27 July 2019

Stepping into the past in Chunar

In February 2016, my grandmother and I went on a long train journey. It was sort of dark and uncomfortable, and at one point there were cockroaches on me and I read fan-fiction to forget them.


Eventually, though, our train made a one-minute stop at our destination at 4 a.m., and we hopped out into the extreme cold. A frigid auto ride later, we were in the warm glow of my great aunt's living room, sipping coffee and eating plum cake. This was the first time that someone called me "my girl."

I like to think that this was where it all really began.

I had always been curious about the place where my grandmother would disappear to once a year, the place where my mother used to pluck fruits from trees during school vacations, the place that my great grandparents had decided, in later years, to call home. It seemed peaceful and other worldly, even to someone who knows the challenges of the pastoral. Perhaps it was because it had the whiff of another time, and was made of stories.

My great grandparents moved to Chunar in the late 1960s, after my great grandfather retired from his career in the railways. Though they had spent most of their adult lives in Calcutta and other cities in Bengal, they now sought a quiet place. A newspaper advertisement of this forgotten town somewhat in the middle of nowhere probably seemed just right.




Views of the cemetery and interiors of St Thomas' Church

Located in Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh, Chunar  though it may not seem like it  has an eventful past. Today, it is connected to Varanasi by road (23 km) and is known for its sandstone, pottery and clay toys. Evidence of settlement here dates back to as early as 56 BC, when it was occupied by king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who established the formidable Chunar Fort overlooking the Ganga. Built from the local sandstone that is still found in the region, the fort, built on a rocky hillock, has been besieged and offered refuge to many throughout history. During the Mughal era, it hosted the emperor Babar, followed by Sher Shah Suri (acquired through marriage) and his descendants. The emperor Akbar captured the fort in 1575, and it subsequently became home to the Nawabs of Awadh for nearly two centuries.

The Well of Love (with a dungeon and underground changing rooms)

Jharokha of Fatima Begum

Execution area a.k.a herein occurred the execution of people

Sonwa Mandap

Prisons, where Humayun was allegedly kept by Sher Shah Suri

A view of the Ganga from the fort

Another view of the Ganga from the fort

Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the fort was annexed by the East India Company and was the depot for arms and ammunition. When Maharaja Chet Singh of Benares (Varanasi) raised a rebellion in 1781, Warren Hastings  the first Governor General of India  took refuge in the fort. At different times, the fort has housed prisoners (1815) and artillery (during the 1857 mutiny, when it served as a safe ground for the Europeans.) The home of Warren Hastings still stands in Chunar, and the cemetery provides testimony to many of the lives that passed through the town. There's also a cultural angle  Premchand allegedly taught a mission school here in the late 19th century; the 90s TV show Chandrakanta as well as the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur were filmed here.

Excerpts from The Letters of Warren Hastings to his Wife

To my great grandparents, though, it was simply home.

Simla, Delhi and Chandigarh are all very expensive and transport difficult & without a car one has a really difficult time. So back to poor Chunar, where things are cheap if nothing else.  
– Excerpt from a letter written by my great grandfather, dated 10 April 1970
Despite the harsh seasons of heat, cold and rain, there were little things to be thankful for.
Papayas are all starting again from the old tree – we do nothing and all come up by themselves again. Two of those old lime trees are bearing again, slowly but surely. We have a sort of sweet lime which is double the size of our limes now [...] Our jamun tree does not bear very good jamuns but it's something – our custard apples are coming up again this year, and of course the pomegranates. My roses are blooming sweetly again after the rain. 
– Excerpt from a letter written by my great grandmother, dated 4 July 1970 
Over the next few days, I got to see my great-grandparents' former home, now abandoned and overgrown...




"Clare Villa" | I've spent the last few days chasing part of my family history in a small town named Chunar. The sweetness of first visits, stories from yesteryears, old photographs, homes, cemeteries, and people I'd never met but always heard about... A small group of boys gathered behind us as nani and I compared the house with the photo, one of them bravely peeking between our heads to see what we were gazing at. I frowned at them and most of them took the hint. I was going to tell them to shove off when one said timidly, "yeh aapka ghar tha?" Nani explained that it's her mum in the photo, and then he asked "aur yeh aap hain?" She shook her head and told him who they were, and then we tried to calculate how old the photo must be... #history #Chunar #album #photographs #family #grammasters3
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...And their final resting place.



One of the many gravestones dedicated to soldiers buried in the Chunar cemetery

When I wasn't playing with the littlest member of the house or riding on the back of a scooty or eating stew, my nani and I looked at old photographs. An important part of family history research is learning, and recording, who the faces in the photographs belong to.




We learned that my grandmother's elder sister, like me, had been rather fond of postcards...



...And found a photograph of her brother's family at the fort.

Circa 1960s

My quest for researching my family history has been a long one; I used to pester nani for names every so often. A family tree had been duly prepared, but it relied on memory alone. It seemed that I would never get further, and I didn't know how anyway.

But after being so close to them on this trip, I was keener than ever to learn more  and I got lucky. Returning to Delhi, my random Google search this time struck gold, leading me to new names and information, and the Genealogy Project was born. With these leads, though I knew I would verify them, I started collecting all I could find, and educated myself on the ins and outs of genealogy research. The rest, as it were, is history.



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