Thursday, 28 November 2013


The Armenians travelled overland on the caravan route through Persia, Bactria and Tibet, and established themselves in all the important trading centers of the Subcontinent. On Emperor Akbar’s expressed invitation they settled in Agra in the sixteenth century. The Emperor  was interested in their religion. Their olive-complexioned women also caught his eyes : there were more than one Armenian Begum in the imperial harem. Soon after the foundation of Calcutta , intrepid Armenian merchants  arrived there. (They had already settled at Saidabad near Murshidabad and at Chunchura.) They build homes, business houses and a wharf ( Armenian Ghat to this day) within a kilometer of their wooden chapel, set up in 1707 on Old China Bazar Street.

This church has the unique distinction of being the oldest in Kolkata, having been built originally as a wooden structure in 1707 by public subscription and through the efforts of  Agha Nazar. It was designed by Levon Ghevond, an Armenian architect from Persia, who was specially brought from New Julfa near Ispahan. The entrance , from Armenian street, leads to the centre gate of the church, beyond which is a boarded footpath and a vestibule. In 1724 a building of brick and mortar replaced the original wooden one. The church was renovated and restored by Aga Petrus Aratoon in 1763. While the handsome three-dialed clock, which the steeple accommodates, was presented by Aga Arrakiel in 1792. His generosity also helped to build the surrounding wall and houses for the clergy.

Situated in the midst of a typically Indian bazaar, the original site was an Armenian cemetery. The floor of the vestibule, as well as the churchyard is a mass of ancient-tomb stones, the earliest of which at the south-western corner outside the main building bares the date 11th July 1630- sixty years before the English founded and settled in Kolkata.  But its date, is astonishingly early, and its authenticity is widely questioned. At any rate, it must have reached its present site much later, in the nineteenth century. Most of the tomb-stones are inscribed in Armenian, and only a few in English.

The interior of the church, paved in marble has a circular staircase to the left leading to the overhead gallery and mural tablets on the walls commemorating benefactors.   The centre aisle, between massive fluted pillars and polished pews, leads to the Chancel. On the east the holy Alter, simple and yet majestic, adorned with cross, gospels and twelve candle sticks symbolizing Christ and his apostles. The altarpiece consists of three oil painting by the English artist A. E. Harris depicting “The holy Trinity”,  “ The Lords supper” and “ The Enshrouding of our Lord”.

The Armenians claim to be the first nation to have embraced Christianity as far back as 301 A.D. During a visit of King Apcar of Armenia to Persia, he contracted leprosy. Hearing the miracles of Jesus he dispatched messengers with a letter confessing his belief in  the divinity of Christ and inviting him to Armenia. One of the messengers, an artist, was instructed to paint a portrait of Christ. After repeated failures, Jesus himself called for a napkin, held it against his face and miraculously impressed his likeness upon it.  He made this over to the messengers together with a letter. This relic, it is said, was kept at Edessa, then the capital of Armenia till 944A.D., when it was removed by the Emperor Romanus of Greece to Constantinople. When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, it was carried away to Italy and placed in a church in Venice, When it is said to be preserved to this day.

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