One of the more notable pages of the Armenian dispersion is linked to Madras, the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
In 2012, the 300th anniversary of an Armenian presence in Madras will be celebrated. Preparations are already underway under the watchful eye of the Very Reverend Father Khoren Hovhannisian, Manager of the Armenian Philanthropic Academy (commonly known as the Armenian College) in Calcutta and religious leader of the Indian-Armenian community.
Madras, renamed Chennai in 1996, was established in the 17th century by the British, who developed it into a major urban centre and naval base although the region around Chennai has served as an important administrative, military, and economic centre since the 1st century.
Madras is one of the earliest of India’s cities to come under the sway of European culture. Armenians played an active role in the formation of the city but there are different theories as to when Armenians first arrived to this town on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. We will touch on some of them later, Suffice it to say that as far back as the 4th century A.D.; bishops, priests and Christian exiles made their way from Antioch to Madras and received special permission from the local princes to establish churches and schools. The historical record states that some of the earliest preachers in this Assyrian Church in Madras were Armenian. This church is known by the name of Saint Tovmas’ Christians.
The fact that Armenians were there at the beginning of the formation of Madras cannot be overstated. Let’s offer just a few examples. The historical record lists Armenians and Jews as the first merchants in Madras and the first mercantile house in the city was called John Company`s Madraspatnam. Its founders are said to have been Armenians and Jews. The city’s oldest cemetery is an Armenian site dating back to 1663 and belonging to one Khojah Davit. The first Armenian religious site in India was built in Madras, on the hill of St Thomas, in 1547. The wealthiest resident of Madras in the 18th century was the Armenian, Khojah Petros Voskan. Another wealthy Armenian family of the day was the Shahamirian’s.
Most of the Armenians of Madras were merchants and traders and enjoyed great influence. They were mainly engaged in the export of precious stones, spices, silk and fabrics west to Europe and Iran, and east to Manila.
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.
Given their vast resources, Armenians made an invaluable contribution to the Europeanization of Madras and this was mostly manifested in the construction sector. It is known that during the 17th-18th centuries there were some forty Armenian residences in Madras.
The heart of old Madras is considered to be St. Thomas hill and is today a site of Christian pilgrimage. It is commonly known as a piece of the Portuguese legacy of the city but on the wall of the church there we read the following inscription “Gregorio Parao /Gregory Sarkies of Erevan, a pearl merchant/, Armenio, 1707”. It is considered to be the oldest inscription to be found in the city and the altar of the church also bears an Armenian seal. Further proof that the church was built by Armenians are the Armenian inscriptions that accompany the illustrations of the 14 saints on its walls. In 1707, the St. Thomas Church was renovated by one “Safarian Mahdesi Zakareyi”. The 135 step staircase leading up to the top of the hill was built by the Armenian, Petros Voskan. In his work dedicated to Madras, Indian author S. Mutah, presenting the history of St. Thomas hill, writes that, “One-fourth of the area belonged to the Armenians, whose connection to the church was very strong indeed…”.
The ever growing Armenian community, seeing the looming threat from British commercial competition, realized the importance of preserving its Armenian values and identity. The immediate result of this focus was the establishment of the first Armenian Apostolic Church, in 1712, at Fort St George is the name of the first British fortress in India, founded in 1639. Sadly, the church was later destroyed by the British. In 1772, with the financial assistance of Shahamir Shahamirian, the church now known as Saint Astvatzatzin (St. Mary) was built on the very same site. It stands today as a shining symbol of the Armenian community’s devotion to its culture and church.
There is also an Armenian church, in the nearby village of Mylapore São Tomé. There is an inscription on the wall that reads, “In remembrance of the Armenian nation, in the year of our Lord 1729”.
Another prominent site for Christian pilgrimage in Madras is St. Matias Church. In 1752 it reverted to the stewardship of a Danish religious brotherhood. The Armenian community protested the move but to no avail. It too was built by the benefactor Petros Voskan.
One of the more prominent historical structures in the city today is the multi-arched bridge spanning the River Aydar. It was built in 1725 and is still in use today.
One of the most notable of Madras residents in the 18th century was Shahamir Shahamirian (1723-1797). He was originally from New Julfa, Persia, and was a staunch supporter of Armenian emancipation. In 1771-1772, He founded the first Armenian printing press in Madras that published works of the “Madras Group” of liberal intellectuals, of which Shahamirian was a member. Their best known work was “Vorogayt Parats” (Snare of Glory). It is the world’s first known blueprint for a constitutional democracy and the main part of the book consists of a 521-article constitution for a democratic government, intended to be the basis for a future independent Armenia.
This wealthy individual once owned the “Great House in Charles Street”, a famous Madras landmark building, built in 1687 and officially called the “Admiralty House”. It later became the seat of the regional governor and now houses the Architectural Design Institute.
Another prominent Armenian, Edvart Samuel Moorat, established a park in Madras called “Moorat Gardens” which he sold to the regional governor in 1827. In 1821, the same Edvart Moorat purchased a site called “The Pantheon”. Included in its 22 acres were a musical complex, library, art hall and other functional spaces. In 1830, He sold the site to the regional governor for 28,000 rupees.
In addition to the above-mentioned buildings and monuments attesting to a rich historical Armenian presence in Madras we can also point to “Armenian Street” and “Shamirian Street” as reminders.
There are no Armenians left in Madras today. We discuss the reasons why in future instalments of this series.
St. Astvatzatzin Church and the real estate on which it sits in Madras is under the stewardship of the St. Nazaret Armenian Church in Calcutta which serves as the headquarters for the church in India. St. Astvatzatzin is in decent condition and is a constant watchful and caring gaze of Catholicos Garegin II, the local Armenian Church board and the Armenian community in India.
On the grounds of the church are the burial sites of many important Armenians, notably Reverend Father Harutiun Shmavonian who published the first Armenian periodical in the world, the Azdarar, in 1794. A khatchkar transported from Armenia was added to his burial site and blessed by His Holiness Vazken I of Blessed Memory on his pontifical visit to India in 1963. The tombs of the Shameer Family are located in what was formerly an enclosed mausoleum which existed before the church was constructed, as well as a memorial to Armenian philanthropist Khojah Petros Voskan, whose body is buried in India, but in accordance with his final wishes, his heart is buried in Julfa, the land of his fathers. The church itself is located on Armenian Street in the heart of Chennai.
St. Astvatzatzin Church was re-consecrated by Catholicos Garegin II on November 9, 2008 during a Pontifical visit to India. This magnificent church, which adorns present-day Madras, serves as an eternal testament to the glorious past of Armenians in India.
Source: "Hetq", 26 October 2009