The Armenians in Madras in 1949 celebrating the visit of Bishop Vahan Constantian
Armenians flourished at Madras during the 17th and 18th centuries, when they had the trade of the Asians in their hands, and carried on a lucrative trade with Europe and the East. From a valuable Armenian manuscript, written at Masulipatam by Sarkies Johannes in 1790, it can be seen that Armenians settled permanently at Madras in the year 1666.
However, from “Madras in the Olden Time: Being a History of the Presidency from the First Foundation to the Governorship of Thomas Pitt, Grandfather of the Earl of Chatham 1639-1702. Compiled from Official Records by James Talboys Wheeler.” Published in Madras in 1861, comes the following extract.
In January 1692 the Court of Directors [of the East India Co.] sent a letter to the administration at Fort St. George, Madras stating: “We have discoursed Sir John Goldsborough (newly arrived in Madras as Governor General, who took over from Mr. Yale) about enlarging our Christian town to a Quadrangle, so as it may be done without detriment to the Company, with handsome stone bridges over the river; in which designed new moiety of the city, one Quarter of that moiety may be set apart for the Armenian Christians to build a new church (for the worship of God according to their own Rites), at their charge, with stone and other durable materials, and also convenient dwelling houses for their merchants, they paying as such ground rents as will fully defray our charges. And that Quarter so set apart for their use you may call it “Julpha” that being the town from whence Shah Abbas the Great brought them, when he conquered Armenian and settled them in a suburb of his new made metropolitan city of Ispahan and called the Quarter he allotted there to the Armenians “Julpha” the name of the city from whence he brought them”.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the Armenians settled here and grew rich, trading in textiles, precious stones, silks, and spices. Amongst them Petrus Woskan because a member of the East India Company’s Council. When the Nawab (Indian Prince) of Arcot visited Madras, it is said that Woskan draped the main streets with costly silks and entertained him on a lavish scale. The Nawab was so pleased that he asked Woskan what he would like in return as a favour. The shrewd Woskan with an eye to greater business did not lose this golden opportunity. He immediately asked for the monopoly of the inland trade to Madras and the interior, which the Nawab graciously granted without hesitation.
Thereby Woskan soon became a millionaire and utilised a large portion of his wealth in charitable works. At his personal cost he build the Marmalong Bridge across the Adyar River in Madras in 1726. In spite of heavy traffic for over two centuries, the bridge stood until 1960, when it was replaced with a more modern structure. He also built a flight of 160 large stone steps leading to the top of St. Thomas’ Mount in Madras, where the Church of St. Thomas was built on the reputed site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas the Apostle. There are a few Armenian graves around this Church. The pictures of the twelve Apostle hanging on the inside walls of the Church have their names inscribed in Armenian letters.
Petros Woskan was born in Julfa, Iran, in 1681 and passed away in Madras in 15th January 1751. His will included the following direction:
“My heart longs for home where, should I be unable to go, when my last day comes,
my heart be sent to my native town, so that I shall have a grave there”.
Accordingly, his heart was sent to Julfa in a golden casket and entombed in the grave of his parents in a Church built at the cost of his great grandfather, Khojah Petrus Velijanian.
“Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself had said
This is my own my native land”.
The first Armenian church in Madras was erected in 1712 in the Esplanade of the city. As the British authorities objected to tall buildings in the Fort area, this church and the Latin church in the same neighbourhood were demolished. However, another account indicated that in fact these two churches were wrecked in 1746 by the French military during their occupation of Madras.
The second Armenian church dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary was built in 1772 on land that was originally the burial ground of the community and where a chapel stood where they worshipped whilst the present church was being built. The ground belonged to the famous Agah Shameer. His wife, Anna, had been buried there in 1765 and a room built to her memory. This room, was known as “Shameer’s Room” and was attached to the church that was built seven years afterwards.
One cannot mention Armenians in Madras without mentioning Rev. Haruthiune Shmavonian. He was born in Shiraz, Iran and came to Madras in 1750 and served the Church for 44 years. During the years 1794-1796 he published the very first Armenian journal in the world and named it “Azdarar” (ie. Adviser). It was a completely one-man achievement for not only did he edit, compose and print it, but he also cast the typefaces and made the printing paper from cotton pulp. He is acknowledged as the “Father of Armenian Journalism”. He died in Madras on 9th February 1824 and was buried in the churchyard. The tombstone of Rev. Shmavonian’s grave being in a state of decay for many years (see right), was replaced with a new and beautiful black marble slab in 1965 (see below) with the original epitaph inscribed on it, courtesy of the Armenian Association.
The first Armenian publication in India, which was printed in Madras dates back even further than the start of Rev. Shmavonian’s journal, it being published in 1772 with an interesting title page which translates into English as:
“New pamphlet, called Exhortation , composed for the awakening of the Armenian youth from the weak and idle drowsiness of the sleep of slothfulness, and with an ardent and tender desire printed at the expense and through the exertions of Jacob Shameer by his tutor Moses Bagram, for the benefit of the tender Armenian youth, in the year of the incarnation of the Word 1772 and in the year 1221 of the Armenian era. In India, at the city of Madras, at the press of the said Jacob Shameer.”
The works in the Armenian language, published at Madras between the years 1772 and 1800, possess considerable literary merit. Source: Seth, Armenians in India P.596.
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.
It appears that in 1838 a new freemason’s lodge was established in Madras by members of the Armenian community, and it was named the “Armenian Lodge”.