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Tara Masjid gets its name from the star-shaped mosaic work inside. Photo from alamy
Tara Masjid gets its name from the star-shaped mosaic work inside. Photo from alamy

The stars of Dhaka’s Armanitola

The search for the monument on the 100 taka note leads to the Armenian quarter of Old Dhaka, once home to an Armenian community

I am pretty sure I made quite a spectacle of myself that sweltering summer afternoon in Dhaka, waving a soiled 100 taka note in front of scores of bewildered passers-by. Even my feeble attempt at mouthing a few Bengali words seemed to fall on deaf ears. After almost giving up hope, my phone’s wavering GPS came through. Finally, I was standing in front of the structure that stared out at me from every 100 taka I spent during my stay in Bangladesh.

I had trekked through the dusty alleys of Old Dhaka for hours, with the sole aim of visiting the rather unusual Tara Masjid. Its four domes are decorated with rare chini tikri (Chinese style) porcelain tile mosaic work in star motifs, giving the mosque both its name and its place of glory on the “tails" side of a 100 taka bank note.

But rather than the end of a quest, the find set me off on a new one. In my search for the mosque, I had unknowingly meandered into Old Dhaka’s Armenian quarter. Called Armanitola, the neighbourhood on the shores of the turgid Buriganga river was once the nerve centre of Armenian life in East Bengal. This was where jute and leather traders from the South Caucasian country decided to set up both shop and home. Today, Armanitola is much like the old part of any South Asian city, densely packed and cacophonic. I found myself dodging everything from cycle rickshaws to the stray grazing goat, while walking under a mesh of power cables linking the tenement buildings. But then, there’s also respite from the chaos.

Just 300m south of Tara Masjid is the Armenian Church, the spiritual centre of this unique quarter. The Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection was built by the traders in 1781 on a plot of land that they had earlier used as a cemetery.

The Armenian Church in Armanitola. Photo: Alamy
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The Armenian Church in Armanitola. Photo: Alamy

This edifice, with its hexagonal, crucifix-topped steeple and generous narthex, reminded me not just of St Peter’s Armenian Church in my home city of Mumbai, but also of the similarly structured Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata. Several Indian cities besides Mumbai and Kolkata once had thriving Armenian populations and grand churches to cater to the growing congregation that had been settling in India since the 16th century.

There were not one but two separate waves of Armenian exodus to India (which Bangladesh was a part of at the time), according to the book Armenian Settlements In India by Anne Basil, that I found while researching the subject at Mumbai’s Asiatic Library once I was back home. The first was in 1645, when the aforementioned merchants arrived in Bengal, purely for trading purposes. The book references an agreement of 1688 between the English East India Company and Armenian merchants that reads, “Whenever forty or more of the Armenian nation shall become inhabitants in any of the garrisons, cities, or towns, belonging to the Company in the East Indies, the said Armenians shall not only have and enjoy the free use and exercise of their religion, but there shall also be allotted to them a parcel of ground to erect a church thereon…."

The second exodus was more poignant, taking place in the wake of the 1915 genocide of over a million Armenians by the Turkish forces in East Anatolia. Basil writes that “hundreds of children of uprooted families…found shelter and a roof and received sufficient education…" at the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata. The academy is still functional, a source of pride for the city’s small Armenian diaspora.

I was only superficially aware of this history when Hafiz, the old watchman who had let me into the church at Armanitola, told me the story of the last Armenian in Bangladesh. Speaking in broken English, bolstered by wild gesticulating, he recounted the tale of Mikel Housep Martirossian, the Dhaka-born son of an Armenian jute trader who was not only the caretaker of the Armenian Church until 2014, but also its sole congregant. He would say his prayers daily, sitting quietly in the first pew. After he suffered a stroke, he moved to Canada, where his children live.

But there is still hope for the church. The Armenian embassy in Dhaka that looks after its upkeep has hinted at the possibility of bringing a new warden from Armenia. Till then, it is up to Hafiz to keep the place clean and protected, and to light the altar candles at 7pm daily.

As I leave the church gates, I make sure to squeeze a small tip into Hafiz’s wrinkled palm. And yes, it was one of those same 100 taka notes that started it all!

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based writer.

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