A Taj Built in Memory of a Husband – Roman Catholic Cemetery – Agra

Roman Catholic Cemetery in Agra
Roman Catholic Cemetery in Agra

The Roman Catholic Cemetery in Agra dates from 1550 and was first used for the burial of Armenian Christians who settled in the city during the reign of Akbar. These were followed by burials of other Christian denominations as others settled in the area.

The oldest grave you can see in the cemetery (although the stone is much newer) belongs to John Mildenhall, an English merchant who died in 1614 and is reported to have been the first Englishman “to see Akbar face-to-face”. But there are a couple of other tombs worth noting, not just for the stories associated with the individuals, but also for the architecture of their resting place.

Hessing’s Tomb (“The Red Taj”)

The finest, most dominant, and indeed famous tomb in the cemetery belongs to John William Hessing. It is a small but perfectly formed late Mughal tomb which shares many of the characteristics of much larger tombs. Built of red sandstone and with obvious comparisons, it is commonly known today as “The Red Taj”.

John William Hessing, was born in Utrecht on the 5th November 1739, and came to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1757 in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Five years later he returned to the Netherlands, only to return to India in 1763, this time joining the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. By 1784, he was serving the Maratha chieftain Mahadji Scindia.

He fought in several battles for Scindia and was wounded multiple times, but earned a reputation of being a good man and a brave soldier. Disagreement with Benoit de Boigne, the French commander of Scindia’s forces, compelled him to resign his position.

However, Mahadji had taken a liking to him and made him the head of his “Khas Risala” or personal bodyguard. It was a position he held until Mahadji’s death in 1794, but he continued under his successor, Daulat Rao Scindia.

During this period Hessing commanded 3,000 Maratha regular troops in the Battle of Kardla, where the Maratha armies defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad on 12 March 1795. He attained the rank of Colonel in 1798 and subsequently became the commandant of Agra Fort.

On 21st July 1803, John Hessing was killed in battle while in command of the Maratha forces defending Agra Fort against the British, and event that was part of the Second Anglo-Maratha War. He was 64 years of age.

His widow, Anne erected this splendid tomb at the cost of Rs 100,000 (£1,000), an enormous amount in those days which equates to the sum of £101,000 today. Despite the huge expense, she was sadly not able to fund the tomb’s completion.

The original tomb design included four minarets, you can see the base for these but they were never completed due to Anne running out of money. The compromise was not to complete these minarets, but to instead add four cupolas at each of the corners. Anne Hessing died 28 years later in 1831 in Barrackpore.

It is a bit of a surreal feeling visiting this cemetery, not just because of the Red Taj but also for so many Europeans to have adopted Rajasthani style chhatris for their cenotaphs only to then top them with a cross !

Samru’s Tomb

Close by Hessing’s tomb is the tomb of Walter Reinhardt, who was known as Sombre or Samru. He was a european mercenary and adventurer who took advantage of, and made a great fortune from, the late 18th century disturbances in the region. He was widely regarded as a “turncoat”, changing sides in any conflict for advantage and profit.

He ultimately became subordinate to the Mughal minister Najaf Khan, and died in Agra on 4th May 1782 at the age of 53. His substantial estate was left to his Indian wife, Begum Samru, who became a relatively famous Delhi character in the world of the last Mughal emperors.

The tomb is quite elaborately carved, with an impressive bulbous dome of the late Mughal period. As is so often the case, the interior was much plainer.

Despite the noise of heavy traffic just beyond the cemetery perimeter wall, the Roman Catholic Cemetery is Agra is a very peaceful and well maintained place. It is also the oldest Christian burial ground in North India, and well worth a visit if you happen to be exploring the city.

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