Armenian Connection

One would expect an Armenian College in the heart of Calcutta to stick out like a sore thumb. Yet, its presence (complete with a sign affirming the birth of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray within its ramparts) affords no great surprise to the teeming thousands passing its gates everyday. The famed rugby team of the Armenian College is considered as much a part of the city’s identity as Armenian Ghat on the Hooghly River.

Traces of Armenian influence are sprinkled all over the old city, including the popular Globe and New Empire theatres, established by Armenian families or khojas. The long stretch of Armenian Street in Central Calcutta offers a hint to the preferred haunts of this proud community of bankers and merchants who primarily came as economic migrants from Persia in the seventeenth century. Although the opulence of their thriving era is not readily visible, the city’s premier Grand Hotel traces its pedigree back to Arathoon Stephen, a refugee-turned-millionaire from Armenia, who also constructed Stephen Court, the luxury apartment building on Park Street that was ravaged by fire earlier this year.

It takes considerable more effort to locate the Armenian Church, which dates back to 1724, making it the oldest existing place of Christian worship in Calcutta today. It nestles amidst the serpentine sweep of Old Chinabazaar Street, a locale that has not seen sunlight in a hundred years giving an effect of being frozen in time: the narrow lane is home to wholesale stores specialising in pots and pans, and the cobblestoned path is jostled by coolies with impossible loads balanced precariously on their heads, and bheesties straight from the pages of Kipling’s Gunga Din carrying plastic containers of water (instead of goat-skin pouches) as the only concession to the passage of time. The dome of the Church suddenly appears as an incongruent apparition and its grounds form a haven of peace in the middle of bustling commerce. A tombstone in the churchyard marking the resting place of “Rezabeebeh, wife of the Late Charitable Sookias who departed from this world to life eternal on the 11th July 1630 A.D.” is symbolic of its antiquity.

Anglo-Saxon commentators who express surprise at an Armenian settlement prior to the East India Company’s self-proclaimed foundation of Calcutta in 1690 are willfully ignorant of the city’s history. After all, the firman (royal decree) issued by Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar in 1698 allowing the British to collect rent from the three villages that constituted Calcutta (in lieu of a paltry sixteen thousand rupees) was negotiated for the East India Company by Khojah Israel Sarhad, a childhood friend of the Emperor. It was this same Khojah Sarhad, along with another Armenian merchant Khojah Manur, who were instrumental in leading the Surman embassy in 1715 that laid the foundation of British rule in India.

Iris Macfarlane’s steady deconstruction of the Black Hole myth refers to Armenians as “tied by religion to the West, and by loyalty to nobody” because of their role in selling India to the British. While it is true that the conspiracy to betray the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey included Mir Jafar and his Armenian co-conspirator Khojah Wajid, it is not fair to point fingers at any single community. In the heady days of early trade with the British, the lure of the lucre superseded all other interests for the mercantile class, especially since the true designs of the East India Company had not yet become apparent. While the Armenian community in India flourished under British rule— running trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, publishing houses, real estate developments and hotels— their numbers started dwindling after India’s independence.

Today only about a hundred Armenians live in Calcutta, leading private lives outside the glare of sensationalism and publicity. Faith is the social glue that binds them together, and according to the curator at the Church, the pews are filled with extended family members as well as visiting scholars during the Sunday service. Despite being descendants of the first Christian state (according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark came to rest in Armenia after the flood), the Armenian community in India have never indulged in proselytising efforts, an act that must be marvelled in an age when religion, that most personal covenant between Man and God, has been reduced to a commodity susceptible to barter and coercion.


If you ever want to lose some time
Just take off, there’s no risk
If you ever want to disappear
Just take off, and think of this:
Armenia, city in the sky
Armenia, city in the sky.
The sky is glass, the sea is brown
And everyone is upside-down.

The Who, Armenia City in the Sky

1 comment:

Antigone said...

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Looking forward to more from you :)