Armenian Christmas at Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth, Kolkata
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The earliest documented references to the mutual relationship of Armenians and Indians are found in Cyropaedia (Persian Expedition), an ancient Greek work by Xenophon (430 BC - 355 BC). These references indicate that several Armenians traveled to India.
An archive directory (published 1956) in Delhi, India states that an Armenian merchant-cum-diplomat, named Thomas Cana, had reached the Malabar Coast in 780 using the overland route. Armenians had trading relations with several parts of India, and by the 7th century a few Armenian settlements had appeared in Kerala, an Indian state located on the Malabar Coast.
The Ottoman and the Safavid conquests of the Armenian highlands in the 15th century CE meant that many Armenians dispersed across the Ottoman and Safavid empires, with some eventually reaching Mughal India. During the period of Akbar, Armenians -- such as Akbar's wife Mariam Begum Saheba and a Chief Justice Abdul Hai -- gained prestige in the empire. While Armenians gained prestige serving as governors and generals elsewhere in the empire such as Delhi, Lahore and the Bengal, living in enclosed colonies and establishing churches. Armenians worked as merchants, gun-smiths, gunners, priests and mercenaries for some of the Islamic rulers of India, with many noted to have served in the armies of various nawabs in Bengal and Punjab, such as Khojah Petrus Nicholas and Khojah Gorgin Khan.
Thomas Cana was an affluent merchant dealing chiefly in spices and muslins. He was also instrumental in obtaining a decree, inscribed on a copperplate, from the rulers of Malabar, which conferred several commercial, social and religious privileges for the Christians of that region. In current local references, Thomas Cana is known as "Knayi Thomman" or "Kanaj Tomma", meaning Thomas the merchant.
An additional incentive for Armenian settlements in India was an Armenian agreement with the British East India Company. The agreement was signed in London, on 22 June 1688, and a Julfan merchant, resident in London at the time, signed the treaty on behalf of the "Armenian Nation." Competing with the Portuguese and the French, the British wanted to boost the Armenian presence in India, and the agreement accorded special trading privileges to the Armenians, as well as equal rights with British subjects regarding the freedom of residence, travel, religion, and unrestricted access to civil offices.
Several centuries of presence of Armenians resulted in the emergence of a number of several large and small Armenian settlements in several places in India, including Agra, Surat, Mumbai, Kanpur, Chinsurah, Chandernagore, Calcutta, Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad, Chennai, Gwalior, Lucknow, and several other locations currently in the Republic of India. Lahore and Dhaka - currently respectively in Pakistan and Bangladesh, - but, earlier part of Undivided India, and Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, also had an Armenian population. There were also many Armenians in Burma and Southeast Asia.
Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughal emperor, invited Armenians to settle in Agra in the 16th century, and by the middle of the 19th century, Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal Empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited. However, for the Armenians, who were recognized by the emperors for their innovative skills, earned their exceptional status in India. In 1562, an Armenian Church was constructed in Agra.
Aurangzeb (1658-1707), a Mughal Emperor, issued a decree which allowed Armenians to form a settlement in Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad, then the capital of Mughal subah (province) of Bengal. The imperial decree had also reduced the tax from 5% to 3.5% on two major items traded by them, namely piece goods and raw silk. The decree further stipulated that the estate of deceased Armenians would pass on to the Armenian community. By the middle of the 18th century, Armenians had become a very active, vibrant merchant community of Bengal. In 1758, Armenians had built a Church of the virgin Mary in Saidabad's Khan market.
16th century onwards, the Armenians (mostly from Persia) formed an important trading community in Surat, the most active Indian port of that period, located on the western coast of India. The port city of Surat used to have regular sea borne to and fro traffic of merchant vessels from Basra and Bandar Abbas. Armenians of Surat built two Churches and a cemetery there, and a tombstone (of 1579) in Surat bears Armenian inscriptions. The second Church was built in 1778 and was dedicated to Mary. A manuscript written in Armenian language in 1678 (currently preserved in Saltikov-Shchedrin Library, St. Petersburg) has an account of a permanent colony of Armenians in Surat.
Landmarks of contributions made to the city of Chennai still exist. Woksan, an Armenian merchant who had amassed a fortune from trade with the Nawab of Arcot, invested a great amount in buildings. The Marmalong Bridge, with many arches across the river Adyar was constructed by him, and a huge sum of maintenance donated to the local authorities. Besides building rest houses for pilgrims, he built the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles in Madras. The only reminder of the bygone era is the Holy Virgin Mary church of 1772 at 2/A Armenia Street, South Black Town (this area is now called Georgetown).
The Armenians settled in Chinsurah, near Kolkata, West Bengal, and in 1688 built a Church there which is now known as Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth This is the second oldest Church in Bengal and is still in well preserved on account of the care of the Calcutta Armenian Church Committee.
After Armenia's independence from USSR, many Armenian-Indians chose to return to their ancestral homeland. Now there are hardly 100 Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata. Kolkata still has about 150 Armenians and they still celebrate Christmas on 6 Jan, and Easter.Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is also observed in Armenian Church, Kolkata. The Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth, located in Brabourne Road, Kolkata was constructed in 1734 and is the oldest Church in Kolkata. The best known Armenian institution in India is the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (est. 1821) better known as the Armenian College, in Kolkata, funded by endowments and donations. The management of the college was handed over to the Armenian Holy See of Echmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church some years ago. There are presently around 125 children studying there from Armenia, Iran and Iraq and the local Armenian population. There is also the Armenian Sports Club (est. 1890). It is still active.
Most Armenians in Armenia are Apostolic Orthodox and adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church and are under the jurisdiction of the Holy See of Echmiadzin. In February 2007, Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians visited India. In Delhi he met with the President of India. He also visited Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. There are many Armenian Apostolic Orthodox churches in India:
President Levon Ter-Petrossian visited India in December 1995 and signed a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian traveled to India in December 2000. India's Minister of State for External Affairs Mr. Digvijay Singh visited Armenia in July 2003. President Robert Kocharian, accompanied by several Ministers and a strong business delegation, visited India in October-November 2003.