The Presence Of Absence

The Armenian church is in Georgetown, the chaotic trading quarter of Chennai that I don’t ordinarily frequent. The last time I ventured into the area was in search of a particular shade and texture of hand made paper for invites to my stone furniture sale! That, I am ashamed to admit, was over a decade ago. An exhibition to commemorate the Armenian link to Madras last week as part of the Madras Day celebration, seemed like a good excuse to return.

I was the lone visitor that morning, underlining to me our waning interest in historical legacy. But Satenig Batwagan, an Armenian from Paris and a doctorate in Armenian studies who was curating the exhibition for the second year, considered the 20 odd average numbers (per day) encouraging, and said she was hoping to see twice as many visitors next year.

The lack of interest is understandable to some extent. There is little here to mark the presence of a once thriving community save for the lone 17th century St. Mary’s Apostolic church at no 2 on a street named after them, and a few forlorn gravestones in the rundown cemetery a short distance away.

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The first Armenians are said to have landed on the Malabar (Kerala) coast in 780AD.  Some accounts suggest their presence in Alexander’s advancing army even earlier! But documented records date their arrival in Agra (via Surat) to the sixteenth century, believed to be on the invitation of the Mughal court in order to promote trade with the Middle East. The first Armenian church (in the subcontinent) was built in Agra, but the all male cemeteries there indicate that those were mostly temporary settlements.

It was the ascendancy of the East India company that induced an influx of Armenian and Jewish migrants who filled the gap between white Europeans and native citizens. And the commercial centers of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were natural choices for the prosperous spice, gem and silk merchants to settle in.

Their proximity to the Mughal court  (One of Emperor Akbar’s many wives was Armenian) placed them at a unique advantage, and they contributed greatly in the building of the three cities. But they incurred British displeasure for their support lent to the French occupation of Madras in 1746 – 49, and were banished to ‘black town’ from the white enclave in Fort Saint George when Madras returned to English hands. Their first church on the esplanade, built in 1712, was destroyed during the siege, and the present one was constructed a few years later around their cemetery.

Kodja Nazar’s mansion within the fort, with its grand ceremonial hall, was one of the notable monuments appropriated and then bought outright from his descendants for the personal use of Lord Clive. (A letter petitioning the Company for rent is said to have established its history).  It is still called Clive House.

The oldest bridge in Madras – the Marmalong bridge (now rebuilt and renamed) – was built by the philanthropist Coja Petrus Uscan*. who is also associated with the construction of St. Rita’s church in San Thome, and the building of the wide stairway leading to Saint Thomas Mount. The latter came with an endowment for its maintenance!

It was also in Madras that the first Armenian journal – Aztarar – was printed. And here in 1773, Shahamir Shahamirian* and his ‘Madras Group’ dared to envision a free and constitutional homeland and authored its first draft constitution!

Sadly, not a single Armenian lives here anymore. The church is now the property of the Armenian Association of Calcutta.

 

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Calcutta with a resident population of a few hundred Armenians, boasts a more enduring legacy including several notable mansions: the Grand Hotel built by Aratoon Stephen, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, and two beautiful churches.

We – the group of four on Manjit’s walking tour – were the only visitors to the Holy Church of Nazareth that December day as well. The church, the oldest in Calcutta (and also situated on 2 Armenian street!), was closed. But we spent a fascinating hour gingerly stepping over the ornate gravestones lining the yard in an attempt to capture the frayed remains of Armenian presence in India.

Djivan Gasparyan: “I will not be sad in this world” on the Duduk

PS:
Interestingly both Coja Petrus Uscan and Shahamir Shahamirian are buried in two other churches around town!
For more information on Armenian history in the subcontinent – or in Paris – contact Satenig Batwagan -Toufanian (sath@orange.fr)

Related:

The Grand Dame of Chowringhee
The Magen David In Kolkata
BBC News – In Pictures: Calcutta’s Armenians