For the last few weeks, Vachagan Tadevosyan has been frantically making calls to relatives and friends across the world and closely following every bit of news streaming in from his home town in Armenia. At 55, Tadevosyan is a music teacher by profession and lives with his wife in the Armenian school located bang in the centre of Kolkata at Mirza Ghalib Street, which adjoins Park street. As he speaks to me over the phone, he says he has picked up much of Hindi and Bengali in the last 20 years spent in Kolkata and is proud of the large number of Indian friends he has here.
“Today Armenia is in trouble. Nobody wants war. But I can’t describe how happy it makes me feel when my Indian friends call everyday to find out the situation back in my home, and many have even donated money to help those affected by the war,” he says in a heavy East European accent, that he has been unable to shake off in the last two decades. Tadevosyan has been reading about the popular support that Indians are giving to Armenia in the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagaro-Karabakh and says it is only expected given the strong historical relations the two countries share. “Our ancestors came here centuries ago and became prosperous businessmen here. Since then, India has continued to remain a most important country for Armenians,” he says.
For centuries, India and Armenians have shared a unique relationship. Historians agree that the Armernians always existed in India in small numbers. Yet it is here that the south Caucasian community-acquired significant economic and cultural prosperity. “India has been more important to Armenians than Armenia was,” says Sebouh Aslanian, professor of modern Armenian history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “India in the 17th and 18th centuries is where Armenians made a ton of money, and they funneled that money into cultural productions like Armenian newspapers, books, etc. The most important, intelligent, and forward-thinking Armenians lived in India,” he adds.
The earliest footprints
In 1699, the Court of Directors of the English East India Company (EIC), made an observation about the Armenian community in their letter to Bengal, stating that “most certainly, they are the most ancient merchants of the world.” “Those people (the Armenians) are thrifty, close, prudent sort of men that travel all over India and know almost every village in the Mughal’s dominions and every sort of goods with such a perfect skill and judgement as exceeds the ancientest of our linen drapers,” says the letter as reproduced by historian Sushil Chaudhury in his book, ‘Armenians in international and inter-continental trade’.
The Armenians indeed had the most extraordinary presence in the world of trade and commerce of medieval times. In the 15th century, as Ottomans and Safavids made conquests into the Armenian highlands, the community there branched out in search of better economic prospects. They established small networks in Baghdad, Persia, Russia, and parts of the Mughal empire in India like Delhi and Agra. “They came to this country by the overland route through Persia, Bactria (Afghanistan) and Tibet and were well established in all the commercial centres long before the advent of any European traders into the country,” writes historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth, in his book, ‘Armenians in India, from the earliest times to the present day’. Seth explains that unlike the Europeans, the traders from Armenia formed no permanent settlements and built no colonies. “They were merely birds of passage who came all the way from the land of Arahat of Biblical fame, to purchase the spices and the fine muslin for which ancient India was famous.”
The earliest Armenian in India is known to have been a merchant by the name of Thomas Cana who came to the Malabar coast in 780 CE and was given trading privileges by the ruler of Kodungallur. However, it is only from the 16th century that we find references to Armenians acquiring positions of power and privilege under the Mughals. Seth writes that it was Akbar who, taken by the commercial spirit of the community, induced the Armenians to settle in his dominions instead of being mere sojourners.
Consequently, he asked the Armenians to settle at Agra, his imperial capital. Eventually, in the next few centuries, Armenians formed settlements at Delhi, Surat, Madras (Chennai), Murshidabad and Calcutta (Kolkata), where the remnant of their vivacious past exist in the form of churches, cemeteries, as well as hotels, bridges and other infrastructural contributions.
Several important members at Akbar’s court happened to be Armenians, including one of his wives, Mariam Zamani Begum. “Abdul Hai, the chief justice was, according to the Ain-i-Akbari, an Armenian. The lady-doctor in the royal seraglio was an Armenian, Juliana by the names,” quotes Seth.
Marking their own space in European colonial India
It is interesting that at the peak of their presence in India, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Armenians shared space with some of the most ambitious colonisers from European countries. The Armenian diaspora was operating in the Indian ocean much before the European companies arrived on the scene, and they were also well integrated into the local society. “In some ways, the Armenian presence in India seemed like a threat, commercially speaking to some of the companies,” says Aslanian. He explains that “the British in fact signed a treaty with the Armenians in 1688 to live up to the old saying of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.” “The Armenians cooperated with the British, but they also had vested interests in the local societies,” he says.
The agreement of 1688 between the EIC and Khwaja Phanoos Kalantar entailed that the Armenians were to provide goods from Bengal with their own capital and risk, at a 30 per cent profit. A few years later, the Company made a similar agreement with Kalantar for providing goods from Patna.
Among the Armenians in Bengal, it was Khwaja Wajid who played a very powerful role in the commercial and political life of the region in the mid-18th century. As an astute businessman, he was actively engaged in the inland trade of Bengal and acted as a supplier for European companies. Chaudhury notes the extensive business transactions that he had with the Dutch, the French and the English.
One of the most telling examples of the unique ways in which the Armenians were operating the landscape of colonial India is the case of Khojah Peterus Arathoon, a merchant in Murshidabad, and his brother Khojah Gregory. “Khojah Petrus was afterwards employed by (Robert) Clive as a confidential agent in negotiating with Mir Jafar for the overthrow of Siraj us-Dualah, the author of the ‘black hole’ tragedy,” writes Seth.
“And in 1760 when it was found expedient to remove the imbecile Mir Jafar and place his son-in-law Mir Qasim on the Masnad of Murshidabad, Khojah Petrus’ services were requisitioned as he was known to be very friendly with Mir Qasim,” he notes.
Interestingly, in 1764, when the British were fighting against Mir Qasim at Buxar, the latter’s army happened to be under the command of Gorghin Khan (originally Khojah Gregory), who was the youngest brother of Khojah Petrus. “This shows that the Armenians were stepping stones for the expansion of colonialism in some cases. At the same time, in the 1760s for example, the Bengali army had Armenian contingents fighting for Bengal,” says Aslanian.
Their land of cultural prosperity
A majority of the Armenians in India began leaving the country after its Independence in 1947, and more so after Armenia acquired independent statehood following the disintegration of USSR in 1991. Yet, among the Armenians, the diaspora continues to play a most significant role.
As per a 2008 report in the New York Times written by Leonard M. Apcar, “of the nine million Armenians in the world, only about a third are in Armenia. The bulk are in Russia, the United States and France, with a smattering along the trading routes of Asia.”
Among this widely spread out Armenian population, India is held up with an extraordinary degree of reverence. Apart from the fact that the community-acquired enormous amounts of wealth and power in the country, they also made the first most significant cultural productions on Indian soil. The first-ever Armenian language newspaper in the world, for instance, was published in Madras (now Chennai) in 1794. The Azdarar (Intelligencer), as the paper was called, was established by Father Harutyun Shmavonyan, and contained important commercial details for the mercantile community in Madras, news about various Armenian communities in India, as well as world news. It was soon followed by Armenian language publications in other cities including those in Bombay and Calcutta.
Aslanian explains that not more than 200 Armenians lived in Madras in the 18th century, and yet apart from the newspaper, “they also wrote the very first constitution for the Republic of Armenia that did not exist on a map anywhere in the world, at Madras. They also opened a printing press in Madras. The city became one of the most important beacons of Armenian culture in the 17th and 18th centuries.”
Similarly, in Calcutta, the Armenians are believed to have written one of the very first novels in the Armenian language. “In Calcutta too, the Armenians were in small numbers but made huge accomplishments. In the hotel industry of the 20th century, for instance, they had a major role to play, including the Grand Oberoi, which was initially operated by an Armenian,” explains Aslanian.
At present about 100 Armenians continue to live in India, a majority of whom are in Kolkata. Apart from the churches, the most important living residue of early modern Armenian history in India is the ‘Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA)’ where Tadevosyan currently lives. It was established in the 18th century by the community, primarily to educate their own children, and continues to play a vital role in the preservation of Armenian culture. “In the 19th century, it was one among the three greatest places for learning among Armenians across the world, the other two being in Venice and St. Petersburg,” says Aslanian.
Tadevosyan explains that children from Armenia and Armenian students from across the world continue to come to the school each year for their education. At present, the school hosts some 70-90 students and has classes till the 12th grade. “Since this is a philanthropic school, it is open and free for Armenians from anywhere in the world. The school looks after the children from their education, lodging, food, medicines, and everything else,” he says.
Apart from education, Armenians also come down to India for their annual cultural events like Christmas on January 6 and Easter. “It is a way of connecting with their roots,” explains Rangan Dutta, a freelance writer who has been documenting the Armenian community in Calcutta for the last several years. “The Armenian college will celebrate 200 years next year. Many old students will come down to attend the celebration,” he adds.
As the war continues to rage on between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Tadevozyan is filled with hope from his country of residence for the last two decades and one where his ancestors made huge accomplishments. Meanwhile, on the internet, hashtags like #IndiasupportArmenia and #IndiastandswithArmenia has been trending, even though the Indian government is exercising caution in its stance on the conflict.
After we hung up following a 40 minutes long conversation over the phone, Tadevozyan called me back hurriedly to make an addition to his comments. “I will be very happy if these powerful countries like India, Russia, America, where Armenians have made a mark, come together and recognise Karabakh as a separate, sovereign country. Then peace will come automatically.”