And the bells ring again

Chennai’s few remaining Armenians keep their history alive at this 300-year-old church. Deepa Alexander joins them as they celebrate Christmas on Twelfth Night

January 07, 2015 08:34 pm | Updated January 08, 2015 05:00 pm IST - Chennai

Members of the Armenian community in front of the belfry PHOTOS: R. RAVINDRAN

Members of the Armenian community in front of the belfry PHOTOS: R. RAVINDRAN

The first Tuesday of the year and the feast of Epiphany — Armenian Street in George Town is packed with hawkers, black-robed lawyers, and pilgrims jostling their way to the shrine of St. Antony at St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral. But it is the other church, the one that lends the street its name that I am headed to.

When I enter the Armenian Church of the Virgin Mary, past its worn flagstone steps, and through the wooden doors under a lintel that spells out 1712, the year it was first erected, it is as if I have shut out a storm.

It is a luminous morning and under the shade of fragrant frangipani trees stands the former caretaker of the church, Michael Stephen, 46, who now lives in Bangalore. Michael, a fourth-generation Armenian with a history that reaches back to Julfa, Persia, has invited a few from the community to celebrate Christmas at the church, in an attempt to foster its ties with the city.

Among them are Narek Gevorgyan, 25, who runs a software firm in Bangalore, and Hratsjuhi Aramian, 32, who teaches vocal music at the KM Music Conservatory. They have no previous links with Chennai. Narek moved from Yerevan a year ago for business while Hratsjuhi married Manoj Kumar and moved to Auroville. Soon, Medrik Minassian and Armen Markarian, two charming students pursuing a Master’s in Political Science at the Madras Christian College, join them. Originally from Tehran, the young men completed their schooling at the Armenian School and La Martiniere, Kolkata. “We rarely go home,” says Medrik. “We moved to India on scholarships to pursue our education. And Chennai has been home since we joined college.”  

“I hope to encourage more Armenians to settle here,” says Michael, who also speaks fluent Tamil and Hindi. “For a very long time, Gregory, the caretaker before me, and I were the only two Armenians in Madras. Although there is a 180-people-strong community in Kolkata, where the Armenian Association was established, and a smattering of Armenians in Agra and Delhi, Chennai was where the community thrived for nearly three centuries before fading into oblivion.”

From a land-locked country that straddles the summit of Asia Minor in the shadow of the biblical Mount Ararat, this community of merchants found its way to India over the centuries both through the Hindu Kush and by sea. But it wasn’t until the 16th Century, when fleeing persecution from the Ottoman Turks, that they became an eminent presence in Madras, trading in silks, spices and timber. Believed to be the first to discover the sepulchre of St. Thomas upon the mount that bears his name, the community’s history in the city has been closely associated with the Church.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in the 3rd Century C.E. The Armenian Apostolic Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, headed by Catholicos Karekin II, celebrates Christmas on January 6. The church in Chennai, however, has not had a mass since 2013, something Michael hopes to change. “When we get a sizeable number of Armenians together, we invite the priest from Kolkata for a service. Many members bring their Indian spouses as well.” While he awaits the arrival of Ashken Khachatryan, married to city-based Kapilan Jesudian, I step into the shaded gardens to have a closer look at the church.  

History hangs heavily on the yard crowded with mango and tamarind trees. A hen scratches away at the dry leaves oblivious to the grand past that lies below the 250 tombstones that crowd the moss-lined pathways. It was here in the old trading quarter of the city that most Armenians were buried till the 1860s. Later burials were held at the Armenian Cemetery by the Old Central Jail. Names carved in the Armenian script, influenced by Greek and Syriac scripts, tell the stories of some of the pioneers. One such tomb, spot-lit and surmounted by an intricately carved cross with rosettes made of Khachkar (Armenian cross-stone), is that of Haruthiun Shmavonian. A priest, he brought out the  Azdarar , the first-ever Armenian language newspaper published in 1794 in Madras. Alongside an ancient well is a small building which is now the office, then used as a morgue.

The church is also where the first draft of the Armenian constitution was drawn up in 1773. At the alcove at one end of its verandah with a beamed ceiling is the Shawmier corner, where lies the tombstone of Aga Shawmier, a prominent merchant. Inside the church erected in 1772, after the first was destroyed during the French occupation of Madras (1746), stands a plaque dedicated to Coja Petrus Uscan, known to have built the first Marmalong bridge, over the Adyar and the steps leading to the shrine on St. Thomas Mount. At the other end, stands a wooden altar with a painting of the Virgin, with rows of darkening murals that depict the life of Christ. Outside the cane-worked windows, past the rich pews, butterflies flit about.

The belfry is home to six of the city’s heaviest bells, two of them cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London, which was also where London’s Big Ben was cast. The bells are rung on Sunday mornings by the present caretaker, Trevor Alexander.

By now Ashken, who works for the Indo-Armenian Friendship Association, has arrived, bringing with her news of her Christmas lunch — fish, salad, pilaf and red wine rounded off with baklava. But that’s for later. For now, she whips out a laptop and places it on the lectern. The group watches a recording of a Christmas mass in Yerevan.

I step out and make my way to the arched cloisters lined with ageing charcoal drawings of the church and climb the stairway to the roof. Below me lies the street, a commercial hub, the way the Armenians intended it to be. Ahead, lies the sparkling Bay. Behind me, rising to a crescendo, are the whispers of prayers that have been heard here for over three centuries now. 

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