It Happens

The Forgotten Cemetery

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Built in 1907, this graveyard contains ashes of Japanese traders and sex workers

Mumbai’s famed cosmopolitan culture is perhaps most visible on its most sombre street—Dr E Moses Road. Named after the city’s first Jewish mayor, this stretch of road, dotted with a number of graveyards of different faiths, is located between two of the most scenic locations in the city, Mahalaxmi Race Course and Worli Sea Face. There is a large Hindu open-air cremation ground, an equally large St Peter’s Catholic cemetery and a graveyard for Bene Israeli Jews (the first grave here dates back to 1927). However, the oldest and least known cemetery in this area belongs to the Japanese community.

It is located at a corner of the Hindu crematorium, and even most people in the locality are unaware of its existence. It was built in 1907, and consists of two shrines, where the ashes of the dead are interred, a house where the caretakers of the graveyard live, and another house where a small prayer room has been built. Japanese Buddhists, like Hindus, cremate their dead, but instead of disbursing the ashes, enshrine them.

According to Bhikshu T Morita, a 62-year-old Japanese monk of the Nipponzan Myohoji sect that set up the graveyard, this cemetery is a forgotten aspect of the city. “Every year we hold prayer services here, and  Japanese residents of Mumbai or those from the consulate come and pay their respects. Otherwise, everyone has forgotten about it.” Morita lives in a neighbouring Japanese temple that was built in 1956. He arrived in the city in 1976 to manage the temple and graveyard.

The monk says that a large Japanese population once lived in the city, consisting mostly of traders and sex workers. Traders reportedly came to Mumbai via the sea to buy cotton, and sex workers were brought by officers of the Raj. “There were over a thousand Japanese residents in Mumbai then, and a graveyard was badly required. Fujii guruji (Nichida Tsu Fujii, the founder of the sect) was able to procure land,” he says. However, only around 300 Japanese people are estimated to be living in Mumbai now.

Morita is unsure about how many individuals’ ashes have been enshrined at the cemetery. But he says that the ashes of the last person to have been enshrined belonged to a 25-year-old youth. “It was in 1977, just a year after I had arrived. I don’t remember how he died, but it turned out to be the last time the graveyard was used,” he says.

As trade between the two Asian countries picks up, Morita is upbeat that the graveyard will see better days. “Already, you can see more Japanese people. Perhaps, people will learn about this forgotten little Japan in Mumbai.”