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