Priests and congregation at the annual mass at the Armenian church in Chennai, February 2019. Mike Stephan, a prominent member of the Armenian comunity, is on the left and next to him the Jesudian family. The priests are the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and Rev. Fr. Artsrun
Here's the script for a piece I wrote and recorded for 'From Our Own Correspondent' on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. The introduction reads: In India there are still a few communities, much diminished in size, whose roots lie in the trading links which came with Empire. Andrew Whitehead has come across one such group in the southern city of Chennai which, for the first time in centuries, is growing in numbers again:
I didn't expect to see a baby in his mother's arms among the congregation. India's Armenian community - once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number - has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city's serene eighteenth-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It's the oldest church in what was once called Black Town - the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia's commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money - that's reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel in London’s East End.
Two priests from Kolkata came over for the annual mass - a two-hour flight away, where the Armenian congregation can reach the heady heights of a hundred or more worshippers, at least at Christmas time. The clerics brought with them to Chennai the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious - and I suppose I fit both descriptions - the number attending just touched double figures.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby's name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through-and-through.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia that she won a study trip to India, and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan arrived in Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. "He asked me if Armenia is safe" - she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. "He's from India - and he asks if my country is safe!" When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai she was wary - "don't think I'm coming there to get married", she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by South India's ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn't sound - or smell - anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and - with admirable entrepreneurial flair - worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that sixty or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian Mum and an Indian Dad.
Not all the young Armenians in India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with a fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was - but Ashkhen is determined to – as she put it – make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. "If you want to find the bad things about India, you will", Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. "If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There’re plenty."
Then she checks herself - looks at her husband - and declares with a laugh in her voice: "I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don't I?"
It's difficult to disagree.
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.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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