By Helen Abadzi
One day they ended up in at a coastal city full of mud, suffering refugees, and deadly malaria. The place was Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedonia and second largest city of Greece, recently acquired from Turkey. The period was World War I (1914-19), which brought to Thessaloniki the multinational Army of the Orient, in which the British participated. One wonders if they knew in which part of the world they were when they died. And it is doubtful that many knew why they or their regiments were fighting and for which ideals they died. Carried away by the force of the Allies to stop the Germans and Bulgarians, about 520 mainly poor and illiterate Indians ended their lives in Thessaloniki.
The graves and monuments of these people date from 1916-1920 and are in the west side of the city, formerly called Harmangioi. The Indian cemetery is a separate plot, on Monastir Road, next to the railroad lines and the Ziaka military compound. It is a few kilometers away from Zeitelnik, where the allied cemeteries of World War I are located. It consists of 5500 square meters, surrounded by a low gray stone wall. Its pines and cypresses are a green spot in the industrial area that now extends there. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission takes care of the plot, which is tastefully designed and well maintained. The cemetery contains:
· An octagonal structure, which contains ashes; 220 names are written on its sides. The names, numbers, and professions are written in black letters on white marble.
· A memorial monument for those whose bones were either buried in nameless graves or were not found; 163 names are mentioned, engraved in black granite.
· Individual graves of about 105 people with small white standing gravestones.
· A grave with a large gravestone of a transport corps major.
Apparently, the British who ruled India then, buried the Indians in a separate space away from the allied cemeteries because these people were not Christians. Thus a cemetery was created which does not resemble any other, because people of various religions are almost always buried in separate cemeteries, and Hindu cemeteries do not exist. In the Indian cemetery of Thessaloniki there are about 384 Hindus, 107 Moslems, 26 Sikhs, and 1-3 Christians, all buried together. Typically, Hindus are cremated and Moslems buried. Those who were cremated in Thessaloniki were almost all Hindus, but of those buried many were Hindus as well. Of course, this shows that during a war people did what was practical. Possibly they cremated the bodies together when they were many, and they buried them when they died one by one. The individual gravestones have in white letters engraved on white marble the name, specialty, number and date of death as well as an inscription. The most common inscription is in Arabic, although many graves belong to Hindus: hua gafúr, Αllah gafúr talíhi (Allah forgives, he forgives at the end [picture 4]. In a few Sikh graves, there is an inscription in Punjabi: Ek Om kára Shri wahe Guru ji ki fatéh (victory to the awesome guru).
The central inscription of the memorial monument is:
To the glory of God in honoured memory the hundred and sixty three Indian soldiers, followers, and labourers of the British Salonika force and of the Army of the Black Sea, whose names are here recorded.
At the two edges, the monument has the following inscriptions:
– Ek Om kára Shri wahe Guru ji ki fatéh.
– B’ism Illah arrahmán arrahím (Arabic – In the name of God the merciful).
– Om Bhágwate namáh (Sanskrit – I bow to you, Supreme Deity).
Obviously, some other Indians later wrote these inscriptions. The military cemeteries were designed in detail not only in Thessaloniki, but wherever in Europe Indians were buried Indians. The respect with which the British buried them and maintain their graves to this date is moving. It gives Greeks an understanding why despite their independence struggle, Indians maintained a positive feeling for the British.
Who were the Indians and from where did they come?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a registry that courteously makes available to interested people. The registry mentions the name of each decedent, place of origin, name of father or wife, serial number, unit in which he served, and date of death. For the Greeks interested in indology, the cemetery data provide much ethnographic material. This article (originally written in Greek) provides a background and summary.
The Indian Army of the British Raj
During the years of the British occupation, the people who served in the army were mainly poor and lower-caste. Also the traditionally “martial races” served, i.e. Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats, and Gurkhas. The British never occupied Nepal, but they recruited willing Gurkhas and in some respects treated them like Indians. (In the monument they are not mentioned as Nepalese.) So, most of the dead were from the northern and northwestern areas of imperial India, some of which later became Pakistan. Exceptions to the northern origin were six people from the south (mainly Madras), about 20 people from the area of Bombay (now Maharastra and Gujarat), and five seamen from former east Bengal and now Bangladesh.
The monuments and the archives show that the dead belonged to 36 different units, or battalions in the case of infantry units (Table 1). Each of these had 700-800 people, and 10-15 of them made an operational unit in the case of infantry. For administration purposes, two battalions were linked into regiments during the first world war (e.g. 31st Battalion Queen Victoria’s Rajput Light Infantry), and recruited the same “race” of soldiers.
For the Indian officers, Indian titles were used, such as naik, havildar, or subedar. The Indian officers were low-rank and non-commissioned. Some of the dead seem to be assistants or soldiers in British units, like the Royal Field Artillery, but most Indians belonged to Indian units, such as 24th Punjabis, 10th Jats, Bhopal Infantry, or 6th Gurkha Rifles. Along with these northern units, there was also one from the south, the 80th Carnatic Infantry.
Table 1: Military Units Mentioned in the Indian Cemetery
Of the 520 dead, the actual fighters were relatively few; only 71 soldiers and 17 officers are mentioned (17%, Table 2). The remaining 83% were auxiliary. They belonged to units like the Indian Labor Corps, Army Bearer Corps, Mule Corps, Supply and Transport Corps. The havildar major with the large-sized grave was in the transport corps. There are also 33 seamen of the British mercantile marines who served in the ships named Berali, Pathan, Virgin, Clenghorn, Caledonia, Kwang Ping, Chak Sang, Hartington, Frankenfels, Prominat, Fan Kito, and Haroo.
The most common profession was driver. The Indian army depended almost completely on mules at that time, so in all probability those drivers drove mules rather than cars or horses. The rest were servants of various specialties: water carriers, bearers, sweepers, laborers, washers, cooks, grooms, carpenters, blacksmiths, saddle makers. These specialties are often mentioned in the grave inscriptions with the Hindi words that British used: dhobi, bhisti, langri, khalasi, syce, jamadar, sepoy, lascar.
Table 2: Professions of the Buried Indians
The 520 dead constituted about 5% of the 10,000 dead in the British Salonika Force. The dates of death give us an idea regarding the Indian presence in the city. We do not know how many came with the arrival of the Army of the Orient on October 5 1915 or how many were there in the different stages of the war. However, at least some people were there for four years. The first two men (driver Ram Dass and naik Bhairan) died on January 14, 1916, while the last (lance naik Arjan Singh) died of illness on February 21, 1920. The losses were initially small, only 17 men in 1916 and 19 in 1917. Those were mainly mule corps and transport corps drivers, like havildar major Lutf Ali Khan. Maybe Indians in 1916-17 were few, servants in British units and transport functions. Possibly the Indian units with their own servants came and fought later, in 1918-19. In 1918, the deaths increased to 199. Most happened in the six months between September 1918 and February 1919, when 66% of the buried Indians died. About 48 soldiers and drivers were killed in the crucial battles of September 1918, which led to the defeat of Bulgaria. The winter that followed was fateful. From November 1918 to February 1919, 222 people died, i.e. 43% of the dead (66 in November, 82 in December, 53 in January). After the end of the war the deaths decreased, and the British army left in May 1919. However, 12 people died in January and February of 1920. Probably some Indians were left behind, keeping supplies of allied material.
The death causes are usually not written in the registry, and one supposes that most were killed in battles. However, the inscription at the entrance of the cemetery (text box) states that about half of the dead in the British army died of malaria. A malnourished population, like the low-caste servants, might be more vulnerable to trials and wounds, but malaria is endemic in many parts of India and perhaps Indians had some immunity. Also, malaria is not mentioned as a cause of death in any case and most deaths did not happen in the summer or fall, as one might expect. Instead, sometimes an illness is mentioned (“died of sickness”), particularly for the people who died in the fateful winter of 1918. Sometimes the illness has to do with the effects of cold weather. Ude Singh Bhandari died of pleurisy, Bambalam of tuberculosis, and Kuta Singh Negi of pneumonia. The proportion of auxiliary people to soldiers in the army is unknown, but the majority of the dead were auxiliaries. So it is likely that most Indians died of diseases. Most were not used to the low temperatures of Thessaloniki, and perhaps the servants did not have winter clothes or sufficiently warm barracks. Perhaps the winter of 1918 was particularly heavy and burdened the health of the wounded.
The Meanings of the Names
To put name and caste issues in perspective, it is useful to remember some ancient history. About 1300 BCE, the whiter and taller Indoeuropeans migrated to South Asia and gradually pushed the darker and smaller Dravidians towards the south. Of course, much intermarriage has taken place since then, but the castes to a significant degree still distinguish between the descendants of Indoeuropeans and Dravidians; the latter are in lower castes. This social structure, which has been kept for about 2300 years, has acquired a religious overlay and has discouraged intermarriage and social mingling. After great efforts by the Indian government, many of these taboos have been overcome. However, those who belong to different castes and sub-castes traditionally had different professions; the Brahmins taught and were literate, while the shudras cleaned the streets, tanned leather, and were extremely poor and illiterate. To get away from these distinctions, many low-caste people became Moslems or Christians. The caste system also made India vulnerable to outside invaders.
The caste (and subcastes which differ by geography) is evident from people’s first and last names, sometimes even after the person has changed religion. For this reason, the names of the dead were analyzed with a view to understanding their religious and social backgrounds. Classification was a little difficult because the early 20th century Indians, particularly low-caste people, did not use last names (which were often formed later from parental or subcaste names), and without these names it was only possible to distinguish between high and low castes. Also, some names are written wrong. The fathers’ names helped, and in general it was possible to understand the social conditions of the people. Generally, they belonged to the following groups.
About 74% were Hindus, of whom 20% belonged to the shudra (lowest) caste and its many subcastes. The vast majority of the cavalry, infantry, and artillery units of the Indian army did not recruit lower-caste soldiers in the first world war. Low-caste people only did auxiliary jobs (e.g. were in the Labor Corps) and were not considered part of the units. So, most Indians came to Thessaloniki to do the dirty and manual work for people and animals. Even the Moslems and Christians were clearly converts from the castes that did these jobs. In the beginning of the 20th century, profession taboos were still very strong, and it is possible that higher-caste Hindus did not touch these people or eat with them. The one cook mentioned may have cooked especially for them. Since low-caste Indians did not get an education at that time, most of the people buried in Thessaloniki were illiterate. Their names refer to deities that are honored by shudras, such as Kuber (a deity of wealth). Other times, the people had only nicknames, such as Manglu (lucky), Hushiaru (smart), Kalu (black), Khajan (eats a lot), Bhura (brown), Kabutan (Kabutar-dove). These names, particularly the endearment –u ending, show that their parents did not know to give them proper names.
The higher-caste Hindus (about 15% of the total) were usually soldiers or drivers. They were distinguished by first names, such as Kámta Prasád, Pyáre Laal, Ram Chand that have Sanskrit meanings and occasionally with subcaste names such as Upadhyay. A few names are clearly southern, e.g. Rudrappa.
This religion, a cross between Hinduism and Islam, was developed around 1500 in Punjab, when the western parts of India were trying to defend themselves against the Moghals.  The Sikhs cut an impressive with their military demeanor, beards, and turbans, and Greek children stared at them with great curiosity when they came again during the second world war. The 26 who died in Thessaloniki were mostly soldiers or drivers in the Punjabi units. Jats and Rajputs also use the name Singh, so it was somewhat difficult to tell Sikhs apart from Hindus. They were classified on the basis of first name combinations (e.g. Mewa Singh) as well as from place of birth and father’s name.
Muslims constituted 20% of the dead. Since they were from the northwest, it is possible that many had some ancestors who were Persians, Arabs, and Turks or who were converted during invasions. Their names are Arabic and the last names usually correspond to fathers’ names, e.g. Ali Fateh, Ahmad Fazal. Sometimes the last names are Persian, e.g., Máuladad Khan, Sher Khan. Geographic origin is not evident in Moslem names, as in Hindu names, but sometimes it is hard to tell the religion (e.g. Baktawar). The seamen from East Bengal were also Moslem and had similar names, such as Abdúl Shah, Asad Ali.
Most Moslems were auxiliary, therefore probably of low education and prior caste. Several were drivers, an occupation that all castes and religions shared.
The Christians, who are relatively few in the north, tend to take Christian first names but to keep family names, which often refer to low Hindu castes. Only one person is certain in the cemetery, Constantio Thala, a bearer. Two other people have names that might be Christian, such as Hori, possibly a corruption of Holy Ghost.
These soldiers are famous for their stealth and skill with the knife called kukhri. Initially Gurkhas were the soldiers of King Prithvi Narain Shah, who conquered all of Nepal in the 17th century from the mountainous town of Gorkha. Later Gurkhas were called people from all mountainous areas of Nepal. Many belong to tribes such as Rái, Gúrung, Tamáng, Lámbu, Mágar, etc. Though integrated in the Indian army, the 10 regiments of Gurkha rifles were always separate, and Gurkhas were not required to serve in mixed units.
The 31 dead soldiers from Nepal were Hindus and Buddhists, with only one Moslem. They have the usual names that indicate martial skills, such as Bir (Vir), Bahadur, Rana, Khatri, and also Thapa (initially Buddhist monk). Five people have the tribal name Gurung as a last name. They came from the areas near the towns of Palpa, Ilam, Nuwakot, and Dhankuta. They all died in 1918 and 1919, many in the difficult winter of 1918. Possibly there were no Gurkhas earlier in Thessaloniki.
Places of Origin and Families
The home states and provinces of the dead were administratively created by the British. The archives indicate names that changed after 1947. For example, Uttar Pradesh, was then called United Provinces. (Possibly the Indian government renamed the area, keeping the initials U.P.) Another state was Rae-Bareilly, part of which later was incorporated in Uttar Pradesh. Rajasthan was called Rajputana. Sylhet was classified under the name Assam but today is in Bangladesh. Only one person came from Delhi, which in the beginning of the century was not as populous.
The ages of the dead are unknown. However, most were probably married, because many people then married young, often in childhood. For a few of the dead, the name of the wife appears rather than of the father: Radhir, husband of Sunari, Mauji Ram, husband of Bhuri, Suleiman Khan, husband of Azima, Arjan Singh, husband of Darkan. Probably the young wives remained single for the rest of their lives and may have suffered great misery, because Hindu widows at that time were considered unlucky. If some of these people left children behind, these may have grown up in great poverty. If any were alive in the year 2000, they would be at least 83 years old.
No one knew in 1920 that 25 years later many of these families would be uprooted. The places mentioned in the cemetery archive today belong to three different countries. Together with the liberation of India from the British in 1947 came the India-Pakistan partition and in 1971 the partition of the latter into Bangladesh. The population exchange and massacres in 1946-47 means that there are no longer Sikhs or Hindus in Lahore and the other cities of partitioned Punjab. Just as in the Greek Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922, whole families were wiped out and some relatives were separated forever. Therefore, many of the people buried in Thessaloniki may not exist in anyone’s memory even as family lore. Only the various regiments that continue their existence in Indian and Pakistan are likely to have the names in some lists.
So, the cemetery of Thessaloniki preserves, from a time before the births of the poor were registered, names of relatives and families that have ceased to exist. It also preserves biological remains, which may be useful at some point. Since only Moslems and Christians are buried in India any may be exhumed to make place for others, the country has very few graves of the local population. If there is a need for genealogical, anthropological, historical or medical research on DNA and skeletons of Indians of various castes and areas, samples exist in the military cemeteries of Europe.
Indians Buried in the Rest of Greece
Indians were not used systematically during World War I in Greece, and relatively few were sent there. By contrast, many served in France and were buried in a large monument in Neufchapelle, that receives many visitors. Some individuals from the first and second world wars are buried in other military cemeteries, such as Faliro (140 people), monument of Athens (56 people), Rhodes (8 people), Stroumna (2 people), Doirani (1). In the military cemetery of east Moudros of Limnos there were 64 Indians buried in 1915-1919. Their names are not mentioned and graves are not individual, but there was an effort to separate them by religion. On the south side of the cemetery a plaque reads “Musulman soldiers of the Indian army and Egyptian Labour Corps are buried here“. For the Hindus and Sikhs, there is a plaque in the north part which reads “Soldiers of the Indian Army are honoured here”.
Aside from the religious separation in East Moudros, all other Indians elsewhere were buried together. It is ironic that India was united religiously only outside its borders, in Greek military cemeteries. The ashes and the bodies of people of low and high castes, Sikhs, Christians, and Moslems were mixed perhaps like their common ancestors during the Hellenistic era. At that time, ruled the Buddhist emperor Ashoka and later the Indogreeks, who rejected the caste system. After the end of the Gupta dynasty however, the Brahmins reasserted their influence on the people, and the caste distinctions were rooted for good. The people’s desire to rid themselves of this social burden created the conditions that ultimately divided India into three countries. One hopes that the people of South Asia may be united in the future while alive.
The cemetery reminds us of the vicissitudes of history. To a small degree, the freedom of Macedonia from the Bulgarians is due to some Punjabis, whose country Alexander the Great once conquered. Even before the conquest of Alexander, some Indians had fought in Greece. The ancient historian Herodotus wrote that in the battles of Thermopylae and Plataiai (480-479 BCE) Indian fighters were part of the Persian army. They were archers and riders under the orders of Farnazathres, a general of Xerxes. Darius had invaded the Indus valley in 510 BCE, and conquered west India and Bactria. But faraway India never voluntarily helped or invaded Greece. Whenever Indian soldiers came (including the second world war), they were under the orders of other masters.
In the long history of the two nations, relationships are obscure but created often. The large Greek Orthodox Church of Metamorphosis in Calcutta was inaugurated four years after the last Indians died in Thessaloniki. It was the ornament of a community that flourished in Bengal since the beginning of the 18th century. The Greek cemeteries of Dhaka and Calcutta were already old, and had gravestones dating back to 1776 with excellent inscriptions which show that generations of Greeks went there in those times for commerce and freedom from the Ottoman occupation. Later, in the middle of the 20th century, (1954-1968) at least 111 Hindi movies were imported in Greece and fascinated the population to the point that local folk composers copied the songs and made them Greek. When Greece reached the income level of industrialized countries around 1985, India became a frequent destination for tourism and spiritual inspiration. A Greek non-governmental organization has built many rural works for the Kalash (in the Chitraal province of Pakistan), who may have some Greek despondence. Also, thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis have come to Greece as source of labor. Their children are the Indo-Greeks of the future. The followers of the British army were one link in the long chain of the relationships between the two nations.
Abadzi, Helen and Emmanuel Tasoulas. 1998. Hindi-Style Song Revelation: From Exotic India to the Folkloric Muse of Greece. (Indoprepon Apokalypsi – Greek). Athens: Atrapos Publisher.
Gounaris,Vassilios. “In Macedonia at the time of the Great War (1914-1919)”, Journal Thessalonikeon Polis, 1, (January 2000), p. 179-192.
Vassiliadis, Demetrios. 2000. The Greeks in India: A Survey in Philosophical Understanding. Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlaal.
Gerolymbou, Alexandra and Evangelos Hekimoglou. “The Macedonian Front and Thessaloniki 1915-1919”. Journal Thessalonikeon Polis, January 2000, p. 199.
Spear, Percival. 1970. A History of India. Vol. 2. London: Penguin Books.
 The author thanks the Honorary Consul of India in Thessaloniki, Ms. Yvonne Alexandridou for her excellent information and help in locating the cemetery.
 The total number of the people buried is about 490, but the archive of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission mentions 520, because the bodies of some people were not found and their names were not commemorated. About five people were buried in 1917-18 in a Moslem cemetery, which at that time was on the road to Doirani.
 Only one Indian is reportedly buried with the other allied forces.
 Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Headquarters next to the British cemetery of Mikra, address: Vryoulon 51, Kalamaria, Thessaloniki 55132, tel 30-31-452597, fax 30-31-451490, [email protected]).
 On the gravestone is written in Arabic: Bism Illah arrahman arrahim (in the name of God the Merciful) and the remaining súrat al fátiha, the first paragraph of the Qur’an In English: Major Lutfali-Khan / Sirdar Bahadur / COMMDC / Indore Imperial Service Transport Corps / Killed on April 9 1917. The same is written in Urdu.
 The Guru mentioned may be Guru Nanak Dev, the first of the nine Sikh Gurus, whou founded the religion. However, the Guru may also be the Guru Granth Sahab, the holy Sikh scripture. The script of the adage is given in Punjabi (Gurmukhi), but the language is Hindi.
 Monastir Road Indian Cemetery and Memorial, Salonika. The register of the graves.
 This profession is traditional in a state dependent on the sea, and often Greek ships have Bangladeshi crews.
 Unlike British soldiers, Indians could only get a Viceroy’s rather than a King’s commission. The highest rank an Indian could have at that time was subedar major or jemadar, rissaldar also in the cavalry. (Paul Norris, personal communication, October 14, 2000.
 Apparently this name is incorrect.
 The author wishes to thank Om Prakash Dutta (India Radio journalist), Ibad Ur Rehman (lawyer from Pakistan), and the World Bank staff Sohail Malik, Mohammad Allak, Vinod Saghal, and Brajesh Panth for the information contributed for this article.
 For example, a Nepalese whose name was Bál Bahádur was written as Dálbahádur.
 Paul Norris, personal communication, October 14, 2000. Only in the second world war were lower-caste Indians recruited, generally in separate units, such as a Chamar regiment to which he was attached as an officer.
 Percival Spear, p. 57.
 Paul Norris, personal communication, October 14, 2000.
 Only 8% of the population in Nepal is Moslem.
 In 1922, the various regiments were rename and renumbered, so they may be hard to find.
 Telephone interview with Simon Fletcher, staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission responsible for the cemeteries of Greece and the Balkans, January 2000.
 East Moudros Military Cemetery, Limnos. Cemetery Index Number Gr. 10. Locations of Indian Casualties. Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
 Vassiliades p. 28.