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Ancestry travel: Stepping into the past in Chunar, India

In February 2016, my grandmother and I went on a long and uncomfortable train journey.

The train made a one-minute stop at our destination at 4 a.m., and we hopped out into the cold. A frigid auto ride later (an auto rickshaw is a three-wheeled motor vehicle in India, with a covered top but open on the sides), we were in the warm glow of my great-aunt Marina's living room, sipping coffee and eating plum cake. I'd never met her before. This was the first time that someone called me "my girl." Looking back, this was definitely a beginning of things.

I had always been curious about the place that 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 this was because it had the whiff of another time, and was made of stories from yesteryears.

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 (now Kolkata) and other cities in Bengal, they now sought a quiet place. A newspaper advertisement of a house this little town somewhat in the middle of nowhere had probably seemed just right.

Ganga, ganges, river
A view of the river Ganga (Ganges)

Located in the 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 (Benares, 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 river. Built on a rocky hillock from the local sandstone that is still found in the region, the fort 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

Prisons, where Humayun was allegedly kept by Sher Shah Suri

A 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 a depot for arms and ammunition. When Maharaja Chet Singh of Benares 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, and the 90s TV show Chandrakanta as well as the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur were filmed here.

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, Clifford Keys, 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, Elsie, dated 4 July 1970

I got to see my great-grandparents' former home, which they had named Clare Villa. Now desolate and overgrown, it once must have been a sweet place, with cabinets and green shutters in the dining room; a piano that Clifford played, as well as his daughter and granddaughter; a dog named Roxy that they got circa 1975; a kitchen separate from the main house which they hardly frequented; somewhere, I'm told, a framed photograph of Elsie's mother and grandparents, which I would dearly love to see; a little transistor radio that kept them entertained with BBC plays; and the footsteps and conversations of family, grandchildren and friends when they visited.

Clare Villa, 2016

Though they used to rent out rooms, my great-grandparents weren't well off. His grandchildren even referred to Clifford as "PG" (poor grandpa, as opposed to their other grandpa RG!). The housing market deteriorated, there were notorious floods leaving a lot of damage in their wake (including photos lost forever), and money had to be constantly set aside for various health concerns and operations.

Behind the school and church is a cemetery, their final resting place. I love cemeteries – to me, they're about remembrance. I think this is where I really felt connected to my great-grandparents. It felt more real somehow, yet very surreal, to stand there beside them for the first time. The cemetery holds some fascinating stories and beautiful tributes across time, and made some of the history of Chunar come alive as I wandered among the names and inscriptions of people unknown to me and thought about them and their lives for a moment.

St. Thomas Church, Chunar

My great-grandparents' graves and (above) views of the cemetery

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

Great-aunt Marina's home was just across a patch of land from my great-grandparents'. When I wasn't playing with the littlest member of the household or riding on the back of a scooty or eating stew, we looked at old photographs. My nani, aunty Marina and her daughter Desiree told me about the people I was seeing, and other little anecdotes as they remembered them.

We found a photograph of my great-uncle Trevor's family at the fort on one of their visits. We learned that my grandmother's elder sister, Marlene, like me, had been rather fond of postcards. She had travelled a fair amount, but eventually returned to Chunar and lived there with her sister. I was allowed to keep her postcard collection and I look forward to delving into it soon.

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. The rest, as it were, is history.

All photographs by me unless mentioned otherwise. Please contact me if you'd like to use them.


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