Armenians In India - Family History/genealogy
Posted 08 August 2007 - 10:51 AM
I thought you might be interested to know that I am actively researching Indian Armenians who originated from Julfa. I am undertaking a project to photograph, transcribe and upload all the graves in the Holy Nazareth Church, St. Gregory's Church and Tangra in Kolkata (previously Calcutta). I will also add Madras, Chinsurah and Sydabad graves in due course. I have completely several hundred grave transcriptions already and these can be found on my website which is free for all to access on
http://www.chater-genealogy.com (look for the dancing skeleton!) or alternatively use this link to go directly to my Armenian graves page http://freepages.gen...ons-kolkata.htm
My own family were originally from the Armenians in Calcutta and Dacca, and although by the time I arrived my Armenian blood was somewhat diluted, I have been researching my Armenian family history for the last 7 years and time and again, found that there is little information available for anyone research their Armenian ancestors. So I hope I am helping a few people along the way.
I still have more of the Nazareth graves to upload but these will take a little longer as I don't read Armenian so have to rely on someone else to transcribe them.
Research Chater in India and Hong Kong in 2007?
Please go to www.chater-genealogy.com
Posted 08 August 2007 - 01:21 PM
you might also consider including Dhaka, Bangladesh. There is an Armenian church in Old City Dhaka where the Armenian community of merchants lived back in the days, now there is one or two Armenians left to look over this church, there are graveyards I believe in the courtyard of this church also. I will google and include this youtube video that some American tourist took of this church. Good luck with your research.
Posted 08 August 2007 - 02:26 PM
I would very much like to include the graves in Dhaka, which is where my family originated. So far, I haven't been able to make it there to take the photographs but it's on my wish list of places to go, as are the Armenian graves in Delhi and Agra. Thank you for your good wishes.
Posted 19 December 2007 - 02:25 AM
you might also consider including Dhaka, Bangladesh. There is an Armenian church in Old City Dhaka where the Armenian community of merchants lived back in the days, now there is one or two Armenians left to look over this church, there are graveyards I believe in the courtyard of this church also. I will google and include this youtube video that some American tourist took of this church. Good luck with your research.
I thought I would just let you know that I commissioned a photographer to take ALL the grve pictures at the Armenian Church in Dhaka, and I have transcribed the English one and uploaded them to my website www.chater-genealogy.com. Look for the dancing skeleton then Graves in Dacca. The Armenian written ones will be transcribed as soon as I can get them done.
Posted 18 December 2009 - 05:41 AM
It has been some time since I made a posting so I would like to remind anyone interested in their Armenian family history in India that my website has had substantial updates during the year, with even more pictures and transcriptions of graves being added. Information is FREE so take a look http://www.chater-genealogy.com.
In addition, I have put together a nostalgic look of the various Armenian churches in India and the Far East in a slideshow. The link can be found via my website, alternatively the direct link is http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/emcjnd/.
May I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year.
Researching Armenians and Chater in India and the Far East
Posted 18 December 2009 - 09:55 AM
I like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, with abundance of energy. The slide show was awesome and I thank you for it.
Posted 19 February 2010 - 03:44 AM
Armenians in India: from the earliest times to the present day
History of the Armenians in India
History of the Armenians in India
History of the Armenians in India
Edited by Zartonk, 19 February 2010 - 12:40 PM.
Posted 29 March 2010 - 06:26 PM
"THIS WAS SUCH A FANTASTIC DISCOVERY FOR ME AND THE FIRST I KNEW THAT I HAD ARMENIAN ANCESTORS IN MY FAMILY"
- Liz Chater's dream is to record every birth, marriage and death in the Armenian community of IndiaLiz Chater's database of Armenians who have some connection with India over the last three centuries contains over 10,000 individuals and approximately 3,000 families. Liz Chater is a family history researcher specializing in Armenians in India and the Far East. In Liz's words, her web-site www.chater-genealogy.com dedicated to Armenian family history in India (1600-1950) fills a gap in that part of the history.
Liz Chater was born in the UK where she still lives. Her interest is tracing her family stems from not knowing anything about its origins. In Liz's words, she didn't train to become a family researcher; she just fell into it by fortuitously in 2000. She knew quite a lot of family information about her mother's side (who is Welsh) but knew very little about her father's side of the family. Liz's father, who died in 1983, never talked about his family back in Calcutta. Liz's mother was able only able to partially answer the questions asked by Liz about her father's family.
"I continued to try and find information and my search took me to the British Library in London which holds a great deal of information on Colonial India, as well as birth, marriage and death records. On my first visit there, I was lucky enough to be able to trace many members of my father's side of the family; many of whom had what I considered to have "odd" names, such as, Arathoon, Arakiel and Martyrose. I posted some queries to a genealogy mailing list and an Armenian researcher called Nadia Wright, who specializes in Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia, told me the names were Armenian. This was such a fantastic discovery for me and the first I knew that I had Armenian ancestors in my family," Liz Chater wrote to "Hetq".
In her web-site she offers some possible definitions of the name Chater. According to one of these definitions, this surname could have derived from the Armenian word Adsvazaturian. In 2005 Liz was contacted by an unknown first cousin. He was interested to know about their family.
Chater Family Bible dates back to 1831
"More importantly, he was able to let me see for the very first time, the Chater Family Bible which dates back to 1831 and holds all the names of my ancestors. This was an incredible moment - firstly when we met the resemblance we saw in each other of our parents and secondly, to be able to see that old Bible that had, over the years, travelled so many miles in its life! Since then we have been in regular contact and get together at various times of the year for different family occasions," Liz writes in her web-site.
"Having discovered my Armenian heritage, I then tried very hard to find more information, specifically about Armenians in India," she writes to "Hetq".
In Liz's words, many families of the Armenian community of India are inter-related. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was not unusual for cousins to marry. So when Liz is working on one family she quite often solves a problem or query relating to another family. Her research timeline is predominately prior to the Armenian Genocide, between the 17th and the early 20th century.
Since Liz Chater has gathered much information, many people ask her to help with their own Armenian-based family history queries. They in turn are happy to share their family details with Liz. And it is not unusual for Liz to actually turn their small amount of information into a much bigger picture; a larger family than they thought they had.
"Internationally renowned artist, David Arathoon of Toronto, originally from Calcutta and whose Armenian family in India has been associated with the Armenian Church there for almost as long as the church has been standing, is probably the person that I have helped the most and whose own family tree hasn't just expanded but exploded with the new information that I have brought out into the open," Liz says.
"Armenian graves in India" photographic project underway
She is doing an "Armenian graves in India" photographic project. There are photos of Armenian graves in India presented in Liz's web-site. Many of these graves have duel inscriptions, in Armenian and English. But Liz still has several hundred photographs of Armenian graves whose inscriptions are written only in Armenian that she has not been able to put on her website yet because she doesn't speak or read Armenian. Thus, she completely relies on other Armenian family history enthusiasts to help her with transcriptions. She has approximately 3,000 photographs of graves in various locations in India.
"To me, every cemetery and churchyard is a library and every grave is a book. I am able to gain so much valuable information from the various tombstones about the individuals and their families and that is why I am completely dedicated and passionate about photographing the Indian Armenian graves before they become so weather worn they are no longer visible. Once that happens you slowly lose the history and it doesn't take many generations before the graves are no longer remembered in terms of who they were. The Armenian graves in India are exceptionally well cared for but you cannot stop mother nature," Liz Chater says.
When asked about the difficulties she most often faces in her work, Liz Chater answers that the lack of money to be able to research properly is the biggest obstacle for her. In her web-site Liz asks visitors to make donations to keep the web-site going. But in her words, she is lucky if she gets two modest donations a year. "At the end of each December when I have to renew the contract it's always a worry that I won't be able to run it for another year," she writes.
Speaking about her professional plans for the future, Liz said that it would be a dream come true if she could turn her enthusiastic amateur researching into a career. Ultimately, she wants to be able to record every birth, marriage and death in the Armenian community of India from available church records. But since the early registers are written in classical Armenian, if she manages to copy the registers she then will have to find someone willing to help with the translations.
Liz Chater said that researching family history is the fastest growing hobby in the UK. "How my family came to be in India is actually still a mystery for me," she writes.
Who is the most under-valued Indian Armenian of the 20th century?
Liz Chater said that the population of Armenians in India indeed is very small now. The community in Calcutta is less than 200. In other locations that were once large and economically strong communities, such as Chennai (previously Madras) they have all but disappeared completely. The bustling Armenian traders of Surat, Mumbai (previously Bombay) are but distant memories. But during colonial times Armenians were employed by the East India Company in positions of authority and importance because of their trustworthiness and dedication.
"Armenians tended to anglicize their names so they blended in easily with the British colonial way of life. An example will be Catchick, Paul Chater's father. Originally known as Astwachatoor Pogos Astwachatoor, he worked for the Government of Bengal and was known as Chater Paul Chater. As far as I am able to tell, the Armenians in India have always strived hard to integrate into their surroundings. I know that the current Armenian students at the Armenian College in Kolkata learn the local dialects of Bengali as well as English and Armenian," Liz said.
In her words, the hub of the Armenians is in Calcutta and it is the boys and girls educated at the Armenian College and Davidian Girls' Schools respectively that keep the flame burning. But for how long is anybody's guess.
When asked if during her research she has found out information about a talented, remarkable Indian-Armenian, who isn't at all known in Armenia, Liz Chater answered that Sir Catchick Paul Chater (known as Paul) is probably the most under-valued Indian Armenian of the 20th century. Liz stumbled across this person on one of her trips to the British Library where she was collecting and noting every Chater name held at the library.
"The name of Sir Catchick Paul Chater was the biggest discovery for me," Liz said.
Catchick Paul Chater was born in Calcutta in 1846. His own parents came from the Armenian community of Baghdad, Iraq. Paul, although baptized in the Armenian Holy Nazareth Church of Calcutta, did not go to the local Armenian College, a long and established Armenian education centre first started in 1821, but was sent in 1855 to La Martiniere School for Boys in Calcutta. Paul Chater arrived in Hong Kong in 1864 with just a wooden chest containing his belongings. That wooden chest was always part of his household furniture; it was a reminder and a symbol of the life he had left behind in Calcutta. Paul got himself a job in a bank. He observed and learnt enough to branch out on his own as a broker within 2 years of his arrival. By 1869 he was a member of the Hong Kong Cricket Club.
When His Royal Highness, Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh visited, Sir Paul became a close friend and confidant of the royal family. He regularly visited Buckingham Palace and other royal residences and holidayed with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in the South of France.
By the 1870's, Paul was buying plots, building and renting out those properties. He had been joined by his younger brother Joseph from Calcutta and they had joint enterprises. Paul also saw the potential in pony racing and in the 1870's he set up a stable with his business partner Hormusjee Mody, a Parsee from Bombay. In Liz's words, it really is true that Paul never missed a horse race meeting in Hong Kong in 60 consecutive years between 1866 and 1926. He was Chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club for 34 years and he still holds the record of being the longest standing Chairman the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
In 1890, Catchick Paul Chater created land from the sea in Hong Kong by constructing an extra 57 acres of ground space in a reclamation scheme. "It is the land that Hong Kong stands on today," Liz noted.
In 1902, Paul was honored with a Knighthood in London for his contribution to the prosperity of the island of Hong Kong, something which never left him until the day he died aged 79. He had brought structure, stability, employment and social prospects to the island.
"He generously left his beautiful and unique house Marble Hall along with his priceless china and art collection known as "The Chater Collection" to the government of Hong Kong, probably in the hope that they would make the house a museum. They did not. After a few very generous bequests to some nephews, Sir Paul Chater, a "closet" Armenian for the majority of his life, felt compelled to donate his remaining estate to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta where his life had begun," Liz writes.
- Sona Avagyan
Posted 30 March 2010 - 12:42 AM
Thanks for picking up on the article, and placing it here, it is nice to know that people are interested.
Posted 25 November 2012 - 10:01 AM
22:26, November 24, 2012
In India, as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Week 19-25 November,
the Surat Science Museum holds an exhibition that spotlights the
Armenian graves of the city of Surat. The exhibition has already
caught the attention of the local residents who attended. The
exhibition, run by the Surat Science Museum has a photo gallery of the
Armenian graves with the English translations beside them.
Until recently the Armenian graves were only ever seen with their
Armenian script. Had it not been for a `pure chance' moment, it is
unlikely the exhibition would ever have taken place. Photographs of
the graves were posted by Arpine Gyulinyan to the Indo-Armenian
Friendship NGO Facebook page and were spotted by Liz Chater, a
UK-based family history researcher.
Liz then contacted Arpine. Liz and Arpine started regular
communications and Arpine introduced Liz to Sanjay Choksi the
photographer who took the pictures. This heralded the start of a story
of collaboration and co-operation spanning three continents. Liz says:
"In a way without Indo-Armenian Friendship NGO Facebook page it
wouldn't have happened. Sanjay Choksi and Piyush Dalal (Arpine's
husband) took the photos, Arpine posted them to IAF Facebook page, and
I happened to see them. I asked if I would be allowed to post the
photographs of the graves on my website and said that I would try to
get the English translations of them.
A few months passed and with the help from the fantastically
knowledgeable historians Professor Sebouh Aslanian and Father Krikor
Maksoudian from the USA the translations began to take shape. This
truly international story of working together and co-operation would
not have brought such lime-light onto the Armenian graves of Surat. We
have all played a part and now the grave photographs and the
transcriptions form part of the Surat Science Centre Heritage
Programme this week."
Although the exhibition ends on November 25, the photographs and
English translations can be permanently found on Liz Chater's website
Liz Chater has been researching the Armenians in India for the last 12
years. Seven years ago, Liz decided to start an ambitious project to
photograph and transcribe all the Armenian graves in India and to make
that information available to other interested researchers. Following
many trips to India she was able to place hundreds of pictures of the
Armenian graves onto her website.
Furthermore, Liz has recently self-published a book on Armenian graves
in Dhaka entitled: `Armenian Graves, Inscriptions and Memorials in
India - DACCA 1722-1977' in which the English translations from
classical Armenian have, for the very first time been made publically
available by her. She was kindly assisted with this project by Very
Reverend Father Krikor Maksoudian of Arlington, Massachusetts who
translated the classical Armenian script and who is also actively
translating the Armenian graves at Surat for her.
The Armenian graves at Surat have never previously been fully
translated into English and doing so, and bringing these translations
to the internet will enable other family history researchers and
historians access to what has been, up until now, `locked' history.
Liz Chater's genealogical database has over 10,000 Armenians who once
lived, worked and died in Asia and it is hoped that she will be able
to get this information published.
Posted 02 April 2015 - 08:57 AM
ARMENIAN SCHOOL IN KOLKATA TURNS 194
New Kerala, India
April 1 2015
Kolkata, April 1
The historic Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) on
Wednesday celebrated the legacy of Indian and Armenian educational
cooperation on its 194th foundation day.
ACPA was founded in 1821 in then Calcutta by Astvatsatur Muradghanian
and Mnatsakan Vardanian, prominent members of the Armenian community
in the city.
It was the only educational centre in the east established to educate
the children of the Armenian community.
"We had a simple programme today (on Wednesday) to mark founders'
day -- the day when the school was established. There was a prayer
service and national anthems of India and Armenia were sung.
"There were welcome speeches, dramatised poems and a performance by
the school choir. We celebrated the legacy of cooperation between
the two countries," ACPA principal Soumitra Mallick told IANS.
The institution currently has 40 Armenian students from the West Asian
nation, Iraq and Iran with facilities for kindergarten to Class 10
Kolkata has been home to Armenian Christians since the 17th century
and as many as 30 families continue to be an integral, yet quiet,
part of the bustling metropolis.
A pivotal aspect of their culture is the Holy Church of Nazareth,
located in Burrabazar in the central part of the city.
There are five magnificent churches across the state, including
Stephen's Court in Park Street, that boast of splendid edifices.
Posted 22 September 2015 - 09:49 AM
INDIA AND ARMENIA: THE CONNECTION
New Kerala, India
Sept 21 2015
Armenia and India, two of the world's oldest civilizations, have also
shared socio-cultural ties for many centuries as new research shows.
Mane Mehrabian, a journalist from Armenia, reports
Who could have imagined that the guns used by the Mughals against the
Marathas were made by an Armenian? Did one know that an Armenian wife
formed part of Mughal Emperor Akbars harem? Lady Juliana who built
the first church in Agra is believed to be a sister of one of Akbars
Armenian wives. She was also a doctor in the royal harem of Akbar.
Very few know that the Mughal Court once had an accomplished Urdu
and Hindi scholar, Mirza Zulqarnain, again an Armenian. How about
the fact that the Scindia royal family of Gwalior once employed an
Armenian as the commander-in-chief of their army?
The similarity in Armenian and Hindi languages (where ten is tas
and thousand is hazar in both) opened up scope for a research in
the Indo-Armenian connection, which is not known to many among the
Several of these facts are revealed in Shahzad Z. Najmuddins book
Armenia: a Resume with Notes on Seths Armenians in India, which is a
recounting of the Armenian history. He was one of the few Pakistani
Armenians who preserves in his book family anecdotes and the struggles
of his family who emigrated to Lahore from Afghanistan where Armenians
were employed as gunsmith by the invading Afghan armies. The name may
come as a surprise as a Muslim name, but readers will discover that
Armenians often used surnames such as Khoja or Khan, which belonged
to Persian upper class authorities.
In one of the paragraphs Najmuddin talks about Lahores famous gun, the
Zamzamah, meaning the lions roar cast by the Armenian Shah Nazar Khan.
The gun was used by the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani in the
famous Battle of Panipat in 1761 against the Marathas. In Rudyrad
Kiplings book the gun found frequent mention and came to be known as
Kims Gun because the novel Kim opens with a mention to this gun. In
India, it is also called Bhangianwala Toap, because it was used by
the Sikh chief Sardar Hari Singh Bhangi..
The Armeno-Indian economic, cultural and scientific relations go
deep into the past. Being situated on the crossroads of the caravan
routes between the East and the West, Armenia had achieved cultural
and economic ties with India long before this era.
The Armeno-Indian trade relations continued also in the succeeding
centuries. They strengthened and acquired a new quality; the visits
of Armenians grew in number as the first Armenian colonies began to
appear on the hospitable Indian soil.
Armenians, in fact, are believed to have arrived on the bank of Hooghly
before the East India Company s Job Charnock decided to establish a
British trading post in Calcutta/Kolkata thereby changing the history
of India. They never amounted to more than a few thousand in Kolkata,
but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies,
shipping lines, coal mines, real estate and hotels. The Armenian
Street in Barabazar area, in Kolkata, gives testimony to it and also
the Armenian ghat. Ghats (river ports) were means of transport and
trading those days.
Within the scope of the overall history of Armenians in India,
the role of Madras/ Chennai was also exceptional. In the second
half of the 18th century, the dwelling became a prominent center of
enlightenment, cultural awakening, literary life and the Armenian
According to Portuguese sources, Armenian merchants were trading
in Chennai in the early 16th century. Armenian merchants from Julfa
(of Persia) flourished there during the 17th and 18th centuries and
carried on a lucrative trade with Europe and the Philippines from
there. An Armenian manuscript tells us that in 1666 Armenians settled
permanently in Chennai. Known to be philanthropic by nature these
opulent merchants helped the downtrodden. They also contributed to
the advancement of Armenian classical literature in India. The first
ever Armenian newspaper in the world was published in Chennai in 1794,
by Father Harutiun Shmavonian.
Manuscripts in profusion on the history of India and the Armeno-Indian
relations are preserved in the repositories and archives of Armenian
manuscripts and documents in Yerevan, Venice, Vienna, Jerusalem,
New Julfa and other cities. It should be mentioned that a brief
description of the Brahmans has also reached Matenadaran i.e. the
book repository of ancient manuscripts, now made into a research
institute of Armenia. In this brief text the author speaks of
the Hindu-Brahmans with great warmth and depicts them as honest,
industrious and peace-loving people.
The Indo-Armenian community in India had produced a number of leading
barristers, solicitors and advocates, including members of the Bengal
Assembly and the Bengal Legislative Council. Some such illustrious
Indo-Armenians are: M.P. Gasper, a leading barrister at the Calcutta
High Court. He was the first Armenian who passed the Indian Civil
Service Examination in 1869. Gregory Paul, who had graduated from the
Cambridge University, held different posts in the High Court in India.
The book Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present
Day, by Mesrovb Jacob Seth is a great revelation too. It is amazing
to read about Martyroses Chapel, the oldest Christian edifice in
Northern India. This mausoleum was built in 1611 at the old Armenian
cemetery of Agra, over the grave of a wealthy and charitable Armenian
merchant, Khojah Martyrose. And as the name Martyrose means martyr in
the Armenian language, the place has been called Martyrs Chapel. A
lot of Armenian names are found in the old Armenian inscriptions
on the tombstones at the cemetery like Zachariah, son of Amir Khan,
Petrus son of Pogose, Avetick, the son of Malijan, Kirakose, Margar.
Armenia and India as two of the worlds oldest civilizations who have
co-existed in peace for millennia are proud of a glorious past with
still a handful of Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata where the
Armenian College still functions.
Images: The Armenian Church in eastern city Kolkata. Photo by
Posted 23 October 2016 - 11:44 AM
Henrietta Aimee Elizabeth Simpson, née Stephen, lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. We were introduced by a mutual friend, the eminent British Historian, Dr Rosie LlewelIyn-Jones, MBE, of the “Nawabi Lucknow fame”. I was intrigued ever since Henrietta first told me in 2011, that her family is of British- Armenian heritage and that her ancestors were once domiciled in old Dhaka in the 19th century. I requested her to tell me the remarkable history of her family. A regular correspondence ensued between us. Slowly a story began to take shape supplemented by my own research. I also received from Henrietta some rare vintage photographs of her family, mostly taken in the Victorian era.
The interesting story of the Stephen family, its initial diaspora from Julfa, Persia (Iran), domiciliation in 19th century colonial India and final migration to Britain is a fascinating one. It all begins with Henrietta's Armenian great-great-great grandfather Johannes Stepannosean (later anglicized to Stephen) , who left Julfa once the pontifical seat of the Armenian Church in Ispahan, Persia (Iran) in the early 1800s to come to Calcutta, then the thriving capital city of British India. What circumstances actually impelled him to do so is not known. But it was perhaps the lure of trade and commerce in colonial Bengal. The ethnocentric, industrious Armenian community in both Calcutta and Dhaka were already well established. Some had indeed become prominent and prosperous citizens by then. These facts must have influenced Johannes to try his luck also. Although he first arrived in Calcutta, he soon relocated to Dhaka, where he engaged himself in trading. There is no mention of his first wife who was the mother of at least two of his older sons, one of whom was popularly known as,” John Stephen Esquire of Dacca” (born 1823) and Carapiet/Carr Stephen (born 1835). It is also not clear if his first wife had actually died in Dhaka or was divorced by him after the birth of their son Carapiet/Carr Stephen in 1835. In 1838 Johannes who must have been doing well by then, married a Greek lady named Sultana Athanes, presumably his second wife at the Greek Church in Dhaka. The church built by the Greek community in 1821, was once located a little inside the then Muqim Kuttra road east of the Chawk Bazaar. It was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1897 and was never rebuilt.
In Dhaka, Johannes Stephen (1790-1843) lived in Armanitola, then a predominantly Armenian quarter. He had a large family. He sired according to available records seven sons from his two marriages. However, there is no mention of a daughter or any other wife apart from Sultana Athanes. Johannes died in 1843 and was buried in the Armenian Churchyard in Armanitola, Dhaka.
The seven sons of Johannes are: Stephen Stephen, John Stephen Esquire of Dacca (1823-1876), Hume Stephen, Carapiet or Carr Stephen (1835-1891), Arathoon Stephen, Mackintosh Stephen and William Stephen. Of his sons, the one worthy of mention, in particular, for the continuation of our story is the great-great grandfather of Henrietta. Even today, he is fondly remembered in the Stephen family as, “John Stephen Esquire of Dacca.” Nothing much is known about him or his life spent in Dhaka, except that he was a man of means and thus prosperous. He may also have been a landholder or Zamindar in Eastern Bengal. In reading the scant information available on the Dhaka Armenians, one will invariably come across the surname, Stephen, listed along with other illustrious Armenian names of the 19th century.
Johannes's son, John Stephen Esquire, is said to have married at least twice. His first wife Catherine (1836-1861) lies buried in the St. Thomas Anglican Church, Dhaka. Her epitaph reads on marble: “In affectionate memory of Catherine. The beloved wife of J Stephen, Esq, who died 10 December 1861. Aged 25 yrs 3 mths 17 days. I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.” On the other hand, John Stephen Esquire is buried in the Christian graveyard at Narinda, Dhaka. His grave has a white marble base. His epitaph simply reads: “JOHN STEPHEN Esq of Dacca. Born 5 October 1823. Died 27 November 1876”.
John Stephen Esquire, was a close friend of one of the most prominent and influential Armenians of Dhaka in the 19th century, named Nicholas P. Pogose alias Nicky Pogose. The wealthy Nicky was also a pioneer educationist who had established the once famous Pogose School in Armanitola, old Dhaka in 1848. He was Godfather to St. John Stephen, son of his good friend John Stephen Esquire on his baptism in 1854. The Stephen family in Edinburgh, Scotland, still possesses the silver dish presented to St. John Stephen on his Baptism by Nicky Pogose. Along the inner rim of the silver dish is a simple engraved inscription which reads: N P Pogose to his Godson St. John Stephen. It is not dated. But there is no doubt in the Stephen family that it was gifted to St. John on his Baptism day in 1854. The beautiful silver piece was most probably crafted by skilled silversmiths for which Dhaka was renowned in the past.
As far as can be traced, John Stephen Esquire had three sons and two daughters. It is not possible to tell now which of his children were borne by his two wives, Catherine and Lou. The names of the children are St. John Stephen ( born 1854) and Godson to Nicky Pogose, Carr Stephen (1859-1896), who was the great grandfather of Henrietta and another son whose name remains unknown. The names of the daughters are Rosaline or Rosie Stephen (1857-1938), who died in England and, Kate or Katie who was unmarried and also lies buried in England.
Caar Stephen (1859-1896) described as the third son of John Stephen Esquire, was a prosperous land agent in Dhaka with business interests in Calcutta and Rangoon, Burma. He married Primrose Saunders and had a son Christopher Gerald Stephen (1890-1954), Henrietta's grandfather, who was born either in Dhaka or in Calcutta. Gerald Stephen, was educated in England. He joined the Royal Fusiliers in the British Army and fought in the First World War. During the War he was briefly stationed at Fort William, Calcutta, in 1914. It was in Calcutta that he met his future wife Hetta (Ivy), while she was on her way to meet one of her brothers in the North West Frontier. He married Hetta (Ivy) who was born in Grenada in the British West Indies in 1889. Both eventually died in Britain - Christopher in East Sussex in 1954, while Hetta in Croyden, Surrey in 1968. They had a son, Henrietta's father, Michael Gerald Stephen (1916-1975), born in London. Michael married Joan (1918-1971). He too, served in the British army but never visited India in his lifetime. He and wife Joan, lived in Sussex, with Henrietta where he died. Their daughter Henrietta, born in 1950 in Crowborough, East Sussex, attended a private Anglican convent boarding school called St. Mary's in Wantage, Oxfordshire, England. It is a community of St. Mary the Virgin. This ecclesial order has an institutional presence in Poona, India. Henrietta's siblings Richard Stephen (born 1952) lives in Denmark, while twin brothers St. John Stephen and Roland Stephen (born 1957), live in London and in Maryland, USA, respectively. Henrietta is the sole narrator of this 'human interest story' of the Stephen family.
From Julfa in Iran to colonial Bengal and finally emigration to Britain, the trail of the Stephen family makes for compelling reading. Due to lack of more detailed information, it is not exactly clear when this Armenian family started to lose its Armenian identity by inter-marriage with other Europeans belonging to different Christian denominations and assimilate into a larger world. It seems evident that with the exception of Johannes Stephen all other male members of the Stephen family lie buried mostly in Anglican Christian cemeteries, instead of Armenian churchyards.
It is also not sure as to when members of the Stephen family started to immigrate to Britain. The earliest on record to have done so, are Kent Hume Stephen (1857-1907), Rosaline/Rosie Stephen (1857-1938) and Kate/Katie Stephen all of whom are buried in England. But it seems certain that Christopher Gerald Stephen (1890-1954), Henrietta's grandfather, who was either born at Dhaka or in Calcutta, was a more recent migrant to Britain from the family. His son Michael Gerald Stephen (1916-1975) and grand-daughter Henrietta both born in Britain are, therefore, British with an Armenian legacy and the fascinating 19th century old Dhaka connection.
(Condensed from a forthcoming book by the writer: Illustrated News & Tales)
The writer is founder of Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies
Posted 24 December 2016 - 10:46 AM
Under Mamata Banerjee, Christmas in Kolkata is tourist-friendly. But the city’s traditions, like the Armenian celebrations, continue to flourish
Though born and brought up in Kolkata, it is only recently that Brunnel Arathoon, 36, started examining her Armenian roots. All these years, Arathoon says, she had only the one identity, of a Catholic; her paternal origins in the Eurasian country remained a footnote in family dinner-table conversations and a conundrum in social circles.
“I had absolutely no idea of my Armenian identity and the history surrounding it. After I got to know of my father’s side originating from Armenia before shifting to Kolkata, I started looking up the map of the country. It is nice to know where one goes back to,” says Arathoon.
For the first time, she has baked the traditional Armenian Christmas cakes— spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon and stuffed with walnuts, and, unlike most other Christmas cakes, without fruit. They are a marker of her Armenian roots, a country from where large numbers came to settle down in Kolkata and do business, as far back as the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Also Read: 50 ways to say Merry Christmas
Though the British are popularly believed to have been the first Europeans in Kolkata in 1690—Job Charnock, an employee and administrator of the British East India Company, is regarded as the founder of the city now called Kolkata— the discovery of an Armenian tombstone in the city dating back to 11 July 1630 has pushed back Kolkata’s European links by at least another 60 years. The site of the tombstone of Rezabeebeh, “wife of the late charitable Sookias”, is the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth near Burrabazar, built in 1707 and widely regarded as the oldest surviving church in Kolkata. It stands as a monument to the city’s earliest encounter with Christianity, even as the number of Armenians has dwindled to an official estimate of less than a hundred. Arathoon, however, contends there are many like her: uncounted Armenians grappling with issues of identity, since only Armenians who are baptized are counted.
Having bagged orders for 56 cakes within a few days of promoting her effort on Facebook, Arathoon hopes the world will now come to know of her Armenian background. “Christmas in Kolkata is as good a time (as any ) to spread the word,” says Arathoon.
We meet one evening at a café attached to a book store in the Park Street area. It’s a week before Christmas, and Park Street is a merry swirl of revellers in red and white Christmas caps, caught ethereally within a dazzle of blue and white lights. On 16 December, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurated the state government-organized Kolkata Christmas Festival in this area’s Allen Park. This nearly three-week-long festival, which has been organized since 2011, sees street-corner pop-rock concerts, dancing, choir performances, parades, Christmas merchandise, roadside stalls selling Anglo-Indian beef roasts and pork vindaloo, and a heady maze of festive illumination running across Park Street and the St Paul’s Cathedral-Victoria Memorial area. At around 14-15 degrees Celsius, this year’s winter temperature is just adding to the cheer.
On 25 December, Park Street turns into a pedestrian-only zone, with thousands of people in their Christmas finery taking it over. This year, Banerjee spoke about visiting churches at midnight on Christmas Eve even when she was not chief minister. Her comparison of Christmas celebrations to Durga Puja almost echoed the campus saying in Kolkata that describes 25 December as a day dedicated to “Jishu (Jesus) Pujo”—a day when many non-Christian Bengali homes will bake or buy cakes, party at clubs, visit the zoo, St Paul’s Cathedral or Park Street, perfectly at ease in their red Xmas caps.
Youngsters can often be seen in red Santa Claus clothes, complete with faux white beards, while the Santa illuminations put up by the Trinamool Congress-run state government glow in blue and white—red is not a colour it favours. Bengali gospel songs played over public address systems and Santa cutouts in dhotis complete the appropriation of the occasion by even those who are not Christians.
Reverend Thomas D’Souza, archbishop of Kolkata, laughs aloud when I ask him to explain this effortless syncretism. At his 130-year-old colonial residence, marked by tall ceilings lined by Burma Teak beams and ornately carved furniture, we sit over fragrant Darjeeling tea and delicious fruit cakes in his parlour; Pope John Paul II spent two nights in the adjoining bedroom when he visited Kolkata in 1986. D’Souza, who assumed the archbishop’s role in 2011, says: “For a lot of people in Kolkata, Christmas is about religion and spirituality. But if you see the enthusiastic response of the people, you’ll realize that it is also a festival of Kolkata.”
Certainly, it has developed its own local flavour over the years—and tourists tend to flock in droves during this period. Private tour operators, hoteliers and restaurant owners report more traffic. “Christmas in Kolkata is certainly becoming a brand ever since the festival in Park Street started. An entire new segment of tourists has come up for whom Christmas celebration in Kolkata is the most happening after Goa,” says Anil Punjabi, chairman (eastern region) of the Travel Agents Federation of India. Week-long Christmas packages have been introduced by travel companies, he says, with two-day visits to Darjeeling or the Sunderbans thrown in with a five-day stint in Kolkata.
Last year, tourist arrivals in Kolkata during this period saw an 18% increase over the previous year, topping an average annual growth of 10-15% since 2011, says Punjabi. He is seconded by Sudesh Poddar, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India, which has 800 business establishments, including five-star hotels such as Taj Bengal and JW Marriott Kolkata, as members. “Last year, we accounted for a 25% increase in business. Christmas in Kolkata is already a beautiful event but more areas should be added as festival venues,” he suggests. They are yet to map the effects, if any, of demonetization.
For Jayant Kripalani, actor, adman and author of New Market Tales, based on stories emerging from the iconic shopping hub in central Kolkata, the spirit of Christmas doesn’t lie in “Park Street and its lights”. He finds much of it tacky. “The New Market centre to me is Christmas. I missed those special shops that popped up there. Christmas has always been about the midnight mass at St Paul’s Cathedral and Nahoum’s (a reputed Jewish confectionery and pâtisserie) cakes,” he writes over email. “But I must confess I find the carols in Bengali prettier than the ones in English. What I’m trying to say is, I like the Indianization of Christmas more than Christmas itself.”
Over the years, indeed centuries, Christmas celebrations in the city have evolved. For it was once the capital of British India, with Kolkata being the first port of call for boatloads of European missionaries in India. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese, Danes, Dutch and French all set up camp in the vicinity of Kolkata, often with the intention of proselytizing.
Instances like the conversion of poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt to Christianity may be few, but Bengalis in 19th century Kolkata, closer to their roots but familiar with Western thought, chose an amalgam of both worlds. The Brahmo Samaj, founded in 1830, and helmed during different periods by reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Keshub Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore, emerged as a prominent Hindu reformist movement that sought to give women a respectful position in society, including the right to education and property, eradicate superstitious practices, return to the Upanishads, ensure exposure to the Western world and battle the caste system, according to Nitish Sengupta’s book, History Of The Bengali-speaking People. Indeed, “during the Christmas celebrations in 1864, a group of Brahmo youth, under the inspiration of Keshub Chandra Sen, brought their wives out of the purdah and introduced them to their male friends, thus taking the first steps towards free mixing”, notes Partha Pratim Basu in Strangely Beloved: Writings On Calcutta, edited by Nilanjana Gupta.
At the Visva Bharati university campus in Santiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, author Nabaneeta Dev Sen remembers Christmas being celebrated as Christo Utsav, with prayers, hymns and Brahmo songs being performed without the presence of any religious motif or motive. “I’m not sure why Tagore started this practice, especially since Santiniketan didn’t celebrate Durga Puja. Maybe it was his way to intellectually remember the day by being religion-neutral,” she says.
On 16 December, when the large audience present at the hallowed Indo-Gothic St Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1847, heartily applauded the Christmas concert of the Kolkata Music Academy (KMA) Chamber Orchestra conducted by Abraham Mazumder—which included a rendition of three Tagore compositions other than those of Beethoven, Purcell, Mozart and Christmas carols—it could well have been celebrating the spirit of inclusiveness that sees people of all faiths coming together for Christmas in Kolkata. “Brahmo Sangeet (Brahmo music popularized by Tagore) is actually church hymns, though he kept out the harmonies. Tagore knew the value of music and humanity was his religion,” says Mazumder.
For the oldest Christian community in Kolkata, the Armenians, the 25th is the beginning of the period of “Advent of Jesus”, not the day they celebrate Christmas, says Anthony Khatchaturian. Khatchaturian, a prominent Armenian in Kolkata, organizes popular city walks; this year, a “Cake Walk” through the city’s popular Christmas cake outlets has been introduced. It is only on 6 January, when the period of Christ’s incarnation culminates, that the oldest church in the city, the otherwise deserted Armenian Holy Church near Burrabazar, will swell up with the sounds of prayer and singing.
Playing it out of the park
Five alternatives to Park Street for a Kolkata Christmas
The ghetto-like residential area of the city’s Anglo-Indian community in central Kolkata throbs with parties, concerts and balls on the road. Don’t leave without tasting the homemade wine and the meat-heavy food. The Christmas festival starts on 23 December, taking a two-day break—25 December and Boxing Day—before it begins again on 27 December.
New Market, built in 1874, has a timeless aura. A visit to the area is never just about shopping, it’s about diving straight into the pulsating heart of the city. There are Christmas trees, silver bells and golden balls everywhere. Don’t miss a bite at Nahoum, a quick detour for cold cuts at Kalman Cold Storage or a stroll around the moody Free School Street, now called Mirza Ghalib Street.
Around the Victoria Memorial
This is among the city’s leafiest areas, with the imposing St Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, the sprawling Maidan and the Nandan cultural complex in the vicinity—it’s just the right place to laze in the winter sun.
Christmas in Kolkata is incomplete without a visit to its many British-era social clubs, like the Calcutta Club, the Bengal Club and Tollygunge Club. An uppity air and warm hugs go down with gin and tonic here. They organize concerts and belly-dance performances.
Kolkata’s many nightclubs ring in the season with late-night gigs featuring EDM, exotic dancers from all over the world, cabarets, even fire-eating acts. With the state government allowing only four-and-a-half dry days annually and clubs remaining open till late, the party tap never quite goes dry.
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Posted 01 September 2017 - 10:21 AM
However, it was in the 15th century CE, in the court of Akbar, that Armenians gained great positions of power and influence. One of Emperor Akbar’s wives – Mariam Zamani Begum; his Chief Justice – Abdul Hai; the lady doctor to the royal court – Juliana and even a personal friend, Hakobjan, were all Armenians. Akbar provided land to them to build a church, which came up in 1562 CE.
In Akbar’s court, many Armenians held great positions of power and influence
Another Armenian, Iskander, married the Chief Justice’s daughter. One of their sons was the famous Mughal poet Mirza Zul-Qarnain (his birth name was Alexander), who was close friends with Shah Jahan. When Zul-Qarnain’s father died in 1613 CE, he was earning 5-6 lakhs a year from the salt farms in Rajputana and even owned a jagir. Zul-Qarnain was very close to the Mughals, having been childhood friends with Shah Jahan and served with his son Sultan Shuja in Bengal in 1645 CE. He also served with Shah Jahan in Kashmir in 1651 CE and again in Lahore in 1652 CE.
The French author Jean Baptiste Tavernier writes of Zul-Qarnain in 1665 CE:‘This Armenian had been brought up with Cha-Jahan, and in regard he was an excellent wit, and an excellent poet, he was very much in the King’s favour, who had conferred upon him many fair commands, though he could never either by threats or promises win him to turn Mahometan’.
The Indian-Armenian historian, Mesrovb Jacob Seth, whose detailed book ‘Armenians In India’, published in the 1930’s, says‘The Armenians of that period were not men of letters. They were shrewd businessmen and had not the tastes or aptitudes of a historian. They were simply concerned with trade, current events and local politics. Their only ambition in life was to amass wealth being born with a commercial genius like the Jews and Marwaris.’
Seth refers to a mysterious painting, although he does not name the location, painter or owner (except for “A well-known Armenian gentleman”) of Akbar and his wife Mariam –‘The lady is depicted in semi-Asiatic, semi-European costume, without any of those rich and highly gaudy crowns on the head which characterise the paintings of Hindoo or Mahomedan Queens of that time, but she has a beautiful double row pearl necklace with a plain Armenian gold cross, with a diamond in the centre, hanging from the necklace.’
In 1688 CE it was an Armenian who had introduced a then unknown ‘Company of the Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’ to the Mughal court, as part of an agreement between the company and the Armenian, Khojah Phanoos Kalandar, duly signed by both parties on the 28th of June 1688 CE. Kalandar happens to be an ancestor of this article’s author, and the company he acted as an agent for was the East India Company! The first declaration alone spells out what would later prove to be a highly profitable venture‘First – That the Armenian nation shall now, and at all times hereafter, have equal share and benefit of all indulgences this Company have or shall at any time hereafter grant to any of their own Adventurers or other English merchants whatsoever.’
It was also an Armenian in the court of Farrukh Sayar who helped the East India Company get their ‘Grand Firman’ in 1715 CE, Khojah Israel Sarhad.
Sadly, Armenians were not very good chroniclers and so there are hardly any first-hand accounts from within the community. The only exception seems to be the Armenian historian of Bengal, Thomas Khojamall. Writing about the East India Company’s rise in eastern India, he provides us with the first clues about Armenians away from the Mughal court in Delhi. Khojamall lived during the reign of Shah Alam at Allahabad and wrote his accounts in 1768 CE. His manuscript was lost for decades, having being passed around the Armenian community until finally Colonel Jacob, the Armenian Brigadier General in the Maharaja of Scindia’s army, got hold of it and gave it to an Armenian Bishop, who again sat on it until it was finally published in 1849 CE.
In Bengal, Armenians played both sides of the fence with the Indians and the East India Company. Clive refers to his confidant “...the Armenian Petrus”, Petrus Arathoon. Meanwhile, his brother Gregory Arathoon had become the Commander in Chief of Mir Jaffar’s army, having adopted a name that would blend in better – Gorgin Khan!
Major John Zephaniah Holwell, a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, wherein soldiers of Nawab of Bengal locked British prisoners in a small room resulting in several deaths and on whose contemporaneous account all knowledge of which is based, wrote
‘Khojah Gregory is in the highest degree of favour with the Nawab and his adherents and has posts of the greatest trust near the Nawab’s person, and through him the Armenians in general are setting up an independent footing in this country and carrying on a trade greatly detrimental to our investments in all parts.”
Later, after the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, compensation was paid by the Nawabs,‘For the effects plundered from the Armenian inhabitants of Calcutta, I will give the sum of seven lacs of rupees’
Armenians continued to play major roles across India under various rulers. In Bengal, Sir Gregory Charles Paul still holds the record of being the longest serving Advocate General of Bengal. Going south, the King of Golconda had an Armenian in the post of Governor of Mylapore (San Thome) called Marcus Erezad. On the other side of Asia, Sir Paul Chater made his mark as a billionaire businessman, back in Calcutta JC Galstaun was doing the same through his property empire.
The Armenian presence can still be felt today – there is an Armenian Church in every major city in India, the one in Calcutta’s Burra Bazaar being the oldest in the city, one of three in the city limits with more in the periphery. The architectural legacy still stands visible across the city, even the Chief Justice of West Bengal lives on, what was once, Armenian property.
The culture has also permeated into the famous Bengali cuisine – an Armenian dish called Dolma, minced meat with rice and light flavours wrapped in a grape leaf – has been adopted and adapted to suit the Bengali palate and available ingredients: Potol’er Dolma.
Armenian Christmas always turns up in the newspapers too. The modern branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar on the 25th of December. The Armenian Orthodox Church is true to form, still abiding by the Gregorian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated on the 6th of January instead.
In the very heart of Calcutta stands the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, one of the oldest schools in India and the birthplace of the British author William Makepeace Thackeray. Although not in the top tier leagues in terms of academic performance, the school has another platform to take on the very best of Kolkata’s schools – including their lifelong sporting enemy, La Martiniere – the rugby pitch. For decades, the rugby cup has been won by either the Armenians or La Martiniere. The Armenian College motto is "To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding", which is from the Bible and is the first sentence ever written in Armenian.
Today, Armenians have wandered off the path. Their culture and religion have been abandoned by most. Many mistakenly identify themselves as Anglo-Indians, being the closest in terms of identity due to their language, food and general culture. Some have gently stepped into Indian culture too in their dress, language and inter-marriages.
Is that strange? Does it seem out of the ordinary? Not if you consider that well before the Armenians ever left their nation, two Hindu Princes were said to have fled India and settled in Armenia 150 years before the birth of Christ.
Anthony Khatchaturian is an Armenian and a descendant of Sir Paul Chater on his maternal side and JC Galstaun on his paternal side. Based in the UK and having worked for the Metropolitan Police Service ('Scotland Yard'), he has been in India since 2013 working to bring modern Indian history to life through walks, tours, heritage consultancy and heritage awareness, and will be releasing his first book soon.
Posted 09 April 2018 - 09:58 AM
Picture Credit: Sudipta Bhowmick
The Old Kenilworth Hotel, the second oldest hotel of Calcutta, is being torn down. Only recently, the Fairlawn Hotel of Shashi Kapoor fame changed hands. That both properties were owned by Armenian families is no co-incidence, however.
On the atlas, the Eurasian Republic of Armenia looks like an ink splatter. Its area is slightly less than Kerala's. Its population, almost the same as Meghalaya's. It is then surprising to imagine that at some point, the people of such a tiny nation owned such a lot of Calcutta.
They were mostly merchants who went on to build some iconic structures that adorn the city today - The Oberoi Grand, Stephen House, Park Mansions, Queen's Mansion - two clubs, several schools of which only the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) and Davidian Girls' School remain, and three churches. The Armenian Ghat on Strand Road was also built by them and so also was the ghat near the Kali temple at Kalighat. Structures such as the Victoria Memorial, Saturday Club and Dalhousie Institute were built with generous contributions by community members. In fact, entire neighbourhoods were named after them - Armenian Street, Sookias Street. The Lower Circular Road Cemetery houses 332 Armenian graves.
Ranajoy Bose of the Christian Burial Board, Calcutta, which looks after the cemetery, says , "Before the Marwaris came to Calcutta, the Armenians were the Marwaris of British India."
But why did they come to Calcutta? And before that, when did they get here first? There is a quarrel about the when. The epitaph on the oldest grave in the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in the bylanes of north Calcutta's China Bazar dates back to 1630. It belongs to one Rezabeebeh, wife of Mr Sookias. But the church itself was built in 1724.
Achinto Roy and Reshmi Lahiri Roy, co-authors of the paper, "The Armenian Diaspora's Calcutta Connection", quote existing literature on the Armenian diaspora to establish that Armenian merchants from New Julfa in Persia came to Bengal in the 17th century. In an email from Australia, Achinto tells The Telegraph, "The Armenians played a key role in securing the royal farman from the Mughals to enable the British to set up their trading posts in Calcutta. Armenian merchants played the role of middlemen in negotiating such deals as they had command over Persian - the Mughal court language - and were not subject to caste taboos, which made them comfortable dealing with people from other parts of the world."
More than 300 years after the first Armenians arrived here, Andranik Matevosyan landed, under very different circumstances.
Picture Credit: Manasi Shah
Matevosyan was all of 11 when his mother broke the news. He was to be sent to Calcutta, a city 4,557 kilometres away from his home in west central Armenia's Ejmiadzin. Matevosyan had never been out of the country before, never been on a plane, scarcely ventured out of the neighbourhood even till then without parental supervision. But he had heard of Calcutta from television commercials about the ACPA. Something about it being one of the oldest Armenian educational institutions in the world.
On January 26, 2001, Matevosyan and 31 others were bundled into a flight and that was that. Two days, two time zones and three flights later - Yerevan to Moscow, Moscow to Delhi and Delhi to Calcutta - they arrived. "The first thing I remember was feeling hot. January, in Armenia, is chilling; temperatures drop to 3°C. From there, we were suddenly at 21°C in layers of warm clothes," says Matevosyan. It has been 17 years since. Matevosyan has stayed on.
He is not alone to have done so. His mates from that January day, Karen Mkrtchyan and Davit Gevorgyan, have not left either. Mkrtchyan graduated in German Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Davit is pursuing a programme in Sports Management from George College, Calcutta.
It is not just about one year or one batch. Every few years, for the past two decades, there has been a steady flow of Armenian students from Armenia, Iran, Iraq and other parts of India into Calcutta. The college - which seems to be the main draw and had witnessed an exodus with its student number falling to 1 in 1996 - currently has 85 young people in its registers.
The three batchmates do not dwell on the memory of being uprooted or the difficulties of adapting to a strange land beyond the essentials - spicy food, strange language - but leafing through the 2015-16 yearbook, reading the accounts of the students, one gets a sense of the enormity of the shift. Almost all of them are about missing family and home, but they also articulate career dreams - becoming an architect or a lawyer. Reading these, it is not difficult to imagine working-class parents in a faraway land steeling themselves to take a giant leap of faith, only to secure the future of their young.
But it is still not clear how one vintage institution can inspire such a huge move and if it is at all related to those 16th century traders.
Talking to various community elders and the Armenian diaspora experts, this is what emerges - previous generations of wealthy Armenians have created a system that ensures most Armenians do not have to pay for their education in India.
Take the case of Sir Catchick Paul Chater, who was born to a family of Armenian merchants in Calcutta in 1846 and later went on to become a business tycoon of Hong Kong. He continued to plough back generous donations to the city of his birth and for his people here. Co-ordinator of ACPA Armen Makarian tells us, "La Martiniere was in a grave financial situation at one point. That is when Sir Chater stepped in as a benefactor and his generous contributions have been the reason why Armenians get full scholarships to study here, even now."
Meritorious students of the ACPA are, in fact, sponsored by the Armenian church and the college to continue higher studies in India in any stream of their choice from any university in India. Says Makarian, "Whenever Armenians leave the country, they submit their property related papers or money to the church. The church uses this corpus to bring students and pay for their education."
In fact, the television commercial that got Matevosyan down here in the first place was by the governing body of the Armenian Apostolic Church - Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin - which is also in charge of the college. And Mkrtchyan's mother was alerted by church authorities in Armenia.
It does not end with the college and grants. The community has developed certain oases of familiarity in this alien geography to help the youth adapt. Matevosyan tells us about the Bara Club on Park Street and the Armenian Sports Club near Red Road. He says, "We gather there to sing, dance and eat. Every January 6, we celebrate Armenian Christmas at the sports club. Church on Sundays is another major social mixer."
While a lot of young people returned to Armenia and Iran - where Armenians are the biggest minority community - after finishing school, and many more moved on to the US, France, Australia, a decent number stayed back in India.
Another such construct of Armenianness is rugby. It is a known fact that all Armenians in Calcutta are die-hard rugby enthusiasts. But in the 2011 documentary, My Armenian Neighbourhood, owner of Old Kenilworth Hotel and coach of the Armenian College team, David Purdy, tells filmmaker Samimitra Das that Armenia is by no stretch a rugby playing nation. He says, "Before Armenians come to Calcutta, they are not rugby players. They learn it in the Armenian College."
But this was not how it was in the interim years - in the run-up to Independence and immediately after. The 92-year-old Sonia John has seen and lived the denouement. She has a different story to tell when we meet her at her Ripon Street residence in central Calcutta.
John, who married into the family that owned the erstwhile Continental and Carlton hotels, came to India in 1931 from Shiraz in Iran when she was only five. "My grandmother bought me here at the request of my father who had studied here. I came here and joined the Calcutta Girls' School and never saw my father after that. He died of pneumonia when I was 11," she says, her old eyes mirroring that child grief.
John had a difficult time at school because she could not speak anything other than Persian and Armenian. Things changed for the better when she joined La Martiniere, where she met other children from the community. "A lot of Armenians also taught there," she adds. And in 1957, when she returned to Calcutta after higher studies in Delhi, and a couple of teaching stints in the city, she opened a private school herself.
After Independence, things changed. Once the British left, the Armenians experien-ced for the first time a certain kind of racial animosity. Says Makarian of ACPA, "The Armenian community was here for business, so when business suffered they left the country - went to Australia, the UK, other places. During that time Armenia was under the USSR, so people couldn't go back to Armenia either."
But the karmic wheel turned again and the Armenians were back in the city at the turn of the century. Today, Matevosyan holds a job here in the retail sector. Mkrtchyan is taken for a Himachali or Kashmiri and prefers it that way. Gevorgyan has developed a taste for spicy food.
As Sonia John puts it, "Armenians basically are survivors." Now we know.
Posted 10 July 2019 - 09:33 AM
One family's story highlights the revival of people-to-people ties between the two countries.
One of India’s old trading communities, the Armenians, is growing in numbers for the first time in many years. Former BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead attended an Armenian church service in Chennai and met some of the worshippers. This is an expanded version of a piece he wrote for the BBC radio programme From Our Own Correspondent.
I didn’t expect to see a baby in his mother’s arms among the congregation. India’s Armenian community – once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number – has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city’s serene 18th-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It stands on Armenian Street and is the oldest church in what was once called Black Town – the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia’s commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money – that’s reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel in London.
Kolkata, the second city of the British Raj, remains the main base of India’s Armenian community, who were once prominent merchants, financiers and hoteliers. There are 25 families of part-Armenian descent in the city, and the Armenian College and Armenian Sports Club are continuing testament to the community’s influence. Sunday service rotates around the city’s three Armenian churches – and the congregation can reach the heady heights of 100 or more worshippers at Christmas time.
The Armenian church in Chennai is the only one in India outside West Bengal which still holds services, albeit one a year. There were once Armenian chapels in Mumbai (the building still stands) and Surat. Further afield, Dhaka also has an Armenian church – as does Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, where regular services are still conducted.
The Armenian church in Chennai. Image: Andrew Whitehead
The Armenian population of Chennai probably never exceeded a few hundred. Over the decades, integration and emigration – to Australia in particular – has reduced the community to single figures.
Two priests based in Kolkata took the two-hour flight to Chennai to conduct the annual mass. They are from Armenia, on a tour of duty in India which can stretch for as long as seven years. The clerics brought with them the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious – and I suppose I fit both descriptions – the number attending just touched double digits.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby’s name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through and through.
Baby Suren at church.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia, a scheme supported by the Indian government, that she won a study trip to India and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan travelled to Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. “He asked me if Armenia is safe,” she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. “He’s from India – and he asks if my country is safe!” When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai, she was wary. “Don’t think I’m coming there to get married,” she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by south India’s ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn’t sound – or smell – anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and – with admirable entrepreneurial flair – worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that 60 or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian mum and an Indian dad. He will be brought up to respect his Armenian heritage as much as his Tamil identity.
Not all the new Armenian migrants to India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was – but Ashkhen is determined to (as she put it) make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. “If you want to find the bad things about India, you will,” Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. “If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There are plenty.”
Then she checks herself – looks at her husband – and declares with a laugh in her voice: “I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don’t I?”
It’s difficult to disagree.
This article first appeared on Andrew Whitehead’s blog.
Posted 22 May 2021 - 07:00 AM
The Indian Express
May 21 2021
Streetwise Kolkata – Armenian Street: Named after a community that preceded the British by centuries
Even before the British East India Company joined other European settlers in the Bengal Subah in 1612, the Armenians had already established commercial settlements in Bengal, extending as far out as Benares and Patna much before the city of Calcutta was established.
Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
Updated: May 21, 2021 10:02:38 pm
Eight decades later, when British East India Company employee Job Charnock combined the villages of Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata along the banks of the Hooghly river to form the city of Calcutta, he invited the Armenians to this new urban settlement, perhaps as a return for the favours that the community had provided when the East India Company had first reached Bengal. In his book ‘History of the Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day’, published in 1895, Mesrovb Jacob Seth writes that the community was first settled in Syedabad, a commercial suburb of Murshidabad, when the British first arrived in Bengal.
Seth points to an entry in the writings of William Bolts, a Dutch-born British employee of the East India Company who wrote a book titled ‘Considerations on India Affairs’ (1772), that explains how the company viewed the Armenian community which had been well-established in Syedabad by the time the British had arrived.When the Armenians first arrived in Calcutta, they settled in the area now known as ‘Armenian Street’, a narrow street in central Kolkata. (Express photo by Neha Banka)
“The Armenians, who have ever been a great commercial body in Hindustan, have also long had considerable settlements in Bengal, particularly at Syedabad. Their commerce was likewise established by the Mogul’s finnan whereby the duties on the two principal articles of their trade, piece-goods and raw silk, were fixed at three-and-a-half per cent,” writes Bolt.
When the Armenians first arrived in Calcutta, they settled in the area now known as ‘Armenian Street’, a narrow street in central Kolkata. In 1688, the Armenians built the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth on one end of the street and it was around this church that the Armenian community set up their homes and businesses in the city.
There isn’t much known about what the area around Armenian Street looked like when the community first settled here, but in his book ‘Calcutta in the Olden Time: Its Localities & Its People’ (1852), James Long provides some details. “The Armenians are among the oldest residents, and their quarter attracts by its antique air, constructed with conspicuous modern buildings in Calcutta,” Long writes.In 1688, the Armenians built the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth on one end of the street and it was around this church that the Armenian community set up their homes and businesses in the city. (Express photo by Neha Banka)
The community’s commercial success allowed them to invest in the building of schools, chapels and other public spaces, mostly for the Armenians in the city. When the 18th-century Armenian Apostolic church burned down, it was rebuilt in the same location in 1724 by philanthropist Agha Jakob Nazar. In their writings, both Seth and Long have meticulously detailed all the ways in which the community found favour with the British East India Company, which in part helped them become enormously successful.
“The Armenians, like the Jews, were famous for their mercantile zeal, and in the early days, were much employed by the English as the Gomasthas—they are to be commended for their always having retained the oriental dress—they never had much intercourse with the English,” writes Long. Gomasthas were agents of the British East India Company, who signed bonds with locals to deliver goods to the Company and were appointed by the Company.
The community did not remain limited to the neighbourhoods around Armenian Street, but over the years shifted out to other parts of the city and were instrumental in the redevelopment of some of the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods and the buildings that continue to stand there. Park Street’s mansions, which today house a mix of residential apartments and commercial enterprises, are some of the most visible examples of the community’s contributions to the city’s architectural landscape.
Historian P. Thankappan Nair writes in his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’ (1987) that according to an entry in the Calcutta Municipal Gazette of April 1958, it appears that the city’s Municipal Corporation had been considering the renaming of Armenian Street, with a proposal for it to be named Akshay Kumar Mullick Street. That proposal did not materialise and the street retains its original name. It is unclear who Mullick was or even what his contributions to the city of Calcutta were, for the municipal corporation to consider renaming an entire street after him, especially one that is among the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and of importance to the Armenian community here.
There is little on Armenian Street that reflects the community’s history today. The street has been overtaken by shops and hawkers who have set up their wares wherever they find space on the pavement. But upon entering the church complex, the chaos fades away behind its thick white walls. For the dwindling Armenian community, it is this church and the 200-year-old Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street that is helping keep the community’s unique cultural traditions alive.
Posted 16 November 2021 - 09:27 AM
I am in what is, inarguably, the Indian city of Kolkata’s most popular district. Although recently renamed in memory of the Albanian-Indian nun who made the city her home, this boulevard remains “Park Street” for locals. It is easy to see why the area appears so often in travel guides: dotted with bars, restaurants, street eateries, boutiques, salons, and clubs, it glitters with endless, bustling activity. And then there are the buildings, Queen’s Mansion and the adjacent Stephen Court and Park Mansion, all imposing structures alike in age and form. Their gravitas defines the visual landscape of the neighbourhood. Yet, despite their prominence, few know that all three buildings weren’t erected by colonial British rulers, as most people assume, but by Kolkata’s own Armenian community.
Not many remember Johannes Carapiet Galstaun, who built Queen’s Mansion more than 100 years ago. The building is among the 350 structures he constructed across the city in the early 20th century. Born in Julfa, Iran, in 1859, Galstaun was — and continues to be — one of the wealthiest real estate tycoons Kolkata has ever known. His many hefty expenditures included a contribution of 20,000 rupees (roughly £3 million today) towards the making of Victoria Memorial Hall, a magnificent marble monument inspired by the Taj Mahal and built by the British in memory of Queen Victoria between 1906-21 in colonial Calcutta. A brisk 20-minute walk from the memorial, Queen’s Mansion was originally named Galstaun Mansion’ in honour of the mogul’s fame, fortune, and esteem. Then, in 1953, it was renamed to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II. The new name stuck. Almost no trace of Galstaun remains.
Photographer Alakananda Nag’s recent book, Armenians of Calcutta traces the forgotten lives of the community to which Galstaun belonged: generations of Armenians who lived in and shaped an Indian city that barely remembers them.
The result of a decade-long photo project, the book consists of photographs, texts, and rare archival materials. Embossed on its blood-red cover is a straightforward question: “Are Armenians after all the founders of Calcutta?” It’s a controversial suggestion in a city we in the West historically consider to be linked to the coattails of the British, but it is a question that Nag has asked herself repeatedly in the course of the project.
Nag was born and grew up in the city. (This is why, like many locals, she refers to the metropolis as Calcutta — not Kolkata as it was renamed in 2001.) But, like most, she too had little knowledge about the Armenian community’s long roots in the area. She did, however, know the city’s Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth. Probably the oldest church in Kolkata, the place of worship was originally built in 1688 and then rebuilt following a fire in 1724. Set against the chaotic bustle of the aptly-named Armenian Street in Burrabazar, one of Asia’s largest wholesale markets, it is a calm respite of white marble. Sitting amidst a large complex bordered with trees, it appears as if adrift on a sea of tombstones. One grave harks back to 1630, a good 60 years before the city of Calcutta was formally established. The church marks the nerve centre of the area where the Armenians settled and set up their trade when they first arrived in the new city. Once a busy trade stop, the Armenian Wharf is a stone’s throw away; the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) only a quick car ride.
Armenian merchants started trickling into the South Asian subcontinent as far back as the 11th century. By the time the British East India Company’s first ships docked in Gujarat in 1608, they had already made inroads to every powerful quarter in the area. They were regulars at Mughal courts; they had learnt local languages, and their trade connections spanned over almost all corners of present-day India.
Cannily, the newly-arrived British traders decided to keep India’s Armenian community close. Time and again, the British would seek Armenian support against their trading rivals (the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the French) and in negotiations with Mughal rulers. Local Armenians helped the British acquire the rights to collect tax from the three villages that eventually became Calcutta. In 1690, when an employee of the British India Trading Company, Job Charnock, formally “founded” the city, the Armenians were invited to come set up homes and businesses.
In less than 100 years, the British would seize control over all of India’s Bengal region, with Calcutta becoming the jewel in its crown. Once supreme, they became increasingly unwilling to share trading space — and thus profits — with the Armenians. Over time, they thus pushed the latter out of their merchant roles and into other fields: education, real estate, medicine, philanthropy.
As Nag dug into this seemingly closed chapter of history, she realised she wasn’t necessarily dredging up the past but looking through a window to the present. Kolkata’s Armenian community, though tiny and dwindling, evidently still had a beating heart. On the threshold of a career in documentary photography at the time, Nag was directed by many to capture her interest in the community in her work. When I ask about the source of this interest, she pauses. “Perhaps it was a result of the invisibility of the Armenian community in the fabric of present-day Calcutta,” she says. “Unlike the numerous other groups of people who came to the city, stayed on, and made it their own, most don’t see, hear, or know much about the Armenians’ current life here.”
Oldest surviving photograph of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) rugby team, 1936
By the time her project began, the flourishing community of thousands that Nag had been reading about had trickled down to roughly a hundred. Among those Armenians who remained in Kolkata was Violet Smith, owner of Fairlawn Hotel — an unassuming gem buried in the city’s backpacking district that has hosted everyone, from Gunter Grass and Tom Stoppard to Ismail Merchant. Violet was the child of refugees who had fled the Armenian genocide of 1915 – 1917. They arrived in Kolkata in 1933, and by 1963, Smith was running Fairlawn on her own. “Her pearls, red lips, and perfectly-done hair stood out in contrast to the half-awake guests at breakfast. Even in her nineties, she came down every morning, looking better than anyone, talking to her guests and keeping the staff on their toes,” Nag writes in her book. Smith’s death in 2014 awakened Nag to the urgency of her project, and the very real possibility of losing the people whose stories she wanted to hear.
Marie and Saco, or the “Stephen siblings”, were the first people Nag photographed. Their father came to India from Julfa, and although initially successful, their business dwindled over time. Steadily, the family slipped from plentitude to paucity. As she began sharing their elaborate family albums, Marie reminisced about better times. She saw herself as a ‘staunch Armenian’, she told Nag, just as her brother considered himself an “unwavering Calcuttan”. Once she retired, she made a pilgrimage to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia. It was her first time. “I didn’t feel like coming back, it all seemed so familiar,” she told Nag. Why then, did she return? “Because this is home,” she said.
Eager to learn more, Nag tried to find ways to gain further access to the community. But it wasn’t easy. As a small, quietly fading group, the Armenians in the city kept to themselves. Nag spent months attending the church, visiting Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Elderly and the ACPA, hoping to make inroads, keeping her ear to the ground. For years all she did was try to listen. The people she eventually photographed took much effort to find and strike up acquaintances with. Their stories trickled to her sluggishly. Tales of the Armenian genocide, of escape, anguish, the peculiarities of being a stateless diaspora, the fear of obliteration, and the desperate attempts at holding on to the Armenian identity.
The need to make these stories public soon became apparent. Not only were these past and present struggles unfamiliar to most in the city, but a good part was also unknown to other Armenians in Kolkata and elsewhere. But even as she planned the book, Nag’s doubts mounted. As an “outsider”, she feared misrepresenting and speaking on behalf of a different community. As a photographer, she worried that the complexities of her interactions with her subjects evaded her images.
These concerns have arguably influenced the book’s structure. It opens with an image of Kolkata’s Armenian Street, exhibiting the demure gaze of an onlooker entering an unfamiliar milieu. Images of the Church of the Holy Nazareth, its choir, robes and rituals, framed portraits of Armenian stalwarts, and performances by students at the ACPA abound in the first few pages. It is only at the very end that the faces of those that Nag met and befriended start to emerge. Although Nag is quick to assert that “this is not a book of portraits”, it is these images that lend the book’s narrative its undeniable intensity. The objects which Nag’s subjects share — family albums, wedding photos, passports, documents, letters, clothes — supply some of the book’s most poignant moments. The photographer sets these personal items alongside objects she herself has unearthed: pages from the church’s register of baptism, in use since 1904, classical Armenian question papers handed in at Calcutta University in 1934, and the oldest surviving photograph of ACPA’s rugby team. Together, these artefacts unfurl a variegated tapestry of lives led by the members of Kolkata’s Armenian community. For a moment, they make readers nostalgic for a world, and a past, they have never known.
It is perhaps this that has led dozens of readers to reach out to Nag, including many with no connection to Kolkata. In their messages, they often tell her how familiar the people and the places in the book look, how closely the pictures resemble their own family albums, their own community. Despite being rooted in a specific place, and a specific group of people, Armenians in Calcutta is also about something much broader: belonging, the impulse to hold on to one’s identity, and the gradually slipping reins of time. This is what allows it to transcend geography.
I ask Nag what she thinks people will take back from her book. “Hopefully not just what happened once,” she says smiling mildly, “but an impression of what remains. Because that is what I think this book is about, that which is left behind.”
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