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How Some Armenians Made India Their Home

Recently, violent clashes broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karbakh disputed region, located at the border between the two countries. The, with its ethnic Armenian majority, is a de jure part of Azerbaijan, but is de facto held by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, which is supported by Armenia.

Ethnic violence began in the late 1980s, and exploded into a war following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Clashes began on the morning of 27 September 2020 along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, which had been established in the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994). The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an ongoing armed conflict between Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. It is the latest escalation of the unresolved conflict over the region, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but mostly governed by Artsakh, a breakaway state with an Armenian ethnic majority.

As the clash broke out, different nations took up different sides. Turkey, Pakistan and other Muslim majority countries took the side and showed support for Muslim dominated Azerbaijan, while other countries showed solidarity for Armenia. India, surprisingly took the side of Armenia. But, the reason for India standing in support of Armenia has a long story. The friendship between India and Armenia goes back many centuries, and it has been forged by empathy and preserved through history.

Much before Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India, an individual reached the Malabar coast, somewhere in Kerala, using the overland route. He was Thomas Cana, an Armenian merchant-cum-diplomat, who reached there in 780 AD. Thomas Cana was an affluent merchant dealing chiefly in spices and muslins. He was also instrumental in obtaining a decree, inscribed on a copperplate, from the rulers of Malabar, which conferred several commercial, social and religious privileges for the Christians of that region. The Indo-Armenian friendship had begun since then and is still continuing. During 15th and 16th centuries, Armenia came under conquest by Ottoman and Safavid dynasties, which led the influx of Armenians to other countries, which reached its peak during early 20th century, during the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turkish empire. India has always been a country following the ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (‘our guests are our Gods’) philosophy. Thus, with arms wide open, she embraced the Armenian Christians, likewise the Zoroastrian Parsis.

While Armenians were persecuted in their homeland, they were thriving in India. During Mughal period, they received admiration and were welcomed with warmth. Some historical records state that Akbar had an Armenian wife Mariam Begum Sahiba, and his Chief Justice was Abdul Hai, another Armenian. The Armenians were serving under different empires in Delhi, Lahore, Bengal as governors and generals – Khojah Petrus Nicholas and Khojah Gorgin Khan of Bengal were notable among them. Due to their close relationship with the Mughals, the British in order to gain foothold in India and to root out competition from the other European colonizers, started wooing the Armenians. On 22 June 1688, a treaty between the British East India Company and Armenian nation was signed in London to boost the presence of the British company in India. Slowly and surely, the Armenian presence in India started growing. Little Armenian colonies and settlements started mushrooming in the cities and towns like Agra, Surat, Mumbai, Kanpur, Chinsurah, Chandernagore, Calcutta (now Kolkata), Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad, Chennai, Gwalior and Lucknow. Even the cities of Lahore and Dhaka (in the Indian subcontinent) and Kabul, also had a sizeable Armenian population. There were also many Armenians in Burma and Southeast Asia.

During the colonial era, Bengal was the place to be, if someone wanted to be in the business of doing business. The Armenians settled in places along the fertile Hooghly river in places like Chinsurah, Chandannagore, Saidabad and Kolkata. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb facilitated their stay by giving them certain tax benefits along with other property rights. Gradually, Kolkata turned into their main settlement. After Indian independence when most of the Armenians left India, it’s Kolkata which is still protecting its dwindling Armenian population.

The Kolkata chapter of the Indo-Armenian friendship is one of the most beautiful ones. Their exact date of arrival in Kolkata is not known, but it was at least 60 years before the British first anchored beside the Hooghly river. The entire Calcutta Armenian Community, barring a few, were all descendants of the Armenians of Julfa now in Iran. The oldest Christian grave in Kolkata, marked 1630 CE – Rezabeebeh, ‘wife of the late Charitable Sookias’ – is of an Armenian. Lured by the wealth of the British capital, many Armenians settled in the city and were literally running the show. The last round of settlers came in 1915, when around 2000 Armenians settled here as a result of Armenian Genocide. They owned trading companies, shipping lines, publishing houses. They had big businesses – indigo, shellac, and jewelry. Their European heritage and enterprising attitude made them natural allies of the British – and like the Anglo-Indians, they had coveted government jobs. As they started gaining a foothold in the city, they built the Armenian Holy Church of the Nazareth or the Armenian Church, the second oldest church of Bengal and perhaps the oldest church in Bengal. They also established a school of their own. An informal school was set up in 1798, which was rebuilt as the current Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on 2 April 1821 at 358, Old China Bazar Street near the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Kolkata. The Armenian elites of the city were running the show in Kolkata. They owned prime real estate, and the stories of their lives seem like they’re out of a novel. In the early 20th century, the Armenian race course magnate Johannes Carapiet Galstaun owned some 350 buildings and 100 racehorses (he supposedly lost his fortunes thrice and recovered them at the races) and donated Rs 25,000 to the Victoria Memorial building fund at the time. The hotelier Arathoon Stephen had come penniless to the city and eventually built The Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand) and Stephen Court, the building on Park Street where the famous patisserie Flurys is located. Realtor TM Thaddeus, who built Park Mansions, owned a Rolls Royce but travelled in rickshaws because he did not trust a driver with his prized possession. Businessman Paul Chater eventually became one of Hong Kong’s top bankers, and – like many others – bequeathed his estate to the Church in Kolkata, the old home is named after him. Other iconic buildings in Kolkata built by the Armenians are Park Mansions (in Park Street), St. Gregory’s Chapel (in Park Circus), Calcutta High Court (Dalhousie), Freemasons Hall (in Park Street), Lower Circular Road Cemetery (in AJC Bose Road), and last but not the least, Davidian Girls School (Royd Street).

As the British rule ended in India, the Indo-Armenian story was at its low. Kolkata was the only city still holding the Armenians back. There were 3000-4000 Armenians at the time of Indian independence, now it has dwindled down to roughly 150 odd Armenians. But still it’s the last Indian city where you’ll find an Armenian population. Almost all of them are mixed in heritage. The Armenian Church still holds its Sunday mass gatherings. If you visit Kolkata, you’ll find two Christmas festivals, one on 25th of December and the other on 6th of January, the day the Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas. The Armenian college and Philanthropic Academy is the most unique Armenian school in the world. It imparts free education to all Armenians from around the world. To this day, many persecuted Armenian children come from countries like Iran, Iraq, Russia and complete their education for free in this city of Kolkata and go back to face the world. The school is run by Armenia’s Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the administrative headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is now the Pope of Armenia who appoints the school manager.

Not all stories end in forever to eternity, some stories are beautiful just because they happened. The memories of the Indo-Armenian friendship has been enshrined in the majestic buildings and simplistic stories they left behind. The sighs and highs of the stories still waft around the streets of Kolkata, from Armenian Ghat to Armenian Street, from Armenian Church to Armenian College, from Park Mansions to The Grand Hotel. Even as Nagorno-Karbakh is burning, the world is drowning in a sea of hatred, Kolkata in particular and India in general is like an island of peace, love, affection and a safe-haven for the persecuted Armenians.

-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at IndianFolk.com and Senior Research Fellow at IACS Kolkata)

References:
-Armenia still lives in the heart of Kolkata, TOI
-The case of the vanishing Armenians, Hindustan Times
-Nurturing little Armenia in the heart of Kolkata, The Hindu
-Discover A Historical Armenian Slice In Kolkata On This One-Of-A-Kind Tour!, What’s Hot

Picture: Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth (Credits – Wikimedia.org / Rangan Datta)



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