There's just one service a year at Chennai's glorious eighteenth century Armenian church. This year's service was this morning. Two priests - the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and (wearing the ornate clerical headgear) Rev. Fr. Artsrun - came specially from Calcutta to officiate.
Armenians once constituted one of Chennai's most wealthy trading communities. It has long since melted away. There are now perhaps five Armenians in Chennai - and with well-wishers and the curious, the congregation today just touched double figures ... though the youngest of those attending was only eight months old, so there is hope for the future.
There are about twenty-five Armenian families in Calcutta - the church there gets about 100 worshippers for its Christmas service. The Armenian College in central Calcutta is one of the city's most venerated educational institutions. Usually, a few of the college pupils and the Calcutta community come to Chennai for the annual service; today it was just the two priests.
The Chennai church - which I've blogged about before - is well-kept in spite of the paucity of the community. It was lovely to see a baby today among the congregation. His mother is Armenian and his father is a Chennai-based architect. I asked the parents what the language of the household was: English, Armenian, Hindi, Russian, Tamil ...
The church has a separate bell tower with six bells - the oldest dating back almost 200 years and two of them bearing the name of Thomas Mears, a master founder at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London's East End which, alas, closed last year. Of course, I couldn't resist the temptation to venture up.
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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