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The Last Armenians

The Ecnomic Times (India) - July 31, 1997
By D V Venkatagiri

IGRANTS symbolise some wonderful traits of the human race - they move out from their homes to live elsewhere; labour hard, engage in trade and make a fortune; philanthropy records them in history and with the passage of time they get scattered, leaving behind a few monuments. As far as Chennai is concerned, apart from the English, its annals are enriched by the Jews, Portuguese and the Armenians. Of them, the Jews and the Portuguese are long forgotten. A beautiful church in a street named after them, a city bridge to their credit and few other notable legacies including a present population of three are the remains of the Armenian connection of the city today.

Michael Stephen (28), the caretaker of the Armenian Church located in the Armenian street leads a serene life with his love birds and pet dogs in the church. An ailing Mr Gregory in his eighties, former caretaker of the church, and his Anglo Indian wife are the other remaining people of this ancient clan in the city.

Armenia, a land-locked nation in West Asia was the first country to make Christianity their official religion in 301 AD. The Armenians celebrate Christmas on 6th January and not on 25th December as other Christians do. Information on Armenians in India before 1500 AD. is difficult to find. However, available records trace evidence of their trading in South India in the early part of the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a flourishing colony of Armenians in Madras was well-established in local trade as well as commerce overseas.

Armenian Church in Madras
(Front picture)

Michael Stephen - Caretaker
(Inside the Church)

It was way back in 1712 that the first Armenian Church was erected near Fort St George and was subsequently demolished by the British, says one account and by the French says another. The present Armenian Church was built in 1772. A unique feature of the Church is the depiction of the life of Christ in twenty oval shaped paintings on the altar below the portrait of Virgin Mary. Another attraction of this church is the grand Belfry tower, a structure that is very characteristic of the Armenian architectural style. Six huge bells each weighing 200 kilograms are hung in this tower. These bells were cast in England, shipped by the wealthy Armenian merchants and donated to the Church. The ringing of these bells produce highly musical sound.

Armenians were excellent businessmen in textiles, precious stones, silks and spices, who lived in the city and traded with Europe, Persia and Manila. They handsomely contributed to the Armenian Church and the society. Khojah Petrus Woskan, the most eminent of the Armenian merchants built at his own expense, 160 broad stone steps from the foot to the top of the St Thomas Mount Church, which is one of the oldest churches in the city. The Marmalong Bridge in Saidapet was rebuilt in 1726 by Woskan to provide easy access to Little Mount.

The Armenian Church in Madras, India.

Within the precincts of the Armenian Church lie around 350 graves which includes the mortal remains of Rev Shmavonian, a great Armenian who published the first Armenian Journal in the world, "Azdarar" (`intelligencer) from the city in 1794. During its time, the Journal had 28 subscribers and was sold at the rate of one silver boon per copy. Loyal to the British, the Armenians were also a part of the general administration of those days as is revealed by the tombstone of one Mackertoon Simon who was head clerk and interpreter of the Madras Police and Armenian interpreter in the Supreme Court.

The Pay and Account Office, Pantheon buildings and the Umda Bagh building in the Qusid-EMillath College for Women are some of the other properties that were once owned by the Armenians, that is part of the rich Armenian heritage the city once had.

The Armenian presence is less indistinct in Calcutta where there is the Armenian Association and about 150 Armenians. Still, most of them are above forty years of age, something that causes concern about the future of this race in Calcutta too. In Bangalore, there are about ten of them including Stephen's parents.

Michael Stephen - Caretaker
In front of Rev. Fr. H. Shmavonian's grave.
. Tourists and researchers frequent this church which is otherwise calm. No services are performed as the Armenian population is almost extinct. However, Stephen, affectionately called "dhorai" in the neighbourhood, wants to stay here and carry on the torch of the Armenian heritage in the city. Marriage is something that Stephen is looking forward to with excitement and caution. "I want to marry an Armenian girl and live here. But it is not that easy to find one given the dwindling numbers of the tribe in the country. The Association could arrange for me to marry a girl from Armenia but will she be able to adapt herself to conditions here?" wonders Stephen.

Let's hope Stephen finds his match - and continues the rich Armenian links the city has.

Courtesy of Michael Stephen 
Caretaker - Armenian Church, Madras, India 
Updated 10 January, 2002 ..
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