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  • Writer's pictureyatri gulaak

Catacombs de Paris: As above so below

In modern era, Paris is widely considered to be the fount of fashion and haute couture. But in the 18th century it was a crumbling, stinking and overpopulated metropolis; bursting from the seams. Patrick Süskind in his seminal work “Perfume: The story of a murderer” wrote that

“In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench. And of course, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France"

At the center of this miasma pervading Paris, was Les Innocent cemetery situated right in the heart of the city. Over more than 600 years old, the cemetery was overflowing with half decomposed bodies in late 18th century. An estimated two million dead were packed like sardines in this small enclosure. Sometimes the dead used to fall in neighboring houses. The stench was getting unbearable and threat of widespread disease loomed large. Then one day in 1780, wall of an adjoining basement, of a restaurateur collapsed and rotting corpses flowed into it. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and King Louis XVI decided to exhume the dead and shift them to abandoned limestone quarries on which Paris rested. This giant ossuary came to be known as Catacombs de Paris and became sort of a tourist attraction when Napoleon Bonaparte opened it to public in 1809 for limited audience.

St Innocent cemetery in 1550's

On a hot and humid August day in 2016, I found myself wiping my forehead in a snaking queue in 14th arrondissement. I had come to know about these catacombs through the horror film “As above so below” which was about a group of adventurers trying to find Nicolas Flamel’s Philosopher’s stone. A miniscule area of catacombs is safe and open for tourists, a mere tip of the iceberg. When my turn came, I stared, momentarily at the ominous warning at the entrance “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort ("Stop! This is the empire of Death") and then stepped down a winding staircase leading into the bowels of Paris. The passage is extremely narrow and due to this reason only a handful of tourists are allowed in at one time. Hence, when inside I was almost alone.

Poster for Movie "As Above so Below"
Passage leading to Catacombs

In total contrast to streets above, the catacombs are very chilly and quiet. You can get occasionally spooked by a remote, disembodied laugh or chatter of a fellow tourist in some hidden passageway. Icy draughts of air suddenly winnow through your hair and catch you by surprise. Although the routes are well marked, the maze of catacombs can be claustrophobic and disorienting. You are well advised to walk on the designated routes and not try something adventurous like poor Mr Philibert Aspairt who was a doorkeeper in a hospital during the time of French revolution in 1793. Overpowered his craving for more booze, an already drunk Aspairt decided to go through the catacombs to enter a nearby liquor cellar. He soon lost his way and his light from a single candle, and died alone; stumbling through these catacombs in pitch dark. His body was found 11 years later. He was identified by key ring of the hospital he had on him. Reassuring part is that it is the only death reported in catacombs so far. The place where he was found is now a meeting place of Cataphiles. We will come to this group later.

Since the ossuary was a former limestone quarry, water percolates down from the surface and falls on the floor in distinct plops. You sense someone is behind you, only to find out it is the echo of your own footsteps. But the most disconcerting thing about the catacombs is, piles and piles of skulls, femurs and tibias of 6 million parisians stacked on both sides of the pathway. Occasionally a cockroach would scurry out of an empty eye socket or my eye would stare fixedly at an imaginary shape conjured out of the shadows. This place abounds with unpleasant legends about ghouls of famous revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Marat, our Mr Philibert Aspairt who is said to haunt these alleys on 13th November every year, of missing personages and certain whispering voices that coax you to venture deeper and deeper into the catacombs. But all said and done, visiting this part of catacombs is safe and an experience unlike any other, especially for those served with an extra dose of morbid curiosity. I finally came out after spending about a couple of hours there, out of an opening in the pavement which was lined with showrooms of premier fashions brands like Prada, Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger etc. I found tourists strolling on the promenade and clinking wine glasses at roadside cafes; oblivious of the terrors lying below. Two faces of Paris, separated by mere 20 meters.

Skulls and Femurs stacked in Catacombs

Who are Cataphiles: They are a bunch of intrepid urban explorers who illegally enter the restricted and still unexplored area of catacombs which is spread over 280 Km in length. They risk their lives and reputation to surmount obstacles both earthly and otherworldly such as police, vengeful spirits, cave ins, getting lost, flooding, claustrophobia and asphyxiation, to explore these caves. Their entrances to catacombs are secret and inconspicuous such as sewers, manholes, ventilation shafts etc. Some do it for propagating their art, using this subterranean network as their canvas, partying, picnicking, some out of plain curiosity and some like the group Les UX to beautify ugliest corners of Paris. For them it’s a free zone where they can do what is prohibited above. The bête noir of Cataphiles are Cataflics, a specialized police force trained with geography and paths of catacombs. In fact in 2004, the French police stumbled upon a fully equipped cinema hall with videotapes of noir films, a fully equipped bar, electricity and three phone lines, in an uncharted area of catacombs. Three days later police came back with electricity board officials only to find the electricity and phone lines cut. A note was found in middle of the amphitheater which said “Do not try to find us”. Cataphiles of Lex UX took responsibility.


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