The tomb of Eleanor Isabel May, an Englishwoman, in Munnar is considered the Taj Mahal of the hill station. It was built by her loving husband Henry Knight and many visitors to Munnar ensure that they reach the tomb to pay homage to Eleanor, who died at young age of 24.
The tomb can be found in the cemetery attached to the CSI Christ Church in Old Munnar. Interestingly, the church had come up many years after the cemetery was consecrated. Eleanor was the first person to be buried at the graveyard and the Christmas Eve of 2019 marked 125 years of her funeral.
The tomb, which is located on top of a hill, has a three-tiered headstone. On the top tier are written the words, 'ELEANOR ISABEL MAY.' At the second level is inscribed, 'DEARLY BELOVED WIFE OF HENRY MANSFIELD KNIGHT AND YOUNGEST DAUGHER OF BEANFORT BRABAZON. M.D.' Finally, in the lowermost tier, the word 'DIED-23RD DEC 1894. AGED 24 YEARS' can be read.
The tomb was built by Eleanor’s husband Henry on December 24, 1894 and her funeral took place that day at 2 pm. Henry was the manager of a British tea estate in Munnar and he had married Eleanor in England after a long courtship. The young couple then travelled to Munnar for their honeymoon. From England, they boarded a ship and arrived in Sri Lanka. Travelling through Tamil Nadu, Eleanor and Henry reached Bodinaykanur. The next part of their trip was climbing the Bodi ghat road to Munnar.
Eleanor was thoroughly exhausted after the journey. On the evening of December 20, 1894, the newlyweds went on a stroll along the riverbank. The path beside the river was covered with mist and offered amazing views. Eleanor was bowled over by the beauty of the place and told Henry, "This is indeed Heaven on Earth and if I die, bury me here."
Henry laughed, taking the comment as a joke. However, Eleanor developed symptoms of Cholera and passed away on the third day. Tragically, the young couple could not celebrate even their first Christmas together and Henry was devastated.
Eleanor’s relatives wanted to take her body to England but Henry was firm that he would fulfil his bride's last wish. The young Englishwoman was buried at the same spot as she wished and it was the first funeral of a foreigner in Munnar. Henry used expensive marble brought from his homeland for building the tomb.
Henry stayed for some more years in Munnar after his dear wife’s death and every day he visited the tomb after work. He spread wild flowers over the tomb and cried a lot. His colleagues had to carry Henry away to his bungalow most of the time. Later, Henry returned to England and spent his last days there. However, before that, he had played a big role in turning Munnar into a major tea-growing area.
Interestingly, people belonging to the present generation of Eleanor’s family regularly visit the tomb.
In the following years, several foreigners - mostly Englishmen and women – were buried on the hill near Eleanor's tomb. As a result, demands were raised to build a church near the graveyard and Bishop Rev. E. Noel Hodges visited Munnar in 1898. On April 15, 1900, the cemetery was officially consecrated and a funeral register was opened. The first name in the register was that of Eleanor.
On December 9, 1900, special prayers were offered at Eleanor's tomb for Queen Victoria.
However, some more years were to pass for the church to come up. It was on March 10, 1910 that the foundation stone for the place of worship was laid and the rites were led by a team of clergy from Colombo. The reason was that priests in Kochi could not travel to Munnar those days as the route was arduous. Rituals related to both the Churches of England and Scotland were performed and the Munnar church was opened to devotees in May 1911. The consecration of the church took place a good 11 years after that of the cemetery!
Built of granite rock sourced from Munnar itself, the Scottish style church is designed like a cross. Furniture, bell, clock, piano and glasses were brought from England. In fact, the first ship bringing the church bell sank in the seas and another consignment had to be sent.
At the sanctuary of the church, the image of Jesus Christ is flanked by those of St Thomas and St James. The old Bible, a huge bell and even the piano placed at the church when it was opened are still at the same spot.
According to records, the then British Governor of Madras Lord Wellington visited the church in 1922 and ordered a grant of Rs 25. Some modifications were also carried out and the church saw the roof being replaced with asbestos in 1966.
After the consecration of the cemetery, many more funerals took place and the hill where Eleanor expressed her last wish to Henry has 1,055 tombs now; as many as 37 of them belong to foreigners. Of the 14.5 acres of land under the control of the church, nine acres is cemetery area.
When it was opened, the church offered services only in English. Later, Malayalam and Tamil prayers were added. While the Malayalam services are led by Rev Anoob George, the Tamil prayers are officiated by Rev. Nitton Bose. Currently, 202 families live in the area covered by the church, which is under the Cochin Archdiocese. The Bishop is Rev B N Fen.