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Armenians In India - Family History/genealogy


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#21 Yervant1

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Posted 14 March 2022 - 08:25 AM

Scroll, India
March 1 2022
 
 
HISTORY REMEMBERED Before Armenians flourished in Bombay and Calcutta, they found a thriving home in Surat Time has erased all reminders of the community’s presence in the port city, save a cemetery.
Ajay Kamalakaran
Mar 01, 2022 · 11:30 am
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Armenian cemetery in Surat. | YashIsIn/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

There is a popular story among the Armenian diaspora in Russia about the role played by two members of the community in bringing Russia’s most prized Indian diamond to the country. The 189.62-carat Orlov diamond, which was found in Golconda in the 17th century, reached Russia in 1774 and was set into the sceptre of Empress Catherine the Great.

The Armenians believe that a member of the community from Surat, one Khoja Johannes Rafael, was responsible for the sale of the diamond to Hovhannes Lazarian, who bought it on behalf of Count Grigory Orlov (and hence the name). Orlov gifted the diamond to Catherine, with whom he had a long-term romantic relationship.

Some Russian historians dispute this story and say the diamond was sold to Lazarian by a wealthy Persian merchant. Even so, it is undeniable that Surat occupies a special place in the history of the Armenian diaspora, at one point acting as an important gateway for the community to India.

“It may not be generally known that the Armenians have been connected with India, as traders, from the days of remote antiquity,” Mesrovb Jacob Seth, historian and school master of Classical Armenian at the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, Kolkata, wrote in his 1937 book titled Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. “They came to this country by the overland route, through Persia, Bactria (Afghanistan) and Tibet, and we were well established in all the commercial centres long before the advent of any European traders into the country.”

While chroniclers from the court of Abkar recorded the presence of Armenians, who were invited by the great Indian king to settle in Agra, the Armenian community, which was focused exclusively on trade, left no written records of its activities or social conditions. “As a mercantile community they were deeply engrossed in commercial pursuits and had evidently no time for recording events, communal or general, possessing social or historical value,” Seth wrote.

Historians believe that Armenians began to settle in Surat as early as the 14th century, when the city was administered by governors appointed by the Delhi Sultanate. It was in the 16th century, however, that the city began to witness the emergence of a significant Armenian community that was engrossed in trade and had an active cultural life.

When news spread in Persia and Anatolia about Akbar’s invitation and a guarantee of religious freedom, larger numbers of Armenians began to move to India. While many chose Agra, some saw vast economic opportunities in the southern Gujarat port on the Arabian Sea.

These Armenian merchants in Surat would sell jewellery, precious stones, cotton, silk and other products to Armenian-owned merchant vessels from Basra and Bandar Abbas, which would export them to Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Venice and Leghorn. Unlike others from West Asia who came to India without their families, such as Arabs, the Armenians moved with their wives and children.

When Seth visited Surat in the late 19th century, he came across the tomb of an Armenian noblewoman named Marinas, who was the wife of an Armenian priest named Woksan. The tomb, which was erected in 1579, had an epitaph in ancient Armenian which read: “In this tomb lies buried the body of the noble lady, who was named Marinas, the wife of the priest Woskan. She was a crown to her husband, according to the proverbs of Solomon. She was taken to the Lord of Life, a soul-afflicting cause of sorrow to her faithful husband, in the year one thousand and twenty eight of our Armenian era, on the fifteenth day of November at the first hour of Friday, at the age of 53. Ye who see this tomb, pray to the Lord to grant mercy.”

The cemetery, near the city’s Katargam Gate, stands at the site of the first Armenian church in the city that was probably built in the 16th century. “According to an Armenian geographer the old Armenian church at Surat was destroyed by the Mughal governor (but he does not say when) at the instigation of the Turkish merchants who came to Surat, after their pilgrimage to Mecca, for the purpose of buying goods,” Seth wrote.

A second church that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built by the community in 1778 and managed to survive until the early part of the 20th century.

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In 16th century, Armenians traders lived in Surat. Grave plaques in their Tombs have beautiful artistic motifs

Special concessions

When English merchants first arrived in Surat in the early 17th century, they were concerned that the Armenians had a complete grip on foreign trade from western India. But a confrontation was ruled out beause of the special status the Armenians enjoyed with the Mughals. So, instead, the English tried to develop a good working relationship with the Armenians and asked them to act as intermediaries.

“The English tried to win the confidence and cooperation of successful Indian-Armenians in order to secure their intercession with the Mughal court for trading privileges in India,” David Zenian wrote in a July 2001 article for the Armenian Benevolent General Union’s magazine. “The efforts of the English came to a head when an agreement was signed in London on June 22, 1688, between the East India Company and the ‘Armenian Nation.’”

The agreement was signed on behalf of the Armenian community by an immigrant from New Julfa (the Armenian locality of the Iranian city of Isfahan) named Khoja Phanoos Kalandar, who was then seen as the leader of Surat’s Armenian community. (The wealthiest Armenian merchants were given the title Khoja.) Being a tough negotiator, Kalandar managed to get several concessions for the Armenians. For one, the East India Company allowed Armenian merchants to travel and transport their goods to and from Europe on Company ships. For another, it granted them all the privileges it allowed its own and other English merchants.

The Armenian merchants “were also allowed to reside and trade freely in the Company’s towns and garrisons, where they could hold all civil offices and employments, equally with the English,” Mesrovb Seth wrote, adding that the English also allowed them complete freedom of religion. The privileges and benefits looked good on paper, but as history showed later, the English managed to almost completely supplant the Armenians.

Peak and decline

The Armenian community in Surat was its peak in the middle of the 18th century with a population believed to be as large as 200 people. At that time, one of the richest and most influential Armenians in the city was Khoja Minas, who owned ships that would sail between Basra and Surat, taking Indian precious stones to Europe. He was a contemporary of the merchant Khoja Johannes Rafael, who the Armenian diaspora in Russia credits with selling the large diamond to Count Orlov.

With the growth of Bombay, Madras and especially Calcutta as trade centres, the Armenian community in Surat began to branch out by the end of the 18th century. “The decline and dispersion of the Armenians at Surat must have been very rapid,” Seth wrote, adding that there were 33 merchant families in the city at the end of the 18th century. By 1820, there were less than 10 Armenians in Surat.

Among the few surviving members of the community, a woman named Hripsimeh Leembruggen (nee Voskan) managed to make a name for herself. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she married Robert Leembruggen, a Dutchman who worked for the East India Company, according to David Zenian. Inheriting her father’s wealth, Leembruggen successfully ran her father’s businesses and expanded them until her death at the age of 55.

The Armenian-Dutch couple did not have any children. “Upon her death in 1833 she bequeathed all her fortune to Armenian religious, educational and charitable institutions, principally to the Armenian Church in Madras for the care of orphans,” Zenian wrote.

Surat’s Armenian church managed to survive till 1907, but regular prayer services were discontinued in the 1830s. Mesrovb Seth visited the church in January 1907 and was disappointed that it had fallen into disrepair. He wrote, “Alas for the departed glory and the vicissitudes of time! For by an irony of fate, the beautiful church, with historical associations, was, in the absence of devout worshippers, found in the indisputable possession of thousands of owls, bats, crows, cats, rats, snakes and scorpions which howled, screeched, and hissed ominously when the present writer, at the risk of his life, entered the sacred edifice where his revered grandfather, Seth Mackertich Agazar Seth, had worshipped during the last quarter of the 18th century.”

The church was torn down in 1907 by the wardens of Bombay’s Armenian church and converted into a children’s playground. Shops and small residential buildings came up on the ground with the passage of time. None of the buildings that were home to Surat’s Armenian community have survived.

The only reminder of the presence of the community in Surat is the Armenian cemetery, which has a well-preserved mortuary chapel that was probably constructed in 1695. The chapel contains the grave of the son of Khoja Phanoos Kalandar. When Seth visited the cemetery, he noted, “It may be mentioned that this is the only grave inside the chapel which shows the high esteem in which the deceased was held in high esteem by the Armenian community of Surat, for only great men – national benefactors and philanthropists – are buried inside Armenian churches and chapels.”

While the legacy of the community in places like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta is better remembered and celebrated, the settlers in Surat paved the way for Armenians to add to India’s rich fabric of ethnicities and nationalities.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.

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#22 Yervant1

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Posted 07 September 2022 - 07:52 AM

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India - August 25 2022
 
 
 
Bombay’s Armenian legacy
 

Bombay was once an important Armenian settlement in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the English East India Company was keen to relocate the successful Armenian merchants of Surat to the Company’s new outpost of Bombay. Today, no Armenians from Bombay’s historic community remain, but their church and cemetery survive, the subject of study for Armenian expatriates keen to rediscover their history.

BY Sifra Lentin

BOMBAY HISTORY FELLOW

In Mumbai’s Fort area, on Medows[1] Street formerly known as English bazaar, lie the earliest milestones of the city’s historic Armenian community. Hidden from view is the 226-year-old orthodox Church of St. Peter the Apostle [2] [3], standing in the shadows of a street-facing building named Ararat. Only those familiar with Biblical history will make the connection that ‘Ararat’ is Mt. Ararat in Armenia where it is believed Noah’s ark finally rested after the Biblical Great Flood. Though this building is subsumed in the rhythms of South Mumbai’s commercial precinct, it stands in the former courtyard of the old St. Peter’s Armenian church whose foundation stone was laid on 1st October 1796. The Church was rebuilt in 1957[4] as part of the redevelopment of its compound which now includes the Ararat building, an endowment whose rental income maintains it.

None of the original Armenian inhabitants remain, but transplants like Zabel Joshi, an Armenian originally from Beirut who settled in Bombay in 1973 after marrying a Gujarati businessman, find comfort in the city’s Armenian heritage. “When I arrived here, there were 25 individuals, not families. They were old people, and most were Iranian Armenians,” she says. Joshi was received with great warmth by the community, and after Sunday morning church service they would all go to the terrace of Ararat building for traditional strong black Armenian-style coffee and snacks. The mood would be enlivened by Zabel’s mother playing the mandolin and the group singing traditional Armenian songs. The only children then were Zabel’s three daughters[5]. The community was depleted of youngsters by the 1970s; the baptism of Zabel’s eldest daughter in 1974 was the first to take place in Bombay’s Armenian church after 45 years.

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(St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Mumbai)

According to Zabel, the last caretaker of the Church which is now used for services by the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church of India[6], the younger generation began immigrating overseas at the turn of the 20th century. A rare post-independence highlight for this community was the visit of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi II with Queen Soraya in 1956 to Bombay when select community members led by the Armenian Rev. Aramais Mirzaian of Calcutta called on the Shah.

Iran is home to an important Armenian hub in Isfahan. In 1604 C.E., Shah Abbas 1 of the Safavid Persian Empire during a conflict with the Ottoman Empire, relocated the entire population of Old Julfa (Armenia) famed for its mercantile community, to his capital city of Isfahan. He built them a semi-autonomous enclave named New Julfa and even granted them a monopoly on the valuable Iranian silk trade.[7] The New Julfan merchants controlled the Persian silk trade which travelled through their community network as far west as Cadiz on the Atlantic Ocean and in the east to India, Southeast Asia, and China. Armenian settlements were not just located in important port cities in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean but also along caravan routes.

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(A young Zabel dressed in a traditional Armenian outfit)

Some Armenians had begun to migrate to India, settling mainly at first in Mughal cities like Delhi, Agra, and Surat but with trading opportunities in colonial enclaves like Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay.

Armenian migration to India accelerated during the terror and extortionary taxes imposed during Nadir Shah’s two visits to Isfahan in the winter of 1745 and 1746.[8] Their intrepid negotiating, linguistic, and trading skills were welcomed in Surat, and the EIC co-opted them to navigate the Indian hinterland and act as their merchant-diplomats with local rulers. The EIC astutely leveraged the Armenian global trading network when it negotiated a 1688 deal with Surat’s Armenian merchants, aimed at getting them to relocate to Bombay, the Company’s new outpost. It gave them the privilege to carry their Indian and Persian goods aboard the Company’s ships from Bombay directly to Europe.[9] For the Armenians, it also meant using the less circuitous and expensive routes via Bandar Abbas, Turkey, and Aleppo.

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(Members of Bombay’s Armenian community at a tea party 40 years ago)

By 1813 there were 105 Armenians residing in Bombay, among them the famous merchant Khoja Arratoon Apcar.[10] Sadly, this number had dwindled to 30 in 1889. [11] The Armenians were always small in numbers in Bombay, Calcutta was their major settlement on the subcontinent.

Not all Armenians were in business; many were professionals, while some followed humbler callings. Most 20th-century settlers like Zabel Joshi and the locally well-known American Armenian expat (late) Nuvart Mehta settled in Bombay after marriage.[12] Though Armenians were a people[13] without a nation from 1375 to 1991, their national identity was reinforced through the religious, cultural, educational, and social institutions that they built wherever they settled, usually in small numbers. Markers of nationhood like the Armenian language and script, calendar, and music were woven into the rhythm of community life everywhere through the establishment of churches and schools. In turn, this was regulated by the spiritual authority of the Holy Catholicos of all Armenians who resided in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.[14]

Armenians added a rich dimension to Bombay’s multi-cultural milieu. Traditional Armenian dishes like dolma[15]sarma[16] , kofta, and kichra are part of the festive table along with katah (a bread-like cake), baklava, seasonal fruits, dried fruits and nuts (chestnuts in Beirut).[17] The sounds of traditional Armenian folk music is making a resurgence in Mumbai, through the melodious four-stringed Kamancheh[18] played by musician Lila Bunyadian, a professional musician in the Hindi film industry and an exponent of her country’s music who settled here three years ago.

Bunyadian is also among the many Armenian women married to Indians. They are discovering Mumbai’s rich Armenian history whilst trying to make the city their home. Their presence has brought back a bit of Armenia to Mumbai.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in

© Copyright 2022 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorised copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

References

[1] Medows Street is often misspelt as ‘Meadows’ or ‘Meadow’. This street was named after General Sir William Medows, Governor of Bombay and Commander-in-Chief Bombay, 1788-1790. Medows once occupied a large house as C-in-C on the corner of this Street which extends from Mahatma Gandhi Road (Esplanade Road) to V.B. Gandhi Marg (Forbes Street). Medows Street itself has been renamed Nagindas Master Marg.

[2] Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion as early as 301 C.E. under the guidance of St. Gregory the Illuminator. What distinguishes the orthodox churches from others like the Catholic is that they celebrate Christmas on 6 January as per the old calendar, and their churches do not have idols but have images like that of the Last Supper.

[3] An inscription on a stone slab at the base of this Church’s alter reads in translation: “In the name of Apostle Peter during the Patriarchate of H.H. Lucas Catholicos of all Armenians, by the Mr. Jacob of Hamadan to the memory of his parents Mr. Petrus, his father, and Zanazan Khatoon, his mother.” This translation is taken from Johns, Jason, One Edifice Two Churches: The Armenian Church, Fort, Mumbai (Bombay, Bombay Explorer, 1994). The original church was repaired in 1801, as were its attached buildings, by Agah Jacob. This reference to attached buildings indicates that the original Church once stood amidst a larger courtyard than it possesses today.

[4]http://armeniancolle...urch-of-bombay/

[5] One of Zabel’s daughters is the Hindi film actress Tulip Joshi.

[6] According to one account, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church of India used the premises of the Armenian Church even before the first Syrian Orthodox Cathedral was constructed in Dadar, Bombay, in 1938. This Church was given to the Syrian Orthodox Church in India by the visiting Armenian Catholicos as a sign of “Inter-communion” on 3 March 2007. Johns, Jason, One Edifice Two Churches: The Armenian Church, Fort, Mumbai (Bombay, Bombay Explorer, 1994), p. 5.

[7] This monopoly was overturned a few years later by Shah Abbas II but it did not affect the Armenian merchants’ monopoly on the Persian silk trade.

[8] Aslanian, Sebouh David, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (USA, University of Californian Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011), p. 204.

[9] This offer to carry Persian silks and Kerman wool was on the condition that these goods be brought first to Bombay, and it was available only on the EIC’s own investments in Persian manufactures and commodities made with these merchants. See Seth, Meshrob Jacob, Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present (London, Luzac & Co. publishers to The India Office, 1897), pp. 282-83.

[10] Khoja Arratoon Apcar began his career with an Armenian trader in Bombay. In 1813, he founded the firm of Apcar & Co., which relocated to Calcutta in 1830. He was into shipping, the opium trade and owned collieries. He traded extensively with China and Manila. Ibid, p. 301.

[11] Seth, Meshrob Jacob, Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present (London, Luzac & Co. publishers to The India Office, 1897), p. 299.

[12] Nuvart Mehta though known to be from the United States was born in Istanbul, Turkey. Her family immigrated to America when she was 10 years old. She was well-known in Bombay’s local history circles, a member of the Bombay Local History Society, and would host a Christmas high tea every year on 6 January for her friends and local history enthusiasts. Mehta died in 2012.

[13] The overseas Armenian population is estimated to be eight million even today vis a vis Armenia’s population of three million. https://worldpopulat...enia-population

[14]Etchmiadzin Cathedral is to the Armenians what Vatican City is for the Catholics.

[15] Dolmas are vegetables like eggplants, zucchini, and bell peppers which are stuffed with meat, rice, and vegetables. While Sarmas are meat and rice wrapped in leaves, like vine leaves.

[16] Sarma is grapevine leaves filled with meat and rice. Khichra as its name suggests is a specialty similar to the slow-cooked Indian meat, lentils and rice dish of the same name.

[17] For Easter, an Armenian specialty is baked Katah (or Gata), a cake that is akin to sweet bread, and painted Easter eggs, where eggs are hard-boiled first before painting them.

[18] The Kamancheh is also claimed by Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan as their own. It is very popular in all four countries.

 

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