GILGIT: Sitting under the shade of trees, Ghulam Ali stares at the graves around him. These are, perhaps, his last days working as the caretaker of this old graveyard and although he has already retired from the job, he continues to work here as a volunteer till the government appoints his replacement.
There are at least 18 graves in what is now called the British cemetery. Situated in the heart of Gilgit city — the capital of mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) which featured prominently in the historical narrative of the imperialist Great Game — the significance of this final resting place of British military personnel, foreign explorers, trekkers and mountaineers who lost their lives thousands of miles away from home is lost on many of the locals.
“Every year, only foreigners visit [the graveyard] to pay homage to the services of the brave men [buried in the cemetery],” says Ali.
The 62-year-old caretaker has pottered between the old tombstones for nearly two decades and wants the job to go to his eldest son. “Naturally I’ve developed an emotional attachment to the graves which belong to some of the greatest men of all times,” he says.
G.W. Hayward, a famous 19th century explorer, was the first person to be buried here — on July 18, 1870. As the story goes, Hayward was murdered by a local man in the Darkut valley of Ghizer, a district of GB. The information about all but the final years of Hayward’s life is hard to come by, but his explorations and gruesome end in Asia, connected to the politics of the Great Game, eventually earned him a degree of fame.
“I don’t know much about Hayward but I have noticed that his grave is the centre of attention whenever foreigners visit here,” he says of Hayward, whose portrait still hangs in the hallowed halls of the Royal Geographic Society in London, an honour only a few share. Back in the 19th century, the Society’s gold medal was the highest honour an explorer could receive.
“They [the visitors] take selfies and photographs with the gravestone.”
Recalling such an incident, Ali says a few years ago a young man visiting the cemetery had burst into tears on seeing Hayward’s grave. He wept for an hour sitting next to it, he says. “It was a really sad moment… I couldn’t help but shed tears as well.”
The account of Hayward’s murder has been covered in great detail in Peter Hopkirk’s book The Great Game.
The period of Hayward’s arrival in the region is said to coincide with the height of imperial expansion by the two competing empires of Russia and Britain. It is when Russia, which had hitherto confined itself to the north, began expanding towards the south when the space between the areas occupied by the two empires began shrinking rapidly. It is during this time that clandestine agents and explorers were sent to this unknown area of the world full of ‘lawless’ tribes and ‘murderous despotic’ rulers, amid some of the most formidable and challenging terrains on earth.
“The cemetery is a historic place with a wealth of knowledge, but strangely it is not an attraction for locals,” says Sherbaz Ali Barcha, a well-known historian from Gilgit.
Barcha believes that the government should accord the cemetery due attention and promote it as a possible tourist spot.
The cemetery was last renovated in 2002 with financial support from the UK and the GB governments. They had funded the construction of pathways, gravestones and a boundary wall for its protection.
Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2017