The tombstone of Rezabeebeh—wife of the late Charitable Sookias, who lies buried in the Armenian church compound—has perplexed many entrenched chroniclers of Kolkata. With the English inscription marking the year of Rezabeebeh’s passing to “Life Eternal” as 11 July 1630, researchers have pondered over the tomb’s vintage.
“If the date given is true, this would make it by far the oldest Christian grave in Calcutta,” writes Prosenjit Das Gupta in his Ten Walks in Calcutta. The writer wonders if Rezabeebeh died somewhere else and was interred at the church, particularly because the inscription is in English, while most of the older graves bear Cyrillic inscriptions.
The British author, Geoffrey Moorhouse, raises other questions in his bookCalcutta. In the context of the year of Rezabeebeh’s death, he writes: “Does it mean that there were Armenians already trading…when Charnock (Job Charnock, widely acknowledged as the founder of Calcutta) finally dropped anchor and that his log forgot to mention them? Or is it just the slip of a mason’s chisel?”
The Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth—an Armenian apostolic church near Burrabazar.
Moorhouse’s book, along with other historical biographies of the city, has given an affirmative reply to his first query: The Armenians did indeed arrive in Bengal before the British, and were the first Europeans to do so. They would be followed by the Dutch, Danes, French, Portuguese, Greek and Germans. The community, which mostly took the overland route from Armenia, was among the earliest to pioneer international trade and European enterprise in India. In Calcutta, as it was earlier known, they remained close consorts of the British; a cosy relationship that allowed Armenians to set up large business enterprises and time-attested institutions with the city as the hub of their activities.
The Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth on Armenian Street off Burrabazar—locally referred to as the Armenian church and by the community as its Mother Church in India—has traditionally been the centre of their religious and social world. Built in 1707, the wooden church was destroyed in a fire and was rebuilt in 1724 with the aid of Agha Nazar—who, as recently as early November this year, had a requiem service held in his honour (at another Armenian church in the city’s Park Circus area) as the “founder and benefactor” of the Armenian church in north Kolkata’s Armenian Street.
Around the same time as the requiem, the Armenian church—Kolkata’s oldest church otherwise being a serene setting—was also the venue of a turf war. On 10 November, Armenians voted to elect a panel that will control assets estimated to be worth thousands of crores of rupees. As an 8 November report in Mint noted, “The assets are mostly in the form of prime real estate and some five million shares of HSBC that are held by one of the richest religious institutions in India: the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata.”
With so much at stake, competing factions and fault lines emerged within the closely-huddled and reticent community.
A Sunday mass in progress at a church
A few days later, during a visit to the Armenian church, one of the security guards posted there recounted how the arrangements made by the police and a private security agency prevented outsiders from gatecrashing and disrupting the election. It was one of those rare days of intense activity for him—on most days, the church sees but a handful of visitors; weekly prayer services too are held elsewhere. Some estimate the Armenian population in Kolkata at a mere 50, others peg it at over 200, including visiting students at the city’s Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy.
The guard insists I visit again on 6 January, the day when Armenians celebrate Christmas, in keeping with the traditions in their native country. That is the day when the church fills up with the sound of hymns and the birds in the garden are outnumbered by visitors.
The church and its yard are crammed with graves and commemorative marble tablets grace its walls, but the guard has no recollection of any recent burial there. Inarguably , however, it is the final resting place and storehouse of Armenian history in Kolkata.
The church structure itself is less impressive than many of the other Armenian constructions in the city. Over the centuries, Armenian businessmen have contributed immensely to the city’s built heritage. Testament to this is 103-year-old Park Mansions—a building on Park Street built by Armenian jute trader T.M. Thaddeus. In November, it bagged the top prize for the best maintained and restored heritage building, instituted by the Kolkata municipal corporation and Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).
Other buildings survive too, like the Nizam Palace—earlier Galstaun Park, where Armenian horse racer, J.C. Galstaun lived; Galstaun made and lost his millions at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC) and the property was acquired by the nizam of Hyderabad before the government of India took over. Or the Edwardian-styled apartments, Queen’s Mansion, also built by Galstaun and renamed to mark the visit of Britain’s queen Elizabeth II to the city in 1961.
The relationship between the Armenians and the British has always been symbiotic. It is well illustrated in the example of two Armenian traders secretly supplying victuals to Britishers seeking refuge from the attacks of Bengal’s last independent nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah, in mid-18th century. “Little wonder they were so beholden to each other,” writes Soumitra Das inWhite & Black: Journey to the Centre of Imperial Calcutta.
But the story of Armenians in the city is also one of struggle and tragedy—many of them fled to escape the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century and found in this city a welcoming, cosmopolitan haven and fellow-feeling. Many went on to achieve great entrepreneurial success. The rags-to-riches story of Arathoon Stephen, who established the imposing Grand Hotel on Chowringhee Road, later bought by the Oberois, and the once-stately Stephen Court on Park Street, which is yet to recover from a 2010 fire, is part of community lore.
A disputed church property on Robinson Street
An understated feeling of kinship within the population in Kolkata makes the past seem current at the Armenian church, located at one end of the narrow and bustling Armenian Street. One has to tread carefully, for it’s nearly impossible to not step on gravestones, many of them beautifully chiselled in floral patterns and biblical motifs. Many epitaphs reflect the community’s tradition of charity and commiseration for the “local Armenian poor”.
Marble tablets within the church remember the big donors and achievers—Malcolm Peter Gasper, the first Armenian to crack the Indian Civil Service in 1869; Joseph Eminiantz, a fighter for Armenia’s freedom; Shiraz-born Rev. Shemavonian, the father of Armenian journalism; the children of the Balthazar family, who presented the altar piece’s three biblical paintings; David Aviet David, born in 1858 in Isfahan, Iran, who founded the Davidian Girls’ School in Calcutta; two others who volunteered as legal advisers to the church for as many as 18 and 26 years; and others, like Sir Catchick Paul Chater, among the chief architects of modern Hong Kong, who contributed a chunk of his life savings to the church and the Armenian underprivileged in Kolkata.
Outside, in the yard, gravestones lie interspersed between guava and mango trees. They speak of goodness, benevolence and laments at death. On the hour, every hour, from atop the rounded spire, an antique clock, wound up every Wednesday, commits itself to the passage of time. Near the area where small tombstones remember Armenian children like Vahan (aged 6 days, died 1897, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven”), the epitaph of C.J. Malchus, Esq., (died in 1876) reads: “To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die.”