News > Indian Armenians > New book digs deep into history of West Bengalís Armenians
Celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Indian-Armenian community
by Nyree Abrahamian
Yerevan - Since the 300th anniversary celebration of Holy Nazareth Armenian Church in Kolkata just a few weeks ago, Armenians all over the world have been reading, learning, and talking about the fascinating history of Armenians in India.
Armenians arrived in the region now known as West Bengal in the early 1600s, some 60 years before the British became established traders there. Despite their small numbers, Armenians thrived in colonial India well into the 19th century, undertaking construction projects and running trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, and hotels.
Their rich and relatively unknown history is now coming to light as a result of the recent festivities. In addition to the 300th anniversary celebration, Armenian churches in India have undergone major renovations, and Catholicos Karekin II reconsecrated the church in Chennai (formerly Madras), which had fallen into disrepair and was all but abandoned. Hundreds of pilgrims from around the world came to be a part of the historic event.
Whereas the recent revitalization of Armenian churches in India has sparked renewed interest in the country's Armenian community, Deacon Tigran Baghumian has been poring over the history of Indian-Armenians for years.
In 2005, Baghumian was appointed by Karekin II as the administrator of the Armenian Philanthropic Academy of Kolkata and the deacon in charge of all Armenian churches in India. The deacon spent three years in India trying to revive the school and the community. In addition to performing his administrative duties, Baghumian managed to pursue a project that was near and dear to his heart, a true labor of love: he researched and wrote a book about Armenian religious and community leaders who served and were buried in India. His study, published in Armenian, is titled Armenian Clergymen Buried in West Bengal.
Baghumian spent a great deal of his time in India in the graveyards of Armenian churches, painstakingly cleaning gravestones and photographing them, going through church registries, and researching the lives he uncovered, one by one.
It may strike one as odd that someone would dedicate so much time (and an entire book) to the study of long-forgotten gravestones and documents, but Baghumian's work is truly commendable when we consider the instrumental role that the Armenian church and its clergy have played in the creation and burgeoning of India's Armenian community.
"It was with great pity that I noticed that neither Indian-Armenians nor the students of the Philanthropic Academy - who walk over these gravestones every time they go to church - know who are buried in the Armenian cemeteries," says the young deacon. "Many of them don't even know the history of the Indian-Armenian community. So, as a young member of the Brotherhood of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, I considered it my sacred duty to photograph, catalog, and decode the records inscribed on the gravestones of our clergymen, while also trying to find additional information about them and their service. . . . The aim of my study is to save the names of those brave pastors from falling into oblivion."
Baghumian did not limit his research to clergymen. He also uncovered graves of other members of the Indian-Armenian community, resurrecting their stories, shedding light on the way of life of Indian-Armenians through the centuries and their role in Indian society. For example, one of the graves he highlights in the book belongs to an Armenian woman named Rezabeebeh. Dating back to 1630, it's the oldest Christian grave in West Bengal. "We have to understand that the Armenian historical graves are not only a part of our national history, but also an inseparable part of Indian history," the deacon says.
Baghumian's dedication to his work and his passion for rediscovering, acknowledging, and respecting the Armenian past is apparent in his writing. He says he is sad to see that of the few Indian-Armenians who remain in India, most don't speak Armenian and are disconnected from their heritage. It is against this backdrop that Baghumian has carried out his work. As a result, he has succeeded, in his own way, to bring many of the Indian-Armenian community's stories back to life.
"When, in the last century, the famous Indian-Armenian historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth was writing about the Armenians of India, many people were laughing at him," he says. "However, today it is impossible to imagine Indian-Armenian history without his vital work." Baghumian hopes that his research, too, will be valued in the future as a key unlocking some of the treasures of the Armenian past.
Source: "The Armenian Reporter", 12 December 2008