Kolkata: The Armenian Capital of India

Kolkata’s connection with the Armenians dates back to days even before Job Charnock, the British trader set his foot in Calcutta and established a trading post for the English. In fact by that time the Armenians had already begun trading with the native villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalikata. Historians surmise this from the existence of a grave of a lady in the Armenian Cemetery which dates back to early 1620s, much before Charnock landed in Calcutta.

Armenians first came to India possibly around 2000 BC and their settlements flourished in places including Kolkata, Chinsurah, Chandanagore and Murshidabad as well as Delhi, Agra, Lahore and Dhaka. By mid-18th century, Armenians were leading merchants in Bengal and flourished in Calcutta, the capital of British India.

According to a leading historian, Kolkata is today home to nearly all of the 125-odd Armenians who live in the country. “It is something we should be proud of; we are the Armenian capital of India”, he said.

Kolkata boasts of a rich Armenian legacy; Park Street, once the heart of British Kolkata bears witness to this with graceful buildings — Stephen Court and Park Mansions, both built by Armenian tycoons. Much before the present crop of business communities had arrived, Armenians developed trade to a great extent in the city.

They were also great builders and made significant contribution in the fields of academics, medical science and law. We are reminded of their contributions whenever we talk about Arrathoon (builder of Stephen Court), Apcar (a famous trading house) and Chater (the benefactor of La Martiniere schools).

They mostly belong to Armenian Apostolic Church under the jurisdiction of the Holy See of Echmiadzin and bury their dead at their own graveyards located close to the Nazareth Church (Old China Bazar Street), Circular Road and Narkeldanga.

The famous Armenian Apostolic Orthodox churches in the city are Holy Church of Nazareth, St. Gregory’s Church and the Holy Trinity Chapel (Church of Tangra).

The city also owes a great debt to many great Armenian doctors like Dr. Joseph Marcus Joseph, M.D. and others who served in the Indian Army. One of them, Dr. Sargis Avetoom, discovered a medicine for dysentery while Dr Arthur Zorab perfected an operating method for glaucoma, now named after himas “Zorab operation”.  It was Dr. Stepen Owen Moses who pioneered St. John’s Ambulance Courses in first aid and home nursing and campaigned for the first Red Cross ambulance in Calcutta during the World War I. Dr. Marie Catchatoor, an Armenian lady doctor, was the first woman to be appointed as Presidency Surgeon of West Bengal.

Similarly, in the legal profession, leading barristers, solicitors and advocates besides members of the Bengal Assembly and the Bengal Legislative Council, all came from the community. They include M. P. Gasper, a leading barrister of the Calcutta High Court, and Gregory Paul, graduate of Cambridge University who held important posts in the High Court.

Another leading member was Joseph Melik Beglar, an archaeologist in the Public Works Department of British India, who oversaw archaeological excavations including that of the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodh Gaya.

The Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy was set up 1821 with funds collected from endowments and donations. The management is today under the Armenian Holy See of Echmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The college on Free School has in recent times emerged as a destination for Armenian students from all over the world. There are around 125 students in the college now and most of them are foreign students from Armenia and other developed countries.

The revival of the Armenian College owes much to the far sightedness of eminent men like Sir Gregory Charles Paul, who was the Advocate General of Bengal for more than 30 years, and other leading Armenian legal brains. Their policy of consolidating resources of the community for the cause of education is in fact a lesson to all communities. The trusts they had set up, allowed the tiny Armenian Community in the city to stay afloat, bringing in worldwide honour and recognition.

The college was formally founded by Astvatsatur Muradghanian and Mnatsakan Vardanian, first near the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, at Old China Bazaar Street and later shifted to a house at Free School Street, which was the birthplace of English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray.

The college is known for its “Araratian Library”, set up in 1828 and named after Mount Ararat (the mountain top where Noah’s Ark landed after the Great Flood) owing to its rich collection of old and historical Armenian manuscripts and books.

Similarly, the Armenian Sports Club was set up in 1890 and is reputed to be one of the toughest team.

Rev. James Long once wrote that Armenians were among the oldest residents, famed for their trading genius and whose living quarters were marked by antique looks. Today, their buildings have stood the test of time and the renowned college bear the testimony of their munificence and love for learning.

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