May 14 2016
The last Armenians of old Calcutta
I’m in India, in Burrabazar, to be precise, looking for Kolkata’s
oldest church, and I’m lost. In the space of a pressure-cooker-crowded
hour, I have stumbled across the Nakhoda Mosque, the Shield of David
Synagogue and the Portuguese-founded Cathedral of the Most Holy
Rosary, plus several Hindu and Jain temples adding their individual
spice to this multicultural mosaic.
Logic tells me to go down Armenian Street, as the church was built by
the community that gave this meandering road its name. Instead, I’m
directed towards Old China Bazaar Lane, the heart of old Calcutta’s
original Chinatown. Finally, I find a whitewashed lychgate that
opens to a courtyard dotted with gravestones and dominated by the
imposing spire of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth.
Named after its founder, Aga Nazar, the church dates back to 1724,
which is why the presence of a gravestone dated 1630 commemorating the
death of “Rezabeebeb, wife of the late charitable Sookias” has
historians flummoxed. That’s almost 70 years before Kolkata’s founder,
Job Charnock, took possession of what was then a village on the Hoogly
River on behalf of the East India Co. The church’s custodian, Paul
Stephen, happily shows me other unusual gravestones, including that
of Esahac Abrahamian, who died from “wounds received while fighting a
lion in a gladiatorial contest” in nearby Fort William.
A gold-framed, 19th-century painting of The Last Supper hangs above
the altar, looking surprisingly fresh despite the humidity. There are
plaques to the numerous benefactors who have donated to the church’s
upkeep and enough space for several hundred parishioners and a choir.
There are so few Armenians left now, however, that services are held
only every three weeks.
“We ran this city once. Now you can count us on the fingers of both
hands, the true Armenians,” says Sonia John, whose father migrated
from Iran in the 1940s. When Armenians of mixed blood are included,
the number swells to about 200, which is well down from a peak of
several thousand when refugees from the 1915 Armenian holocaust in
Turkey flooded the city.
The first Armenians landed in India in the 16th century as economic
migrants from Persia. They were welcomed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar,
who took an olive-skinned Armenian, Mariam Zamani, as one of his many
wives. By the early 19th century, they had established a firm
foothold as traders, jewellers, bankers, industrialists and property
developers. Armenians controlled the then-Calcutta hospitality
industry, owning hotels such as The Grand, Astoria, Lytton and Russell
plus, most famously, the Fairlawn. The 231-year-old property was run
by the city’s most eclectic raconteur, Violet Smith, until her death
in 2014. Vi, as she insisted on being called, inherited the hotel from
her mother in 1962. Like many Armenians, Vi’s grandparents fled Turkey
in 1915, travelling by way of Isfahan and the Khyber Pass to reach the
safety of India.
The Fairlawn’s rollcall of guests includes actor Julie Christie,
travel writer Eric Newby, playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist
Dominique Lapierre, whose City of Joy was made into a film in 1992
starring Patrick Swayze, who also stayed there during the movie’s
With Vi’s death, a community that punched well above its weight has
come one step closer to extinction. Still, battlers like Sonia John
refuse to slow down. At 89, she is the principal of a private girl’s
school in central Kolkata. “The Armenians of Calcutta are going
through a very sad period,” she admits, referring to the city by its
original name. “But we have been through much, much worse than this.”
Armenian Churches in India
Posted 19 May 2016 - 10:01 AM
Posted 08 January 2017 - 10:44 AM
Unlike other Christians, the Orthodox Armenian Church doesn't celebrate Christmas on December 25. Armenians say that nobody is certain of the exact date of Christ's birth and they prefer to celebrate an Advent Period instead, which culminates in Christmas on January 6. The celebrations started with mass at the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth.
The priest neither touches the Bible directly (it is wrapped in silk cloth) nor does he read from it. He sings praises unto The Lord instead. The service is always in Armenian.
According to Khatchaturian, the church at Armenian Street was originally named Nazar's Armenian Church after founder Aga Nazar. Over the years, it came to be called the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth.
After service, the Armenians got together for Christmas lunch. Over the years, the community in Kolkata has adopted the Anglo-Indian cuisine as most ingredients used in Armenia aren't available here. "One of Bengal's favourite dishes 'Potoler Dorma' has its origins in Armenia. We call it 'Dolma' and use grape leaf to wrap the mincemeat instead," Khatchaturian said.
Posted 23 August 2017 - 09:22 AM
Aug 21 2012
Stones that speak
Gravestones speak of lives lived, pathways traced and choices made.
They give us the stories behind a person and his life as seen by his
loved ones. Chennai is full of abundant history - stories of men and
women who built this city, which are now etched onto the crumbling
ruins of Chennai's old cemeteries.
There are numerous cemeteries where one can spend an entire evening
and not even realise the time passing. The St Mary's Church, tucked
away in a corner of Fort St George has, according to the caretaker,
not only the distinction of being the oldest Anglican church on the
east of the Suez, but is also the resting place of the oldest British
tombstone, dating way back to 1652.
Elizabeth Baker, the wife of the first president of the Madras
Presidency, Aaron Baker, died when she was on her way to meet her
husband. Her tombstone, lying near the entrance, weathered and
cracked, is a testimony to the upheaval they were all put through. The
104 tombstones were used as shields by the invading French forces in
1758. They were originally buried in the `Guava garden,' on top of
which the law college currently stands.
Once the law college came up, the cemetery was shifted near the
Metropolitan Transport Corporation on Pallavan Salai, where it
currently stands. An article by historian S Muthiah talks about an old
description mentioning boundary hedges filled with jasmine, shady
trees, patches of lawn and beds of bright flowers. But it is a sense
of desolation that coats the cemetery today. Plants have run wild,
resembling a scene out of a jungle, while patches of lawn are more
patches of debris than green grass.
The graves themselves are undecipherable, some having crumbled due to
natural elements, others covered by weeds and creepers that have run
amok. Still, if one has the patience and a certain disregard for
snakes, perusing the names on the tombs and gravestones would pass for
a very pleasant pastime.
In stark contrast, the two corners of the cemetery wear a fresh look.
Lined with neatly-pruned hedges and padlocked, one contains the graves
of the Commonwealth soldiers who died during Second World War, while
the other constituttes the Roman Catholic part of the cemetery.
Speaking of stark contrasts, the unassuming Armenian Church in
Georgetown with its fresh white paint, neatly cut grass and a serene
atmosphere, is quite a sight. Turning 300 this year, it has about 350
Armenian tombstones in its floors, some even dating back to 1740. A
majority of them have inscriptions in Armenian with a smattering of
English and Latin.
The most ornate one is the grave of Rev Haruthiun Shmavonian, founder
of the first Armenian journal who died in 1824. The journal, Azdarar,
came out in 1794, while Shmavonian was the priest in-charge of the
Similar to the tombstones in the Armenian Church, the St Thomas Mount
Church too hosts Armenian tombstones. According to `Madras, Chennai: A
400-year Record of the First City of Modern India', some of them are
as old as 1707.
The Luz Church in Mylapore also bears tombstones of early Portuguese
settlers. The church, the oldest in the city, has tombstones as early
as 1600 lining the entrance and the walls. In addition, the Quibble
Island Cemetery has a small number of old tombstones, dating back to
the latter half of the 1800's. An evening stroll through the shady,
green-leafed contours of the cemetery might prove to be just the
stress breaker. one's looking for.
Aug 22 2017
Paper trail: How the world’s first Armenian journal emerged in Madras in 1794
On Madras Day, retracing the origins of ‘Azdarar’ and the merchant community that supported it.
Yesterday · 11:30 am
Under the shade of frangipani trees in the quiet garden of Chennai’s 245-year-old Armenian Church is a grave decorated with an open book. Engraved on the book in block letters is the word “Azdarar”, which means “The Intelligencer” in Armenian. This was the first Armenian journal in the world, published in Madras in the year 1794, when the merchant community from the mountainous, Eurasian country was thriving in the city.
The grave belongs to Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian (1750-1824), who was the editor and founder of Azdarar, hailed as the Father of Armenian Journalism. Shmavonian was born in Shiraz, a cultural hub in Iran. After the sudden death of his two sons, Shmavonian moved away from the crowded city to study Persian, which he ultimately mastered. His later voyages led him to settle down as a priest in Old Madras, where he eventually began the journal Azdarar on October 28, 1794 publishing business and world news in Armenian for the settlers in Madras.
The journal lasted only for 18 months, for reasons unknown. “The journal, sad to say, did not last long – and the few attempts to revive it also failed,” wrote city historian and chronicler S Muthiah in his book Tales of Old and New Madras.
Little is known about this Armenian journal today. While much has been written about the elegant architecture and the famous bell tower of the Armenian Church in city newspapers, the journal usually receives only a passing mention.
The Armenian connection with Madras dates back to the 1600s, when merchants arrived by sea to trade in jute and silk, spices and precious stones. The first traces of Armenian settlements in India can be found in Surat in the 13th Century, where Armenians settled after fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic Caliphate in Persia and the Armenian Highlands. The community soon spread its network and settled in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Madras.
Armenian Street in northern Chennai still serves as a reminder of the city’s links with the Eurasian country. The bustling street, which is now lined with street vendors and tea shops, also houses the remnants of an era long past. The Armenian Church, where the grave of Shmavonian lies, was once the focus of the city’s Armenians – not only for religious gatherings but also as a storehouse and library for a large collection of books for the local community. According to one study on Armenian print culture, a merchant prince named Shahamir Shahamirian, established the first Armenian printing press in India in the city of Madras in 1772 in India. This press also published a number of important works of Armenian political thought and modern constitutional thinking around 1787, including The Snare of Glory by Shahamirian – the first republican-inspired proto-constitution of the future state of Armenia.
But these books dwindled in numbers along with the community. After the city’s last Armenian moved to Bengaluru around 2007, there were no more descendants of the original settlers in Chennai. But even today, the Republic of Armenia acknowledges its strong ties with India, and Madras in particular, as it prepare to build a monument in front of the Victory War Memorial in Chennai to mark 25 years of diplomacy with India.
“The Armenians of Madras were famous for their printing press and charitable work,” the Consul General of the Republic of Armenia, Shivkumar Eashwaran, told The Times of India. “They even set up an Armenian newspaper Azdarar, which they printed and distributed in the city.”
Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian's grave. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
“What would the history of Armenian journalism be without the world’s first Armenian newspaper Azdarar, published for two consecutive years by Haruthiun Shmavonian in Madras from 1794 to 1796?” asks historian and Armenian studies scholar Sebouh Aslanian.
Reverend Haruthiun Shmavonian was “the last of the great Madras-Armenians,” according to S Muthiah. The first Armenian leader was the magnetic Kojah Petrus Woskan, who was responsible for the strong relationship the community had with the British. Woskan was also known for building the first bridge across the Adyar river and the flight of 160 steps up the St Thomas Mount.
Shmavonian’s Azdarar however, had an impact not only on the local community but across the world. The periodical was considered to be one of the origins of Armenian nationalism. “It was the first attempt to speak for the community which was scattered across many port cities,” said Hari Vasudevan, Professor Emeritus of Calcutta University. The centenary jubilee of the the founding of the journal was celebrated in 1894, by Armenian journalists in Venice, Vienna, Marseilles, Constantinople and many other cities.
According to Aslanian, Azdarar contained novel features for the 18th century Armenian readers. Since the Armenian community were primarily traders, several pages in each issue were devoted to making commercial information publicly available – such as the timetables of commercial shipping traffic in the Madras port, the price lists of various commodities traded in local markets and advertisements of goods for sale.
Shmavonian himself apparently noted in his first editorial that his main aim was to “provide useful news to Madras’s then fledgling community and especially to its business leaders.” But Azdarar had a wide variety of articles. Besides business news, each issue also contained social and political news about various Armenian communities across India, said Aslanian. The periodical also had sections that would recap news from Europe, which was excerpted and translated from English language newspapers in India and Europe.
The publishing of the Armenian journal on a regular basis was quite an unusual phenomenon, said Hari Vasudevan. “The publishing of a non-English, non-European periodical was not something very common,” he said. “This notion of producing for a reading public was not known in Iran and East Turkey at that time. It was usually only almanacs that were distributed, concerning details of the position of stars and auspicious dates of the month.”
Scholars suspect that the British newspapers and periodicals circulated were an important influence on Armenian print culture. Since the British were their competitors in trade, the Armenians needed to keep their community up to speed with the latest trade developments. “Many of these innovative features were creative adaptations from English-language newspapers that had just begun to appear in India, including the idea of presenting information pertinent to the business community in a public forum,” wrote Aslanian.
The Armenian merchants were regular travellers, and culturally united by the churches they built and their Christian practice. But the Azdarar is regarded as one of the first non-religious attempts to bring the community together. Today, in a Madras church that lies 4,000 kilometres away from their homeland, the inscription on a grave is testament to the first voice of the Armenians.
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