A Pilgrimage to Calcutta Recalls Armenian History

CALCUTTA: Before there were call centers and Indian conglomerates, before the East India Co. or the British Raj, there were Armenia’s who made their way to India to trade and to escape religious persecution from the Turks and, later, Persians.

Entrepreneurial and devout Christians, but familiar with the Islamic ways of Mughal emperors, Armenia’s arrived in northeast India in the early 1600s, some 60 years before British adventurers became established traders here. They acquired gems, spices and silks, and brought them back to Armenian enclaves in Persia such as Isfahan.

Eventually, some Persian Armenia’s – 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 Calcutta’s founding as a sprawling manufacturing and port city.

At its zenith, Calcutta was the British Empire’s "second city." Its vast manufacturing centers rivaled the English Midlands, and wealth flowed freely to Jews, Britons, Armenia’s 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 Calcutta. All but gone, too, are the Armenia’s who began leaving India long before the British.

But last week Armenia’s with Calcutta roots gathered here again from around the world. More than 250 people came officially for the 300th anniversary of the oldest church in Calcutta, 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 honor 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.

Armenia’s never amounted to more than a few thousand people in Calcutta, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, real estate developmen’s 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.

"They ran Calcutta," one alumnus of the Armenian school, David Alexander, said with a touch of exaggeration.

By the time the British left, and an independent India was on a socialist and anti-colonial bent, the Armenia’s 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 Calcutta Armenia’s had second lives, or new frontiers in Australia or the United States.

My great-grandparents left earlier; as a young couple they headed for Japan in 1890, and their descendants ended up staying and trading for 50 years.

Of the nine million Armenia’s in the world, only about a third are in Armenia. The bulk are in Russia, the United States and France, with a smattering along the trading routes of Asia. Armenian churches and graveyards dot India in Agra, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras, Mumbai, Surat and, of course, Calcutta. 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 Armenia’s settled, traded and worshiped.

Worship is the social adhesive that binds Armenia’s 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 Armenia’s, 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 Calcutta 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 Calcutta’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 Calcutta and Rangoon, as Yangon was known then.

"These things had to be recreated," said Haik Sookias Jr., who helped lead the reconstruction effort in Calcutta. "If we let our churches go, then Armenia’s will never come back to India, and people will walk by and say ‘the Armenia’s used to live here.’ But by renovating these churches, Armenia’s will live here forever."

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 Armenia’s never accompanied their trading ambitions with military force. Nor did they try to enforce cultural supremacy. "They succeeded within the structure of the adopted communities," he said.

At base, Armenia’s were survivors with a fortunate sense for sometimes picking the right side when superpowers clashed. When it became clear that the British were going to overpower other Europeans and Arabs to take control of India, Armenia’s agreed to ship all their goods to Europe and the Middle East exclusively with British ships instead of the Arab fleets they had used before.

When the Dutch ruled what is now Indonesia, and their ships ran out of money during long, storm-delayed sailings around the Cape of Good Hope, the story goes that Armenia’s loaned money to the Dutch. It wasn’t purely a banking transaction. It also ensured that Armenian businesses might continue to prosper in the Java rice fields.

Over time, Armenian merchant princes were overpowered by the rise of merchant banking institutions in Europe and the large international companies they financed, Hovannisian said.

As Indians took control of their country, Armenia’s 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 Armenia’s in the entire Calcutta region of about 15 million people. The Armenian school here has long relied on students from abroad to fill its dormitories.

While the Armenian community in Calcutta 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. "When the economic powers of Indian communities weakened and waned, there were greater challenges to figure out how to establish deep roots here," said Professor Hovannisian. "It drew the Armenia’s closer."

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