Just off Marina Beach Road, in the northern part of Chennai, the city presents its ubiquitous face—bustling with cars, pedestrians and hole-in-the-wall cigarette shops. On one side of the road is the high court building, a colonial legacy, and on the other is the tiny Anderson Church, also built more than a hundred years ago, standing cheek by jowl with the Udipi restaurants and bank offices. An inconspicuous blue door leads into Chennai’s only Armenian church, built in 1772 by Armenian traders.
Once inside the tree-lined grounds, the roar and whine of the traffic outside is cut off abruptly. The affable caretaker, T. Alexander, took over the management of the church three years ago when his predecessor, Michael J. Stephen, was called to join the Armenian College in Kolkata in an administrative capacity. Before Stephen, George Gregorian, one of Chennai’s last Armenians, took care of the church for over 50 years, till his death at the age of 89 a few years ago.
“The church in Chennai is significant for two reasons—the first-ever Armenian journal was published here by Reverend Arathoon Shumavonian in 1794, and the first constitution of the Armenian people was drafted here as well,” says Stephen.
The structure itself is different from that of many conventional churches. At the entrance is the belfry, an imposing three-storeyed bell tower with reputedly the largest bells in Chennai—six of them, each weighing 200kg. These are suspended from a wooden beam—how it has not given way under the pressure is a fact that has baffled engineers and architects.
Walking down the corridor inside the church building, Alexander (or Alex, as he prefers to be called) explains that we are walking on the graves of the first Armenian settlers in the region. The flagstone underfoot has a long inscription in Armenian glyphs, with “2” inscribed at the bottom. It belongs to the second Armenian to have died in this city, the second oldest Armenian grave in Chennai, says Alex. There are 350 flagstones in the church.
The prayer hall is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and has 20 oval paintings depicting the life of Christ on the altar just below her portrait. The wooden altar itself is an antique piece, says one travelogue, and the prayer hall is adorned with paintings.
One of these is of Khojah Petrus Woskan, an influential Armenian trader who donated money to build several religious edifices in Chennai.
It is not clear when the Armenian traders first came to India (evidence of an Armenian colony in the 16th century in Surat has been found) but when English merchants first arrived in Surat in the early 17th century, they found that Armenian traders had firmly established a hold on the Indian economy.
Kolkata, which has the largest number of Armenians in any one place in India, is home to the Nazareth church that was built in 1724.
In Chennai, the Armenians first built a church in 1712, near the Secretariat in the northern part. It had to be deserted for “certain reasons”, says Alex.
Some reports say that this was due to an altercation with the French, who may have taken exception to the Armenian affiliation with the British—the two communities had worked together in India for many years.
“We are one of the few people who came to India without any intent to colonize it,” says Emil Vartazarian, a rugby player and the only Armenian currently living in Chennai. “This was perhaps because of our own history of constantly having to deal with invaders.”
Today, there are perhaps 140 Armenians in India, according to Stephen. About 70 of these are in Kolkata, while other cities in India house Armenians in single digits.
“There is one Armenian in Mysore, two in Hyderabad, one in Chennai…” says Stephen, a little sadly. Given this situation, why is the Armenian church significant at all, especially since there hadn’t been any service in the church for over nine years, until His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians (counterpart of the Pope), paid a visit to the church in 2003?
“Well, they are hoping to change all that,” says Chennai historian S. Muthiah.
Apparently, the visit by the Catholicos has fuelled interest in renovating the church and opening it up for worship to other denominations. “Possibly, to the Syrian Orthodox Christians,” says Stephen. “They have a large congregation in Chennai, and their rites are rather similar to the Armenians’.”
Even otherwise, Muthiah feels, the church is not only a significant part of Chennai’s history but also of Armenian heritage, since their first journal was printed here. “There is a steady stream of visitors, about 15-20 a day, to the church anyway,” he says.
But are the people of Chennai even aware of the church’s existence? “Are the people of Chennai aware of anything?” he counters.
Some efforts have been made in Chennai to educate students, for example, about the city’s historical buildings. For Gomathi K., who edits in a publishing firm, the church was part of a tour organized during her B.A. course in English literature at Meenakshi College. “I was so fascinated by its history,” she says.
Gomathi then decided to do a research project on the Armenian church as part of her college programme. In the process, she became firm friends with Stephen and shares his dream of seeing the Armenian community come into its own in India.
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