The case of the vanishing Armenians

There are fewer than 100 Indian Armenians in Kolkata. They were once a prosperous community but their numbers have dwindled dradtically in half a century. Brunch brings you potraits from the past and the present.
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Updated on Sep 20, 2014 06:56 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain

Less than 100 Indian Armenians live in Kolkata. And unless you go looking, you will not find them.

There is nothing Armenian about Armenian Street – a long meandering quarter of Burrabazaar. Like any other part of the big, bustling wholesale market, it is clustered with shops and labourers, warehouses and packs of customers, where Marwaris and Muslims, Bengalis and Biharis toil elbow-to-elbow. The shopkeepers know nothing about the community that once, along with the Portuguese and the Jews, thrived here.

Not one Armenian in this sea of humanity. “Machhuaara toh kya, ek macchli bhi nahi milegi,” a shopkeeper laughs. Others shake their heads, mumble something about times gone by and point us down the lane, to the other side of the main road.

And only after you wade through murk and more crowds, and reach its imposing gates, do you get the first glimpse of the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth, built in 1724 on an old Armenian burial ground.

On 2, Armenian Street, masked by this congested market, stands the Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth, built in 1724

on the burial ground of the community. Its caretaker Paul Stephen (seen here in the picture) lives on the premises

There was a time, we are told, when Armenians “ran the city”. And this small community – a few thousand strong at the time of Independence – was at the helm of Calcutta society.

Kolkata is the last surviving home to Armenians in India. And for the last six decades their numbers have been dwindling alarmingly.

The Sunday service at St Gregory's Chapel at Park Circus

But this is not a new story. In a city of 15 million people they have been the object of fascinated interest, and have been written about over and over again. And perhaps because there are barely a handful of Armenians in the rest of the country, people outside of Kolkata know little – if anything at all – of their existence.

Seven centuries before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar coast, Armenian merchant Thomas Cana landed on the same south-western coast in 780 CE, writes 19th century historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth in Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. But it was only in the 16th century that Armenian settlements began in the country.

Mackertich Sarkies Adams, 85, and his wife Elizabeth, 77, live at The Sir Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Elderly.
Mackertich Sarkies Adams, 85, and his wife Elizabeth, 77, live at The Sir Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Elderly.

“India’s such a beautiful country, and they don’t interfere with anybody. As long as you stay away from their girls, they’re happy!” laughs 85-year-old Mackertich Sarkies Adams, who once ran his family’s motor shop in Theatre Road, home to the city’s first theatres.

Adams’ father, uncle and grandfather came to Kolkata from Julfa [New Julfa, the Armenian quarter in Iran] in 1924, to trade in India, and never went back. Like most Indian-Armenians, Adams has never been to Julfa or Armenia. Like most Indian-Armenians in Kolkata, his siblings and friends have all moved abroad.

But unlike them, Adams never really wanted to leave “Mamata Banerjee’s country.”

We’re chatting at the Sir Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Elderly in Park Circus. The largely empty building gives us a peek into the vanishing world of Armenians. There are only eight residents now. The numbers diminish every year – and the men and women here, a dark, quirky lot, laugh about “kicking the bucket”.

Adams lives here with his wife of 45 years, the 77-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’, an Indian who had been adopted by his first cousins as a child.

“Did you date a lot before you were married,” I ask, my curiousity piqued.
“I won’t say, ‘no’,” Mac smiles boyishly.
“Were they mostly Armenian girls?”
“Nooo,” he groans. “Anglo-Indians!” he grins. “The Armenian girls at that time were too bloody stuck up.”
“And fat,” quips Betty.

Apart from its name, the Armenian Street in Burrabazaar – famous for its dyes – bears no traces of the community today
Apart from its name, the Armenian Street in Burrabazaar – famous for its dyes – bears no traces of the community today

In those days, Park Street was something else. It was the throbbing pulse of an otherwise conservative city. The Anglo-Indians mixed with the Bengali elite, the Armenians and the Parsis. These small communities, who lived here, roared in the 1920s and swung to the tune of the 1960s.

Those were the days of cabaret in the mornings, sensual singers crooning to entertain diners at Mocambo and lots of parties. Not all Armenians were wealthy of course – but many were. Very.

They owned trading companies, shipping lines, publishing houses. They had big businesses – indigo, shellac, jewellery. Their European heritage and enterprising attitude made them natural allies of the British – and like the Anglo-Indians, they had coveted government jobs. They owned prime real estate too. And the stories of their lives seem like they’re out of a novel.

In the early 20th century, the race course magnate Johannes Carapiet Galstaun owned some 350 buildings and 100 racehorses (he supposedly lost his fortunes thrice and recovered them at the races) and donated Rs 25,000 to the Victoria Memorial building fund at the time.

The hotelier Arathoon Stephen had come penniless to the city and eventually built The Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand) and Stephen Court, the building on Park Street where the famous patisserie Flurys is located.

Realtor TM Thaddeus, who built Park Mansions, owned a Rolls Royce but travelled in rickshaws because he did not trust a driver with his prized possession.

Businessman Paul Chater eventually became one of Hong Kong’s top bankers, and – like many others – bequeathed his estate to the Church in Kolkata, the old home is named after him.

Armenia is situated on the crossroads of West Asia and East Europe, strategically located for trade, and consequently, a constant battleground. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Christian Armenia was caught in a series of conflicts between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians. Later, part of it was conquered by Russia and eventually absorbed into the former Soviet Union in 1922 as well.

It was during these tumultuous years that, many Armenians moved out. And like the Parsis who had fled from the same region centuries before them, Armenians too found refuge in India. The splendour of the Mughals made India favourable for trade, and Armenians received a warm welcome in Akbar’s secular court. They settled in Agra, Delhi, Surat and Lahore, among other cities. It is believed that one of Akbar’s queens was Armenian.

It was because of their connections with the Mughals, that the East India FCompany began cultivating a relationship with them. As the situation back home got worse, more and more Armenians came to India. But by then Fthe Mughal empire was collapsing, and they spread to other parts of India, settling in large numbers in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. They could never establish themselves well enough in Bombay’s trade because the Parsis were already mediating between the British and the locals.

It is difficult to say when they first came to Kolkata, but we do know they were here, at least 60 years before the British. The oldest Christian grave in Kolkata, marked 1630 CE – Rezabeebeh, ‘wife of the late Charitable Sookias’ – is of an Armenian.

The last round of settlers came in the years following the outbreak of the First World War, in 1915. In fact 2015 is the centenary of what historians call the Armenian genocide, the systematic killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman empire. Many fled the region—and about 2,000 found refuge in India.

When the British left, there were approximately 3000-4000 Armenians in Kolkata. But at the time, “If you had an Indian name, it carried a lot of weight. But our names didn’t give us opportunities,” says Peter Hyrapiet, 67, the current president of the Armenian Club.

The Hyrapiets – Peter and his wife Heather, their son Shayne and his wife Nidhi and their daughter Skyla – are a typical Armenian-Indian family

“Armenians were being isolated. People who were very well established, they all left,” Hyrapiet adds rather matter-of-factly. The parties were over. It was time for nation building – and communities that had flourished under the English were seen as a reminder of the colonists.

Hyrapiet had wanted to leave. His mother was Anglo-Indian, as was his wife. Nearly all their friends and family left for the West. He tried too, but didn’t meet the visa criteria.

“Who wouldn’t want to go?” says Paul Stephen, the 67-year-old caretaker of the Holy Church of Nazareth. “The Church said to me, ‘What are you doing? Go abroad. There’s no future over here!’ But I didn’t want to leave my parents.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, more Armenians left, coinciding with the Indian brain drain – and they still continue to do so. Stephen’s sons, both staunch Armenians and proud of their Indian Armenian heritage, have moved abroad too, one to Australia and the other to New Zealand.

At one level though, it is difficult to understand why they would want to leave. The Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth, the centre of this tiny community, has assets worth thousands of crores, “mostly in the form of prime real estate and some five million shares of HSBC,” stated a report published in Mint in November 2013.

If you’re Armenian in India, you’re entitled to free education, medical care and accommodation when you retire. If you want aid, help of any kind, you need only ask.

When there was a legal case filed over Paul Stephen’s residential property, he asked the Church for help. “They gave me a place to stay and since then I’ve been the caretaker of the Church,” he says.

The early Armenian settlers were conservative and clannish. They did not usually marry out of their community, and it was important for them to preserve their identity, their culture. And in order to pass on this heritage, schools were established for educating Calcutta’s Armenians.

In 1821, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) was formalised – a school for young Armenians until Class X, which would also teach them the Armenian language, history and music.

Until the 1960s, nearly all Indian-Armenians studied here. But as the community shrank and as the world moved on, they began to integrate themselves into the mainstream – children were sent to more established schools in the city.

According to the Armenian General Benevolent Union news magazine, the number of students dropped from 206 in 1961 to just six in 1998. The school had always welcomed immigrant Armenians as residential students, but it now became necessary to bring even more Armenians from abroad. (Education for all Armenians, anywhere from around the world is free at the school – including boarding, lodging and a trip back home every three years. They even give financial aid to students after they finish school).

At the moment, there are only two Indian-Armenian students in the school. The other 58 are from Armenia, Iran and Iraq. But the school has improved, tremendously – is the general consensus.

Whereas at one time, many of its students had to settle for low-paying jobs (according to a 1988 India Today report), they are now finishing high school at premier institutions of the city, many staying on to complete college before going back home to Armenia – or settling abroad.

They are best known in Kolkata as the boys who are brilliant at rugby – a game they’ve been pros at for more than a hundred years in this city.

Less than a third of Armenians, roughly 11 million people all around the world, actually live in Armenia.

“People keep referring to us as a small community because they look at us as a community in Calcutta but I don’t look at us as a community in Calcutta, I look at ourselves worldwide. And worldwide, I think we’re quite a force to reckon with,” says businessman Sunil Sobti, one of the two wardens of the Church.

Sobti is, like nearly all Indian Armenians interviewed for this story, only part Armenian. His father was Punjabi, hence the last name.

Like any other community, Armenians frown upon inter-ethnic marriages. But like any community fighting for numbers and existence, it was a losing battle. The only pure Armenians we met for this story were first- or-second generation immigrants. The others are only partly Armenian.

Last year, it was reported that Britain’s Prince William is 1/256th part Indian from his mother’s side, traced back six generations to an Eliza Kewark. Interestingly, Kewark’s father was an Armenian in Surat. She had married a Scotsman in India, and after his death, sent her daughter, Kitty, off to Scotland in 1818.

“There are no young Armenians to get married to!” says 35-year-old singer Shayne Hyrapiet, Peter’s son.

An Armenian wedding is a rare event – the last was five years ago and was covered by two television channels, a documentary filmmaker and “I don’t know how many newspapers!”

Shayne, the groom was marrying his girlfriend Nidhi – a Punjabi. “If I had to marry an Armenian girl, I would have to marry one of two girls! It's either that, or don't get married, and if you don't get married, the community dwindles and there's nothing left. It makes a lot more sense to become, what they call in the Harry Potter series, mixed bloods, rather than have no thoroughbreds at all,” he says.

Shayne’s three-year-old daughter, Skyla, is then 12.5 per cent Armenian.

“I wanted to marry an Armenian boy,” says 36-year-old Victoria Stephen, Paul Stephen’s daughter. “But I fell in love!” She had studied at ACPA and there were options. But all the Iranian-Armenian boys would have been sure to leave the country — something she didn’t want to do.

She met James, a Chinese Christian in high school and they dated for 11 years. “And although my mom is Bengali, she wanted me to marry an Armenian. It took a lot of conversations to convince her!”

And so, the balance is tipping on the other side. More and more Armenians are leaving the country, and the ones staying on are more Indian than ever before. Many speak Bengali – often just about enough to get by.

Once, all Armenian families grew grapes in their houses, not for the fruit but for the vine leaves, used to wrap meat to make their most loved dish, dolmas. The vine was replaced by cabbage. Rice pilaf became pulav. And stews gave way to curries, more spices and less water.

But the Sunday Church service is still in Armenian. Christmas is celebrated on January 6 and in the summer, there's Vardavar, "like your Holi, but only with water," says Victoria, making it sound completely desi.

And because she is fluent in Armenian, Victoria plans to teach the language to her five-year-old son. Shayne, on the other hand, does not speak the language. “The first thing you'd want your child to absorb, is the language. I'm yet to learn it. At 35, I don't think I'll ever start,” he says.

But his daughter Skyla was baptised in the Church too – and that is all that matters. “Everyone in our community knows each other. Whenever we see each other on the road, we greet one another but in a regular Christian sort of way. There's nothing special or Armenian about that, we don't tap heads or shake legs or anything like that,” he laughs.

The one way to preserve the community is to get some of the foreign students at ACPA to stay on in India. Susan Reuben, the other warden of the church – and Victoria’s aunt (most people are related, inevitably), says, “We want to get that back, that community that we had. But that can only happen if the children stay back here, marry out here and start a family.”

That hasn’t happened, yet.

“Two of my Armenian-Iranian friends married Indians too – a Punjabi and a south Indian – but they moved abroad,” says Victoria. Aden Davitian, a former Iranian-Armenian student of ACPA and a hotel management graduate even considered living in India. “I got a few job offers too — Park Hotels, Taj, Four Seasons Mumbai… But your minimum salary should be Rs 1.5 lakh, or you won’t get a visa,” he says. So he is looking to move abroad.

It does seem a bit odd at first, almost unsettling, this idea of wanting to assimilate fresh Armenian students in the community. Until the realisation hits you that Indian-Armenians have always been replenished by newer waves, that there always were new travellers who decided to settle down here, to become a little Indian, if only for a short time.

And if communities are built on the stories they leave behind, then the vanishing Indian-Armenians have assembled a veritable library in the 500 years they have lived in the city – and newer ones still may be written.

Perhaps, some day, you will not have to go looking for them.

The Armenian Trail (from the reporter's diary)

I didn’t know there were any Armenians in the country. While researching for our Christmas special last year, I found that when Nadir Shah invaded India, he destroyed two Armenian churches in Delhi.

Paying my respects to Rezabeebeh, whose grave is the oldest Christian grave in Kolkata

The little I knew about Armenia was from Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s bestselling novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. "What were Armenians doing in India?" I wondered and – like every webslave – Googled.

And so I found out about the miniscule but fascinating Armenian community in Kolkata. My Bengali friends called me an ignoramus. But everybody else was surprised by my discovery too – so I decided to do this story anyway. Without any leads!

One evening, over drinks with the friend of a friend, I heard of Medrik Miniassian, an Armenian who had come to Kolkata to study. I dropped him an email.

And through Medrik, I was introduced to the secret world of the Armenians. They welcomed me to peek into their lives, some into their homes. They made me laugh and swept me off my feet. You should try and find an Armenian friend because by jove, they’re fun!

Photos by Ajay Aggarwal

From HT Brunch, September 14
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