In the 7th and 8th centuries, groups of merchants from a small land called Armenia, far beyond the Hindu Kush mountain range started coming in to India to sell silk, muslin, spices, timber and precious stones. Through the several centuries that followed, these traders formed small settlements in different parts of the country from Kerala to Kolkata, and from Agra to Madras. By the 17th century, there was a sizable population of their people in Madras, now Chennai, and the street where most of them lived, came to be known as the Armenian Street.
Armenia is an ancient mountainous country in Eurasia, surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is one of the oldest Christian civilizations, and in the 4th century AD, it became the first officially Christian state in the world. It is believed that Noah's Ark came to rest on the Ararat Mountains in Armenia after the flood waters receded.
The Armenian Street is home to the Church of St. Mary, India's oldest Armenian Church. Stepping into the serene and almost deserted church, it is impossible to believe that it stands in the middle of the noisy Georgetown area of Chennai. The church had its origins in a simple wooden structure built on a plot of land granted to the Armenian community by the British East India Company. A proper church was built in 1712, but it was destroyed in a French siege in 1772, and was then rebuilt in its present location - the grounds of an Armenian cemetery. A three-storey bell tower stands next to the church, and has three pairs of enormous bells dating back to the 18th century. The bells weigh about 150kg each, and one pair was forged in London by the same foundry that the Big Ben came from.
Most of the Armenians in Madras were merchants, but some of them had fled here to escape persecution by the Ottoman Empire. The community was small, but illustrious. Take Rev. Harutiun Shmavonian for instance. He came to Madras from Shiraz in present day Iran to serve as a priest here. He printed the first Armenian newspaper in the world, from this very church. The monthly was called Azdarar, and it ran for about two years. Armenian merchants living in different parts of Asia contributed articles to it. He also funded the reconstruction of the church after it was destroyed in the French siege.
The Marmalong Bridge across the River Adyar, in the bustling Saidapet area, was built by an Armenian merchant called Khojah Woskan. It is locally known as the Maraimalai Adigalar Bridge now. Woskan also built the steps leading to the church at St. Thomas Mount. Another distinguished member of the Armenian community in Madras was Shahamir Shahamirian. He was a pearl merchant by profession, but he set up the first Armenian printing press in Chennai. He played a big role in the movement for an independent Armenia even from faraway Madras. Armenia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire at the time. Along with a group of Armenians called the Madras Group, he came up with a vision for a free and democratic Armenia. It was published in his book called Vorokayt Paratz. It is considered the first draft of the constitution of Armenia.
Since this church is built on a cemetery, hundreds of flat graves with beautiful carvings and inscriptions in the Armenian script are scattered all around the church under blooming frangipani and flame of the forest trees. In some places, it is difficult to move around without stepping on them. While the other graves are flat and at ground level, a raised one in the garden adjoining the church is clearly special. This one belongs to Rev. Harutiun Shmavonian, and as a tribute to his publishing career, an open stone book representing his Azdarar adorns his grave.
There are almost no Armenians in Chennai now, and if you go to the church today, chances are that youâ€™ll be the only visitor. Regular service is not held, but the church is open to visitors from 9am to 2:30pm on all days. It is maintained by the Armenian Church Committee in Kolkata, which still has a small population of Armenian Christians.
(Photos by Madhumita Gopalan)