Armenians in Kolkata: A Living Legacy

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The Armenian Church of Nazareth in Kolkata (Photos: Facebook)

Last Sunday was no ordinary Easter Sunday at the Armenian Church of Nazareth in Kolkata. For it was also the celebrations, albeit low, of the bicentennial of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) of Kolkata. Established in 1821 by two Kolkata Armenians - Astvatsatur Muradkhanyan and Mnatsakan Vardanyan - for the education of their children, it stands out as a living testimony to the age-old ties between Armenia and India. The two countries cannot be more different - one is a dot on the map, almost a city state with only three million people. The other is a giant with the world's second largest population, yet both are bonded by the invisible threads of history and memory - ancient nations, swept up in conflicts, with loss of territory, dispossession, partition and diasporas.

Many Indians still struggle to locate Armenia on the map; some discovered it only recently for the wrong reason--on account of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war. But for most Armenians, India is an indelible part of their collective history and nation building. Cities like Kolkata, Chennai and Surat are dotted with edifices, churches, tombstones, most of them crumbling, but silently testifying to an once throbbing presence of this Caucasian community, whose language is part of the Indo-European family.

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Long ago, in fact before the Christian era, Indians had made their way to Armenia, which straddles Europe and Asia, and counts as its peers, Babylon and Nineveh. They even founded a colony in the land framed by mountains and lakes, almost mythical in beauty. Not much is known about the history of Indians in pre-Christian Armenia but Ambassador Achal Malhotra, who has served as India's envoy to Armenia notes in his book "India, Armenia: So Far yet So Close" that once Christianity entered Armenia all traces of the Indians there vanish. This could be a valuable subject for future research.



Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy

The existence of Armenians in India, however, remains well documented. But just why did they come here? So far from their native hearths traveling across mountains and valleys when there were no railways or air routes. "Trade," says Vachan Tadevosyan, the Chairperson of the Armenian Church in Kolkata. Both Tadevosyan and his wife Narine are musicians from Armenia, and have made Kolkata their home for the past twenty years. Along with their community service they have also helped invigorate the musical life of Kolkata.

 Armenians make good businessmen, with their business acumen and indeed most of them who came to India, came as traders. The most likely and documented history dates to the sixteenth century, but much before that, Thomas of Cana who landed on the Malabar coast in the 8th century CE is also said to have been Armenian. And even earlier, during the campaigns of Alexander, the Great Armenians are said to have been in India.

Be as that may, the documented existence of the Armenians in India begins from the sixteenth century. Mughal emperor Akbar's Christian wife, for instance, is said to have been of Armenian origins. The sixteenth century was a time of continuous conflict between the two great rivals - the Persian Safavids and the Ottomans. The Armenians were stuck in between, and many made their way to India in search of peaceful pastures. Also, points out Tadevosyan, many Armenians were invited by the Persians to towns like Julfa and Isfahan for construction and other works since Armenians are also master craftsmen and artisans. But because of their Christian faith, Armenians found it difficult there (though Iran today also has a sizeable Armenian community). Hence, many made their way to India, landing in Surat first.

There are no Armenians to be found in Surat today, but grim and brooding, the cemetery lies scattered with tomb stones and the particular Armenian crosses. They are taken care of by the Archaeological Survey of India. It is almost the same story in Chennai and Mumbai today. Though churches exist, the community consists of only a handful, most having either migrated or merged with local Indians.

Surprisingly, it is in Kolkata, which has almost all but fallen off the tourist map, that the community if not thriving, continues to remain and forms a living linkage with the country of Armenia itself. How did this happen?

As Armenians began making their way to India in increasing numbers, it coincided with the arrival of the British and the East India company. Here an interesting mix of faith, language, and traditions come into play. Entrepreneurial and intellectual, the Armenians were all Persian speaking and endeared themselves to the Mughal courts. At the same time, a cornerstone of their identity even today remains their faith. The Armenians are mostly Orthodox Christians and much of their lives revolved around their church which formed the core of any Armenian settlement anywhere. But they neither convert nor proselytise and frown upon those who do. Hence, they did not constitute any threat to the host communities, but their Christian faith drew them close to the British. And so it was that in many of the British settlements sprang up communities of Armenians, culminating into an agreement signed with the British East India Company in 1688 which gave them special trading privileges. Later many inter-married like the owners of the well-known Old Kenilworth and Fairlawn Hotels in Kolkata. (The latter was particularly popular with late Bollywood icon Shashi Kapoor who would always put up there during his visits to the city and remains decorated with memorabilia). In fact, Armenians often acted as negotiators and translators for the British and the Persian speaking rulers and Nawabs.


 

Enriching Kolkata's musical scene. Vachagan Tadevosyan (right)

"Kolkata and Chennai were like cradles of Armenian intellectual activity in India," points out Malhotra. And indeed. India will remain entwined with the Armenian national consciousness because, along with their community life, the intellectual ferment also witnessed the first drafting of a constitution of a future Armenian state in Chennai in 1773, as also the publication in 1794 of the very first Armenian newspaper - the Azdarar- which was also the very first non-English newspaper of India. In an era where soft power assumes increasing salience, these moments need to be highlighted and preserved, beyond the corridors and libraries of the Armenian College. For they mark one of India's first interface and dialogue with Eurasia.


In Kolkata, the walls of the education icon ACPA, wear the portraits of these Indian Armenian luminaries as a badge of honour. Every year, batches of students and teachers look at them with awe as they learn of their glorious heritage and rich history in this faraway part of the world. Did the Astvatsatur Muradkhanyan and Mnatsakan Vardanyan two hundred years ago, ever envisage how far and wide it's benevolence would be spread? Probably not. The prime concern was to establish a school for the children of the community. This again testifies how strong the community must have been. Almost 65,000 strong. Neither in Chennai nor in Mumbai did the need arise to have their own educational institution.

Throughout the years, however, as the community dwindled in India, Armenian children not just from Armenia but from Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Iraq, Syria come here to do their schooling. The current batch has students from war-torn Iraq, Iran and also from Russia, and the majority from of course Armenia. But they were all sent back home once the pandemic began last year in March. Classes, however, are continuing online. Only the students who are in Class X have returned to take the ICSE exams, as have some students, who on completion of school at the APCA are enrolled for graduate studies in Kolkata colleges. There have also been students from Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) and tragedy struck last year when one of the ex-students from Nagorno-Karabakh passed away in the war in September.

The sprawling grounds and compound, of the ACPA, which had gradually been extended over the years, are therefore somewhat unusually quiet. Even the bicentennial celebrations were muted, marked online. "But we hope to have good celebrations in the future," says Father Hayk Kocharian is the current manager of the ACPA as also the community pastor.

The faithful continue their work. The college is run and managed by the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Hence priests from Armenia are dispatched to Kolkata to run and manage the APCA, besides the affiliated Davidian Girls School, all the Armenian churches across India, as well as institutions like the old people's home in Kolkata, which currently has only five residents. Father Kocharian is assisted by Reverend Movses Sargissian and Pastor Artsrun Mikailyan. There are 65 students and four teachers from Armenia who teach Armenian language, history, literature. The rest are Indians. Earlier, Russian was also taught at the school, and Persian offered to those from Iran.

Kolkata's oldest Christian Church (as also it's oldest Christian grave) is an Armenian one, and the city has three functioning Armenian churches where service is held every Sunday. Two more churches in West Bengal are situated outside Kolkata. Periodically the priests  travel there and to the different parts of India to hold service in the Armenian churches, which otherwise remain closed.

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The entire community in India today numbers not more than 250 (discounting the students, clergy, and teachers from Armenia). They have contributed many luminaries and listing them would need a separate feature. But four merit mention as their activities and impact went beyond their immediate community: Sarhad - the naked sufi of Delhi, Kg ja Petrus Uscan who built the Marmalong Bridge along the Adyar river in Madras, now Chennai, Bollywood actor and singer Gauhar Jan, who is probably the best known of all in India and Paul Chater. Chater was a Kolkata Armenian from a humble background who was supported by the elite La Martiniere school of Kolkata. Soon after finishing his education, he went in search of greener pastures to Hong Kong. He built a fortune there, helping in reclaiming land, starting the first tramway and building the first power station there. Suddenly one day in the 1920s, he heard that La Martiniere had gone bankrupt and was on the brink of closing down. He sent back eleven lakh rupees to the school. Years later this writer studied at the school Chater helped survive. To this day the school prayer includes a benediction for Chater. Like many other community members, Chater also bequeathed a tidy sum to the Armenian Church in Kolkata which helps it run the ACPA. To honour the legacy of Sir Chater (he was knighted for his contribution to Hong Kong) a bust was installed a few years ago near the school.

Over the years, the community has produced remarkable men and women. The students who study here now make good informal ambassadors for India, which has welcomed the Armenian community, as it has every other beleaguered community which has sought refuge and sanctuary in her. Kolkata continues to act as a living bond between our two nations. As shifting geo-political dynamics necessitate close India-Armenia cooperation, a much-need and conscious effort is also required to strengthen these historic bonds, in the digital era.

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