Armenian Lost Treasures in India
Whatever Happened to These Lost Treasures?
Have you ever wondered what happened to the contents of the Armenian churches of India as they slowly, and painfully were closed or abandoned? The precious altar pieces, vestments and even the books from their libraries? Of course it is almost impossible to find out now, but one man, Mesrovb Seth, who spent forty years of his life researching Armenians in India was able to pick up many a small piece of information here and there as he travelled around India gathering material for his books. I list below the snippets of information Seth discovered on:
- In March 1903, we picked up in a second-hand book shop in Kalbadevi Road, Bombay, a very rare Armenian book, printed at Amsterdam in 1669. It had originally belonged to the now ruined Armenian church at Surat, according to a colophon (Hishatakaran) at the end of the book, in the handwriting of the priest in charge of the Surat Church
- When the Surat Church was finally closed down in 1861 because there were no Armenian community left there, the Wardens of Bombay, had all the sacred books, vessels and vestments of Surat brought to Bombay for preservation there. Amongst these was a manuscript Bible in the Armenian language which was written at Surat in 1658, there was also an old chasuble (shoorjar) belonging to the Surat Church on which the year 1782 was beautifully embroidered in gold thread.
- In October 1905, we picked up in a second-hand book shop in Madras, some rare Armenian works, the productions of the different Armenian presses which had existed in that old city between the year 1772 and 1812. Whether they came from the Church library or from some private collection, we cannot say, as they bore no names of the original owners.
- Over a 50 year period we have picked up many rare Armenian publications in the second-hand book shops of Calcutta, including amongst others, a copy of Father Jacob Villotte’s “New Latin – Armenian Dictionary” (Dictionarium Novum Latino-Armenium), printed in Rome in 1714, and a copy of the Latin translation of “Moses Chorenensi’s History of Armenia,” (Moses Chorenensis Historiae Armeniaca) by the Whiston Brothers, printed with the Armenian (classical) text and a map of ancient Armenia, in 1736, at London.
- The Armenian Church at Madras was once well known for possessing a large number of rare and valuable manuscripts and books. In April 1904 Mesrovb Seth made his first visit to the church in Madras and made the following observation.
Having arrived on the Saturday, we went to the church service the following day, which was very poorly attended owing to the paucity of Armenians in that city. We paid our respects to the priest in charge and he received us in the room where the so called Church Library was located. As a bibliophile, if not a bibliomaniac, we expected to find a large number of rare manuscripts and a complete collection of the works which had been issued from the different Armenian presses at Madras, between the years 1772 and 1812, but we were sorely disappointed when we saw no manuscripts and only a few torn and dilapidated copies of “Hisoos Vordi” (Jesus the Son) which was printed in Rev. Arathoon Shumavon’s press in 1792.
It seems the once beautiful and well stocked library of the church was completely devoid of its past historical content which had never had an inventory done of its unique collection.
- Around 1907 six baskets containing a large number of Armenian manuscripts, books and pontifical (Kondaka) belonging to the Armenian church at Gwalior, which was erected by Colonel Jacob Petrus, the Brigadier General of Scindias’ Army, were sold as waste paper for six Rupees only, by a descendant of the Colonel who told us about it at Agra in October 1919.
Armenian College, Calcutta
- At the Armenian College in Calcutta, the Araratian Library, which had been founded on 7th April 1828 had grown significantly by 1843 when it contained over 1000 precious and rare Armenian manuscripts.
In January 1890, the late Professor Frederick Conybeare, a distinguished Armenist of international reputation, paid a visit to the Academy, accompanied by his accomplished wife, who was a daughter of the world-renowned orientalist, Max Muller. He wishes to see the college library, expecting to find some rare Armenian manuscripts, as he had found in Armenia, during a tour in 1888. We happened to be present in the college at that time, and acted as a cicerone, not knowing who the strange visitor, with long hair, was. We showed him the remnants of the once famous “Araratian Library” and placed in his hands an Armenian work, printed by Jacob Shameer at Madras, in 1772, thinking we were showing him a rate publication, but he said that he had seen it already in the Madras Armenian Church Library. He then desired to see the manuscripts, and was visibly disappointed on learning that they had disappeared long ago.
The Araratian Library having ceased to exist with the mysterious disappearance of the numerous books and manuscripts in the Armenian, English, Latin, Greek, French, Dutch, Persian, Chinese and other editions in the church library. When we looked at the books, we found that most of them were worm-eaten but the older 17th and 18th century ones were in better shape than the newer ones because paper used to be made from cotton rags rather than wood pulp combined with softening chemicals. These same chemicals accelerate the deterioration of paper. Amongst the older books are three volumes comprising section of the New Testament in Armenian, dating back to the 17th century. The newer ones include an almost complete edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” the first volumes of which were published in 1871.” As far as can be ascertained, the books remain in Dhaka in their unpreserved state and quite probably not much left of them.
The Armenian College library never recovered from the huge loss of these unique and priceless works and near 50 years later in 1937 more unique and priceless works were to go missing, but this time at the hands of the very students they were educating in an act of deliberate vandalism. An ex student, Hovhannes (John) Sookias recalled the dispicable incident to Fr. Aramais Mirzaian for his book “Armenians: A Pilgrim People in Tierra Australia”.
- Hovhannes said: Another memorable day, a sad one, was the exit of the great classical Armenian champion and historian, Mr. Mesrope J. Seth, the author of “Armenians in India” when he left the Armenian College in 1937. His sad parting with the students and the incineration of hundreds of his three part library of English and classical Armenian text books. The boys looked on helplessly and with youthful grief and astonishment as the precious heaps of classical Armenian literature were consumed by the flames. Hovhannes was not sure who it was that ordered these books to be burnt, nor whether the books belonged to Mr. Seth personally or to the college library or to the Church. But they certainly pertained to the nation and were heedlessly and deliberately destroyed.” Hovhannes continued: “Some of us youngsters were emboldened discretely to rescue a few of these books which stood us in very good stead in later years in passing the difficult subject of classical Armenian in our Matriculation Examinations. It was a tragic holocaust [of literature]; the books had seemed almost human to us.
- In the library of the Armenian church in Calcutta, used to be a beautiful manuscript copy of a collection of 306 hymn, canticles and melodies composed in ancient Armenian by the Fathers of the Armenian Church from time to time. From the title page it could be seen that it was compiled by Petrus Amirjan, a chorister, but the date and place of the compilation was not shown. From the colophon (the symbol or emblem that is printed on a book and represents a publisher or publisher’s imprint) that this copy was made at Saidabad from the original of Petrus Amirjan, by a young Armenian, named Arakiel, the son of Mahtesy Johanness, who laboured for 4 months with great devotion and completed his self-imposed task on the 17th August 1757.
The colophon indicates that the paper was supplied by Martyrose, the son of Arathoon and the cost of the binding was borne by Petrus, the son of Rev. Nicholas, the pious and zealous warden of the Saidabad Armenian Church. Further evidence indicated that Carapiet, the son of Mathew, helped the copyist by reading the original, thereby enabling him to revise the copy. The volume, again according to the colophon, was presented by the scribe, Arakiel Mahtesy Johanness to the Armenian church at Saidabad, on the 3rd August 1759 in memory of all those mentioned above who had participated in its production.
The manuscript itself was composed of 320 quarto pages, measuring 10” x 7 ½ “. It was beautifully written, like print, with a reed pen on thick hand-made glazed paper, in jet black Indian ink, with the headings and the first letters of the lines in red ink. In the 1930’s Mesvrob Seth noted in his book “Armenians in India” that “although written 180 years ago, it is in a very fair state of preservation, despite the damp climate of Bengal”.
Whatever became of it?
- A number of items went missing from St Gregory’s in Singapore during the war. They included: the Persian carpets, pews, crystal chandeliers, the priest’s vestments, valuable paintings, the Bible printed in Venice in 1686, hymnbooks from the 1850s, prayer books printed in 1846 in Constantinople and some old gold and silver vessels
Where did they all end up?