Monday, January 30, 2012

Quest for Kalapathar


Quest for Kalapathar

By Francis N Xavier

Giant trees rose on either side of the narrow trail as it snaked through the tropical forest forming a thick canopy overhead. Huge lianas hung down from their branches like pythons.  A few rays of sunlight filtered through the dense foliage.  There was a chill in the air although it was midday.  Everything was eerily silent except for an occasional shrill call of a parrot or the drumming of a woodpecker.  The trail seemed endless as it dipped and rose and again dipped into the evergreen forest.
I have trekked up Mount Harriet many times.  Once it was to escort a British High Commissioner to India, who wanted to witness the sunset from the peak, just like Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, who was killed by a convict on his way down.  A notice announced that a trail led down to 'Kala Pathar' or Black Rock. Another went down to Madhuban, the place where the Forest Department elephants went to school.    But I never went beyond the bungalow at the top.
When Prof. Clare Anderson, Professor of History in the University of Leicester told me that she was looking for some 'graffiti' on Kala Pathar I was not interested. How could some graffiti, written more than a hundred years ago, be still there on a rock! But that would be a nice trek, and an opportunity to watch some rare birds. We set out in the morning. Along came Zubair Ahmed, my journalist friend.
An excited Prof. Clare blazed the trail. Behind her walked Zubair, stick in hand. I brought up the rear.  What appeared an easy trek in the beginning became tedious when we started climbing a steep rise.  The loneliness made it more arduous.  The frail professor walked with an easy step, but my bad knee was giving me trouble, and I started doubting the wisdom of trekking all the way to a black rock and look for some graffiti mentioned in the letter of pastor to his daughter Prof Clare had dug out in the British Library. 
Prof Clare has found in some manuscripts in the British Library a letter written by one Rev. Warneford to his daughter Maud on 4th  May 1876.  It read, "Went to the 'rock' at Mt. Harriet and cut out your name MAUD  about 4 inches long near Ms Stewart's.  Reggie's is also there and the mark of the bullet he fired from my rifle into the tree at the side of the rock".   It was clear that many British families stayed in the bungalows on the top of Mt. Harriet during the hot season.  They would explore the forest and shoot pigeons.  But a visit to the 'Rock' to cut one's name has not been mentioned anywhere in the records or the books I have read.
After what seemed an eternity a noisy group of trekkers overtook us. They were also going to Kala Pathar for a picnic.  It was great relief to have some company.  At least the rock was there, if not the graffiti.  Prof Clare increased her pace as she sensed we were approaching the rock.  A sudden shout announced that she had found what she was looking for.  " I found it! - the graffiti! - its there!", an excited Clare said. When I reached the rock a little later I couldn't believe my eyes. In front of us, was a huge black rock, worn smooth by the weather, but with not just WARNEFORD but many more names cut into its surface.      
The most prominent name was 'WARNEFORD', with the year 1876 below it.  A little above it, in a corner was inscribed 'F. BARTON'. On the other side of the rock I found two names, 'N. BALAGOOROO' and 'C. RAMANOOJOOLOO' obviously south Indian. Beyond them, where the rock face fell away into a deep chasm, was carved HMS RIFLEMAN, and a date, 1869.  Other inscriptions that didn't make any sense to me were the initial K.C.C. with the date 2-3-1885 and some Urdu words.  There might be more graffiti on the other side but it was too risky, and the more recent graffiti, in paint and chalk, covered the old ones. It appeared that part of the rock might have broken off and fallen into the chasm below.  The picnic party spoke of the Japanese using the rock to push people to their death during their occupation of the islands.
Just as we turned to go I noticed another set of initials cut deep into the rock. They were large, very neatly carved, and seemed familiar. 'F R de W'  rang a bell.  Both Prof Clare and I blurted out at the same time the full name of the person, Lt. F. R. de Wolski of the Royal Engineers, the officiating Executive Engineer of the settlement.  I was suddenly reminded of the big fight that took place between Lt. Wolski and Capt. W.B. Birch, one of the Assistant Superintendents. The epic war of demi-official letters between the two became the talk of the town in the Port Blair of 1876. 
In the stultified environment of the budding penal colony both men jockeyed for position. Birch won; Wolski was suspended for insubordination and transferred. That was a long story.  But what made Wolski come and carve his name into Kala Pathar? I wondered.  We couldn't find Maud's name. Balagooroo and Ramanoojooloo must have been some kind of petty officers. HMS Rifleman was the guard ship at Port Blair. Did the crew of the ship come up for a picnic? Several questions rose in our minds as we started walking back.  Perhaps another visit would reveal some more names.  But the thought of going up again through the leech-infested forest was not really exciting, at least for the present.   

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