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. What a fascinating post. Sometimes, I think it is better that they remain hidden, instead of becoming commercialized tourist bazaars. On the other hand…
    P.S- In the pic on the left, is that Chanakya there?

    1. I agree, there is always two sides to the coin. No, that figure on the tombstone must be one of their prophets/priests. I neglected to ask. Shall try and get Manjit to confirm. Thank you for reading Sweety.

    1. How interesting! But it seems to be in worse shape than the Madras church. I hope they manage to restore it to some semblance of its former self. Thanks for sharing Kat.

  2. The inscriptions and tombstones are lovely, Madhu, and I love the atmospheric music too.

    Not at all to the point, but have you been to Kerala? The photos I’ve seen of it have all been very beautiful. It must be nearly time for your African expedition too? 🙂

    1. A long time ago to Cochin, and a few decades ago to the tea plantations in Munnar when sis lived there. Not yet to the back waters. Hoping to catch the snake boat race next year. The dates have so far clashed with our overseas trips somehow. It is a very picturesque part of India. Cleaner too. My hometown borders the state and is very similar in landscape. So I am a bit biased when it comes to the West Coast 🙂

      1. I remember your visit to the tea plantations but hadn’t made the association. My knowledge of Indian geography is pretty appalling 😦

        1. 🙂 Our recent visit was to the region we lived in before we moved to the city, and that is in Tamilnadu. My sister lived on a tea plantation in Munnar, Kerala. I think Lynne and Ron went there.

  3. Beautiful music to accompany your photos and story. I enjoyed the journey.

    Madhu, I think the interest in history depends on how well known the site is or advertised. Maybe it was the day I chose, but there were just a few visitors at Saint Etienne du Mont. But the Notre Dame always seemed to be filled with people. It’s a shame. Both churches are gorgeous architectural works.

    1. Thank you again Judy. And I agree. Also this is a city with a very tiny tourist footfall. Yet one can’t get away from the fact that more needs to be done to educate people about their heritage.

  4. A bunch of new information for me. This is the first time I have heard of the duduk and had a chance to hear it. Madhu, I am particularly impressed with your captures of the view over the garden and patio.

  5. Very interesting, filled with history which I knew nothing of. your writing and your lovely photos brought it all alive….even as it feels it is fading into history 🙂

  6. wonderful post replete with history! the belfry at st. mary’s church is so beautiful though it’s a bit eerie to find tombstones beneath the pews. i enjoyed the lovely gallery of pictures with music. 🙂 thank you.

  7. So good to see some ‘old’ Madras history – somehow the Northern triangle seem to grab the headlines. I’ve been a bit sidetracked by the Gasparyan – it’s been too long since I listened to that album – a perfect accompaniment to the ghosts of Armenians past.

    1. The haunting tune seemed so right for this post Meredith. A new discovery for me in the course of research for this article. Hadn’t heard the Duduk before either.

  8. The Presence of Absence
    or The Absence of a former presence
    whatever; the Armenians discovered India milleniums ago, and very probably before J-C.
    The Armenians used to deal with India during the 6th / 7th centuries and their presence is attested on the West Cost since centuries.
    For Chennai, it seems that the real development of Armenians dates of the early 17th century, with the great development of Shah Abbas and his capital, Isfahan (Esfahan).
    Then, as Isfahan was a kind of Center of the World, and an axis between China / India and Europe, the Armenian entrepreneurs ( I don’t like the term merchants which give a kind of reducing understanding of their action) created a link between Isfahan (Nor Julfa) and Chennai. Nearly all armenian families who lived in Chennai used to come from Isfahan or Shiraz. These businessmen used to export Indian products to Europe with less taxes than others nations. More, Armenians had no one military expectation, and therefore, they considered business more important than political power or military power. English, Portuguese and French did the opposite.
    This demonstrates that India was an advanced country for several products, and specilay textiles. The textiles that they used to deal with the most, even are called in France: Indiennes which is the feminin adjectif of Indian.
    This business should have been highly important in terms of money, because the French and Deutch and Italian customs used to figth against the Armenian entrepreneurs who used to deliver the goods at nigth in some little ports with nearly no police, avoiding the taxes and increasing the export from India.
    Before the welknown Uscan or Woskan (same person) who built the bridge in Chennai, many others Khojja(s) from Isfahan came in Chennai and made some tremendous business.
    With English who wanted to take all the control of all business, Armenians were obliged to leave little by little and they established the technic of palampore in Constantinopolis.
    Several examples of Constantinople are confused with the real INdian ones. This is because, most of people do not know how to examin a work of art carefully.
    To day Armenians from Chennai are nearly all gone and for some persons, it is the presence of Absence.

    1. Thank you very much for the historic insights. I am glad these surviving monuments serve to keep the memory of the Armenian’s vibrant contribution to this city alive.

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