Chennai

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Chennai (formerly Madras) is located off the Bay of Bengal,

The last Armenians in Madras

BBC News, UK Dec 11 2003

By Charles Haviland BBC correspondent in Madras

The southern Indian city of Madras once proudly boasted a thriving community of Armenians.

The church was built in the 1700s But now there are only two Armenians left there, one of whom is now the devoted guardian of the city's Armenian church.

For nine years, Michael Stephen, 35, has lived in and tended the graceful 18th-century building - a memorial to the city's once thriving Armenian community.

He does the job on his own after the recent death of his colleague, Gregory, who was nearly 90.

St Mary's Church sits behind a fa├žade, concealed from the chaos and noise of Armenian Street in Georgetown.

This is the old trading quarter of Madras (also called Chennai), close to the port - cramped and filthy but vibrant.

The Armenians were very, very religious people and contributed greatly to the churches they belonged to

Madras historian S Muthiah Out in the street, hawkers sell sandals, belts and baseball caps and carpenters and other artisans ply their trade.

But once admitted to the church compound via its creaky wooden doors, you enter a different world.

The bedlam is replaced by the twittering of caged birds in the long cloister, which is decorated by Gregory's religious drawings.

Religious traders

The church, with its wooden shutters and characteristically Armenian conical dome, sits on one side of the spacious courtyard, its bell-tower standing separate.

MICHAEL STEPHEN

There's a lot of chanting, the old rituals are still performed - we haven't changed anything

Two flowering frangipani trees give shade. Old red flagstones cover the yard, dotted with Armenian tombstones.

"The Armenians built their church here in their cemetery, after the original 1712 church was demolished in 1746 during the French occupation of Madras," explains Michael, who reels out historical facts at astonishing speed.

S Muthiah, a renowned chronicler of Madras history, says the Armenians were one of many diaspora communities here, including Jews, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Germans.

The Armenians were a mixture of refugees and traders, he says, coming from Persia (now Iran), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Armenia itself.

"The Armenian trade was to west Asia and east up to the Philippines," he says. "It took in cottons and textiles, timber, precious stones, hemp and spices.

"From what I can see, they all made their fortunes here. They were very very religious people and contributed greatly to the churches they belonged to."

Services still held

St Mary's was built to seat 130 people of the Orthodox tradition, plus a choir in its gallery.

Services are still held here four to six times a year, when a priest visits with a group of Armenians from Calcutta, where there are 140.

REVEREND'S TOMB

Harutiun Shmavonian was buried in 1824 Michael showed me a massive Bible, printed in 1686, in flowing Armenian script with woodcut prints, which is used on these occasions.

"There's a lot of chanting, the old rituals are still performed - we haven't changed anything," he told me.

The stepped wooden altar is inlaid with rare oval paintings depicting the life of Christ, surmounted by a painting of the Assumption.

We climbed the belfry's wooden staircase to its six massive bells.

Two, dating from 1837, have an international pedigree.

They come from the same source - London's Whitechapel Bell Foundry - that created the bells for the UK parliament's Big Ben, and the much older Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

Every Sunday morning Michael rings them, three at a time, slow and solemn, and the sound of the Caucasus re-echoes around old Madras.

There are some interesting characters buried here.

At sundown, as the church's three resident ducks went to sleep, Michael showed me the grave of the Rev Harutiun Shmavonian, who died in 1824.

He printed the first Armenian newspaper on these premises.

Michael is also proud that the first constitution for an independent Armenia was drafted by the community in Madras in 1781.

Not until the fall of the USSR in 1991 was the dream realised.

Heritage centre

Michael's own dream is for Armenian families to come and settle again here.

One hundred years of Madras history was closely tied up with the people who worshipped in that church

Historian S Muthiah Although he says he never feels alone - "I keep doing my duty" - there is only one other Armenian in Madras, here on a contract to train local rugby teams.

S Muthiah says he is in fact following in a long tradition: "For about 30-40 years, Armenian settlers dominated Indian rugby or were a major force in it.

"Now they couldn't even raise a team."

He is less optimistic than Michael on the prospects for Armenians re-settling here.

But, in a city of many crumbling buildings, the Armenian church is financially healthy and about to undergo some restoration work.

And Mr Muthiah praises Michael and his predecessors.

"One hundred years of Madras history was closely tied up with the people who worshipped in that church," he says, "and I think they have done a wonderful job to keep that as a very live centre for heritage."

Armenian Church In India Marks 300 Years Of Service

December 25, 2012 - 15:26 AMT

PanARMENIAN.Net - The small group of Armenians in Chennai, the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, will have more reason to rejoice on Christmas. For, the ancient St. Mary's Armenian Church has completed 300 years of service to the community, Deccan Chronicle reports.

Built in 1772, at the site of the Armenian cemetery where 350 graves are laid, the church, also known as Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, lends its name to the street at Parrys Corner. It houses a magnificent belfry - 6 bells, said to be the largest bells in Chennai.

The tercentenary was celebrated with Rev. Fr. Geghart conducting the Divine Liturgy followed by a requiem service. Armenians of Chennai were famous for their printing press and charitable works.

It was in Madras that Aztarar, the first ever Armenian journal, was printed and distributed by Rev. Harutiun Shmavonian in 1794. Though Armenians of Chennai were known to be famous precious stone, silk and spice merchants, there are few Armenians in the city now.

Former caretaker of the church, Michael Stephen, said, "I was happy to attend the service thanks to Fr. Khoren. This is Armenian heritage and we have to preserve this at any cost. God bless Indian Armenians."


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Chennai: Strolling Down Lanes Of History

Indian Express Aug 9 2014

By B Sudharsan

CHENNAI: It's 11 am and the scene at the Government Museum, Egmore, is animated, filled with activity. On one side, there are school children, running around and playing on the lanes inside the complex, and on the other, we find a few visitors engaged in an intense discussion.

And then there's an extraordinary calmness. Extraordinary, because it exists despite the hustle and bustle of the city. It's a silence that divulges tales of the structure's past and architectural beauty. The red-coat edifices house baroque carpentry, conventional and contemporary portraits, Buddhist statuary, engineered art works, and the famed museum theatre.

Previously known as Madras Museum, this is the second oldest museum, only after the Indian Museum (Kolkata).

It is also called the Government Museum as the ownership lies with the State Government. It's also the first ever museum to have been built under a State Government's patronage. The museum that was initiated 162 years ago, in 1851, on College Road in Nungambakkam, was shifted to Egmore in 1854 as per the first officer in-charge Dr Edward Balfour's order.Today, around 1,000 people visit the complex every day, making this museum one of the most frequented spots in the city.

Pantheon Past

The Pantheon estate, where the museum now stands, was gifted to Hall Plumer, a civil servant, in 1778, by the then Governor of Madras.

However, in 1793, Plumer sold the estate to a board of 24 members who managed public entertainment activities in Madras during that period.

After 77 years, in 1821, the estate was sold to an Armenian merchant, E S Moorat. It finally came back to the government in 1830, when Moorat sold the 43-acre land for `28, 000.

How the children's musem came to be

During the early 1850s, a Museum zoo was built in the area. Six years later, a zoological garden was opened with 360 animals and birds.

Meanwhile, in the 1860s, an upper storey was added to the public assembly room, known as the Pantheon (the Pantheon Road gets its name from here), where the elite fraction of the city gathered occasionally. A building housing contemporary art works was opened at The Connemera Public Library, which had a 200-feet high tower (tallest structure at that point in Madras). It came into being in 1896, but the tower was later demolished. The theatre museum was also initiated in 1896. In 1984, a separate building was erected that housed contemporary art, and in 1988, the children's museum came into existence.

http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/chennai/Strolling-down-lanes-of-history/2014/08/09/article2370240.ece


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