India and Armenia: The connection
Trans World Features (TWF) | 21 Sep 2015
India and Armenia: The connection
Armenia and India, two of the world’s oldest civilizations, have also shared socio-cultural ties for many centuries as new research shows. Mane Mehrabian, a journalist from Armenia, reports

Who could have imagined that the guns used by the Mughals against the Marathas were made by an Armenian?  Did one know that an Armenian wife formed part of Mughal Emperor Akbar's harem? Lady Juliana who built the first church in Agra is believed to be a sister of one of Akbar’s Armenian wives. She was also a doctor in the royal harem of Akbar. Very few know that the Mughal Court once had an accomplished Urdu and Hindi scholar, Mirza Zulqarnain, again an Armenian. How about the fact that the Scindia royal family of Gwalior once employed an Armenian as the commander-in-chief of their army?

 The similarity in Armenian and Hindi languages (where ten is "tas" and thousand is "hazar" in both) opened up scope for a research in the Indo-Armenian connection, which is not known to many among the younger generation.

 Several of these facts are revealed in Shahzad Z. Najmuddin's book Armenia: a Resume with Notes on Seth's Armenians in India, which is a recounting of the Armenian history. He was one of the few Pakistani Armenians who preserves in his book family anecdotes and the struggles of his family who emigrated to Lahore from Afghanistan where Armenians were employed as gunsmith by the invading Afghan armies. The name may come as a surprise as a Muslim name, but  readers will discover that Armenians often used surnames such as Khoja or Khan, which belonged to Persian upper class authorities.

 In one of the paragraphs Najmuddin talks about Lahore's famous gun, the Zamzamah, meaning “the lion's roar” cast by the Armenian Shah Nazar Khan. The gun was used by the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani in the famous Battle of Panipat in 1761 against the Marathas. In  Rudyrad Kipling’s book the gun found frequent mention and came to be known as Kim’s Gun because the novel Kim opens with a mention to this gun. In India, it is also called Bhangianwala Toap, because it was used by the Sikh chief Sardar Hari Singh Bhangi..

 The Armeno-Indian economic, cultural and scientific relations go deep into the past. Being situated on the crossroads of the caravan routes between the East and the West, Armenia had achieved cultural and economic ties with India long before this era.

 The Armeno-Indian trade relations continued also in the succeeding centuries. They strengthened and acquired a new quality; the visits of Armenians grew in number as the first Armenian colonies began to appear on the hospitable Indian soil.

 Armenians, in fact, are believed to have arrived on the bank of Hooghly before the East India Company ‘s Job Charnock decided to  establish a British trading post in Calcutta/Kolkata  thereby changing the history of India. They never amounted to more than a few thousand in Kolkata, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they ran trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, real estate and hotels. The Armenian Street in Barabazar area, in Kolkata, gives testimony to it and also the Armenian ghat. Ghats (river ports) were means of transport and trading those days.

 Within the scope of the overall history of Armenians in India, the role of Madras/ Chennai was also exceptional. In the second half of the 18th century, the dwelling became a prominent center of enlightenment, cultural awakening, literary life and the Armenian national-liberation ideology.

 According to Portuguese sources, Armenian merchants were trading in Chennai in the early 16th century. Armenian merchants from Julfa (of  Persia) flourished there during the 17th and 18th centuries and carried on a lucrative trade with Europe and the Philippines from there. An Armenian manuscript tells us that in 1666 Armenians settled permanently in Chennai. Known to be philanthropic by nature these opulent merchants helped the downtrodden. They also contributed to the advancement of Armenian classical literature in India. The first ever Armenian newspaper in the world was published in Chennai in 1794, by Father Harutiun Shmavonian.

 Manuscripts in profusion on the history of India and the Armeno-Indian relations are preserved in the repositories and archives of Armenian manuscripts and documents in Yerevan, Venice, Vienna, Jerusalem, New Julfa and other cities. It should be mentioned that a brief description of the Brahmans has also reached  Matenadaran i.e. the book repository of ancient manuscripts, now made into a research institute of Armenia. In this brief text the author speaks of the Hindu-Brahmans with great warmth and depicts them as honest, industrious and peace-loving people.

 The Indo-Armenian community in India had produced a number of leading barristers, solicitors and advocates, including members of the Bengal Assembly and the Bengal Legislative Council. Some such illustrious Indo-Armenians are: M.P. Gasper, a leading barrister at the Calcutta High Court. He was the first Armenian who passed the Indian Civil Service Examination in 1869. Gregory Paul, who had graduated from the Cambridge University, held different posts in the High Court in India.

 The book Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, by Mesrovb Jacob Seth is a great revelation too. It is amazing to read about Martyrose's Chapel, the oldest Christian edifice in Northern India. This mausoleum was built in 1611 at the old Armenian cemetery of Agra, over the grave of a wealthy and charitable Armenian merchant, Khojah Martyrose.  And as the name Martyrose means martyr in the Armenian language, the place has been called "Martyr's Chapel". A lot of Armenian names are found in the old Armenian inscriptions on the tombstones at the cemetery like Zachariah, son of Amir Khan, Petrus son of Pogose, Avetick, the son of Malijan, Kirakose, Margar.
Armenia and India as two of the world’s oldest civilizations who have co-existed in peace for millennia are proud of a glorious past with still a handful of Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata where the Armenian College still functions.

Images: The Armenian Church in eastern city Kolkata. Photo by Avishek Mitra