Armenians in India

18th Century Madras Armenians Envision an Independent Armenia

DREAMS COME TRUEby David Zenian As the Seljuk conquest of Armenia in the 11th century and the loss of the last Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia in 1375 led to the creation of Diaspora communities worldwide, the bold efforts by a group of Armenians in the Indian city of Madras in 1772 was the first step in the long struggle for an independent Armenian state.

While living oceans away from America, where events like the Boston Tea Party and the American War of Independence were about to unfold, the Armenians of Madras were moving on a parallel track. Freedom and democracy were as much a dream for the Armenians of Madras as it was for the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Most of the small Armenian Diaspora of India in the 1700's were the descendents of the thousands of Armenians who were brought to Persia by Shah Abbas and settled in New Julfa (Nor Jugha) in 1605. They were traders who had moved to India in search of wealth and fortune. Many were rich and successful. They were free, yet, in some way, deep inside, homeless.

The feeling of being in the minority, with no state of their own, led to the formation of a movement which believed in organized action and unity in ranks as the best safeguards against outside forces, including assimilation. But unlike the traditional Armenian political parties which were formed in the early 1900's, the so-called "Madras Group" did not evolve into a political party.

Several books written in classical Armenian and published in Madras between 1772 and 1783 by this group of Armenians clearly reflect the anxiety of a Diaspora community which saw the dangers of assimilation and the threat of losing its identity, especially when it came to the younger generation of that time. The first of those books, which is called Nor Dedrag - Hortorag, or a book of guidelines and advice, was put together by a group of Madras businessmen, but carried the name of Movses Paghramian as its main author.

The book reflects the thinking and aspirations of the "Madras Group", and in effect is a detailed account of who the Armenians were, their roots, their history and more importantly where the nation was going after losing its statehood and living not only under occupation, but in a Diaspora.

In one chapter, the author lists the names of all the Armenian towns and villages as they existed in the 1700's. For Nagorno Karabakh, which was semi-autonomous and ruled by Armenian princes at the time, the list includes 14 villages and one city. For Persia, the birthplace of most of the members of the "Madras Group," the list includes 19 villages and six cities. For Cilicia, which was under Ottoman rule, the list mentions 19 villages and 12 cities. In all, the author says, there were 258 Armenian villages and 103 cities inhabited by Armenians - all in what used to be historic Armenia.

Outside of what Hortorag considers Hayots Ashkharh, or the Armenian world, it lists Armenian Diaspora communities in Moldova, Poland, Transylvania and Crimea and estimates the overall Armenian population of the 1700's to be a little over 5 million.

From the first page of Hortorag Paghramian and the others spell out the reasons for such a publication and underline the importance of efforts to prevent the new generation of Armenians from dropping its guard and falling prey to the slippery slope of assimilation. In its opening chapters, Hortorag gives a detailed description of all the early Armenian Kingdoms, its rulers, and tries to analyze why the nation lost its sovereignty and statehood.

Turning to the reasons of the "calamity" facing the Armenian nation in the 1700's, the book lists "corruption" and the "autocratic nature" of past administrations which, it said, left no room for individuals to have a say in government. "The mistake of an ordinary citizen can lead to his own personal loss and suffering, but if a Prince or a King makes a mistake, the whole nation will suffer and pay the price."

Outlining the shortcomings of past rulers, the book suggests several remedies including the need for education, opening of schools, raising the self-awareness and self esteem of the youth and "planting the seeds of nationalism" in the new generation of Armenians.

Bold concepts, especially given the fact they were put forward and advocated more than 200 years ago.

About the same time of the publication of Hortorag a more powerful book hit the Madras Armenian Diaspora scene. It was called Vorokayt Paratz, the challenges of glory, which gave the concept of statehood a new meaning.

Written by Hagop Shahamirian and published also in Madras in 1773, Vorokayt Paratz, and its addendum which was completed a few years later, not only outlined the future constitution of a free and independent Armenian state, but also created a set of by-laws for the Diaspora to govern itself with until the establishment of a such a state.

For the first time in Armenian history, it was Shahamirian who called for a "constitutional republic" as the best way of maintaining democracy and equality in the free Armenia of his dream. In great detail, Shahamirian explains how a "President should be elected by the people for a three year term and the President should be the head of the executive power."

It goes on to say that the future Armenian republic should "guarantee the freedom of conscience, and make every effort to separate church from state." Addressing his readers, Shahamirian says: "Fellow civilians, do not interfere in the affairs of the church. Clergy, do not interfere in the affairs of the civilians."

Turning to administrative matters, he calls for "all top government officials to be elected by the people. The country must have a 90,000-strong permanent army, and the state budget should come from various forms of taxation, based on the principle that the rich will have to give more than the poor."

On other issues, Vorokayt Paratz calls for an end to old hierarchy and replacing them in a democratic society with equality for all where every Armenian, and especially those living in the Diaspora, will make an annual financial contribution to a unified national fund.

"All citizens should have equal rights. Deeds should come before lineage. A faithful shepherd who protects his flock against wolves is a better man than a lazy Prince," Shahamirian wrote in 1773.

But what they created were not just concepts. The "Madras Group" also set up a special fund created through direct charitable donations from the community to establish schools, preserve the national heritage and culture and "make sure that Armenians of the Diaspora are not lost through assimilation."

"We should continue along this path of self reliance (in the Diaspora) until that blissful day, God willing, when our country will have its own ruler and the Armenians return to Mother Armenia and the arms of our Araratian home," Shahamirian and his friends wrote.

Along more practical terms, Shahamirian stressed the paramount importance of laws to govern all societies, starting from the community level up to the future Armenian State. "Where there are no laws, there will be no justice, no equality and no freedom. The people are the rulers and the King is the law," he wrote, explaining the essential need to create a society where the law is above all. "But the laws should come from the people and all should be equal under the law."

Having created a vision of how they saw a future state, Shahamirian and his fellow members of the "Madras Group" also realized that while Armenians had to mobilize their own efforts, they could not create a free Armenia without help. For them the key to such a state was in an alliance with Imperial Russia and neighboring Georgia-both Christian nations-along with the active help and support of the Armenian Princes of Nagorno Karabakh-or Meliks as they were known the time.

It is ironic that the early architects of an independent Armenian state believed that Nagorno Karabakh was as much a key issue as it is today, with the difference that it was Armenia which needed help.

The "Madras Group" was so fervent that one of its members, a merchant by the name of Khojah Krikor, offered to give all his personal wealth to finance the liberation of Armenia from foreign occupation-provided the endeavor had the support of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin. But indications, as seen in various publications from that era, were that Etchmiadzin was reluctant to give its blessing to a revolutionary movement against Ottoman Turkey and Persia, the superpowers of the region.

The "Madras Group" also offered financial help to Hovsep Emin, a prominent member of the Indian Armenian community who had spent most of his adult life in England and toured both Russia and Georgia, to organize the liberation movement.

In later years, Emin, in his memoirs, reflecting his disappointment with the lack of progress, writes: "Our people are shedding their blood and tears for a piece of bread. But as soon as a few people get rich, they are always subjected to pressures by outsiders because we do not have the strength to fight back and a country to stand behind us."

More than 200 years have passed since the birth of the "Madras Group." They did not see their dreams come true, but today Armenia is a free and independent republic and Shahamirian and his friends from Madras, India, can be remembered as early visionaries.

The Bells of St. Astvatzatzin

Church and belfry testament to a proud past long gone

St. Astvatzatzin Armenian Church, one of the oldest Christian structures in all of India and the Far East is located in Chennai (formerly Madras).

It was built in 1772 on the grounds an ancient Armenian cemetery that later became the private property of the Shahamirian family.

The church replaced an Armenian chapel that had been built in 1712 that was destroyed in the 1746 British-French colonial war. There are two dates inscribed at the church entrance – 1772 1nd 1712. The new construction was financed by Shahamir Shahamirian (Sultanumian) in memory of his wife who had died at an early age.

St. Astvatzatzin (Holy Mother of God) is a testament to the glorious history of Armenians in Madras. One can say that the entire legacy of Armenian Madras, that had become the foundry of the new liberation thought of the times, has been stored under the arches of this magnificent church.

St. Astvatzatzin is resting place for many historic figures

The white-plastered church is located on a street where the noted merchants Shahamir Shahamirian, Samuel Moorat, the Gregory Brothers, Seth Sam returned after their long and arduous journeys and found eternal rest.

This is where the Madras Group was formed. Its members, including Movses Baghramian, Shahamir Shahamirian and Joseph Emin, soared no efforts to inculcate Armenian youth with ideals of enlightenment and progressive thought.

Under these arches, every Sunday for forty consecutive years, Father Harutiun Shmavonian, publisher of the first Armenian periodical “Azdarar” (Monitor), offered the Holy Liturgy.

At least two Armenian printing presses were started here in Madras, and an Armenian school. Many of the notable members of the Madras Armenian community were laid to rest here. No wonder the street is named “Armenian Street”.

Time has marched on and there are no longer any Armenians in Madras. But the walled Armenian Church, symbolizing their eternal glory rises proudly on a hill top. At first glance, it is hardly noticeable.

When bells ring locals know an Armenian has returned

The commercial shopkeepers that line the street know precious little about the church. But they are aware that it’s the oldest Christian cathedral in the district.

Few also know that the unique and valuable examples of the first Christian bells forged rest here in the church, in the three story bell tower that rises apart from the church.

The belfry’s three pair of enormous bells called the faithful to church for many decades. Sadly, now the bells are not rung every Sunday. When the peeling of the bells is heard, residents in the vicinity of Armenian Street know that an Armenian has come to the church. Most Armenian visitors today come from Calcutta. The bulk of Madras Armenians relocated to Calcutta in the latter half of the 19th century.

Each pilgrim that visits the Armenian church climbs the tower to see the bells and to capture the moment. All three pairs of bells bear dates. Each weighs 150 kilos. The oldest was forged in 1754.

Armenian church bells bear proud legacy

This bell has an Armenian inscription that was added in 1808 at the district’s famous “Aroulapan” foundry. The next bell was forged in 1778 and the other two in 1790. They were donated by Agha Shahamir Shahamirian in memory of his son Eliazar Shahamirian who died at the tender age of nineteen. The last pair of bells is the most valuable, having been forged in 1837 with the inscription, “Thomas Mears, Founder, London”. This signifies that the bells were built at the prominent Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. This foundry entered the Guinness Book of records as the oldest manufacturing concern in Great Britain. It mostly produces bells for use in churches.

The foundry has been operating since 1420. Traditionally, the name of the chief craftsman of the period would be engraved on the bells produced. From the 19th century up till 1968, all the finished products, including the bells of St. Astvatzatzin, have carried the moniker of “Mears & Stainbank”

The oldest bell forged at this foundry is kept in London. It has the dubious distinction of being the world’s oldest. The next bell with the oldest inscription is the famous Philadelphia Liberty Bell, dated 1752.

The Liberty Bell epitomizes the American War of Independence from Britain. Tradition has it that the bell signaled the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Every year, thousands of visitors flock to Philadelphia to gaze at this historic and valuable bell.

Perhaps the most famous bell produced at this foundry is the one that rings in the Big Ben clock tower in London’s Westminster Palace. Forged in 1858, it is the biggest bell ever forged with a height of 2.2 meters and a width of 2.9. It weighs in at an astounding 13 tons.

Other famous bells to come out of the Whitechapel Foundry are those at the Liverpool Mother Cathedral, London’s St Mary le Bow Church and the bells at Westminster Abbey. Includes in this list of ancient bells are two of the six bells found in the St. Astvatzatzin Church in Madras.

While it’s nearly impossible to state with any certainty that purchased the bells for the church, by the application of a bit of deduction and cross-referencing of the dates on the bells with the wealthiest Armenians in Madras at the time, we can speculate that it was either the Gregory Brothers or Seth Sam. It’s less likely that the Moorat Family purchased the bells since they adhered to the Roman Catholic Church.

Naturally, these bells symbolize the dedication of the Armenians of Madras to the Armenian Apostolic Church. On the other hand, they also reflect the wealth and prosperity that the community possessed at the time.

This short narrative allows us to delve, albeit briefly, into the life and times of the Madras Armenian community.

The English historian J. Hanvey, discussing the Armenian merchants of Madras during the 18th century, notes that, “Armenians were successfully trading with Russia as well as with England. With their capital and contacts they held their own against the likes of English, Russian and Dutch traders.

We thus see that at the dawn of the 19th century, Armenian merchants, with their financial resources and prowess, were still giving the British East-Indian company a run for the money.

It is likely that with such investments in English manufacturing, the Armenians of Madras were aiming to preserve their influence in British controlled India.

Hermineh Adamyan Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy Calcutta (Kolkata), India

Armenian History Remnants in Kolkata

By Leonard M Apcar, International Herald Tribune
Today, there are only a few hundred Armenians in the entire Kolkata region...
Before there were call centres and Indian conglomerates, before the East India Company or the British Raj, there were Armenians who made their way to India to trade and to escape religious persecution from the Turks and, later, Persians.

Entrepreneurial and devout Christians, Armenians arrived in northeast India in the early 1600s, some 60 years before British adventurers became established traders in Kolkata. They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan.

Eventually, some Persian Armenians — including my ancestors — left and set up their own businesses and communities here, landing first on India’s western flank in Surat and nearby Bombay, the present-day Mumbai, and then moving to the river banks in northeast India that led to Kolkata’s founding as a sprawling manufacturing and port city.

Kolkata’s vast manufacturing centres rivalled the English Midlands, and wealth flowed freely to Jews, Britons, Armenians and some Indians. They in turn poured money into elaborate colonial mansions, Victorian memorials and a luxurious Western way of life virtually transplanted to the wilting jungle of West Bengal.

The British are gone now, of course, and that way of life is literally crumbling in the dusty, clogged streets of Kolkata. All but gone, too, are the Armenians who began leaving India long before the British.

But last week Armenians with Kolkata roots gathered here again from around the world. More than 250 people came officially for the 300th anniversary of the oldest church in Kolkata, a finely preserved Holy Church of Nazareth tucked inside the narrow, winding alleys and chaotic bazaars of the north section of this city.

But they also came to be together again and to honour an extraordinary restoration effort of all five Armenian churches and assorted graveyards in northeast India.

I came from Hong Kong, but many came from England, Iran, the United States and Australia. We walked the cemeteries looking for graves of grandparents and great-grandparents, toured the 187-year-old Armenian school, admired the ambitious renovation work recently completed on the churches and cemeteries and at the gleaming white church in downtown Madras.

Armenians never amounted to more than a few thousand people in Kolkata, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, real estate developments and hotels. A few served in the colonial government, and some had sewn themselves so finely into the fabric of colonial India that they were decorated with British titles and were leaders of private English-only clubs.

By the time the British left, and an independent India was on a socialist and anti-colonial bent, the Armenians had mostly cleared out. Wealthier, educated and more confident as entrepreneurs, they left not for Armenia itself, then a Soviet-controlled postage stamp of a state, but for London, where some Kolkata Armenians had second lives, or new frontiers in Australia or the US.

Armenian churches and graveyards dot India in Agra, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Surat and, of course, Kolkata. But they are also in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Yangon in Myanmar; on Penang Island off the coast of Malaysia; Singapore; and parts of Indonesia — all places where Armenians settled, traded and worshiped.

Worship is the social adhesive that binds Armenians together. Clannish and wary of outsiders, the church has always been the focus of their socialist and cultural lives. Given Armenia’s pride as the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, it was not surprising that last week with the families came Karekin II, Catholicos of all Armenians, as the leader of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church is known, and a choir of two dozen from the church’s seat in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.

But the real stars in Kolkata were its five churches. Only a few years ago four of them were weed-infested snake pits looking like Roman ruins. Now, in the midst of southeast Kolkata’s horrid slums, on gritty, rutted roads, rises Holy Trinity Chapel in the Tangra district with a new dome and a manicured graveyard. Inside, I found the refurbished graves of my great-great grandparents, who in the 1880s lived in Kolkata and Rangoon, as Yangon was known then.

Richard Hovannisian, a historian and professor of Armenian studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said what distinguished the Armenian diaspora in India was that the Armenians never accompanied their trading ambitions with military force. Nor did they try to enforce cultural supremacy.

As Indians took control of their country, Armenians were looked on as holdovers from a colonial past. Many large Armenian family enterprises in India were either sold off or closed.

Today, there are only a few hundred Armenians in the entire Kolkata region. The Armenian school here has long relied on students from abroad to fill its dormitories.

While the Armenian community in Kolkata has all but disappeared, there is hardly a serious guidebook or history book of the city that does not mention their influence, charities and churches. That is a source of pride and communal strength reflected in last week’s commemoration.