Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2003

The last Armenians in Madras

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Madras

The southern Indian city of Madras once proudly boasted a thriving community of Armenians.

Armenian church cloister
The church was built in the 1700s

But now there are only two Armenians left there, one of whom is now the devoted guardian of the city's Armenian church.

For nine years, Michael Stephen, 35, has lived in and tended the graceful 18th-century building - a memorial to the city's once thriving Armenian community.

He does the job on his own after the recent death of his colleague, Gregory, who was nearly 90.

St Mary's Church sits behind a fašade, concealed from the chaos and noise of Armenian Street in Georgetown.

This is the old trading quarter of Madras (also called Chennai), close to the port - cramped and filthy but vibrant.

The Armenians were very, very religious people and contributed greatly to the churches they belonged to
Madras historian S Muthiah
Out in the street, hawkers sell sandals, belts and baseball caps and carpenters and other artisans ply their trade.

But once admitted to the church compound via its creaky wooden doors, you enter a different world.

The bedlam is replaced by the twittering of caged birds in the long cloister, which is decorated by Gregory's religious drawings.

Religious traders

The church, with its wooden shutters and characteristically Armenian conical dome, sits on one side of the spacious courtyard, its bell-tower standing separate.

There's a lot of chanting, the old rituals are still performed - we haven't changed anything
Two flowering frangipani trees give shade. Old red flagstones cover the yard, dotted with Armenian tombstones.

"The Armenians built their church here in their cemetery, after the original 1712 church was demolished in 1746 during the French occupation of Madras," explains Michael, who reels out historical facts at astonishing speed.

S Muthiah, a renowned chronicler of Madras history, says the Armenians were one of many diaspora communities here, including Jews, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Germans.

The Armenians were a mixture of refugees and traders, he says, coming from Persia (now Iran), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Armenia itself.

"The Armenian trade was to west Asia and east up to the Philippines," he says. "It took in cottons and textiles, timber, precious stones, hemp and spices.

"From what I can see, they all made their fortunes here. They were very very religious people and contributed greatly to the churches they belonged to."

Services still held

St Mary's was built to seat 130 people of the Orthodox tradition, plus a choir in its gallery.

Services are still held here four to six times a year, when a priest visits with a group of Armenians from Calcutta, where there are 140.

Grave of the Rev Harutiun Shmavonian
Harutiun Shmavonian was buried in 1824
Michael showed me a massive Bible, printed in 1686, in flowing Armenian script with woodcut prints, which is used on these occasions.

"There's a lot of chanting, the old rituals are still performed - we haven't changed anything," he told me.

The stepped wooden altar is inlaid with rare oval paintings depicting the life of Christ, surmounted by a painting of the Assumption.

We climbed the belfry's wooden staircase to its six massive bells.

Two, dating from 1837, have an international pedigree.

They come from the same source - London's Whitechapel Bell Foundry - that created the bells for the UK parliament's Big Ben, and the much older Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

Every Sunday morning Michael rings them, three at a time, slow and solemn, and the sound of the Caucasus re-echoes around old Madras.

There are some interesting characters buried here.

At sundown, as the church's three resident ducks went to sleep, Michael showed me the grave of the Rev Harutiun Shmavonian, who died in 1824.

He printed the first Armenian newspaper on these premises.

Michael is also proud that the first constitution for an independent Armenia was drafted by the community in Madras in 1781.

Not until the fall of the USSR in 1991 was the dream realised.

Heritage centre

Michael's own dream is for Armenian families to come and settle again here.

One hundred years of Madras history was closely tied up with the people who worshipped in that church
Historian S Muthiah
Although he says he never feels alone - "I keep doing my duty" - there is only one other Armenian in Madras, here on a contract to train local rugby teams.

S Muthiah says he is in fact following in a long tradition: "For about 30-40 years, Armenian settlers dominated Indian rugby or were a major force in it.

"Now they couldn't even raise a team."

He is less optimistic than Michael on the prospects for Armenians re-settling here.

But, in a city of many crumbling buildings, the Armenian church is financially healthy and about to undergo some restoration work.

And Mr Muthiah praises Michael and his predecessors.

"One hundred years of Madras history was closely tied up with the people who worshipped in that church," he says, "and I think they have done a wonderful job to keep that as a very live centre for heritage."

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