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ARMENIAN COMMUNITY IN INDIA

Historical Background

Though Armenians were present in almost every major town and settlement of India, the most instrumental for the Armenian community was the state of West Bengal, were Armenians settled in the 17th century, long before the British. In the early period Armenians were mostly merchants. Using the ports and the sea route, they were engaged in the trade of silk, textiles, spices, salt, fertilizers, precious stones and other materials.

Presently there are 5 Armenian churches in the state of West Bengal, three of them are situated in Kolkata which has relatively small Armenian presence. Among them is the 300 years old Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, which is the oldest Christian Church in Kolkata, with 190 years old Armenian Philanthropic Academy and a small community. Today in India, especially Kolkata, other than churches and the Philanthropic Academy, hardly any buildings or territories belonging to Armenians have been preserved. There are few separate structures like graveyards, sports club, etc.

Most of the churches have been renovated and are presently active. They are in a good condition. The detailed information about whereabouts and condition of other churches has unfortunately not been preserved. Below is a list of well-known Armenian churches situated in India.

  1. Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata built in 1707
  2. St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Kolkata built in 1906
  3. Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Tangra in Kolkata built in 1867
  4. St Johan the Baptist Armenian Church in Chensurah built in 1695
  5. Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church in Saidabad built in 1758
  6. St Peter Armenian Church in Mumbai built in 1796
  7. St Mary Armenian Church in Chennai built in 1712

In 18th century Armenian Diaspora witnessed the awakening of national self-determination. A group of Armenians settled in Madras took the first significant steps towards the long-lasting struggle for Armenian independent statehood. The number of books written in classical Armenian and published in 1772-1783 by this group of Armenians of Madras clearly reflected the concerns of the Diaspora over the danger of losing national identity. The first ever Armenian journal "Azdarar" was published here in 1794. Almost simultaneously, another Armenian publication named "Vorogayt Paratc" was brought out, which gave a new meaning to the idea of Armenian statehood. This work of Hakob Shahamiryan published in Madras was the draft of the future constitution of the independent Armenian statehood which for first time in the Armenian history circulated the concept of the "Constitutional Republic".

As a result of many social and economic factors, with the British colonization of India, the Armenian community underwent a steady reduction in wealth and numbers during the 19th century.

Once numerous Armenian community has greatly decreased in number. Now there are hardly 150-200 Armenians, comprising of mostly elderly and many mixed marriages. Sadly very few of them speak the mother tongue.

Presently there are Armenian Streets in Kolkata and Chennai. Armenia Street has been inaugurated in Delhi in September 2009.

 

ARMENIAN CHURCHES AND SCHOOLS IN INDIA

There are a total of seven Armenian churches and two schools in India: Three in greater Kolkata, and one in Chinsurah, Saidabad, Chennai (Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay).

Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth – (Calcutta) Kolkata

Armenians settled in Kolkata during the 17th century. A relic of the early settlement is shown on a tombstone of Uzabibe Mukiasin (1630), the oldest Christian tombstone in West Bengal. It is located in the Armenian cemetery adjacent to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth till now. The original Church was a wooden building and was built in 1707, later on in 1724 it was rebuilt and renamed after Aghah Nazar as the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth; it is the oldest Christian church in Kolkata, built by Aghah Nazar. The belfry, which is also a clock tower, was built in 1734.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church -(Calcutta) Kolkata

The tablet affixed over the west entrance of the church inscribed in two languages informs us that it was built in the year 1906 and was named after St. Gregory the Illuminator. The altar was constructed with funds donated by the members of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth and the Armenian community of Kolkata.

Holy Trinity Armenian Church of (Calcutta) Tangra

Built in 1867, the church was renovated by the Armenian Church Committee of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata and was re-consecrated by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in February 2007.

St. John the Baptist Armenian Church - Chinsurah

This is the second oldest Armenian Christian church in West Bengal. Khojah Johannes, the son of opulent Margar family laid the foundation of the church in 1695, which was completed in 1697. Khojah Johannes Margar died suddenly on the 27th November 1697 and his mortal remains were interred inside the church he had built. His revered grave can be seen to this day with a long inscription in classical Armenian verse.

Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church of Saidabad (Murshidabad)

The then leader Khoja Petros of the Armenian community in Kolkata, prominent merchant and benefactor built Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church of Saidabad in 1758, funded entirely at his own expense in the memory of his late parents. However when Saidabad stopped being the centre of trade, Armenians left to settle in other cities of India. The church suffered from a number of natural disasters and no services were conducted for last 75 years. Today the church has been fully restored thanks to the efforts of the Armenian Church Committee and the blessing of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. The belfry cross of the reconstructed church was consecrated on November 30, 2006 and Archbishop Aghan Baliozian re consecrated the church on March 4th, 2007.

St. Mary Armenian Church of Chennai (Madras)

Originally constructed in 1712 it was one of the few magnificent edifices in the Esplanade of the city. The Armenians were forced to desert it after a time, as the British authorities would not permit so high an edifice to stand in the immediate vicinity of the Fort. The present Armenian Church situated in Armenian Street was erected in 1772 and dedicated it to the Holy Virgin Mary. It is one of the oldest churches of the Indian subcontinent. It is famous for its six belfry. Among other prominent Armenians, Haroutyun Shmavonian, the founder of Armenian journalism and editor of the first Armenian journal "Azdarar", is buried here.

St. Peter Armenian Church of Mumbai (Bombay)

This Holy Church was erected in the name of the holy Apostle Peter. Mr. Jacob of Hamadan, better known as Hakob Hamadanchi built St. Peter Armenian Church of Mumbai on October 12th, 1796 in the memory of his parents. Situated in the by lanes of Fort, within a stone's thrown of the Bombay Stock Exchange, stands St Peter's Church, the temple of prayer for the Malankara community.

DGS

Davidian Girl’s School, which was founded by D.A.David in 1922, and was educationally amalgamated. Up to 1954 the girls appeared for the School final examinations of the Board of Secondary Education of West Bengal as private candidates. On 27th January 1953 permission for co-education was granted to the College by the Board and since then the girls along with the boys appeared for School Final Examinations as regular candidates.

ACPA

The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy was founded on the 2nd April 1821 at 385 Old China Bazaar Street, Calcutta, in the vicinity of the Armenian Church. The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy and Davidian Girl's School, which was founded by D.A.David in 1922, were educationally amalgamated and up to 1954 the girls appeared for the School final examinations of the Board of Secondary Education of West Bengal as private candidates. On 27th January 1953 permission for co-education was granted to the College by the Board and since then the girls along with the boys appeared for School Final Examinations as regular candidates. in 1949 when Astvazatoor Mooradkhan first conceived the idea of National Academy in Calcutta. In his Will dated 30th July 1797 he left Rs.8000 towards the establishment of an Armenian School for the education of Armenian youth, both rich and poor. Later on through the effort of Manatzakan Vardan, enough money was raised by subscription from the Armenian community to materialize the original idea conceived by Asvazatoor Mooradkhan a quarter of a century earlier. At the time of its foundation the Academy had also a girls section that was abandoned in 1842. In 1884 the 56 Free School Street premises was purchased and the school transferred to its present location.

In 1956 Shah of Iran, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi and Queen Soraya arrived in India on an official visit. On the decision of the Armenian Church Committee, the representatives of the Armenian community of India welcomed Their Majesties and presented with gifts. The Armenian College band, conducted by Mr. Phillips performed for the Shah and the Queen. Currently the school has 80 students, from Iran, Iraq and Armenia.

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