An Armenian colony was established here in 1665, by virtue of a royal farman (decree) issued by the Moghul Emperor, granting the Armenians a piece of land in Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad (the then capital of Bengal). The Armenians flourished and made their fortunes. In 1758 the well known and extremely successful merchant, Khojah Petrus Arathoon built the Armenian church at Saidabad entirely at his own expense and in memory of his parents. The place having lost its commercial value, the Armenians left the place towards the end of 1860.
“There was a brass tablet on the north wall of the Armenian church at Saidabad, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with an inscription in Armenian, from which it appears that the church was built by Khojah Petrus to the memory of his revered parents, Arathoon his father and Hosannah his mother, Dastagool his wife, Khojah Gregory (Gorgin Khan) and Agah Barsegh (Basil) his brothers and all his blood relations, whether dead of alive. This tablet is now in the picture gallery of the Armenian Church* at Calcutta.” [Extracted from Armenians in India by M.J. Seth published 1937]
* Sadly, this tablet, along with many other precious and historical items no longer exist. Looted and stolen from this and other Armenian churches in India, by individuals who knew the value and sold them, thus depleting and diluting the history of their very own ancestors and countrymen. Such callous and selfish behaviour deprives the current community, small though it is, of knowing and learning about the many good Armenians who went before them.
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?
Another prominent Armenian merchant who lived in Saidabad was Manatsaken Sumbat Vardon. He was the founder of the Armenian College, which opened its doors on the 2nd April 1821 and is still going strong today. Manatsaken Vardon departed this life at Saidabad on the 13th October 1827 at the very early age of fifty five years having been born in Julfa Ispahan on the 6th September 1772. He was buried in the church in Saidabad.
The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary was built in 1758 and the last service was held there in 1860 after which the church remained closed for nearly a century because the Armenians left towards the end of 1860 due to the decline of commerce and trade. Successive caretakers looked after it, the last being the late Mr. Mathevos Carapiet who served there between 1908 and 1952. His wife Mary, continued to look after it until her death in 1968, a most remarkable selfless act, by two remarkable people. During the 100 years or so that it was closed, it was left to the ravages of time. As a result, the roof collapsed on the altar and the walls were severely damaged. In 1960 a small number of dedicated Armenians of Calcutta collected funds and had the church thoroughly renovated. This brought a short-lived revival of just two services being held at which a large number of Armenians from Calcutta attended.
Following the death of Mary Carapiet in 1968 the church no longer had anyone to tend it and it quickly fell into a serious state of disrepair which, coupled with fire and earthquakes almost destroyed it. The agonies of the heart of that church must have been heard by those few Armenians in Calcutta 37 years later because in 2005, the newly elected Armenian Church Committee of Kolkata vowed that the church should once again, stand tall and proud, and went about a major restoration programme the likes of which have never been seen in the Armenian community of India before.
On the 5th December 2006 the Armenian Apostolic Church of Holy Virgin Mary of Saidabad was re-consecrated by His Eminence Archbishop Aghan Baliozian, Prelate of Australia and the Far East and Pontifical Legate of Armenians in India and the Far East assisted by the Pastor of Armenians in India, the Very Reverend Father Oshagan Gulgulian. It is a delight to be able to report that regular services are held at Saidabad attended by the Armenian community from Kolkata and the children from the Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy as well as the girls from the Davidian Girls’ School.
You only have to look at the “before” and “after” pictures to see what the miraculous transformation that has taken place due entirely to the commitment and dedication of the newly formed Armenian Church Committee of Kolkata.