Armenian History Remnants in Kolkata

By Leonard M Apcar, International Herald Tribune
Today, there are only a few hundred Armenians in the entire Kolkata region…

Before there were call centres and Indian conglomerates, before the East India Company or the British Raj, there were Armenians who made their way to India to trade and to escape religious persecution from the Turks and, later, Persians.

Entrepreneurial and devout Christians, Armenians arrived in northeast India in the early 1600s, some 60 years before British adventurers became established traders in Kolkata. They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan.

Eventually, some Persian Armenians — including my ancestors — left and set up their own businesses and communities here, landing first on India’s western flank in Surat and nearby Bombay, the present-day Mumbai, and then moving to the river banks in northeast India that led to Kolkata’s founding as a sprawling manufacturing and port city.

Kolkata’s vast manufacturing centres rivalled the English Midlands, and wealth flowed freely to Jews, Britons, Armenians and some Indians. They in turn poured money into elaborate colonial mansions, Victorian memorials and a luxurious Western way of life virtually transplanted to the wilting jungle of West Bengal.

The British are gone now, of course, and that way of life is literally crumbling in the dusty, clogged streets of Kolkata. All but gone, too, are the Armenians who began leaving India long before the British.

But last week Armenians with Kolkata roots gathered here again from around the world. More than 250 people came officially for the 300th anniversary of the oldest church in Kolkata, a finely preserved Holy Church of Nazareth tucked inside the narrow, winding alleys and chaotic bazaars of the north section of this city.

But they also came to be together again and to honour an extraordinary restoration effort of all five Armenian churches and assorted graveyards in northeast India.

I came from Hong Kong, but many came from England, Iran, the United States and Australia. We walked the cemeteries looking for graves of grandparents and great-grandparents, toured the 187-year-old Armenian school, admired the ambitious renovation work recently completed on the churches and cemeteries and at the gleaming white church in downtown Madras.

Armenians never amounted to more than a few thousand people in Kolkata, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, real estate developments and hotels. A few served in the colonial government, and some had sewn themselves so finely into the fabric of colonial India that they were decorated with British titles and were leaders of private English-only clubs.

By the time the British left, and an independent India was on a socialist and anti-colonial bent, the Armenians had mostly cleared out. Wealthier, educated and more confident as entrepreneurs, they left not for Armenia itself, then a Soviet-controlled postage stamp of a state, but for London, where some Kolkata Armenians had second lives, or new frontiers in Australia or the US.

Armenian churches and graveyards dot India in Agra, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Surat and, of course, Kolkata. But they are also in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Yangon in Myanmar; on Penang Island off the coast of Malaysia; Singapore; and parts of Indonesia — all places where Armenians settled, traded and worshiped.

Worship is the social adhesive that binds Armenians together. Clannish and wary of outsiders, the church has always been the focus of their socialist and cultural lives. Given Armenia’s pride as the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, it was not surprising that last week with the families came Karekin II, Catholicos of all Armenians, as the leader of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church is known, and a choir of two dozen from the church’s seat in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.

But the real stars in Kolkata were its five churches. Only a few years ago four of them were weed-infested snake pits looking like Roman ruins. Now, in the midst of southeast Kolkata’s horrid slums, on gritty, rutted roads, rises Holy Trinity Chapel in the Tangra district with a new dome and a manicured graveyard. Inside, I found the refurbished graves of my great-great grandparents, who in the 1880s lived in Kolkata and Rangoon, as Yangon was known then.

Richard Hovannisian, a historian and professor of Armenian studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said what distinguished the Armenian diaspora in India was that the Armenians never accompanied their trading ambitions with military force. Nor did they try to enforce cultural supremacy.

As Indians took control of their country, Armenians were looked on as holdovers from a colonial past. Many large Armenian family enterprises in India were either sold off or closed.

Today, there are only a few hundred Armenians in the entire Kolkata region. The Armenian school here has long relied on students from abroad to fill its dormitories.

While the Armenian community in Kolkata has all but disappeared, there is hardly a serious guidebook or history book of the city that does not mention their influence, charities and churches. That is a source of pride and communal strength reflected in last week’s commemoration.

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