Here, in this overgrown graveyard, lie the faithful servants of the Raj

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The Independent Online

What were we doing here? The man who carved Robert Adams' gravestone thought he knew. "Staff Corps and Deputy Commissioner in the Punjab, called to Peshawar as an officer of rare capacity for a frontier," the flaking stonework tells me. "Wise, just and courageous, in all things faithful, he came only to die at his post, struck down by the hand of an assassin on 22 June 1865, aged 43."

At school, I used to read of these men. My father bought me tales of the Raj and tiresome G A Henty novels in which blond Englishmen fought off the Ghazis - the Muslims who dedicated themselves to killing foreigners.

And here they lie today, in the overgrown graveyard run by the Christian Cemetery Board in Peshawar, beside a canyon of traffic and rickshaws and motorcycles and army trucks, the old noticeboard at the gate - a pink brick replica of the "Garden of Remembrance" we used to have at school - informing me that I too can be buried here for 100 rupees. Just £1.27. A century and more of rain and pollution have not been kind to the Victorian ethics of the Raj and the words on the gravestones, chiselled with such confidence long before I was born, will soon be impossible to read.

And so, quite soon, we will not know that Lt George Richmond of the 54th Regiment, 27th Punjab Infantry, died at only 23, on 27 October 1863, "of a wound received on the previous day in the defence of the Eagle's Nest Picket at Umkyla Pass". Nor will it any longer be recorded that Lt Richmond was "a brave good soldier and a true Christian". Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. So it says on his and other graves, those of the army wives, too. Ellen Wrenn departed this life in January 1906, "after a long and painful illness born with a Christian resignation and fortitude". She was, her gravestone tells me, "a good woman, a good wife and a good mother".

A thin green mist rises around my feet as I prowl this pollen-filled graveyard with Mr Gharrib, the almost toothless Pashtu-speaking guardian of the Raj's last charnel house, who scampers alongside me in his grey sandals. Here is the final resting place of Lt St George Bishop of the 6th Bengal Cavalry, "killed in action at Shubkudder in an engagement with the hill tribes December 5 1863, aged 22 years". Driver Hudson was the same age when he died a year later with 25-year-old Gunner Perkins and Gunner Middleton and Bombadier Henry Kitson, who was only 20. They were still being cut down more than half a century later; a few metres away lies Lt I R Wood of the King's Dragoon Guards "who died of wounds received in action at Loc Dakka" on 26 May 1918. He was 22.

Was it hubris that brought us here with the wisdom, courage, faithfulness and bravery that is now flaking off these stones? Or was it the "white man's burden" which, if Mr Gharrib is to be believed, has not yet been taken from us. His right hand wipes the moss and dust from each stone I pause at, and softly lays a piece of paper on the grass at my feet.

"I am a watchman here in this graveyard," it says. "I am a poor man and my salary is so little that it doesn't commensurate with my needs. The people who are coming here give me 300 rupees. I would be grateful if you could help me in this regard."

The English is bureaucratic - "commensurate" and "in this regard" were clearly written by a Pakistani who knew the language of the Raj. I give Mr Gharrib 500 rupees (£7) and he embarks on an orgy of grave-cleaning, tossing aside ferns and wrenching out leaves. So emerge the gravestones of 2nd Lt Cecil Manners of 692 Motor Transport Company of "Burton-on-Trent, England" and of E A Samuels Esq, of the Bengal Civil Service "who from fever contracted on service in Afghanistan departed this life at Peshawur [sic] on 6 December 1878, aged 36 years".

Here is the tombstone of Bandsman Charles Leighton of the 1st Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment, "aged 20 years and 3 months who was assassinated by a Ghazi at this station on Good Friday, 1899". So the "ghazis" really existed outside the pages of G A Henty - whose books were given to me by a father who was born almost exactly the same day that Bandsman Leighton was killed.

So we British came, and fought, and ruled, and were assassinated, and died of sickness, and eventually we went home, leaving Mr Gharrib to turn a rupee in the graveyard. But as I drive back from the cemetery, I pass the Pakistani army's "Garrison Public School" and St Mary's High School and a Military Police Post and the Police Riding Club and a whole set of ancient military cannon outside the Parachute Regiment headquarters.

A paternalistic military rule, that's what we ran on the North West Frontier and our values - according to those graves - were closed off by faith and discipline. And the logo of Pakistan's unelected military rulers? "Faith. Unity. Discipline." I wonder, then, if we really did go home.