Armenians in India – a seminar Richard Hovannisian highlights the visionaries of Madras.
Tangra, India – A hundred years before the late-19th-century Armenian revolutionaries made history, a group of intellectuals in Madras was already laying the blueprint of why Armenians should think about emancipation from Turks and Persians, what an independent Armenian government would guarantee its citizens, and how a free homeland and diaspora communities should be ruled.
The contemporaries of the American and French revolutionaries, the Armenians of Madras were one of the most important topics discussed by Armenian history scholar Richard Hovannisian at a seminar at the community center of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Tangra on Tuesday, November 14.
The former chairperson of the Armenian Community Council of India opened the seminar with the hackneyed and misquoted William Saroyan text about two Armenians creating a new Armenia (Arts & Culture, November 1, 2008). Even though Saroyan hadn’t written the words recited, the words were appropriate for a seminar celebrating the rich history of Armenians in a land known today as the Republic of India.
“I cannot open this event and this celebration of out history without actually thanking and acknowledging all the people who came before us,” said former chairperson Haik Sookias, Jr. “I’m talking about people who came to Agra, who were the precursors of the people who built the church. We have to acknowledge these people and people like that like Sir Paul Chater. Each of these people was a building block that created the new Armenia that we face today.”
Mr. Sookias said Armenians have left a legacy in India, even though the local population has decreased greatly. Our legacy, he said, was unlike the British, who forced themselves on the local population.
“We, the Armenians, came to share our heritage and coexist,” he said. “And our structures are no longer crumbling, because we, the Armenian people of Kolkata have decided that we will no longer let our structure crumple and let people walk by and say there were once Armenians here.”
Mr. Sookias attributed the rebuilding and renovations of the local churches to Catholicos Karekin II.
“It was His Holiness’ vision to bring children here, to regroup our community,” he said. “These are the things we need to concentrate on when we look at the past 300 years. We have integrated with the people. Yes. But, we have integrated in a way that people love us. They don’t want to throw us out. They want us to stay. That’s why it is important for us to thank the people who came before and thank the people who came today.”
In his introductory remarks, Mr. Sookias said that before the renovations, visitors would only see half the headstones in the cemeteries around the Armenian churches. He said that transients had encroaches on church property, some of the churches had no ceilings, and many tears were shed over the reality of the Armenian treasures of India.
“We cried over the condition of our church,” he said, “and it created a new resolve in us that we had to recreate the church. Because if we let our churches go, the Armenians would never come back. It’s not that Armenians used to live here, Armenians live here even now, and Armenians will live here forever.”
Churches in India
The half-day seminar continued with a Power Point presentation by Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian, who showed those in attendance before-and-after photographs of local churches and cemeteries. The reverend, who is pastor of Armenians in India, also provided a detailed account of the history of Armenian churches and cemeteries in India through various kingdoms, dynasties, British rule, and Indian independence.
Included in the presentation were photographs of the Holy Armenian Church of Nazareth from 1906 and headstones from 2005.
“One questions that they ask us is if there is a need to renovate these churches,” said Fr. Gulgulian. “Our first answer is ‘Yes, because this is our history, and this is the history of the Indian people who let us build our churches and our school without any problems.”
Fr. Gulgulian said that there are eight Armenian churches in India now, and five are located in the state of Bengal. He said the first Armenian church was built in the 1600s in Saidabad, but it was destroyed in an earthquake. The second church was built in Chinsura in 1695. The third, Holy Nazareth, was built in 1687 as a wooden structure.
“Why did they build Armenians build churches in those places?” asked Fr. Gulgulian. “Armenians came from Akbar’s Kingdom and were allowed by him to build these churches. King Akbar’s second wife was Armenian, Mariam, and since then the Armenians have had their own graveyards and chapels. In Agra, the chapel is gone, and the graveyard is in dire conditions.”
Fr. Gulgulian said that during the Mughal Empire, Armenian were known for being talented merchants and were invited to do business in Saidabad.
“The Mughals gave Armenians a property and all allowances to do trade without taxation and allowed Armenians to have their house of prayer and their own trade centers,” said Fr Gulgulian. “The river passed by the church property, and Armenians were able to trade with the United Kingdom and Iran.”
After Armenians moved away from Saidabad, the Holy Virgin Mary Church was nearly abandoned until a few years ago. Even though the river that passed by the church has been diverted, a small lake exists on the church grounds and locals use it regularly.
“In Madras, we have the Chennai church,” continued Fr. Gulgulian. “The first Armenian periodical, Aztarar, was published there, and there have been churches in Bombay, Surat, and Rangoon, but those have not survived and have been destroyed.”