Lost Christmas: Munnar CSI Church tells a 129-year-old tale of love, dedication and pain

On 23 December 1894, Eleanor Isabel May breathed her last and she became the first European to be buried in the picturesque hilly region.

ByK A Shaji

Published Dec 23, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedDec 23, 2023 | 10:16 AM

The tomb

It was Yuletide 129 years ago when Eleanor Isabel May breathed her last on 23 December, leaving her husband Henry Mansfield Knight shattered and inconsolable. She was 24.

She was buried on a hillock where wildflowers sparkled among dew-glistened grass blades as the golden sun rose over the rolling, mist-covered hills, sporting different hues of green at Munnar in Kerala.

May was the first European to find a place for eternal sleep in tranquil Munnar’s lap.

Knight had brought his bride to Munnar a few days after their wedding in November 1894. They had married after a brief courtship.

One winter day, May jokingly told her husband to bury her in Munnar if she was to die in the picturesque, virgin land. She did not want her body to be returned to England but wished to be an integral part of the breathtaking landscape.

Little did Knight then know that May had expressed her death wish. The next day, she was down with cholera.

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The inevitable

On 23 December 1894, the inevitable happened, leaving Knight numb with deep sorrow that pierced his heart. Clad in white like a bride and adorned with flowers, May was laid in the casket, still and silent like the cold winter night of Munnar. She was gone before the young couple could celebrate their first Christmas together as man and wife.


The CSI Church in Munnar. (Supplied)

Even as the world prepared to welcome the King, the rekindling of hope, a heartbroken Knight planted a farewell kiss, the final one, on May, and proceeded to fulfill her wish, despite her parent’s desire to hold the funeral in England.

The casket was lowered into the freshly dug first grave in the wilderness at 2 pm on 24 December 1894, on the hillock overlooking the now Old Munnar Town.

Days passed by. Knight went back to his duties at the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company Limited, believed to be named after two Muthuvan tribesmen. Despite the busy days, the memories of his late wife burnt in him with the warm brightness of may flowers dotting green canopies.

He decided to build a monument for her beloved who died young. The monument was constructed in 1910 beside May’s tomb, as a symbol of tenderness and eternal love cast in stone.

Knight stayed back for a few more years. Every evening he visited his beloved and showered tears and wildflowers on the tomb. Estate workers had to persuade him almost always to return to his bungalow as night threw a dark blanket over the Kanan Devan Hills.

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Munnar’s Taj Mahal

Munnar has now become a bustling tourist destination with concrete buildings mushrooming at all possible places. Yet, the stone edifice of the memorial, now a CSI Church, has withstood the onslaught of nature.

The stone-brick winsome building carries an old British charm. Its tall stained windows depicting tales from the Bible, slopped roof, clock, piano, and exquisite chandeliers hint at Roman architecture, but most of them imported — speaks volumes about Knight’s love and dedication for his beloved wife.

Abundant wild blooms among the scattered graves under tall eucalyptus trees on the green grass-covered premises add to the dream-like charm wrapped in serenity. The cemetery was originally reserved for British planters.

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The epitaph

Amidst the graves, one with a three-tier headstone stands out. “ELEANOR ISABEL MAY,” reads the inscription on the top headstone. ‘DEARLY BELOVED WIFE OF HENRY MANSFIELD KNIGHT AND YOUNGEST DAUGHER OF BEANFORT BRABAZON, M.D.” followed on the second tier.

Munnar. (Supplied)

“DIED – 23RD DEC 1894 AGED 24 YEARS,” the lowest tier completed the epitaph, the message enveloping the visitor like the evening mist that engulfs the area.

Social activist MJ Babu said the locals view Isabel’s tomb and the memorial as Munnar’s Taj Mahal, visited by many, especially young, Cupid-hit couples.

Incidentally, the church could be the first one in the country to have come up after a cemetery was established. Normally, churches precede the burial ground.

Records showed that Lord Wellington, the British Governor of Madras, during his visit to the church in 1922, ordered a grant of ₹25. In 1966, asbestos replaced the church’s roof, along with other changes.

The church had exclusive English-language services when it was first opened. Later, it included Tamil and Malayalam.

Many more funerals were held in the cemetery spread over 14.5 acres. Of the 1,055 tombs on the hill, 37 carry English names. Still, the epitaph, “ELEANOR ISABEL MAY … DIED – 23RD DEC 1894 AGED 24 YEARS,” could not be read without feeling Knight’s pain that still tug at heartstrings.