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Armenians - The Merchant Princes of India

The Armenian traders came to India in the 12th century and gradually made India their home. The churches, tombs and buildings constructed by them are a living testimony of their highly refined culture.

The memory of the tragedy caused by the earthquake three years ago on December 7, 1988, continues to haunt Armenia, the smallest republic of the Soviet Union. It was only when generous contributions began to pour in from the handful of Armenians that reside in India, that an awareness was generated, and my insatiable instinct to know more about this “first Christian nation’s” people, was kindled.

It was, perhaps, the Armenian obsession with commerce that led its traders to come to Indian across the overland route from Persia, through Afghanistan and Tibet in the 12th century. The Armenians became the first merchants to carry back from India spices, muslin and precious stones to Europe and the Middle East. The first reference to Armenians settling down in India is dated to the 16th century, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Aware of the Armenian merchants’ integrity and shrewd nose for business, Akbar invited them to settle in Agra, the imperial capital. In 1562. he married an Armenian, referred to as Mariam Zamani Begum in Abul Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. In Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s deserted capital, there exists a four-room building known as Mariam’s House. Remarkable for its skillful miniatures and its gilding it was built by Akbar for her.

Akbar’s successor Jehangir, less tolerant than his father, tried to convince two Armenian brothers Mirza and Iskanderus of his court, to become Muslims. On their refusal, he had them scourged and circumcised. Pious and philanthropic, Mirza, the most distinguished Armenian in India during the past three hundred years, was a strict Christian all his life. He won the admiration of the Jesult fathers when he built a church while he was Governor of Mogor. Mirza was responsible for setting up a college in Agra. A fact little known, perhaps even to the local population of Agra, is the existence of the well preserved Martyrose Chapel built by an Armenian merchant in 1612. The octagonal chapel has a beautiful dome toped by a cuppola bearing a cross. Inside the chapel, are two sandstone mural tablets bearing a Persian inscription at the head of the grave, while an Armenian inscription at the foot of the grave reads, “In this tomb rests the pilgrim Martyrose, son of Pheerbashee of Julfa. Died in the year 1060 of the Armenian era.” Twenty-six Jesuit Fathers are interred in the Chapel, bearing Armenian inscriptions.

At Agra, is the oldest Christian tomb in Uttar Pradesh, that of Martyrose, located at the Old Armenian Cemetery. Hundreds of Armenians were buried here between 1611 and 1927, majority of them merchants who had come from Iran. It is interesting to note that between the years 1707-1774, Armenians were buried at the cemetery which can possibly be attributed to the fact that the capital was being shifted from Agra to Delhi, leading to the merchants’ simultaneous exodus.

Records are scanty regarding Armenians in Delhi. The sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739 and the Indian mutiny of 1857, that razed churches and cemeteries to the ground, were obvious causes. Today, the only traces of Armenians in Delhi are a few scattered graves, a memorial tablet in the National Museum which states that an Armenian chapel was built in Delhi in 1781, and perhaps the most interesting living instance of all-a small tomb tucked in the vicnity of Jama Masjid, called the tomb of Sarmad, who was put to death by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, allegedly for his religious practices.

As I visit Sarmad’s tomb with my friend Hovsep Seferiyan, himself an Armenian, settled in Brazil, yet with a deep and intense longing for awakening a part of a rich legacy buried in the mists of the unknown, a strange sense of wonder strikes me. For, here lies the grave of a man buried next to a Muslim saint, getting the same reverence as the saint! Muslim from all walks offer prayers, flowers and kerchiefs to the very man who died for his faith, totally unconscious about the fact that Sarmad was a Christian. Sarmad (Arabic for eternal), was an Armenian merchant who came to India from Persia and began doing business in Sind. Soon afterwards, he fell in love with Abhai Chand, a handsome Indian youth who became his first disciple when he took the path of Sufism. Many stories survive about Sarmad’s mystic powers. It is said that Aurangzeb had Sarmad executed in 1661 for his supposed heresy. Sarmad is said to have greeted his executioner with the couplet:

“The friend with naked sword has now arrived, In whatever disguise thou mayst come, I recognize three, I go towards the mosque, but I am not a Musalman.” With those words, he sealed his fate.

If Calcutta was once a “City of palaces” the sobriquet perhaps owned more to merchant princes from Armenia than to the British Raj. Today, there is no opulence of the bygone era, but memories remain. The Armenian Church, built in 1695 at Chinsurah, West Bengal, occupies a significant place in history, as it is the second church to be built in Bengal.

It is believed that the khojas, as the Armenians were called, had carved out a niche for themselves in Calcutta long before Job Charnock started an English colony in Calcutta. The English, aware of the fact that Armenian merchants were always in good favour with the Mughal Emperors, employed Khoja Sarhad, a local merchant, who had sprung to eminence, to help them get governing rights to three villages. Sarhad justified his appointment by helping the English obtain the historic “Grand Firman” which conferred numerous privileges on them and subsequently paved the way for the establishment of British rule in India. Sarhad, seems to have slipped into oblivion, for history makes no further reference to the shrewd Armenian merchant.

The Armenians thrived in Calcutta and a major part of this wealth was spent in shaping the growth of the city. JC Galstaun, a leading builder, credited for building 350 houses, developed and beautified central and south Calcutta. As a public spirited citizen, he donated money to the Victoria Memorial Building Fund and made several donations to several institutions. Competing with Galstaun as a patron of education and art, was Arathoon Stephen, whose family came to India in 1857. Among the properties owned by him include Stephen’s Court, a five storeyed building on Park Street, and the Grand and Everest Hotels, later acquired by hotel magnate, M.S.Oberoi. The Armenian community of Calcutta, the largest in India, though only a bare hundred, while maintaining a distinct identity, have amalgamated their lifestyle with the rest of India. The Armenian Orthodox Church which exists in Bengal retains traditional Armenian rites and is seen by many as the custodian of the Armenian national identity. Explains Seferiyan, “Keeping in view the role played by Armenians in India in the past, it is the generosity of the Indian government to have permitted a priest from Armenia to visit and help enliven Armenian traditions.”

Bombay, position as the Gateway of India, invited a flux of transiting Armenians on their way to other Indian cities. Barely any Armenians reside in Bombay. Armenian Lane near the Armenian Church of St. Peter, marks the locality where the wealthy Armenians once resided.

The first Armenian to have landed on the Malabar Coast was Thomas Cana, during the reign of Sheo Ram in the 8th century. Landmarks of contributions made to the city of Madras, still exist. Woksan, and Armenian merchant who had amassed a favourable fortune from the monopolisitic trade position he had acquired from the Nawab of Arcot, invested a great amount in buildings. The Marmalong Bridge, with many arches across the river Adyar was constructed by him and to top it all, a huge sum of maintenance donated to the local authorities. Besides building rest houses for pilgrims, he built the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles in Madras. Today, only one Armenian resides in Madras. The only reminder of the bygone era is the Holy Virgin Mary church of 1772 on Armenian Street.

Armenia, has had through centuries, a history marked by many struggles for independence and by a series of brutal massacres. The 17th century saw a flood of Armenians escaping from Persia of India, forming a settlement in Surat, the hub of commercial activity. The Prince Orloff diamond weighing 195 carats presented to Catherine II of Russia by Prince Orloff, is said to have been sold to him by Johannes Rafael, an Armenian merchant of Surat. By the 18th century, as war between the French and the English took a more violent turn, Armenians in Surat, having suffered heavy losses, turned to Bombay as their centre for commercial activity.

Descendants of a branch of the Indo-Europeans, the Armenians have a highly developed and diversified culture that has been apparent in their architecture, painting and sculpture. The Armenian connection with India dates back to long before the advent of the European traders. According to historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth, a Hindu colony existed in Armenia in 150 BC, when two princes fled from Kanauj after a plot to overthrow the king was unearthed. This amazing fact has introduced a fresh and new dimension to history that has buried itself in the past for centuries.