Madras in 1797. Note the dome of the Armenian Church
Above: From an aquatint by Daniell Thomas
(1749-1840. Part of Black Town, Madras. The domed building is the
Armenian Church built in 1772. Aquatint dated 1797.
Above: The Armenian Church in the
1950's. The dome still very recognisable 150 years after the aquatint
painting on the left.
Above: the Armenian Church in an
advanced state of decay in 2005
Above: Restored, refurbished and
re-consecrated in November 2008
The Armenians in Madras in 1949 celebrating the visit of Bishop
Armenians flourished at
Madras during the 17th and 18th centuries, when
they had the trade of the Asians in their hands, and carried on a
lucrative trade with Europe and the East. From a valuable Armenian
manuscript, written at Masulipatam by Sarkies Johannes in 1790, it can
be seen that Armenians settled permanently at Madras in the year 1666.
However, from "Madras in the Olden Time: Being a
History of the Presidency from the First Foundation to the Governorship
of Thomas Pitt, Grandfather of the Earl of Chatham 1639-1702. Compiled
from Official Records by James Talboys Wheeler."
Published in Madras in 1861, comes the following extract.
In January 1692 the Court of Directors [of the East India Co.]
sent a letter to the administration at Fort St. George, Madras stating:
"We have discoursed Sir John Goldsborough (newly
arrived in Madras as Governor General, who took over from Mr. Yale)
about enlarging our Christian town to a Quadrangle, so as it may be done
without detriment to the Company, with handsome stone bridges over the
river; in which designed new moiety of the city, one Quarter of that
moiety may be set apart for the Armenian Christians to build a new
church (for the worship of God according to their own Rites), at their
charge, with stone and other durable materials, and also convenient
dwelling houses for their merchants, they paying as such ground rents as
will fully defray our charges. And that Quarter so set apart for their
use you may call it "Julpha" that being the town from whence Shah
Abbas the Great brought them, when he conquered Armenian and settled
them in a suburb of his new made metropolitan city of Ispahan and called
the Quarter he allotted there to the Armenians "Julpha" the name of the
city from whence he brought them".
During the 17th and 18th
centuries the Armenians settled here and grew rich, trading in textiles,
precious stones, silks, and spices. Amongst them Petrus Woskan
because a member of the East India Company's Council. When the
Nawab (Indian Prince) of Arcot visited Madras, it is said that Woskan
draped the main streets with costly silks and entertained him on a
lavish scale. The Nawab was so pleased that he asked Woskan what
he would like in return as a favour. The shrewd Woskan with an
eye to greater business did not lose this golden opportunity. He
immediately asked for the monopoly of the inland trade to Madras and the
interior, which the Nawab graciously granted without hesitation.
Thereby Woskan soon became a millionaire and utilised a large portion of
his wealth in charitable works. At his personal cost he build the Marmalong Bridge across the Adyar River in Madras in 1726. In
spite of heavy traffic for over two centuries, the bridge stood until
1960, when it was replaced with a more modern structure.
He also built a flight of 160 large stone steps leading to the top of
St. Thomas' Mount in Madras, where the Church of St. Thomas was built on
the reputed site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas the Apostle. There
are a few Armenian graves around this Church. The pictures of the
twelve Apostle hanging on the inside walls of the Church have their
names inscribed in Armenian letters.
Petros Woskan was born in Julfa, Iran, in 1681 and passed away in Madras
in 15th January 1751. His will included the following direction:
"My heart longs for home where, should I be unable to go, when my last
my heart be sent to my native town, so that I shall have a grave there".
Accordingly, his heart was sent to Julfa in a golden casket and
entombed in the grave of his parents in a Church built at the cost of
his great grandfather, Khojah Petrus Velijanian.
"Breathes there a man with soul so
Who never to himself had said
This is my own my native land".
The first Armenian church in Madras was erected in
1712 in the Esplanade of the city. As the British authorities
objected to tall buildings in the Fort area, this church and the Latin
church in the same neighbourhood were demolished. However, another
account indicated that in fact these two churches were wrecked in 1746
by the French military during their occupation of Madras.
The second Armenian church dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary was
built in 1772 on land that was originally the burial ground of the
community and where a chapel stood where they worshipped whilst the
present church was being built. The ground belonged to the famous
Agah Shameer. His wife, Anna, had been buried there in 1765 and a
room built to her memory. This room, was known as "Shameer's Room"
and was attached to the church that was built seven years afterwards.
One cannot mention Armenians in Madras without mentioning Rev.
Haruthiune Shmavonian. He was born in Shiraz, Iran and came to
Madras in 1750 and served the Church for 44 years. During the years
1794-1796 he published the very first Armenian journal in the
world and named it "Azdarar" (ie. Adviser). It was a
completely one-man achievement for not only did he edit, compose and
print it, but he also cast the typefaces and made the printing paper
from cotton pulp. He is acknowledged as the "Father of Armenian
Journalism". He died in Madras on 9th February 1824 and was buried
in the churchyard. The tombstone of Rev. Shmavonian's grave being
in a state of decay for many years (see right), was replaced with a new and
beautiful black marble slab in 1965 (see below) with the original epitaph inscribed
on it, courtesy of the Armenian Association.
The first Armenian publication in
India, which was printed in Madras dates back even further than
the start of Rev. Shmavonian's journal, it being published in
1772 with an interesting title page which translates into
"New pamphlet, called Exhortation , composed for the
awakening of the Armenian youth from the weak and idle
drowsiness of the sleep of slothfulness, and with an ardent and
tender desire printed at the expense and through the exertions
of Jacob Shameer by his
tutor Moses Bagram, for the benefit of the tender Armenian
youth, in the year of the incarnation of the Word 1772 and in
the year 1221 of the Armenian era. In India, at the city
of Madras, at the press of the said
The works in the Armenian language, published at Madras between
the years 1772 and 1800, possess considerable literary merit.
Source: Seth, Armenians in India P.596.
The old original tombstone of Reverend Haroutune
Shmavonian is now set into the wall of the belfry.
The Armenian Church at Madras was once well known for possessing a large
number of rare and valuable manuscripts and books. In April 1904
Mesrovb Seth made his first visit to the church in Madras and made the
"Having arrived on
the Saturday, we went to the church service the following day, which was
very poorly attended owing to the paucity of Armenians in that city.
We paid our respects to the priest in charge and he received us in the
room where the so called Church Library was located. As a
bibliophile, if not a bibliomaniac, we expected to find a large number
of rare manuscripts and a complete collection of the works which had
been issued from the different Armenian presses at Madras, between the
years 1772 and 1812, but we were sorely disappointed when we saw no
manuscripts and only a few torn and dilapidated copies of "Hisoos Vordi"
(Jesus the Son) which was printed in Rev. Arathoon Shumavon's press in
It seems the once beautiful and well stocked library of the church was
completely devoid of its past historical content which had never had an
inventory done of its unique collection.