The last of the Armenians in Dhaka, Bangladesh
[September 01, 2008]
Dyuti Monishita follows the trail of Dhaka’s Armenian Church and unravels the history of the community of Armenian traders who settled on the banks of the Buriganga before the rise of British India.
Michael Joseph Martin (Mikel Housep Martirossian) is possibly the last Armenian living in Dhaka. As the custodian of the Church of the Holy Resurrection and the cemetery within the church compound, popularly known as the Armenian Church, he has jealously guarded the church like a living sphinx.
He had been fighting off intruders and facing challenges for more than two decades now, the perfectly preserved condition of the Church building is his doing.
“People don’t look back,” says the eccentric toothless old man. “Times have changed,” he sighs, “all they want are high-rise buildings and financial gain. People couldn’t care less about the past and the marks left by it.”
“Things were different back then”, says the old and wrinkly Motaleb Ali, who has been living in Armanitola and have witnessed multitude of changes. “When we were young, the church was an open place. It was open to everyone, and I remember I would go there with my friends and sit in the cemetery and for hours and talk. But then, those were the times when you could sleep with your doors open at night, and there would be no intruders.”
Armanitola, so named after the large Armenian community of traders who settled there in Mughal times, is symbolised by the Armenian Church which still stands proudly among all the weathering buildings and sickly sweet smelling chemical factories. The church bell stopped ringing a long time ago, though once, the chime of the bell was characteristic of the locality. Not much has changed within the walls of the Church, since its establishment in 1781. The cemetery still bears tombstones from the 18th century and the Church is still very serene inside.
“You see, there was no church before. There was only a small chapel for praying. But with growing congregations, it was not possible to accommodate so many people in the chapel,” Michael explains, “that is why a church was built in 1781.” The grounds inside the walls of the church are dotted with countless tombstones and epitaphs. The eccentrics are extended beyond Michael, the custodian. “I sleep on the graves at night, and not even a single mosquito bites me,” the guard happily informs and points at his favourite grave to sleep on. The grave is allotted to one William Harney, a military veteran who was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1830 and died at the age of 71 in 1901 in Dhaka. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “It was hard to part with you grandpa. No eyes can see me weep. But ever in my aching heart your beautiful memory keep.” The oldest grave is dated 1762, “there were older graves. But many of the gravestones were stolen during the 1971 war. So that’s the oldest for the time being,” Michael says.
Armenians were traders, who first came to Bengal following the footsteps of Persian adventurers, and in the course established their own trading community there, recognised as such by the Mughal government since late 17th century.
Armenians were mostly engaged in export trade paying a duty of 3.5 per cent to the government. The Nawabs are known to have engaged them to transact their personal businesses openly or clandestinely, and the European maritime companies engaged them as local representatives and their vakils (spokesperson) to the royal courts. Their economic and political influence was illustrious, with their dominance in jute and silk industries. Professor Sharifuddin Ahmed of history department, Dhaka University, says, “The Armenians excelled in trades such as textiles, jute, indigo, salt, zamindari, etc.” However, the exact time of their arrival in Bengal is not known to this day. But a considerable number of Armenians arrived in the region during the Mughal period, in order to embark on profitable businesses.
Armenia is a landlocked mountainous country in Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the Southern Caucasus. It borders Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan to the south. A transcontinental country at the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Armenia has had and continues to have extensive socio-political and cultural connections with Europe. Naturally, with its prime location, Armenia is full of history and has been closely linked with trading for time inestimable. Mohammed Rokibuddin, another local says, “I have heard from my grandfather that the Armenians had contributed a lot to our economy. I heard about their wealth and their lavish houses. The stories sounded like a fairy tale when I was little.”
The most influential Armenians of that time were Pogoses, Agacy, Michael, Stephen, Joakim, Sarkies, Arathon (also spelled as Aratun), Coja (also spelled Khojah) and Manook (also spelled as Manuk) families.
According to a book called ‘Smriti Bismritir Dhaka’ in Bengali language, written by a very celebrated historian Muntasir Mamoon, Khwaja Hafizullah, a merchant prince, laid the foundations for the Dhaka Nawab Family by accumulating wealth by doing business with Greek and Armenian merchants. This trend was followed by his nephew and the first Nawab of the family Khwaja Alimullah. Parts of the gardens of Shahbag, Ruplal House, a major landmark in the old part of Dhaka, and the land where Bangabhaban stands belonged to Armenian zamindars. There is still a Manuk House inside Bangabhaban, bearing the name of the original owner’s family. Although, Armanitola was where a lot of Armenians had settled, a number of them lived in the neighbourhood as well. The Armenians had built lavish homes around the city for comfortable living. Many of those structures still remain to this very day and hold their places as landmarks.
They also played a major role as patrons of education and urban development in Dhaka. The Pogose School, the first private school in the country, was founded by JG Nicholas Pogose, a merchant and a zamindar. P Arathon was the headmaster of the Normal School. According to the Dhaka Prakash, a newspaper of his time, students in his school scored better in examinations than students of other schools in Bengal, including the one in Hoogli, now in India’s West Bengal state.
Being traders for hundreds of years, the Armenians had keen eyes for what business or trade would be lucrative, and that is why they were dominant in the jute and indigo industries. The noted jute traders included Abraham Pogose, M David, C Sarkies, M Catchhatoor, A Thomas, J G N Pogose and Michael Sarkies. Among them, the most distinguished was M David, he used to be called ?The Merchant Prince of East Bengal?. Horse carriages as a mode of transportation were introduced by C M Sarkies in 1856. At that time, the number of carriages was only 60, but by 1889 the number had increased to 600. This is how lucrative the business turned out to be. There were evidences of shops owned by G M Sarkies and C J Manook in different parts of old town. In fact, a very well known liquor store of that time was owned by an Armenian. ?During the British period, the Armenians maintained close contact with the British and they also had shops where they sold all sorts of European goods?, says Sharifuddin.
During the mid 1800s the number of Armenians in Dhaka started to migrate to West Bengal with the coming of British Raj. “Due to their close contact with the British, the Armenians started to act according to the activities of the British. Some went away to Britain and other European countries”, Sharifuddin says. “The Armenians never saw themselves as a part of this country or culture. They have always distinguished themselves from people of this region. That is why they moved on with the rise and fall of the economy of Bengal”, he concludes. And the population of the Armenian community had dropped to 121, and the economy had started wane as time went by and slowly the Armenians started to fade away until no one was left, and only the church stood in confirmation of their glorious existence.
As Michael paces among the tombstones and inspects the church, it is mournfully apparent that he is advancing in his years, and the future of the church which still stands strong, looks bleak. For Dhaka’s sake, it will be a tragedy if the last Armenian takes with him the history of the Armenians who settled in Bengal.