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09 Jewish cemetery in Calcutta, Narkeldanga

Inscriptions in the Cemetery: A Note by Nir Tsuk


Nir Tsuk was invited by the Jewish community to help translate, from Hebrew to English, the inscriptions of the 600 oldest graves in the cemetery (Dec 2014), as part of a larger project to tag the graves and have information available about community members from archival materials. Nir had not expected “Jewish Calcutta” to be part of his India expedition.

While Nir was working on inscriptions there were gardeners weeding the cemetery and construction workers fixing receding boundary walls. He thinks they must have wondered why he was recording the names of those who died over two hundred years ago. But it is this “…remembering, telling and retelling that is so characteristic of Jewish People, for whom telling their stories is deeply encoded in Jewish scriptures. It is through the spoken and written word that our culture through the ages is captured and lives on. It is this spiritual heritage that is passed down the generations.” A graveyard is thus an important part of the Jewish heritage.

Moreover, “…the cemetery is very different from the majesty of the Calcutta synagogues for it is here one can imagine the personal journeys that people undertook to settle in the port City, so different from their Middle Eastern roots. It makes one think about why and what made them come to the City, and the courage it must have taken to build a thriving Jewish community here and maintain community life.”

Like other Jewish cemeteries around the world, the Calcutta cemetery is also called “Beit Hayim,” or “House of the Living.” In Calcutta, as English was the language the Bagdadi Jews adopted, Hebrew letters and dates and English writing combine in the inscriptions of the cemetery. The graves are packed very closely together, making the cemetery cozy and intimate, but at the same time it is hard for people to visit as walking between the graves is difficult. 

Sephardic graves are typically curved at the top whereas the Ashkenazy graves are more flat in shape. The inscription styles also vary. Most of the graves would say: "here lays the late….  who that was born on..and died …., may his soul be kept in the bouquet of life."

Sometimes the inscriptions would add adjectives, such as “the merciful” and “the righteous,” as a prefix to the name to describe their beloved. Other additions included whether they person had lived long or died prematurely. The children or parents of the deceased sometimes wrote the inscription.

A few inscriptions note the place where a person was born and where he or she may have died, for e.g., Darjeeling, before they were buried in Calcutta. If a person died on a Friday it was noted that he or she died “before the Holy Shabbath.” Some graves also have a small ornament and others may site a verse from the “tehelim.” The very small graves were for the children, some of whom must have died even before been given a name, underlining the fragility of life.