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, underscoring 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 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.

Tombstones beneath the pews. According to Satenig, the flat stones underfoot and level with the ground indicate humility.
DSC_4982 copy
Visitors from Paris: Satenig, Artemis, Berdj and Zareh.

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 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. The present one was constructed a few years later near their cemetery.

Kodja Nazar’s mansion within the fort, with its famed 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*. He 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.

“I am the light of the world!”
Tombstone in the Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta.
Doorway on Armenian street (Calcutta)

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 in 2013. The church, the oldest in Calcutta (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)

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

71 thoughts on “The Presence Of Absence

    1. Thank you Naomi. Fascinating even for me! You might be interested in my post on the the Jewish connection to Calcutta. I forgot to link it. I have now.

    1. The sad part is that only a few people want to remember. I admire those that make the effort to rekindle interest in heritage with little or no return. Thanks for reading Jacson.

  1. I do hope that the number of visitors do increase. It is such a beautiful church. I would wish that schools even go visit with busloads of children.

    1. Me too. Our history is varied and complex, but still local schools ought to educate students on the cultural history of their city. Perhaps they do.

    1. An online exhibition of powerful images of abandoned structures inspired the title Meg. I t seemed perfect for what i wanted to convey. Thanks for reading.

  2. A part of Madras history which I find fascinating and intriguing. My first glimpse was in Cochin. It looks like a lot of effort goes into Madras Week to connect residents and visitors to their past and to preserve it as this scholarly curator is doing. Your photos depict this. Interesting how churches laid the floor around the tombstones.

    1. Thanks Lynne. The effort put in by several private players to celebrate the anniversary of the city is indeed remarkable. I missed a few events since I was away in Bangalore, but I hope to be more involved next year.
      Tombstones spread out around the yard and church floor appear to be unique to Armenian churches. It took me a while to get myself to walk all over them!
      I wasn’t aware there was an Armenian church intact in Cochin. Did you visit one?

      1. No Armenian church in Cochin. Our guide told us about the Armenian connection along the coast and in Madras. We visited St Cecelia’s built in the 1500’s. First , the Portuguese Catholics, then Dutch Protestants, then the church became Anglican by the British. Our guide thought we were going to Madras. Fascinating history.

    1. It did!!! And the cultural contribution of the Armenians is indeed forgotten here. Being non colonising foreigners who kept themselves aloof from the local populace they just didn’t wield the numbers or clout to leave a significant mark.

  3. It is always a nostalgic feeling to go back into lanes and by-lanes of history and interesting facets of life and living…intriguing and creative title. Enjoyed it…

  4. Madhu, this is one of the great strengths of your blog – the ability to reveal hidden histories and narrate them in a compelling and accessible way. This post struck a real chord with me as Bama and I visited the Armenian Church in Singapore just last weekend. It is the city’s oldest church (built in 1835), and we were also the only ones there at the time. It didn’t take long to discover the Indian connection – several commemorative plaques inside were carved in honour of prominent Armenians who were born in Madras. Coincidentally, the road running behind the church was also called Armenian Street!

    1. Thank you very much for the kind compliment James!
      I went last weekend as well! The Singapore church looks beautiful and well maintained (not surprisingly :-)) Curious to know if the address was no.2 Armenian street?

      1. You’re welcome, Madhu, it was well deserved. And what a coincidence! The address of the Singapore church is 60 Hill Street – No. 2 Armenian Street seems to be a commercial building of some sort (according to Google Maps).

  5. This is a very interesting post, Madhu, on so many levels. This is especially interesting to me because this speaks of (Catholic) Church history. I am always amazed at India’s rich cultural heritage.

    1. Glad you found it interesting Imelda. I am not all that familiar with the history of the Orthodox church. This visit has piqued my interest.

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