Armenian Street and the church of Virgin Mary in Parry’s Corner bear testimony to the city’s ancient links with Armenia

“You've been to the Armenian church?” asked the stranger at the hotel lobby at Yerevan, capital of Armenia, when I said I was from Chennai. “Historic, beautiful, well-preserved,” I answered and moved off to avoid more questions. That evening, returning from our trip to Mother Cathedral at Vagharshapat, I vowed to re-visit St. Mary's church in Armenian Street. I had to know more. It is our proud connection to this small nation and its charming people.

Back home, I drove to the church with historian K. Narasiah as my “guide”. Armenian merchants came from Persia in 1600s, he said, wondering why they didn't go on to rule. They settled in Madras, joined the East India Company in 1688, and flourished. A notable Armenian Coja Petrus (W)Uskan left an indelible mark on the Chennai landscape with his architectural contributions. When the Armenians — a mix of refugees and traders from Persia, Mesopotamia and Armenia itself — numbered 40, the Company granted them land near the High Court to build a church, allowing them to have a priest for a grant of £50 a year.

“It is Tuesday and Armenian Street is extra busy. Pushing our way past vendors and devotees of St. Antony's church down the street, we climb the few steps to the creaky doors of the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary. Welcoming us are S. Willimott's words on the wooden board: Hail, Guest, we ask not who thou art; If friend, we greet thee hand and heart/If stranger, such no longer be/If foe, our love will conquer thee. Caretaker Trevor Alexander leads us into the welcoming quiet of the churchyard. Caged budgies twitter in the long cloister with Gregory's religious drawings on its walls. Flowering frangipani and a dead tree across a well fill the lawns. But the yard is spacious enough to house the church of wooden shutters, large verandah and characteristically Armenian conical dome and its famous bell-tower. The original 1712 church was demolished between 1746 and '49 during the French occupation of Madras. “Aga Shawmier Sultan succeeded Uscan as leader of the Armenians and this church was built (and consecrated in 1772) in his chapel grounds,” says Narasiah. “It has Shawmier's room built in his wife's memory.”

The church came up on the graves of about 350 Armenians. Some date back to 1740, most have inscriptions in Armenian with a smattering of English and Latin. A prominent tombstone stands on the grave of Rev Harutiun Shmavonian (born Shiraz-1750, died Madras-1824), who started a printing press, published Persian and Arabic works and on October 28, 1794, brought out the first Armenian newspaper in the world, while living on the premises. Called Azdarar (intellectual), it ran for eighteen months. The gravestone has a carved book, a tribute to Azdarar. Among the rest of the grave-tops, the skull-and-crossbones is a recurring symbol. Because they were the last to decay?

Shawmier's tombstone is a graphic of his life as a merchant — it has carved figures of a pair of scissors, a tape-measure, pair of scales, small weights, inkpot and quill — which later became the crest of his family. The Orthodox church can seat 130 people, and a choir in its gallery. The stepped wooden altar is inlaid with pictures of the 14 stations of the Cross, “usually put up on walls,” points out Trevor. The church was renovated in 2007, with an estimated Rs.1.5 crore grant from the Armenian Church Trust in Kolkata and guidance from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Visitors from India and abroad arrive in winter. Service is held once a year.

Ah, the belfry! Its wooden staircase and six massive bells make it a rare one. Of different sizes (from 21-26 inches), they weigh around 150 kg each. Two bells, dated 1837, were cast in London's Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which made the bells for Big Ben and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. One with Armenian inscription dates to 1754, was recast in 1808 and bears Tamil inscription. Another dates to 1778. Inscriptions on two bells indicate they were given to the Church in memory of 19-year-old Eliazar Shawmier, buried in the garden. Balasubramanian Velu, who studied up to class IV in St. Mary's School on the same campus, mailed me the picture of the bell with “Madras” inscribed on it. “Taking photographs and writing about them was playing a role in documenting the history of Madras,” he said. “I didn't know Armenians had worshipped in this Church for 100 years.”

Visit the church on a Sunday when Trevor pulls the bell-ropes at 9.30 a.m. As Narasiah quoted, “The mighty peal of bells has an effect on our sensibilities, awakening our souls from spiritual sleep.”