattan – a very common name especially for the nautch or dancing girls from the Deccan region.
Also, the name of the place could have been misspelt as Tallenga as formerly during the reign of Nizam these domains were known as Telugu Angana - place where Telugu is spoken hence this appears to be the shorter angelized reference as Tallenga.
In conclusion, I would say that this tombstone in the Garrison Cemetery where An Indian lies resting among Europeans defies many norms, traditions, conventions and customs of the period and is indeed, a touching tribute to their relationship and an ode to their love.
Addendum: It is important to make it clear that the cemetery was not exclusive for the burial of Swiss soldiers but soldiers of other regiments and their family members also lie buried here. The cemetery was used for burials until 1860.
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
I would like to thank my friend Basav who first spoke about this tombstone which kindled my curiosity to probe further. Also, my good friend Harshavardhana who provided me with photograph of the tombstone of Naizer Rattan.
A very special thanks to Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones MBE for her response which not only helped to ascertain that this was indeed the grave of an Indian girl but at the same time was very insightful and also to Mr Peter Boon, Honorary Secretary of BACSA for providing me with the reference.
References and Notes:
1. Praxy Fernandes, The Tigers of Mysore: A Biography of Tipu Sultan & Hyder Ali.
2. Julian James Cotton. "His Majesty's Regiment de Meuron." Calcutta Review Vol. 117 October 1903 [republished in the Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon Vol. LIV January-December 1964 pp.4-44].
3. Richard Holmes, Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914 pg. 217
4. William Dalrymple, White Mughals
5. William Dalrymple, White Mischief https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/dec/09/britishidentity.india (accessed on 07th Feb 2021)
6. William Dalrymple, The Anarchy pg. 327