• Holy Church of Nazareth is Calcutta built in 1724 is the oldest church in the city.

July 1, 2001 | Magazine Archive


by David Zenian

Several churches, cemeteries and less than 200 Armenians are all that’s left of the once powerful Armenian colonies of India, a country of more than one billion inhabitants, but their legacy is still alive and strong.

Maybe Indian schools do not teach who the Armenians are, but that was no reason for a young Indian quiz show contestant not to know the name of the first Christian nation of the world. The question came up recently in the popular Indian equivalent of America’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. One of the three possible choices was Armenia, and Ganesh Shinde of Bombay had the right answer .

Of course Ganesh Shinde was not alive when Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 A.D. He was not even a history major in school, but the uninterrupted ties between Indians and Armenians over the centuries and the long line of famous Diaspora Armenians in India were more than he needed to help him answer the question.

According to Zenob (Zenobius) Glak, one of the first disciples of Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia, a Hindu colony was already established in Armenia sometime around 149 B.C. In a book written in Syriac, translated into Armenian and eventually printed in 1832 by the Mekhitarist Order of Armenian Catholics in Venice, Zenob said the colony was established by two Indian princes who had taken refuge in Armenia after a failed plot against a regional king.

The Armenians gave the two men and their families, along with their supporters, a “royal welcome” and offered them land in the province of Daron where they built a city and named it Veeshap and in later years built several Hindu temples. Relations between the Indian settlers and the Armenians took on a negative turn when they fought against the forces involved in the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 301 A.D.

Over the years that followed, the Indians either converted to Christianity and were assimilated into the Armenian society, or left the country. Those were turbulent years, but contacts between Armenia and India were not severed.

On the contrary, over the centuries that followed relations not only continued, but flourished.

Similar references to early Indo-Armenian relations appear in one of the works of Greek writer Xenophon (430-355 BC) along with writings of 5th to 18th century Armenian historians and scholars like Movses Khorenatsi, Yeghishe, Yeznik Koghbatsi, Davit Anhaght, Tovmas Artsrouni, Stepanos Orbelian, Khatchatour Joughayetsi and many others. According to Xenophon, Persian kings often turned to Armenians for help with their trade missions to India.

Almost seven centuries before Vasco da Gama set foot on Indian soil on May 20th, 1498, an Armenian merchant by the name of Tomas Cana had landed on the same south India Malabar Coast in 780 A.D. Little is known as to where he came from, but he is said to have been a trader, and a skilled diplomat who built a huge fortune.

To this day, he is known by the Malabar Christians of India, and especially those living in and around Madras, as Kana Tomma, a transliteration of his original name which in Armenian means Kahana (priest) Tomas. It is not clear whether he was in fact an ordained priest, but, nevertheless, he is credited with reviving Christianity in the region.

The Christians of Madras, also give credit to Armenians for locating the tomb of St. Thomas, the Apostle of India who brought the Christian faith to the Indian sub-continent in 52 A.D., centuries before Europe adopted the faith.

According to a book published by the parish priest of Senhora da Expectora Church, built on the site in 1523 in suburban Little Mount of Madras, the Portuguese were told of the burial place of the Apostle St. Thomas by the natives and were taken there by Armenian merchants in 1517. Two centuries later, Khojah Petrus Woskan (Uscan), an Armenian trader, constructed 160 broad stone steps leading to this hilltop place of worship. Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims still climb those stairs every year, especially December 18, when Indian Christians celebrate St. Thomas Day.

Khojah Woskan also built a long bridge across the river Adyar in 1726, which separates the hilltop shrine from the city of Madras. The bridge, which has since been reinforced, still stands and is the only route between Madras and its airport. A stone marker on the western side of the Maralai or Marmalong bridge reads: “Hunc pontem edificari jussit pro bono publico Coja Petrus Uscan natione Armeni, Ano Salutis, MDCCXXVI.”

The same stone also includes inscriptions in Armenian and Persian, but they are almost unreadable due to erosion.

Along with Surat and Bombay, the southeastern coastal Indian city of Madras was also familiar to Armenian traders from as early as the 8th century, but it was not until sometime around 1504 that a community started taking shape.

Madras has given the Armenians of India many prominent people, including Khojah Petrus Woskan, Shahameer and Hagop Shahamirian, and Agha Samuel Mgrditch Moorat, who together with Edward Raphael made the initial financial donations for the establishment of the Moorat-Raphaelian School in Venice which has educated generations of young Armenians from around the world.

Madras was also the birthplace of Armenian journalism and the home of Father Haroutiun Shmavonian who published the first Armenian periodical in the world, the Azdarar, in 1794. The publication, however, lasted only until 1796, after which the same printing press continued publishing Persian language books’for the first time outside Persia.

Between 1794 and 1863, at least 11 Armenian-language journals were published in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, including the Patriot Armenian, the official newspaper of the Araratian Society, which was formed in 1845.

Armenian traders have been active in India for centuries, but it was not until the reign of Mogul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), the Marcus Aurelius of India, that the first full-fledged Armenian colony was established in the town of Agra of Taj Mahal fame where the first Armenian church was built in 1562.

Akbar not only paid for the construction of the church, but in later years took an Armenian woman by the name of Mariam as one of his Queens, appointed Abdul Hai, an Armenian, as his chief justice and took on an Armenian woman doctor, Juliana, to look after his family.

It was Akbar who arranged Juliana’s marriage to Prince Jean Philipe de Bourbon of France in 1560. One of Abdul Hai’s grandsons, Alexander, who was born in 1592 and given the name of Mirza Zul-Qarnain by Akbar himself, grew up to become an Emir of the Royal Court during the reign of Emperor Jehangeer.

In one of his writings, Jehangeer makes several references to Mirza Zul-Qarnain as “the son of Iskandar, the Armenian” and describes him not only as “intelligent and fond of work”, but also an accomplished composer of Hindi songs. “His method in this art was correct and his compositions were frequently brought to my notice and were approved.” Jehangeer wrote.

Volumes have been written on the life and works of Mirza Zul-Qarnain by several scholars of the era, including Michel Angelo Lualdi, a Jesuit, who, in Annual Letter of Goa for 1619 said: “The (Christian) Faith was propagated most in a certain province of Mogor, where Mirza Zul-Qarnain, a native of Armenia and a Christian from his birth, ruled since 1619 with the title of Governor. He built a church in his province where the faithful would assemble”. The number of poor having greatly increased, he took some 200 of them to his palace and supported them with great generosity.”

During his lifetime, Mirza Zul-Qarnain, along with his father Hagop, made numerous charitable donations not only to Jesuit charities, but also to the Armenian churches in Jerusalem. Father (originally from Aleppo), son and descendants not only developed great mercantile enterprises, but also held high administrative positions through the middle of the 17th century, leaving a legacy of business, civic and charitable accomplishments, which set an example for future generations of Armenians in India.

Mirza Zul-Qarnain was not the only prominent Armenian in the Mogul Court. An Armenian interpreter, who had for reasons unknown changed his name to Damingo Pires, played an important role in negotiations between the Court and the Portuguese who maintained major trading posts in India.

In a letter addressed to the Portuguese Viceroy, Akbar informed him that he was sending “Abdullah, my ambassador, and Damingo Pires, an Armenian Christian interpreter, with the request that you will send me two learned Fathers and the books of the Law, especially the Gospel , that I may know the Law and its excellence.”

Thousands of tourists visit the Taj Mahal in Agra every year, but few are aware that the city was once home to a vibrant Armenian community. In Agra’s main Christian cemetery on the outskirts of town, an ancient mausoleum, which also serves as a chapel, and the old tombstones of more than 100 Armenians give a new meaning to what Shakespeare once said: “Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs.”

The mausoleum, built in 1611 over the grave of Khojah Martiros, a prominent Armenian merchant, is the most ancient Christian structure in northern India.

But who was Khojah Martiros?

Father Joao de Valasco, a Jesuit priest, in his “Annual Report” to Rome in 1612, describes the circumstances of the chapel’s construction.

“Lately this cemetery was adorned with a Chapel, erected with the alms of a pious Armenian, who free from the bonds of wedlock after the death of his wife, went to Rome and Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy places of our Redemption,” Father Valasco wrote. In the concluding lines of his report, Father Valasco said Khojah Martiros gave away all his wealth to the poor because he believed that “these goods were no longer his, but the Lord Jesus’s.”

The Agra cemetery is all that’s left of the once thriving Armenian community, but the Indian government faithfully maintains the fenced property as a historical monument.

More than 110 Armenians, including eight priests, were buried there between 1611 and 1927. The inscriptions on their graves, mainly in classical Armenian, tell the story of a community which once called Agra home.

The vast majority hail from Julfa, Persia, where Armenians first settled in 1605 and later began to spread out east for trade with not only India but also China. In accordance with the traditions prevailing in those days, only first names are inscribed on the tombstones along with that of their fathers. “This Holy cross is in memory of Rev. Astvatsadoor, son of Thasaleh of Julfa. Died at Agra in the year 1063 of the Armenian era (1614 AD),” is just one example of many. It is interesting, however, to note that between 1707 and 1774, no Armenians were buried in the Agra cemetery, probably because most of them relocated to Delhi when the Imperial capital moved there.

Another interesting fact is that not a single woman was buried there between 1611 and 1777, an indication that the Armenian men who came to Agra for trade left their wives and families behind.

The first woman buried at the Agra cemetery was Mariam Khanoom,”the daughter of Lazar, who departed to the Lord on the 13th of June, 1777.” From that date onwards, some 24 other Armenian women were buried there, indicating the presence of not just Armenian traders, but also families

Very little is known about the early Armenians of Delhi. According to several Armenian primary sources, a British delegation from Calcutta to Delhi in 1715 to the Court of Emperor Farrukh Siyar, included an Armenian merchant by the name of Khojah Israel Sarhad, and that on their arrival they were received by an Armenian priest, Father Stephanus, indicating the presence of an Armenian community.

One of the prominent Armenians of Delhi in the late 1700′s was Colonel Jacob Petrus, the son of an Armenian merchant from Yerevan, Armenia, who made a name for himself fighting on the side of his adopted country against British colonialists.

For 70 years, Col. Jacob and his men held on to the central Indian city of Gwalior, 118 kilometers south of Agra, and led an army of 12,000 men and 40 Armenian officers. When he died, the whole city of Gwalior is said to have gone into mourning, and instead of a traditional 21 gun salute, local dignitaries and fellow officers bid him farewell with a 95 gun salute’ representing his age.

The tombstone over Colonel Jacob’s grave in the Armenian cemetery of Gwalior reads: “Sacred to the memory of Colonel Jacob. Born 24th of March, 1775, obeit 24th June, 1870. Aged 95 years and 3 months. He commanded the first Brigade of Scindhiah whom he served faithfully for 70 years. May he rest in peace.”

As much as Col. Jacob is remembered for his allegiance to his adopted country, the famous poet, Sarmad, remains the most famous until today. According to many scholars, including Thomas William Beal, Sarmad is the “poetical name of an Armenian merchant who came to India in the reign of Emperor Shah Jehan”, became a Sufi and was beheaded in 1611 near the famous Jama (mosque) Masjid in Delhi.

His tomb is more of a shrine today, where hundreds of devout Indian Moslems gather for prayers. His works, and especially the poetry he wrote in Persian, are still very popular and hold a prominent place in Sufi literature.

Like Delhi, the western coastal town of Surat, a port north of Bombay, also had an Armenian Diaspora population during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

One of the few signs of a once-flourishing Armenian presence are the remaining graves of the old Armenians, including that of “the noble lady, who was named Marinas, the wife of the priest Woskan. She was taken to the Lord of Life, a soul-afflicting cause of sorrow to her faithful husband, in the year 1028 of our Armenian era ” or 1579 A.D.

According to available records, the Armenians of Surat were mostly merchants who operated their own private ships for trading with Europe, particularly in the buying and selling of jewelry and precious stones while many others were involved in cotton and silk weaving, transporting their products outside India on Armenian-owned ships. One such ship-owner was Khojah Minas, “an able and well reputed Armenian merchant” who was also known then as “the President of the Armenians at Surat.”

A prominent 18th century jewel merchant of Surat was Khojah Johannes Rafael who purchased the famous Indian diamond weighing 195 carats and sold it later to Russian Prince Orloff in 1775. Orloff presented the gem to Empress Catherine II who had it set in the Imperial Russian scepter. Another notable figure was Hripsimeh Leembruggen, born in Surat in 1778, the daughter of a Eleazar Voskan, a wealthy Armenian merchant. She married Robert Henry Leembruggen, a Dutch employee of the East India Company in Surat. Inheriting considerable money and jewels from her father and succeeding in business on her own, upon her death in 1833 she bequeathed all her fortune to Armenian religious, educational and charitable institutions, principally to the Armenian Church in Madras for the care of orphans.

The business acumen of Armenians in India was highly regarded by the British who came in contact with them during the 17th century. The English tried to win the confidence and cooperation of successful Indian-Armenians in order to secure their intercession with the Mogul Court for trading privileges in India. The efforts of the English came to a head when an agreement was signed in London on June 22, 1688 between the East India Company and “the Armenian Nation.” This latter entity was represented by Khojah Phanoos Kalandar, a native of New Julfa who had settled in Surat. The English describe Kalandar as “a merchant of eminency and the head of the Armenians in India.”

After Bombay was taken over by the British in 1661, and Surat lost its luster, Khojah Minas was asked to settle in Bombay in 1676 and help with enhancing the local commerce. Over the years, as the Armenian community grew, a church was built.

While Kojah Minas made a name for himself in the 1600″s, the centuries that followed saw dozens of Armenians not only succeed in business, but also other professions. Dr. Joseph Marcus Joseph, a Bombay and London trained physician who entered the medical profession in 1852, rose to the rank of Deputy Surgeon General of the Bombay region.

An article published by the the Daily Post newspaper of Bangalore in 1885, reporting on Dr. Joseph”s retirement, praised his “very credible career extending over well nigh thirty-three years of varied professional experience and good honest work.” Dr. Joseph, who died at the age of 60 in 1866, is buried in the courtyard of the Madras Armenian church.

The one man most instrumental in helping the English establish themselves in Calcutta was the eminent merchant Khojah Israel Sarhad, a nephew of Khojah Phanoos Kalandar. Sarhad, a resident of Hoogly near Calcutta, was held in high esteem at the Court of Delhi and had consequently been sent by the English as special emissary to the Emperor Azem-Ush-Shan in 1698. He succeeded in obtaining a “Grand Firman” for the British from the Emperor, laying a foundation for British rule and commerce in India.

Other prominent Armenians in Calcutta include J.C. Galstaun, often called the doyen of the Armenian community in Calcutta, and Sir Catchik Paul Chater, a descendant of Khojah Phanoos Kalandar. Galstaun, a wealthy merchant left his legacy by erecting beautiful buildings such as his residence and a museum and establishing Galstaun Park. Chater, born in Calcutta in 1846, made his fortune in Hong Kong as an exchange broker and financier. His success was so striking that he became the greatest financial magnate of his time in Hong Kong, closely connected with all important civic and commercial activities of that city. Both men left considerable portions of their wealth to Armenian institutions in India.

In the last decades of the 19th century, there were six Armenians in the Indian Army”s Medical Service. Between 1855 and 1893, there were more than 25 Armenian advocates in the Calcutta High Court alone.

Even a superficial look at the history of the Armenians of India indicates that they were not just birds of passage. True that their numbers never exceeded 20,000, but their involvement in every facet of Indian life gave them the prominence and exposure which has survived the test of time.

In Calcutta and Madras, Armenia Streets are still there today. Armenian churches are still in Armenian hands, and a small, but determined Armenian community still lives with the pride of their ancestors.

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