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Armenian Roots India

INDIA – THE ARMENIAN  CONENCTION

The Armenian obsession with commerce that led its traders to come to Indian across the overland route from Persia, through Afghanistan and Tibet in the 12th century. The Armenians became the first merchants to carry back from India spices, muslin and precious stones to Europe and the Middle East. The first reference to Armenians settling down in India is dated to the 16th century, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Aware of the Armenian merchants’ integrity and shrewd nose for business, Akbar invited them to settle in Agra, the imperial capital. In 1562. he married an Armenian, referred to as Mariam Zamani Begum in Abul Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. In Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s deserted capital, there exists a four-room building known as Mariam’s House. Remarkable for its skillful miniatures and its gilding it was built by Akbar for her.

Akbar’s successor Jehangir, less tolerant than his father, tried to convince two Armenian brothers Mirza and Iskanderus of his court, to become Muslims. On their refusal, he had them scourged and circumcised. Pious and philanthropic, Mirza, the most distinguished Armenian in India during the past three hundred years, was a strict Christian all his life. He won the admiration of the Jesult fathers when he built a church while he was Governor of Mogor. Mirza was responsible for setting up a college in Agra. A fact little known, perhaps even to the local population of Agra, is the existence of the well preserved Martyrose Chapel built by an Armenian merchant in 1612. The octagonal chapel has a beautiful dome toped by a cuppola bearing a cross. Inside the chapel, are two sandstone mural tablets bearing a Persian inscription at the head of the grave, while an Armenian inscription at the foot of the grave reads, “In this tomb rests the pilgrim Martyrose, son of Pheerbashee of Julfa. Died in the year 1060 of the Armenian era.” Twenty-six Jesuit Fathers are interred in the Chapel, bearing Armenian inscriptions.

At Agra, is the oldest Christian tomb in Uttar Pradesh, that of Martyrose, located at the Old Armenian Cemetery. Hundreds of Armenians were buried here between 1611 and 1927, majority of them merchants who had come from Iran. It is interesting to note that between the years 1707-1774, Armenians were buried at the cemetery which can possibly be attributed to the fact that the capital was being shifted from Agra to Delhi, leading to the merchants’ simultaneous exodus.

Records are scanty regarding Armenians in Delhi. The sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739 and the Indian mutiny of 1857, that razed churches and cemeteries to the ground, were obvious causes. Today, the only traces of Armenians in Delhi are a few scattered graves, a memorial tablet in the National Museum which states that an Armenian chapel was built in Delhi in 1781, and perhaps the most interesting living instance of all-a small tomb tucked in the vicnity of Jama Masjid, called the tomb of Sarmad, who was put to death by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, allegedly for his religious practices.

As I visit Sarmad’s tomb with my friend Hovsep Seferiyan, himself an Armenian, settled in Brazil, yet with a deep and intense longing for awakening a part of a rich legacy buried in the mists of the unknown, a strange sense of wonder strikes me. For, here lies the grave of a man buried next to a Muslim saint, getting the same reverence as the saint! Muslim from all walks offer prayers, flowers and kerchiefs to the very man who died for his faith, totally unconscious about the fact that Sarmad was a Christian. Sarmad (Arabic for eternal), was an Armenian merchant who came to India from Persia and began doing business in Sind. Soon afterwards, he fell in love with Abhai Chand, a handsome Indian youth who became his first disciple when he took the path of Sufism. Many stories survive about Sarmad’s mystic powers. It is said that Aurangzeb had Sarmad executed in 1661 for his supposed heresy. Sarmad is said to have greeted his executioner with the couplet:

“The friend with naked sword has now arrived, In whatever disguise thou mayst come, I recognize three, I go towards the mosque, but I am not a Musalman.” With those words, he sealed his fate.

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SARMAD’s DARGAH close to Jumma Mosque opposite to Red Fort in Delhi
[167] Armenians and merchants have been synanomous words in India, for it was trade and commerce that attracted the Armenians to this tropical country from their homes in the delectable and snow-clad mountains of Armenia, from the days of remote antiquity.

Apart from eminent merchants, clever diplomats, great soldiers, able governors and administrators, casters of huge pieces of ordnance and manufacturers of firelocks, which, according to Marshman, "were superior to the Tower-proof muskets of the Company", the Armenians have given to India a poet of great merit whose fame spread over Mohammedan India as a saint and a scholar, in the middle of the 17th century, and to this day, his memory is revered and kept green by all lovers of the noble, the beautiful and the sublime, not only in this country, but in the countries where the charms of the beautiful language of the immortal Ferdosi. Nizami, Saadi, Hafez, Jami and Khayyam, have captured and captivated the imagination of millions.
But who was this remarkable poet whom even the mighty Emperor Aurungzebe, the last of the Great Moguls, dreaded and ultimately beheaded, as can be seen later on.

Let us first tap the European sources for reliable information about this remarkable Armenian.

In the Oriental Biographical Dictionary by Thomas William Beale, revised and enlarged in 1894 by that eminent Persian scholar and historian. Henry George Keene,(*1) [168] M.R.A.S., we find the following authoritative account of Sarmad :— "Sarmad, the poetical name of an Armenian merchant who came to India in the reign of the Emperor Shah Jehan. In one of his journeys towards Thatta, he fell so passionately in love with a Hindu girl(*2) that he became distracted and would go about the streets naked. He was well versed in the Persian language and was a good poet. In the beginning of the reign of Alamgir [Aurungzebe] he was put to death on account of his disobeying the orders of that Emperor, who had commanded him not to so about naked, This even took place about the year 1661 (1072 A.H.). Some say that the real cause of his execution was a Rubcu [quatrain] which he had composed, the translation of which is: "The Mullas say that Mohammad entered the heavens, but Sarmad says that the heavens entered Mohammad " His tomb is close to the Juma Musjid at Delhi. Following in the footsteps of his compatriots, Sarmad came out to India as a merchant from Persia by sea He set up in business in the town of Thathah in Sindh, on the shores of the Indus, where his business thrived exceedingly and he spent his days in comfort and peace. During his sojourn in that city he contracted a close friendship with a Hindu lad, Abhai Chand by name. This was the turning point in his life, for unlike his calculating and serious minded countrymen, he neglected his business, lost the equilibrium of his mind altogether and relinquishing his life of comfort and peace, he lived thenceforth the austere life of a naked Hindu fakir- (ascetic) and in this nude state he would go and sit at the door of his beloved Abhai Chand. The following translation of a distich shows the true sentiment of the distracted Sarmad: "I know not if in this spherical old monastery [the world} My God is Abhai Chand or some one else."

The boy's father seeing the earnestness of the ascetic, and the purity of the attachment, allowed him to come to his house with [169] the result that his son Abhai Chand became so much attached to Sarmad that he could not bear to live apart from him. Soon after this, both left Thathah and went to Delhi. Shah Jehan was then the Mogul Emperor of India. People flocked round Sarmad and many found him to be a man of great sanctity and supernatural powers.
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There are a total of seven Armenian churches and two schools in India: Three in greater Kolkata, and one in Chinsurah, Saidabad, Chennai (Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay).

Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth - Kolkata
Armenians settled in Kolkata during the 17th century. A relic of the early settlement is shown on a tombstone of Uzabibe Mukiasin (1630), the oldest Christian tombstone in West Bengal. It is located in the Armenian cemetery adjacent to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth till now.  The original Church was a wooden building and was built in 1707, later on in 1724 it was rebuilt and renamed after Aghah Nazar as the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth; it is the oldest Christian church in Kolkata, built by Aghah Nazar. The belfry, which is also a clock tower, was built in 1734.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church - Kolkata
The tablet affixed over the west entrance of the church inscribed in two languages informs us that it was built in the year 1906 and was named after St. Gregory the Illuminator. The altar was constructed with funds donated by the members of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth and the Armenian community of Kolkata.

Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Tangra
Built in 1867, the church was renovated by the Armenian Church Committee of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata and was re-consecrated by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians on February 28, 2007.

St. John the Baptist Armenian Church - Chinsurah
This is the second oldest Armenian Christian church in West Bengal. Khojah Johannes, the son of opulent Margar family laid the foundation of the church in 1695, which was completed in 1697. Khojah Johannes Margar died suddenly on the 27th November 1697 and his mortal remains were interred inside the church he had built. His revered grave can be seen to this day with a long inscription in classical Armenian verse.

Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church of Saidabad
The then leader Khoja Petros of the Armenian community in Kolkata, prominent merchant and benefactor built Holy Virgin Mary Armenian Church of Saidabad in 1758, funded entirely at his own expense in the memory of his late parents. However when Saidabad stopped being the centre of trade, Armenians left to settle in other cities of India. The church suffered from a number of natural disasters and no services were conducted for last 75 years. Today the church has been fully restored thanks to the efforts of the Armenian Church Committee and the blessing of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. The belfry cross of the reconstructed church was consecrated on November 30, 2006 and Archbishop Aghan Baliozian re consecrated the church on March 4th, 2007.

St. Mary Armenian Church of Chennai
Originally constructed in 1712 it was one of the few magnificent edifices in the Esplanade of the city. The Armenians were forced to desert it after a time, as the British authorities would not permit so high an edifice to stand in the immediate vicinity of the Fort. The present Armenian Church situated in Armenian Street was erected in 1772 and dedicated it to the Holy Virgin Mary. It is one of the oldest churches of the Indian subcontinent. It is famous for its six belfry. Among other prominent Armenians, Haroutyun Shmavonian, the founder of Armenian journalism and editor of the first Armenian journal ‘Azdarar’, is buried here.

St. Peter Armenian Church of Mumbai
This Holy Church was erected in the name of the holy Apostle Peter. Mr. Jacob of Hamadan, better known as Hakob Hamadanchi built St. Peter Armenian Church of Mumbai on October 12th, 1796 in the memory of his parents. Situated in the by lanes of Fort, within a stone's thrown of the Bombay Stock Exchange, stands St Peter's Church, the temple of prayer for the Malankara community.

DGS

Davidian Girl’s School, which was founded by D.A.David in 1922, and was educationally amalgamated. Up to 1954 the girls appeared for the School final examinations of the Board of Secondary Education of West Bengal as private candidates. On 27th January 1953 permission for co-education was granted to the College by the Board and since then the girls along with the boys appeared for School Final Examinations as regular candidates.


ACPA
The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy was founded on the 2nd April 1821 at 385 Old China Bazaar Street, Calcutta, in the vicinity of the Armenian Church. The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy and Davidian Girl’s School, which was founded by D.A.David in 1922, were educationally amalgamated and up to 1954 the girls appeared for the School final examinations of the Board of Secondary Education of West Bengal as private candidates. On 27th January 1953 permission for co-education was granted to the College by the Board and since then the girls along with the boys appeared for School Final Examinations as regular candidates. In 1749 when Astvazatoor Mooradkhan first conceived the idea of National Academy in Calcutta. In his Will dated 30th July 1797 he left Rs.8000 towards the establishment of an Armenian School for the education of Armenian youth, both rich and poor. Later on through the effort of Manatzakan Vardan, enough money was raised by subscription from the Armenian community to materialize the original idea conceived by Asvazatoor Mooradkhan a quarter of a century earlier. At the time of its foundation the Academy had also a girls section that was abandoned in 1842. In 1884 the 56 Free School Street premises was purchased and the school transferred to its present location.

In 1956 Shah of Iran, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi and Queen Soraya arrived in India on an official visit. On the decision of the Armenian Church Committee, the representatives of the Armenian community of India welcomed Their Majesties and presented with gifts. The Armenian College band, conducted by Mr. Phillips performed for the Shah and the Queen.

Currently the school has 80 students, from Iran, Iraq and Armenia. Under the auspices of His Holiness, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness appointed Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian manager of the Academy and the Davidian Girls’ School on Nov. 5, 2005.
 
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