The Armenian Presence in Chennai

Ashkhen Khachatryan

Image: Balaji Srinivasa

Information about the Armenian-Indian relations can be found in the works of Xenophon (from 4th to 5th centuries BCE), Movses Khorenatsi (5th century), Procopius of Caesarea (6th century). Armenia, officially the Republic of Armenia is a unique country with an interesting history. It is a mountainous, landlocked country located in the Armenian Highlands of Western Asia. Armenia shares borders with four countries; Georgia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east, Iran on the south, and Turkey on the west.

The original native name for the country was Hayk and the Armenians call themselves “Hay “. however, Hayk is currently rarely used. The contemporary name Hayastan became popular in the Middle Ages by addition of the Persian suffix — stan (place),” .

Armenia is mostly a mono-ethnic country, 98% of the population are Armenians. Ethnic minorities of Armenia include Yazidis, Assyrians, Russians, Greeks, Jews, Georgians.

The population of Armenia is approximately three million people, but there is a huge Armenian Diaspora spread all around the world, more than ten million. Capital and the largest city of Armenia is Yerevan, which is the political, cultural and economic center of Armenia, with population of over one million people.

The official language is Armenian, which is an Indo-European language with one of a kind Armenian branch. It is one of the oldest languages, alphabet of which has created Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD.

There are more than 2000 words that meanings and pronunciations are the same as in Hindi and in Armenian, for example; das-tas, pnir-panir and so on. If you are surrounded by Armenians, most of time you will feel like home. We, Armenians are a unique nation with ancient traditions and culture.

Why the Armenians came to Madras from New Julfa in 17–18th centuries?

In the15th- 16th century, Armenia again became the battlefield between two powerful neighbors. The Ottoman Empire and the Safavid dynasty of Iran divided Armenia. Eastern Armenia was ruled by the successive Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar empires, while Western Armenia remained under Ottoman rule.

During the war that broke out in 1602, Shah Abbas I strove to regain the lost territories, and in 1604–05, with the aim of stimulating trade in his dominions , he forcibly transferred thousands of Armenians from Julfa to Esfahan, Iran, where those who survived the march settled in the quarter name New Julfa.

In New Julfa the Armenian merchants played an important role in the economic life of Iran, serving as links between Europe (including England, Spain and Russia) and the East, exporting Persian silk and importing such items as glass, clocks, spectacles and paintings.

During the 17th century the Armenians amassed great wealth and built many magnificent churches and mansions. New Julfa is still an Armenian populated area with an Armenian school and sixteen churches, including the Holy Savior Cathedral.

Armenians in New Julfa observe Iranian law with regard to clothing, but retain a distinct Armenian language, identity, cuisine and culture which is protected by Iranian government.

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 and settled in New Julfa (Nor Jugha) in 1605–1606. They were traders who had moved to India in search of wealth and fortune. Many were rich and successful.

The Armenians and the Armenian heritage in Madras .

The Armenian community increased during the Mughal Empire. The Emperor Abbar invited the Armenian merchants to settle in his capital city Agra, were the first Armenian church was built in 1562. The developing commerce and craftsmanship in the country, he let Armenian merchants move freely on the territories of the Empire.

There were Julfan communities in Bombay, Shahjahanabad, Aurangabad, and Lahore. But Armenians also lived in Portuguese Goa and French Pondicherry near Madras and French Chandernagor near Calcutta. The most important Armenian settlement was in Madras, where in the first half of the 18th century the Armenians were well integrated into the British colonial administration.

The Armenian settlement in Madras dates back to at least the 1660s. The oldest tombstone of an Armenian found in Madras is dated 1663. The stone was found near Little Mount and was inscribed with the name Coja David Margar.

The British wanted to boost the Armenian presence in India and the agreement accorded special trading privileges to the Armenians, as well as equal rights with the British subjects regarding the freedom of residence, travel, religion, and unrestricted access to civil offices. When the settlers on Armenian street increased to 40, the Company sanctioned them a plot of ground, offered to build them a church of timber of their own use.

The Armenian church is one of the oldest Christian structures in all of India. There are two dates inscribed at the church entrance — 1772 and 1712. The old Armenian cemetery and the wooden chapel were located in current Madras High Court ground but was destroyed during the British-French colonial war, when they occupied that area. Later Shahamir Shahamirian bought the land next to High Court and built the current church. Later the tombstones were moved from the High Court premises to the present churchyard.

Nowadays there are around 100 Armenians, who live mostly in Kolkata. There are around 150 citizens of Armenia (including migrant workers and students) living in Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and in other cities of India, who came after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are 6 bells in the Armenian Church, all three pairs of bells bear dates. Each weights 150 kilos. The oldest was forged in 1754. When the Armenian church’s bells ring in Madras, locals know an Armenian has returned.

The Armenians played very important role in the modern history of Madras, from banking to building bridges. The first formal bank to be set up in Madras and incorporated as a joint stock company was the Carnatic Bank with its headquarters in Fort St. George. Edward Raphael was one of the richest Armenians those days and he became one of the six shareholders of the Carnatic Bank in Madras .

Khojah Petrus Voskan was the most notable Armenian in his day in Madras and is said to have been at one time a Member of Council. Since the Armenians were Christians they often visited the church at St. Thomas Mount and Petrus Voskan had built a flight of 161 stone steps from the base of the hill to the top. The oldest bridge across the Adyar River -the Marmalong bridge was originally constructed by Petrus Coja in 1726 and till 1966 it was used.

Shahamir Shahamirian was an 18th century writer and philosopher, notable figure in the Armenian liberation movement and a wealthy Armenian merchant in Madras. He inherited from his father a house famous in Madras history, the “Great House in Charles Street”.

In 1771 -72 Shahamir Shahamirian founded the first Armenian printing press (Azdarar) in Madras. In 1772 Shahamirian published the first work of Armenian political philosophy. He promoted the vision of a state, a revolutionary idea in the 18th century among Armenians. That work was to pursue his views on an independent Armenian nation, which is scholarly regarded as the first ever draft constitution of an Independent Armenia.

Another leader of the Armenian community was Aga Samuel Moorat, property owner extraordinary and founder of a trust which enable Armenian youth in Europe to have the best education. After the Independence of India many Armenians moved out of India for better economic prospects in western countries like USA, Canada and Australia.

(Ms. Ashkhen Khachatryan is an Economist, Business Coach with 17 years of work experience from Armenia, is based in Chennai, India. Founder of AshkhenPRO)

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