India: An Armenian Experience

Ani Hovannisian-Kevorkian with Father Professor Richard Hovannisian and Catholicos Karekin II at the Tangara Church in Calcutta

A deeply weathered man was sitting motionless on the sidewalk, his hand held out as if waiting for a raindrop. A small boy was lying beside him, his head buried in the elder’s lap, hiding from the emptiness of it all. Their image is etched in my memory, as are many others — of the hundreds of children who ran to me, gesturing toward their mouths so that I might fill their hungry bellies, and of the endless flood of people who live, sleep, and bathe in the streets. I was overwhelmed, even numbed, by the visual feast of their famine.

But India, I learned, is much more than that. It is, to be sure, a place of extremes — extreme poverty, wealth, history, and culture. I witnessed that at every turn of my 10-day journey to Madras (now Chennai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), and Agra (site of Taj Mahal). Magnificent palaces and temples and monumen’s stand in testament to the religious, cultural, and historical riches of this land whose story spans more than 5,000 years.

And the people; India is home to more than a billion of them, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to have felt squeezed as I walked through the congested streets of Calcutta. During those walks, not all of my encounters were with homeless and hungry children and families living in indescribable conditions. I also came across professionals and goat herders, striking women wearing colorful fresh saris and tending to their families and chores, devout Hindu, Muslim, and Christian worshippers, children smiling for the camera and bursting with excitement when they saw their picture pop up on the screen, street merchants and shoppers buzzing about in dizzying bazaars, boys ironing clothes on hot coals to earn a few rupees, people balancing baskets on their heads and pushing overloaded carts that nearly toppled over, while others huddled around to play popular sidewalk games and yet others simply slept. It was a picture of life as they know it — perhaps no better, no worse than life as I’ve come to know it.

Amid the often painful, sometimes awe-inspiring and at times endearing sights, and despite the stark contrasts and unequal lots, I perceived an unusual sense of equilibrium, a calm understanding of how to live side by side in a place brimming with diverse languages, religions, cultures, classes, and challenges.

It was November 2008, and I had gone to India with my father, Professor Richard Hovannisian of UCLA, to participate in the 300th anniversary celebration of the Armenian Holy Church of the Nazareth in Calcutta and the re-consecration of St. Mary’s (Astvadzadzin) Armenian Church in Madras. I knew a smattering of facts about the Armenia’s in India. I had learned from my father that Armenia’s had built thriving merchant communities there from the 17th to the 19th century. Many had moved from Iran to establish themselves as successful tradesman, businessmen, and civic leaders. India was also the cradle of 18th century Armenian patriotic intellectuals who laid the ideological foundation for an independent Armenian nation and government free of Turkish and Persian tyranny. I knew that the first Armenian journal in the world, Azdarar, was published in Madras in 1794. I had heard of prominent Armenia’s, among them Sir Catchik Paul Chater, the influential businessman from Calcutta who helped build Hong Kong and who left generous endowmen’s to the Armenian churches in India, with which they have since been renovated. I thought I knew something, but what lay in store was beyond both my knowledge and imagination.

After a 30 hour flight from Los Angeles, we arrived in Madras at 2:00 a.m., where thousands of people clamored outside the airport, eager to greet their travelers. That was the first sign that India has an endless sea of people. A sleepless night was followed by an immediate immersion into Indian city life. Wildly-driven cars and rickshaws, bikes and motorcycles (I counted a family of five on one of them) jammed the cluttered, run-down streets, and people were literally everywhere. But when we emerged from the car and the chaos, and entered the pristine grounds of St. Mary’s Armenian Church (circa 1712) on Armenian Street, we entered a different world. And there, it struck me; that Armenia’s had come to this corner of the world by choice and not only created successful businesses, but true communities with churches at their core. The courtyard was filled with beautifully-engraved Armenian tombstones from the 1700’s and 1800’s. These were real people who lived, built, led, and died here. They are part of our millennia-old story. And so is what followed.

The Catholicos of All Armenia’s, His Holiness Karekin II, had traveled from Etchmiadzin to lead this spiritual pilgrimage. Accompanied by archbishops and priests, he re-consecrated Surp Astvadzadzin and the memories of a glorious past. While only a handful of Armenia’s remains in India, on this day, the church was full, as more than 100 people (a number that later in the week grew to 200), many from Armenia, Iran, Australia, Europe, and the United States, and many with roots in India, witnessed this historic ceremony– the first of several to come.

We spent the next week in Calcutta, where sensory overload became the norm. I knew we would be celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Calcutta church, but little did I know that we would be transported, physically and otherwise, to a different Armenian church each day in this northeastern state of West Bengal-five in all-dating as far back as the 1600’s. One of them, the Holy Trinity Church and community center in Tangra, is an expansive, lush oasis set amid a depressingly poor Calcutta suburb. While the deep, entrancing gazes of the local children outside the gate filled my mind’s eye, the familiar, mesmerizing chants of Etchmiadzin’s choir transported me to a different place. Fully-aware that the heyday of this tiny Armenian spot on the map has long passed, I was filled not only with a sense of loss for what once was, but also with pride in our people’s achievemen’s and will, and with a sense of hope. It was in part the Vehapar’s influence, heightened by the choir’s spiritually-uplifting hymns; in part the telling tombstones that filled the courtyards of this and all the churches we visited; in part the people from around the world who had come because they are still connected; in part the small community that remains, led by the church trustees who oversaw the restorations and planned the week’s events, with the help of Liz Chater, a descendant of Sir Catchik; in part Mr. Charles Sarkies, the tearful 83-year-old, Armenian-speaking Calcutta hold-out who pleaded that Armenia’s not let the spark die; and in part the Armenian in me.

But, above all, who inspired me were the approximately 80 Armenian boys and girls who grace the grounds of Calcutta’s 187-year-old Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy. These primary and secondary school students come mostly from Armenia and Iran and graduate as well-educated Armenian citizens of the world — Daron, Araz, Haig, Sarine, Antranik, and all the others — each a bright-eyed glimmer of hope.

Many of those neatly-groomed, red, blue and orange tie-wearing students attended the mass officiated by His Holiness Karekin II at the Holy Church of Nazareth, located in the narrowly-paved, densely populated, bustling old section of Calcutta called Barabazar. This was a dually historic day. On the occasion of its 300th anniversary, the impressive and spacious church, replete with historic and religious artifacts, was overflowing with congregants. Local Armenia’s — full, half, quarter, eighth, and non’s (the %u218ian’s are almost non-existent) were joined by their compatriots from the world over. On this day, too, His Holiness performed an extraordinary ritual, the ordination of Deacon Haroutyun into priesthood as Der Avedis — an extra special moment for the students of the Armenian College where he teaches.

Every step of this journey, within the Armenian sphere and without, filled a piece of the mosaic I now carry with me. The pinnacle, perhaps, came during our six-hour %u218Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ road trip to and arrival at the Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church of Saidabad. Our crack-of-dawn departure from Calcutta was the beginning of the most wondrous, telling day I’d experience. It started with a frenzied ride, our driver weaving with millimeter-precision through cars and potholes, people and rickshaws and anything else that came near his path of single lane roads. I’d come to realize during the week that it’s normal to come within a finger’s distance of head-on collisions with other vehicles and people without incident and without confrontation.They are experienced drivers and unusually calm, unexcitable people. Between my gasps and nervous hysterical laughs, I watched intently as we passed colorful village after village, all dusty, some dirty, others tidy. People were leading primitive, but seemingly peaceful, content lives. It was a live slide-show of ramshackle huts, occasional decent four-walled abodes, makeshift open-air barber shops, fresh spices and vegetable and fruit displays, ornate imposing shrines dedicated to and resembling Hindu Gods, groups of schoolgirls walking with books and braided hair, cows and pigs and monkeys roaming free, children playing in green pastures, and mothers and fathers bathing their little ones near the village water spout. There was something appealing about the simplicity of it all.

But the real revelation came as we entered the Armenian paradise tucked away in the backroads of the village of Saidabad. There, a glistening lake belonging to the church and currently used by villagers for bathing and washing stood in the foreground of the beckoning 250 year-old Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church. Many miles and centuries away from any sign of Armenian life, here I was, with the living and the dead, witnessing the wonder of Armenian survival. I struggled to read some of the elaborately engraved tombstones and pondered who they were and how they came to this distant place and built this immaculate church and worshipped and prospered here, and how they then returned to the earth, only to be found again by their descendants from far away places, many of whom were visiting at this moment. I watched teary-eyed families light incense and pray on the sites where their forefathers once flourished and now lay, a little boy from Los Angeles kneel on the grave of his great-grandmother, while a woman silently photographed time-worn graves for posterity’s sake, all in the bosom of the church that remains a constant reminder of the Armenian legacy. It was as if everyone understood their place in the continuum and took hold of it. It could happen at any moment and in any corner of the world, and maybe that’s why and how we remain Armenian. My journey to India had come full circle, but the Armenian story continues.

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