A nondescript building in the busy commercial hub of Parrys in Chennai houses the Armenian Church, one of the oldest churches in the Indian subcontinent built in 1712 by the mercantile Armenian community that made Chennai their home for three centuries. In an ironic twist of history, the once functional church now serves as a heritage site and graveyard and has 350 Armenians buried inside the church compound.
The church is funded by the Armenian Apostolic Church and maintained by The Armenian Church Committee based in Calcutta.The stewardship of the church is entrusted with Trevor Alexander, an Anglo-Indian Roman Catholic who has been born and brought up in Chennai.
The Armenians arrived in Chennai in the early 17th century from Persia as traders and merchants dealing in textiles, spices, silk and precious stones. The Armenian community made widespread contributions to the construction of Chennai in the 18th century. One of the most prominent merchants, Khojah Petrus Woskan rebuilt the Marmalong Bridge in Saidapet in 1726.
“Post-Independence, the Armenian community has suffered a fatal blow due to the immigration of the seniors and well-off to the UK and Australia. The second wave that went to Australia decimated the community and left it without leaders of stature and competence”, wrote Max Galstaun, the President of the Association of Calcutta Armenians in an e-mail interview.
Presently, there are around 1500 Armenians in India most of whom live in Calcutta. Christmas is the only one big celebration on January 6th that brings the community together every year. Besides Christmas, there are several smaller events like feasts and meetings. Close to January 15th most of the Calcutta Armenians celebrate St.Johns feast day with a community picnic and a celebration of Mass at St. John’s Church in Chinsurah, West Bengal.
Chennai is no more home to the community, neither to the living nor to the dying. The sombre tombstones pay homage to a historical presence that is no more.
The Caretaker of the Armenian Church talking about its history: