The bells toll again: Chennai revives its Armenian link with annual church service

Once a flourishing community in the city, Chennai now only houses six Armenians.
The bells toll again: Chennai revives its Armenian link with annual church service
The bells toll again: Chennai revives its Armenian link with annual church service
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Susan Reuben is in the city once again to attend the annual service that was conducted at the Armenian Church on Tuesday. 

“We were here last year and we are trying to make our visits as frequent as possible. There are a good number of people here today for the service, and this way, we can hope to revive the community again in Chennai,” she says. Susan is warden of the Armenian Church in Kolkata for over 21 years.

Armenians – traditionally rich merchants – enjoyed many privileges in the country, and their trail can be traced along major coastal cities like Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. 

From a flourishing community, Armenians have dwindled significantly in Chennai with just a church and a street named after them – a testimony to a once glorious past. 

While Kolkata has a good number of Armenian churches and a sizeable community, the same cannot be said of Chennai.

In 2004, Chennai’s last Armenian, Michael Stephan, moved out from the city to Bengaluru where he currently works as a Senior Manager, client services, at a facility management company. "There are about six other families in Bengaluru now. We don't have a church there so we visit the Catholic churches," he says. 

The community is now seeing a revival of sorts, and six Armenians are presently living in the city. 

St Mary’s Armenian Church was first built in 1712 – a simple wooden structure in erstwhile Madras. It was later demolished, only to be raised again in 1772.

Jude Johnson, its present caretaker, accompanies us as we walk through the serene courtyard and gardens, where almost 350 Armenians have been laid to rest. 

“The last burial here was in 1850, after which our burial ground was moved to a spot close to the Chennai Central Railway Station,” he says.

The bell tower at its centre – the belfry houses six bells – is rung on Sundays every week at 9.30 am, he says. “The bells are 150 kgs each, manufactured in London.” 

“The altar inside the church is also special for having a portrait of Virgin Mary taking Jesus to heaven. You don’t find this anywhere else in the country,” says Jude.

The Armenian-Madras connect goes back several centuries.

“The first Armenian journal, Azdarar, was published here in Madras in 1794 by Rev. Haruthiun Shmavonian. There’s still a copy of it preserved in Armenia today. There’s also the hand-embroidered altar curtain that was presented by the Madras Armenians around 1780, which is still intact and used during the services in the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (holy cathedral) in Armenia,” says Michael, who came to Chennai for the service. 

The first draft constitution for Armenia was also put together here around 1780s, he shares.

There’s also the story of Coja Petrus Uscan draping the Armenian Street in silk to welcome the Nawabs of Carnatic when they visited Madras. 

Petrus Uscan built the first bridge across the Adyar River in 1728, the Marmalong Bridge – now the Maraimalai Adigal Bridge in Saidapet – and also the steps leading to the shrine atop St Thomas Mount.

The presence of the Armenians in Madras can be traced all the way back to 1512. “There are records of Armenians informing the Portuguese of the grave of St Thomas that was found in Madras,” says Niveditha Louis, a history enthusiast. 

One of the six Armenians in the city is Ashken, who moved here three years ago and now teaches Russian at the Russian Cultural Centre in the city.

What brings her to Chennai?  “Life. Love,” she laughs. 

Ashken with her husband Kapil

“This is my small Armenia in Chennai and I come here to the church quite often. There are only six Armenians in the city now and that explains why we don't have a regular mass here in the church,” she says.

Armenia was the first country in the world that adopted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. “There are churches from fourth century AD in Armenia,” says Ashkhen. 

Armenians also celebrate Christmas on January 6, the day the Western Christian Church celebrates Epiphany. “It’s how the calendar works,” explains Ashkhen. “We also do not cook meat on Christmas, but we do make fish and a special kind of pulao, and there are also a lot of greens on the table,” she adds.

The service on Tuesday was conducted entirely in Armenian. It also offered a memorial prayer marking the death anniversary of Rev. Haruthiun Shmavonian, which falls on February 9. 

Service in progress. Photo courtesy: Ratheesh Sundaram

Presided by Very Rev. Movses Saargysan, who has been serving the community in Kolkata for the past two years, the service was also attended by Very Rev. Joseph J Thaliaparampil, Cor-Episcopa from the St Thomas Orthodox Cathedral, and other priests, in addition to Armenians from across the country.

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