Staff Reporeter

Festival planned in November

CHENNAI: A stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of Parry's Corner, the Armenian church was experiencing more activity on Friday than it had seen in decades. The fancy sedans parked outside and the armed bodyguards marked an important presence.

It was the most important one for the Armenian community Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, the head of their Church.

He is on a personal visit to India to meet the Armenian community concentrated largely in Kolkata. However, he wanted to visit the Chennai church as it is the oldest surviving Armenian Church in India, and it is about to undergo significant changes.

The Kolkata-based Armenian Church Trust has started renovating the building, using the services of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The Trust also plans to build a parsonage with rooms for travellers, and quarters for caretakers.

The Catholicos told the gathering the church needed modernisation and upgradation, but must maintain its heritage. Tara Murali from the INTACH told The Hindu that the work would be done according to established norms. "The building seems simple with obvious detail. It doesn't appear to require too much investigation", she said. The first stage of the process would be basic issues such as safety. The Armenian religious leader said experts on Armenian churches would be sent in the later stages.

The Armenians of Chennai were the richest in the country and contributed generously to the main church in Armenia, which still has curtains and artefacts from the city. The father of Armenian journalism, Shumavon, printed the first journal here in 1794, and was buried on the church compound.

Armenian influence

According to chairman of the Armenian Church Trust Haik H. Sookias Jr, even the city's High Court shows Armenian influence as it seems to be built in the shape of an Armenian Cross. The Saidapet bridge was built by an Armenian.

Chennai's Armenian community has dwindled to a rumoured two or three students. When the caretakers fell on hard times, they leased out land to a printing press and a restaurant. Now Mr. Sookias said they wanted the restaurant removed as it ruined the aesthetics.

The church will open to the public. In November, the Armenian Embassy plans to hold a weeklong festival across India., which will showcase Armenian dance, music, food, wine and other aspects of the country's culture.