THE ARMENIAN APOSTOLIC CHURCHES OF INDIA
The Indian Armenian Community formed in the medieval ages is one of the most important Armenian communities. Even though the Armenians were known in India much before Christianity, the community prospered and developed during the 16 -18 centuries.
The majority of the Armenian merchants consisted of Armenians from New Julfa who had shifted to India due to the benefits bestowed upon the Armenians by the Great Mughal Emperor Akbar1, and also due to the prevailing conditions and the day to day worsening persecution in Iran2.
The formation of the Armenian community was based on the Armenian community of Julfa which were the favorites of the Indian trade, though there were quite a few of them who had come from Armenia (Armenian Highlands).
The Armenian community developed rapidly and by the end of the century it had geographically diversified to places like Agra, Delhi, Surat, Bombay, Calcutta, Dhaka, Chinsurah, Saidabad, Madras and other places.
After settling down in the new lands, the Armenians built churches which are considered to be the oldest Christian churches in the Far East today. The oldest Armenian Apostolic Church in India is the church of Saint Mardiros (Mathew) of Agra which was built in the year 1562. The church does not exist today but as a reminder of the Armenians of the city, there are more than 100 tombstones in the graveyard that have been left behind with Armenian inscriptions.
The Armenian community of India further developed in West Bengal when, in 1695, The Armenian Church of Saint John The Baptist was constructed in the town of Chinsurah. Located just a couple of hours away from Calcutta, this place was once a prominent trade centre which lost its importance due to the increase of trade in Calcutta. Thus the majority of the native Armenians shifted to Calcutta.
The Armenian Church in Chinsurah is considered to be Bengal's second oldest Christian church and the oldest among the existing Armenian Churches of India.
The church was constructed by Hovhannes, the son of Markar, who was a member of a famous merchant family. Hovhannes builds the church in the beginning of that year, but unexpectedly dies just a few weeks before the completion of the construction. His brother Hovsep completes the work and names it Saint Hovhannes in loving memory of his brother3. There are more than 180 tombstones in the graveyard of the church, which also include those of the committee members of the Armenian Church of Chinsurah. The church is in a good condition.
According to the dates enlisted by the Indian Armenians, the third church which is Saint Mary's church is situated in Madras (Chennai). The entrance of the church is marked with two dates, 1712 and 1772. It is evident that the first Armenian Apostolic church was built in 1712 in Madras near Saint Gevorgian castle, which was then demolished by the English in 1746, during the French blockade.
Saint Mary's Church was built by Shahamir Shahamirian (Sultanumian) in 1772, in the compounds of the preexisting church of 17124. The Church is located on the Armenian street. St. Astvatsatsin Church is an elegant white construction, having a three storied high Dome-bell tower, with three pair of bells. Inside the church, right in front of the Holy Altar, there are 12 tombstones, with a few ten more outside. Amongst these, the most notable one being that of Rev. Harutyoon Shmavonian's. Even though the church has been well maintained, unfortunately today there isn't a single Armenian residing in Madras.
Built in Calcutta, Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth amongst all the Armenian Apostolic churches plays a unique and important role, and is considered to be the Mother Church of Indian Armenians.
The church located on the Armenian street was built in 1724 by the benevolence of Agha Nazarian, in a place which used to be an Armenian cemetery more than 80 years ago5. The church was named as St. Hovhannes Karapet. The architect of the church is Levon Ghevond of Julfa. It is the oldest church in Calcutta.
To distinguish the church built by Agha Nazarian with that of the nearby church in Chinsurah which both carry the same name of St. Hovhannes Karapet, the new one was named after its founder, and came to be known as the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth6. In 1734 Manvel Hazarmalian builds the bell tower and dome of the church and in 1790, Khachik Arakel renovates the interior of the church, in addition to which he adds a clock to the bell tower, constructs a residential building next to church and fences the territory.
In 1665 Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, presentes an area of land (around 12 acres) to the Armenians in Saidabad and gives them permission to reside there. Saidabad is located on the outskirts of Murshidabad. The latter was the capital of Bengal during the reign of Mughals.
In 1758 the head of the Indian Armenian community, the renowned merchant from Julfa, Khojar Peter, constructs the St. Mary's Church, in loving memory of his deceased parents and relatives. The Armenian cemetery is located within the territories of the church with 100 tombstones. The church has a high ceiling. On the eastern part of the church is the bell tower, which was built in 2006, when the entire church was renovated. On the north, south and west sides of the church there are pillared chambers, with tombstones.
In 2006 the dilapilated church was renovated and reconstructed by the newly elected committee of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta. The remains of the brick made houses have been preserved outside the territory of the church compound, which most probably must have been an Armenian settlement. The migration of Armenians from Saidabad has also been the increase in the trade role played in Calcutta.
The information about Armenians settled in western India date back to the 16th centuries. During this period, Surat becomes an important trade center, where few Armenian families emigrate and establish their business and church. In 1778, a beautiful sacred sanctuary is being established, dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, but unfortunately it does not function for long and gradually starts collapsing. In the next century it disappears completely.
Much later, in 1796-1797, by the efforts of Armenian merchant Hakob Peter, St. Peter's Church is being established in Bombay, which is located on Meadows street. The inscription of7 the Alter includes 'This Holy Church carries St. Peter's name'. Owing to the prevailing damp weather conditions, the church has always been in great need of renovation and reconstruction, which has been done through the efforts of the Armenian Community of Mumbai and Committee members of the church. In 1956, the church is being completely renovated based on initial architecture.
The oldest Armenian cemetery located in Tangra settlement of Calcutta, where the Holy Trinity Church was erected in 1867 with the efforts and dedication of the Armenian Church Committees of Calcutta and Chinsurah. The cemetery contains more than 600 tombstones. The last renovation of the church and its surrounding area was executed in 2007. Next to a pond there is the Pastor's quarter which includes a large hall and three rooms. In November 2009, a "KAREKIN II" Charitable Dispensary was inaugurated, in the name of His Holiness with the efforts of the Pastor of Armenians in India and the Church Committee members of Holy Nazareth.
The last Armenian Church built in India is also found in Calcutta, which is in the name of St. Gregory, The Illuminator. In the territory of this church, we find the three storied old age home, named after eminent generous benefactor, Sir Paul Chater. The renovated church and the old age home is taken care of by the Church Committee of Holy Nazareth.
Therefore, in 21st century, there are 7 Armenian Apostolic Churches in India8. The Armenian Apostolic Churches of India are affiliated to and looked after by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
The frequent visits of His Holiness, Karekin II, to India and his efforts to reinforce the Armenian Community in Indians promising and will keep the flame of once glorious and successful Armenian Community in India burning.