Simon and Sally came to Himachal Pradesh’s capital Shimla from England full of anxiety, but they returned at ease with a sense of accomplishment.
The journey that the elderly English couple made is one that many from England make to Shimla —once the capital of British India— to retrace their roots and look for the final resting places of ancestors who came to India to serve the British Empire but never left.
Cemeteries in Shimla are like a pilgrimage for these descendants. Many of them have heard stories of how their ancestors lived their days in India and were buried in Indian cemeteries. Birth and death records of some of these ancestors are still intact in with the Shimla Municipal Corporation.
Simon and Sally from England were not just fortunate enough to collect the birth and death certificates of Simon's grandfather and father on Friday, but they also traced their graves at Shimla’s cemetery area.
Shimla-based historian Sumit Raj Vashisht is key to such efforts who also organised the visit of Simon and Sally — who got in touch with him via London-based British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA). Many people from England seek help to trace birth and death certificates of their ancestors who once lived in Shimla.
Vashisht told Outlook, “They arrived in Shimla on March 8. I took them to the Municipal Corporation office and managed to fish out the relevant records. The staff at the Municipal Corporation was courteous enough to issue the certificates after checking the records that which were preserved in the birth and death register. They returned to England on March 10 with valuable papers and proofs of their ancestors having lived and rested in Shimla.”
Records show that Simon’s father's paternal uncle, William Litsterster, was posted in Shimla Municipal Corporation. After his death on November 27, 1930, William was buried in the cemetery of Sanjauli.
Simon’s father Cyril Beit was also born in Shimla. He had served in Shimla as a Sessions Judge. As per the birth certificate issued to him, Cyril was born on July 2, 1916.
Vashisht regrets that even though the Municipal Corporation remains a significant source to provide the birth and death details to many foreigners, the British descenedents looking for such records are not lucky all the time to find complete information.
“I have requested Commissioner of Municipal Corporation to digitise the records and upload these on the website of the corporation to make it easy for the British descendants to gather details even while sitting in London,” said Vashisht, adding that the conditions of cemeteries is also not very good that add to the difficulties in retracing one’s roots.
Between 2005-09, Vashisht through his personal efforts managed to prepare a list of persons whose graves are intact and could be visited in Shimla.
He said, “By now, I have been able to reunite at least 50 families with their ancestors whose graves exist in the town.”