Monday, 18 June 2018

Historical Armenian Church, Chennai - a legacy of Madras Armenian traders

Armenian church, Chennai, India. TripAdvisor
During the early and late colonial period, the Armenians from West Asia and Armenia made a solid contribution to the growth of trade in Madras, then the capital of Madras Presidency.  This city then  boasted of a  highly religious and thriving  business community. To meet their spiritual needs, they built a Church in George Town in Chennai (Madras).

Armenian church, Chennai, inside. trodly.com/in
Armenian Church, located in George Town - Chennai
built in 1712 and later rebuilt in 1772, is one of the oldest churches of the Indian subcontinent. In 1746, the church was demolished during the brief French occupation.  Also known as the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, it is located on the Armenian Street, Chennai and is famous for its belfry of six bells. It is difficult to notice the church from outside because it is  behind buildings,  hidden from the madness and chaos of Armenian Street  once a vibrant busy business quarter close to the port.
Bells of the Armenian Church in Madras.  en.wikipedia.org/
During the early colonial period, when the East India Company  was busy with mercantile trading activities, lots of Europeans moved into Madras to try their luck in business. Along with them also arrived the Armenians  and later Jews  for trade in Madras (Chennai). It is quite interesting to note that the  a select group of  adventurous Armenian settlers from Armenia, Persia, etc.,  came to Madras on foot throughgh Hindukush mountains, thus taking a long and arduous journey in the hope of finding their fortune in South India.  Armenians  focused their trade activities in  fine silk, expensive spices and gems, whereas the British were controlling cotton cloth. They were quite religious and made good contributions to the church.  St Mary's was built to seat 130 people of the Orthodox tradition, plus a choir in its gallery. So, it is a small church catering to the Armenian community.
Armenian Church .Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music - WordPress.com

Presently it is not functioning as a church and it is declared as a heritage site and from  9 am to  2 pm it is open to visitors. Services are still held here four to six times a year, when a priest visits with a group of Armenians from Calcutta, where there are 140. The Armenian Apostolic Church is funding and maintaining the church under the  The Armenian Church Committee in Calcutta. The Belfry adjacent to the main Church building houses six large bells which are rung every Sunday at 9:30 am by the caretaker to remind us that the old historical church is being taken care of regularly, though there are no Church services, prayers, etc.

The church has a big graveyard and there are graves of about 350 Armenians here. It is of particular interest to History buff that the founder, publisher and editor of the world's first Armenian periodical "Azdarar", Rev. Haroutiun Shmavonian's mortal remains are in the grave. The Armenian population after India's independence declined drastically to a tickle. The last ones left Chennai in 2004 and presently the church is being taken care of by one Michel Stephen who, besides keeping the church well, I understand, is showcasing the legacy of past Armenian traders of Madras.
Belfry of the Armenian Church in Madras. en.wikipedia.org/
 Any  visitor to the Church will be much impressed by the six bells in the belfry.  The are all of different sizes, varying from 21 to 26 inches, and weigh around 150 kg each, They are  said  to be the largest and heaviest bells of Chennai. One interesting fact is these bell were cast at different times:   One bell, with Armenian inscription dates back to 1754. This  bell was recast in 1808 for unknown reasons and also bears Tamil inscription.  Another bell's inscription suggests that it dates back to 1778. Inscriptions on two bells suggest that they were donated by an Armenian trader  to the church  in memory of his 19 year old son Eliazar Shawmier, buried in the Church’s garden. It is on his  private chapel ground the present Church stands. With respect to remaining two bells, they  date back to 1837 and were cast by the White chapel Bell Foundry, then known as Mears & Stain bank, with inscriptions reading "Thomas Mears, Founder, London". They created the bells for Big Ben in London and the much older Liberty Bells in Philadelphia, PA - USA.

This church is in proud possession of a massive Bible, printed in 1686, in fine Armenian script with woodcut prints, which is used on certain occasions, according to the Church keeper Michael Stephen. The stepped wooden altar is  inlaid with rare  and fine oval paintings depicting various events from  the life of Christ, surmounted by a painting of the Assumption.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Church,_Chennai
 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3303979.stm