Return to roots
The Armenian link with Chennai fascinated U.S.-based media consultant Kesiglo Garbis
The Armenian Church.
WHILE A business commitment brought U.S.-based media consultant Kesiglo Garbis to Chennai, a desire to establish a connection with Armenian history took him around the city.
First stop: The Armenian Church on Armenian Street. At first glance, he was impressed with what he saw. But on further inspection, he could not but deplore the mess that the church was in. "The courtyard and the tombstones looked cluttered. There were cats, ducks and dogs around. The English wife of the late caretaker was in a small room that was short on comfort. And the 252-year-old church cries for renovation. It's high time the Armenian Association in Kolkata allocated funds for repairs. As the oldest Armenian church in India and the only Christian church, east of the Suez, with six bells and a separate belfry, it deserves greater attention," pleads Garbis.
Fearing that this criticism will overshadow his deep admiration for India, he quickly adds, "I should say that Indians have been preserving all the Armenian legacies with a tolerance that could be an example for some nations."
Narrowing down his focus to Chennai, he says, "Chennai has an important place in Armenian culture." He then goes on to peel layers of history and decipher them one by one. "According to Portuguese sources, Armenian merchants were trading in Chennai in the early 16th Century. Armenian merchants from Julfa/Iran flourished here during the 17th and 18th Centuries and carried on a lucrative trade with Europe and the Philippines. An Armenian manuscript tells us that in 1666 Armenians settled `permanently' in Chennai. Actuated by philanthropy, these opulent merchants helped the downtrodden. They also contributed to the advancement of Armenian classical literature in India. The first ever Armenian `newspaper' in the world was published in Chennai in 1794 by Father Harutiun Shmavonian.
Next stop: St. Thomas Mount. "In 1726, Choja Bedros Woskan (Petrus Uscan) built with his own money the long-arched Marmalong Bridge enabling easy access to St.Thomas Mount. He also built the 160 steps that lead up to the church on the Mount. Unfortunately, today there is only a stone plaque commemorating his contribution in Persian, Latin and Armenian. This plaque is dirty and in bad shape. I hope the city administration will ensure that it is cleaned and hung at a proper place on the new bridge, so that everybody can see it. Choja Bedros extended his financial resources for the construction of the Chapel Nossa Senhora de Milagres in Vepery, in whose yard he was buried. When the French captured Chennai in 1746 under Count Lally, 40 of his houses were levelled to the ground and his wealth was confiscated. After his death in 1751, his heart was taken out and sent to his birthplace, Julfa (Iran). Today the St. Matthias Anglican Church occupies the site where his chapel once stood. It will be a nice gesture to give his name to a place or a street in Chennai."
Kesiglo Garbis connecting with Armenian history.
Peering further into the past, he comes up with more capsules of history. "The oldest Christian grave in Chennai, dated 1663, is that of an Armenian named Khoja Margar, on St. Thomas Mount. And inside the church (on the Mount), lies the tombstone of Choja Safar Zacarias, dated 1725. Many Armenian inscriptions mark the wooden support of the pulpit and 14 oil paintings in Armenian throw light on the Apostles."
Stop Three: St. Mary of Angels, Armenian Street. Garbis says that it was a pleasure tracing the "footprints" of those "respected Armenian citizens" of this city. "Today they have no presence in Chennai, except their tombstones and stone plaques. Famous Roman Catholic Armenian benefactors such as Samuel Migirditch Moorat, Edward Samuel Moorat and Anna Raphael were buried inside the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Mary of Angels on the Armenian Street. The Moorat and Raphael families financed the famous Armenian College, Moorat-Rapahaelian in Venice, for the benefit of Armenian children in Europe. Unfortunately, the Mechitarist Fathers closed this college a couple of years ago. Edward Raphael was one of the founders of the Carnatic Bank."
He also wanted to scour the city for Armenian citizens. But a hectic schedule led him to abandon this plan. He could not even meet the two Armenians he knew of the caretaker of the Armenian church and the other, a rugby trainer. Defining the character of the quintessential Armenian, Garbis says wherever Armenians go, they fit in well with the locals. There is a flip side to this assimilation. "Very much so in America where many youngsters claim they are Americans but their parents are Armenians." Inter-racial marriage is another factor diluting `Armenianness'. "Except in Arabic countries where inter-racial marriages are rare, many Armenians are marrying into other communities.
Garbis, however, sees insensitivity to Armenian culture and not miscegenation, as the biggest threat to Armenian identity. He is concerned that in many countries the Armenian ethos is fading into obscurity because the rhythms of modern life have been allowed to drown what it has to say. "But, India is the silver lining."
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