Chennai

An Iconic Symbol of Madras: Armenian Church


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The Armenian Church is located in the Armenian Street in George Town, North Chennai (formerly Madras), India. Think about this – There is no British street, American street or German street. But, there is an Armenian Street in Chennai! That is something, huh? 🙂 BTW, if you are not sure where the country called Armenia is – Look at the above embedded Google Maps – It’s East to Turkey, North to Iran, Adjacent to Azerbaijan(??). Imagine coming all the way from there to India by walk – That’s what these adventurous/travel-loving people have been doing (from) 2000 years ago!

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This Armenian Church was initially established in Chennai (Madras) in 1712, in the area where the adjacent high-court complex stands now. Armenians have been visiting India right from Alexander’s time (possibly from even before) and had surprisingly good/friendly relationships with almost everybody – From the Mughal Emperors (Akbar, Aurangzeb) to the Portuguese and then English! This Church had the support of British East India Company and the English even provided monthly maintenance grants.

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But, sometime in the middle of 18th Century (when the British and French were not the best of friends), the French seem to have held this part of Madras for a short while, during which they destroyed the initial Armenian Church built of wood. I am sure the Armenians should have tried to woo the French too with their friendship, but somehow the French did not buy it! I don’t want to get into historical politics or anything, but for the amount of business the Armenians were doing, their minimum conflict with other powers surprises me – They had once monopolized the silk, gems and spices business with East/West Asia, from India!

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Armenian presence in Chennai increased considerably in the 17th Century. In fact, they were the first to discover St.Thomas Mount and they built a light-house there in order to signal Armenian and Portuguese ships. After the first Armenian Church was destroyed, they constructed the present one in 1772. This Church was built in memory of Eliazar Shawmier, son of a wealthy Armenian merchant, who was buried here. Partly because of the patronage offered by the British (to the Church), Armenian merchants settled around this area and that’s why it is called ‘Armenian Street’.

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What you see in the above photo is the bell-tower. There are 6 huge bells here (made in England and brought here during the 18th and 19th centuries) and a caretaker rings the bill every Sunday at 9:30 AM (it seems). I guess we missed it narrowly – I took these photos during the Jane Jacobs North Chennai Heritage walk and reached this spot at around 11:30 AM on a Sunday morning. It is also my understanding that there are no Armenians living in Chennai any longer and this Church is maintained by a caretaker directed by Armenian Church Committee in Kolkata (There seems to be an Armenian Church, Armenian College and 100+ Armenians studying/living in Kolkata now).

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It seems the Armenians were very religious and more than 350 Armenians have been buried in this Church premises. I saw a couple of graves with some inscriptions in the Armenian language and they were similar to the inscriptions in the Dutch Cemetery, Pulicat (Or at least I was not able to tell any difference!).

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Two interesting milestones of this Church – 1. The first ever Armenian journal was published and distributed in Madras from its premises. 2. The draft constitution for an independent Armenia was put together here (initially) during the 1780s but was realized only in late 1990s with the downfall of Soviet Union.

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This Church was also called as “The Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles”. The atmosphere within and around the Church is silent and serene. There is a good amount of greenery here and the place is open to tourists/visitors from 9:00 AM to 2:30 PM, daily. It’s an excellent place to sit down and relax, in peace.

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This blog post is my entry for the Madras Memories, Celebrations of Madras Week contest conducted by British Council, Chennai.

Reference/Further readings about this iconic monument of Madras (Armenian Church):

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Destination Infinity

Photos: By Destination8infinity (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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