It is wonderful to be able to visit for a second time an enchanting spot to which you never expected to return. I first came across the bewitching Armenian church in Chennai - and blogged about it - two years ago. This morning, with a friend, I was back there.
Chennai's Armenians are long gone. The church caretaker is a Catholic and Anglo-Indian. But there's still, just, an Armenian community in Calcutta, in what was the second city of the British Empire. And the previous day, a priest and thirty or so people of Armenian descent had flown in for a few hours from Bengal, and held the first act of worship in this church for a year or two.
I have been to Armenian churches in three South Asian cities - Calcutta and Rangoon/Yangon as well as here in Chennai. (I believe there's a church in Dhaka that I have yet to see.) This is perhaps the nicest, and so heartening that it continues, just now and again, to echo to Armenian liturgy.
For an atheist, it is remarkable how I am repeatedly drawn to the beauty of places of worship - and their importance in affirming identity, and in mapping the tides that have shaped our communities and our world.
Two weeks ago exactly I was in Chennai (once known as Madras) in southern India, and made a point of seeking out the Armenian church there. I am glad I did. In a quiet street (still signed as Armenian Street) just north of Fort St George - the heart of colonial and current governance of this part of India - is a doorway into a calm and secluded space, the ancient and graceful Armenian church and adjoining bell tower, well maintained and in impressively spacious grounds.
The Armenians - most from Isfahan in current-day Iran - were once important traders and financiers across coastal south and south-east Asia. Madras was one of the oldest colonial-era ports and urban centres. There are Armenian churches where I have attended services in Calcutta and Rangoon - churches I have still to visit in Mumbai and Dhaka - and not simply churches but active Armenian communities in such cities as Bangkok and Singapore.
Trevor Alexander - it's him in the photo above - looks after the church, and lives on the premises. He's not an Armenian, but an Anglo-Indian and worships with his family at a Catholic church. 'The last Armenian left Chennai ten years ago', he tells me, adding pointedly - 'and he was only one per cent Armenian'.
Almost all of India's Armenians have emigrated, many to Australia. Only Calcutta has the remnants of an Armenian community - including an Armenian College, an old people's home and three churches (all this for a community of, however generously defined, no more than a few dozen).
The splendour of the church and its setting is a powerful statement of how important the Armenian community - probably never more than a few hundred families - was to the commercial life of India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Trevor Alexander told me that the Chennai church is now overseen by the community in Calcutta. There's only one service a year - when a priest and a group of elderly Armenians make the journey across from Calcutta.
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