Tuesday, August 21, 2012


An article I wrote for Namma Chennai marking the city's Armenian connection.

Standing in George Town at the beginning of a street named after it is the well maintained Armenian Church. On the entrance are marked two years, 1712 and 1772. The year 1712 denotes the year the church was first built and 1772 the year in which it was rebuilt in its current location. Thus, this year marks the 300th year of the building of the church that is commemorative of a community which had an active presence in Madras. This article is about the Armenians in Madras and their contribution to the city.

There are no records to establish the first presence of Armenians in Madras. However, going by accounts of various writers, the Armenians were present in Madras as early as the 16th century, even before the advent of the East India Company. According to a manuscript written at Masulipatnam, they settled here permanently in 1666. They were merchants known for their piety and true philanthropy and were greatly involved in the effort to spread Armenian literature in India.

The presence of the Armenians in Madras began to increase from 1688 onwards, when they were granted trading and other rights similar to that of the Englishmen, following negotiations between Coja Panous, Calendar of Isphahan and the Company in London.

The Armenians, not having a church of their own, used to worship the Catholic Chapel of the Capuchin Fathers at Fort St.George. The East India Company granted a plot of ground to them near where today the High Court stands, to build a church and under the terms of the grant, a sum of 50 pounds a year to cover the expenses of the church was to be given. Thus came up in 1712 the Armenian Church on the Esplanade. The French occupation of Madras between 1746 and 1749 however sounded the death knell for this church, as it was deemed to be a security threat due to its proximity to the Fort and was ordered to be pulled down as soon as Madras was restored to the East India Company. The Capuchin Chapel inside the Fort was also demolished as Padre Severini, the priest was suspected to have spied for the French. The Armenian Church was rebuilt in its present location in 1772, on a site which was the old Armenian burial ground. It was a site owned by Agah Shawmier, the man who succeeded the Coja Petrus Uscan as the leader of the Armenian community.

Cojah Petrus Uscan, probably the most famous Armenian of the times, was a merchant who migrated to Madras from Manila in 1723. Over the remainder of his life, he distinguished himself as the most prominent member of his community in Madras. He is remembered even today for the various philanthropic causes he was involved in. In 1726, he funded the construction of the first bridge across the Adyar river in Saidapet, replacing the ancient causeway that had existed in its place. His intention was to make access to St.Thomas Mount, the place associated with the stay of St.Thomas in Madras, easier. In 1728, he built the steps leading to the church, steps that have remained intact till date. His contributions to the Church were recognised, as he was amongst the select audience invited to be present as a witness at the third opening of the grave of St.Thomas. Overwhelmed by this gesture, he contributed to the building of the St.Rita’s Church in Santhome the same year, a fact that is commemorated by a plaque on one of the walls.

Coja Petrus Uscan exhibited a quality that the Armenians considered to be one of the greatest virtues, loyalty. When the French occupied Madras in 1746, Dupleix appealed to Coja Petrus Uscan to support his occupation. Petrus Uscan, who had fled to Tranquebar, replied that it was Armenian tradition to remain loyal to one’s benefactors, the English in this case. The French, stung by his response, confiscated and levelled to the ground 33 houses that had belonged to him and confiscated all his moveable wealth. His loyalty however did not go unnoticed and he was one of the two Catholics to be allowed to remain in Fort St.George by the British on their return in 1749. Petrus Uscan built the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles in Vepery as his private Chapel, but which was open to other Catholics also for worship. It was here that he was buried on his death in 1751. The Chapel was taken over by the British, who handed it over to the German Missionaries from Tranquebar. It was on this site that the St.Mathias Church was built in 1823. The tomb of Coja Petrus Uscan however survives even today on its grounds.

Rev.Harathoun Shimovinian, to whom credit is to be given for starting the world’s first Armenian journal, Azdarar, was another prominent member of the community. Born in 1750, he arrived in Madras in 1784 to take charge as the priest of the Armenian Church. He started a printing press in Madras in 1789 to print and publish Armenian books. It was from here in 1794 that he brought out Azdarar, which unfortunately survived only for a couple of years, before being wound up in March 1796 after only 18 issues. With permission of the Nawab Wallajah of Carnatic, the press printed and published books in Arabic and Persian also. He passed away in 1824, after 40 years of life in the city. His grave can be seen even today on the grounds of the Armenian Church. A commemorative tablet in the form of a book, signifying his literary contribution also exists.

Other prominent leaders of the community in Madras included Shawmier Shahamirian, the man who established the first Armenian press in Madras in 1772, Aga Samuel Moorat and Edward Moorat, wealthy merchants, Seth Sam, one of the founders of the Madras Chamber of Commerce etc.

The presence of Armenians in the city began to gradually decline after the death of Edward Moorat and today, there are no Armenians left in the city. The Armenian Church is being tended to by the Church in Calcutta, another city where the community had a huge presence. The inside of the Church is a tranquil oasis in the midst of all the chaos and cacophony that is George Town. The belfry or the bell tower houses six bells, with one of them bearing a Tamil inscription. The Church welcomes visitors to come and get a taste of the spirit of a community that once played a significant part in the business and social history of Madras.


The concluding part of the article:

Sir S. Subramania Iyer, an eminent freedom fighter, who along with Annie Besant formed the Home Rule Movement, was another top lawyer and jurist. After a successful practice as a vakil at Madurai, he came to Madras in 1884 and after a successful stint as a lawyer here, he was appointed an Acting Judge in 1891, before being appointed as a Judge in 1895. He also acted as the Chief Justice in 1899, 1903 and 1906, being the first Indian to do so. He was one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress. His residence, Beach House, on the Marina at Mylapore later became part of the Queen Mary’s College. It was here that the idea of starting a journal to report cases on the lines of already established law journals arose, thus leading to the formation of the Madras Law Journal, India’s oldest law publication, currently owned by the Wadhwa group, the Nagpur based leading law books publishers.

The name of Sir C. Sankaran Nair will forever be remembered in legal circles for being part of the bench that tried the famous Ashe Murder Case, which he as a Judge heard along with Mr. Ayling, the Chief Justice in 1911 and Mr. C.A. White, against Nilakantha Brahmachari and others. Sankaran Nair had risen to the post of Judge after a successful law practice which he setup in 1880. Besides his profession, he was involved in a number of political and administrative activities. He was appointed Secretary to the Raleigh University Commission in 1902 and made a member of the Viceroy’s Council in 1915 with the charge of Education Portfolio. As a member of the body, he made two dissentings in the Despatches on Indian Constitutional Reforms, pointing out various defects of the British Rule in India and offering suggestions, most of which were accepted. Besides these, he was an active Congressman, being appointed the President of its Amraoti Session. In recognition of his various services, he was decorated with a CIE in 1904 and was knighted in 1912. He passed away in 1934.

The multi faceted Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer was another doyen of the Madras Bar. Starting off as a lawyer, he rose to the position of Advocate General of the Madras Presidency in 1920. He was involved in a number of prominent cases such as the Ashe Murder Case and the Annie Besant Vs. Alcyone case, where he appeared against Annie Besant in the case involving custodianship of Jiddu Krishnamurthy, the famous philosopher. He was offered Judgeship of the High Court which he refused. He was also actively involved in the Home Rule League, serving as its Vice President and also editing New India, the newspaper brought out by Annie Besant, during her incarceration. He was nominated to the Executive Council of the Madras Government in 1923 with portfolios of Law and Order, Police, PWD, Irrigation, Ports and Electricity. In 1936, he was made Dewan of Travancore, a position he held for a decade. He was instrumental in the introduction of The Temple Entry Proclamation Bill which abolished the ban on low caste people entering into temples. Besides these, he served in a number of commissions and delegations such as the Press Commission of India, the UGC, the HR & CE of which he was appointed chairman between 1960 and 1962 etc. He was also the Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai and Benaras Universities at the same time. Parts of his sprawling residence, the Grove, today host the C.P.Arts Foundation, the Vennirul Art Gallery and The Grove School. He passed away in London in 1966.

Other famous Indians to have been involved with the Madras Bar include P.R. Sundara Iyer, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Justice Sir M. Venkatasubba Rao, Justice P.V. Rajamannar, Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar, Sir C.V. Ananthakrishna Iyer and Justice Sir T. Sadasiva Iyer.


Hi Friends,

This post is Part 1 of an article I wrote for Namma Chennai on the above subject.

Many doyens of the legal profession have walked the corridors of the Madras High Court. This article profiles a few prominent lawyers and judges who have left a mark on the city thanks not only to their success in the field of law but also to the various social causes they were involved in.

Mention Englishmen in the Madras Bar and the first names that come readily to one’s mind are that of the Nortons. Eardley Norton was one of the best known lawyers in Madras in his time and was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. His son John Norton was also a distinguished lawyer, while their kinsman George Norton, again a lawyer, led a public petition that led to the formation of the Madras University. He was also instrumental in his capacity as the Advocate General of Madras in providing a direction for Pachaiyappa Mudaliar’s will that formed the nucleus for the Pachaiyappa’s group of institutions. Norton Street in Mandaveli today commemorates the family of Nortons.

Justice H.T.Boddam was another prominent Englishman to be involved in the Madras Bar. Appointed judge in 1896, he gained notoriety for being partial to some of his favourites and for allegedly deciding cases without an impartial hearing. This obviously benefited sections of the public more than it did others. On his death in 1910, many of his beneficiaries jointly funded the construction of a statue in his honour that was installed at the junction of Pallavan Salai and Mount Road. It was one of the first statues to be removed after Independence and today, it stands at the May Day park in Chintadripet. It is to him however that credit should go for being instrumental in the setting up in 1906 of the Madras Pinjrapole in Aynavaram, an old age home for cattle that functions even today. He served as its first president.

The credit for bringing out the finest treatise on Hindu Law should go to J.D. Maynes, who came to Madras in 1857 from England to practice as a barrister. He later became the Advocate General of Madras. In 1914, he authored a book titled A Treatise on Hindu Law and Usages, a book that is considered the last word on the subject.

Other venerable English names include that of Nugent Grant, Sir Victor Murray Coutts Trotter, Sir Lionel Reach etc., all of whom dealt with several landmark cases as lawyers and judges and were associated with the higher echelons of the society.

Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer was the first Indian to be appointed a judge of the Madras High Court. He was appointed to this exalted position in 1878, having made his way to the top from District Munsiff to District and Sessions Judge. His appointment naturally caused a lot of resentment amongst the Englishmen. He however distinguished himself in a great manner. A statue of his, adorns the Madras High Court even today.

V. Krishnaswamy Iyer was probably one of the biggest names amongst the Indians in the Madras High Court. He apprenticed under R. Balaji Roa, one of the leaders of the Madras Bar and enrolled as a vakil in 1885. He was involved in a number of important cases, most notable amongst them being the Arbuthnot Bank crash case in 1906. He was appointed judge in 1909, a tenure that lasted for hardly a year. He was invited to join the Governor’s Executive Council in 1911, where again he was to be for less than a year, for he passed away in December that year at the age of 48 in rather unfortunate circumstances. He had been called upon to attend the Grand Coronation Durbar in New Delhi, where he was to be decorated with the CIE medal. The belt buckle he was to wear for the occasion pierced him, causing him to bleed. Being diabetic, the wound turned septic and he did not recover from the incident, passing away at his palatial residence Ashrama in Mylapore. He is remembered today for the various institutions he founded such as the Mylapore Club, the Sanskrit College and the Venkatramana Ayurveda Dispensary (all in Mylapore) and last but not the least, the Indian Bank, which he helped form with many more prominent Madras citizens following the collapse of the Arbuthnot Bank. It was also he who funded the first ever publication of Subramania Bharati’s songs.

Sir V. Bhashyam Iyengar was another legendary name amongst the Indians in the legal fraternity. He was the first Indian to be appointed Acting Advocate General of Madras and was later appointed a judge of the Madras High Court. He was knighted in 1900. His statue stands even today outside the Madras Bar Association entrance in the High Court. The Thaneer Thurai market, which stood until recently on Royapettah High Road, was his creation. Vidya Mandir, the reputed school later came up on his residence, Vembakkam Gardens. He passed away in 1908.