Web Analytics

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Armenians in Chennai

With a population of around 4 million, Armenia is a small Country in central Asia which once was a mighty empire. It gained independence and became a Republic after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991. India’s Armenian connection could be several centuries old for one Thomas of Cana is said to have visited South West India sometime in the 8/9th century  CE. He is said to have been an Armenian and was accompanied by several families. Though not much is known about him, he is some times referred to as a merchant and sometimes as a Bishop. A group of Catholics in Kerala also claim to be his descendents.  Incidentally Armenia happens to be the first country in the world to officially embrace Christianity way back in the 4th century CE.
Unlike Jews and Parsees, the Armenians did not look to India for asylum or shelter, they came in  to trade and  make money.  During the 16th century CE, Mughal Emperor Akbar invited Armenians to settle down at Agra with all trading rights. Over a period of time the population grew and  Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. They also settled down at Surat and became renowned merchants. Likewise they spread to other cities as well,  trading mainly in precious stones, jewellery, silk and spices.
Chennai has an Armenian Street and still is known by that name. However there are no Armenians to be found as such. All that remains is a beautiful Church dedicated to St. Mary, reminding their glorious past. In this business area of George Town they lived peacefully, with their own houses,  lower portion of which served as a store house for their merchandise. The said Church is amongst one of the heritage buildings of Chennai. During 1668 they had a temporary Church built of timber within the precincts of Fort St. George. In 1712 they had a permanent structure but immediately thereafter the city of Chennai came into French possession for some time. During the French reign the Armenian Church is said to have been demolished but some say that it was done by the British. Eventually in 1772 the present Church came to be constructed on a piece of land belonging to a wealthy Armenian.   It had his private chapel and cemetery. It is only because of the existence of this Church that the City could connect to those Armenians who once roamed around. Incidentally their population all over India is around 350 only and the largest number being at Kolkata. It is their Church at Kolkata which takes care of the Chennai Church and its upkeep through a resident care taker.
Existence of an Armenian Street and a Church thereat was well known to me and possibly I have passed through the street many times  when I was young. But then I did only loafing around. Peeping into the past as an obsession developed much later. But even when that dawned, my stays in Chennai used to be too short and confined in a particular area. This time, I had plenty of time and could bank on my brothers help to move around with a personal conveyance. I landed on the Armenian Street one day and looked around. Yes there were the doors that lead to the Armenian Church as I could gather from what was written above. Unfortunately the door was closed. On enquiry a pavement vendor asked me to come at 5.00 PM but while I was conversing I found the door being opened and a watchman coming out. On enquiry the watchman told that I need to come between 9.30 AM and 2.30 PM. He frustrated all my pleas and attempts to get in. Incidentally the door and the walls were so high that one can not get even a glimpse of the Church behind.

A week later I once again visited the street but this time the doors were pretty open and I was well within the time span prescribed for visitors. A gentleman who was sitting inside welcomed me with all courtesies. He was Mr. Trevor Alexander, the caretaker belonging to the local Anglo Indian community.
The above one is the Bell Tower
This is the Church  (from Wikimedia)
Immediately upon entry, the imposing structure that greets you is that of the Bell Tower and it is the one  which gets portrayed to denote the Church. The real Church is a humble one with practically a flat roof just on its right side. There was a wooden ladder leading up to the tower but people are not being allowed for fear of the ladder crumbling down. Mr. Alexander took pains to restrain me suggesting that apart from being old, the ladder is too steep and one may encounter fatal falls due to giddiness. Perforce I thought it would be wiser to go by his words.

Erected in memory of Mrs. Coromsimee Leembruggen
On the right there is a corridor adjoining the Church. Some wall hangings could be seen with a marble plaque embedded into the wall to commemorate the visit of their Patriarch in 1963. It was serene inside the Church with St. Mary at the Altar and a candle kept burning. I was at peace with myself and relished the quietness. Beneath the Altar there were miniature paintings depicting the scenes from Jesus’ life. At the other end there was a balcony for the Church Choir group to be seated.

Once again outside the Church, the area is covered by a number of Frangipani trees bearing large white flowers. Probably the decomposed bodies of around 370 Armenians buried under the soil are providing extra nutrients to the trees there to grow so well. All the graves are at the ground level and it would be difficult not to walk over them unless some one cares to see the inscriptions they contain. As an exception there is a well elevated and well maintained grave of Reverend Harutyum Shmavonian who breathed his last in 1824. It was he who brought out the first Armenian journal in the world  "Azdarar" in 1794. I was curious to have a look at that journal, alas!, not a single copy exists at least at the Chennai Church. It was here that the Armenians of that time prepared a draft constitution for an independent country in 1781. Ironically  Armenia became independent only after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in1991.
It would be of interest to learn that Armenians unlike other Christians do not celebrate X’mas on the 25th of December. They are Eastern Orthodox Christians and claim to have been celebrating X’mas on the 6th of January much before the date was prescribed  in 325 AD. They continue that tradition. So are the  Orthodox Church of Russia but their date being 7th of January.
While returning home, I was too sorry for not having climbed the Bell tower which still has 6 large bells weighing between 150 to 200 kgs. The oldest one was cast at London in 1754 by the makers of Big Ben which was recast at Chennai (known as Madras at that time) in 1808. This bell is said to bear an inscription in Tamil. 

Incidentally the Armenian Association of India is planning to celebrate the 300th year of the Church during this year.