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.