Holy Armenian treasure in Saidabad was once abandoned
by Paul Chaderjian
Saidabad, India - The Service of Calling ceremony for Deacon Harutyun Hambardzumyan, who was ordained by Catholicos Karekin II as Father Avedis on Saturday, November 15, took place a day before at the Holy Virgin Mary Church in Saidabad.
The Saidabad church sits on 12 acres of land in a remote suburb of the city of Hyderabad, where no Armenian lives. It was once abandoned and a former chairperson of the Armenian Community Council of India wanted to give it away until the Indian-Armenian community and the Armenian Church intervened.
"The Saidabad church is hours and hours away from Kolkata," said pastor of the Armenian Church in India, Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian. "But after you come here, you receive a spiritual fulfillment."
Fr. Gulgulian then quoted poet Vahan Tekeyan's, "the Armenian Church is the birthplace of my soul," to explain the spiritual renewal pilgrims experience when they reach the Holy Virgin Mary Church, its pristine grounds, chapel, and two lakes.
Karekin II, who officiated at the service, bishops and archbishops with a 26-member choir in tow, and more pilgrims from around the world journeyed to Saidabad on Friday, November 14, to participate in the Service of Calling ceremony.
"When you see an Armenian church, Armenian graves, you feel a sense of spirituality, a sense of belonging as an Armenian. You feel so proud," said Fr. Gulgulian.
The pastor also said that wherever Armenians go, they build a church and a school, and even though there are no Armenians in Saidabad, the Armenian church still stands.
"When you look at the dates, 1780, 1760, you realize that our ancestors came all the way to India and settled in Mushidabad," said Fr. Gulgulian. "They built a church that still stands. This tells you who we are as a nation, as a people."
Saidabad is some 150 miles north of Kolkata. Reaching it entails a seven-hour bus ride through a two-lane street. The congested, narrow roads are full of potholes and patches of dirt breaking up the asphalt. Random trucks are parked at random points in the middle of route. Cows and bullock carts share the road with stray dogs, bicycle rickshaws, and pedestrians.
"As the pastor of the Armenian Church in India, I try to do my best to come here once or twice a year to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to have a service, requiem, and mass," said Fr. Gulgulian. "I love coming here. Deacon Harutyun and I come, and we spend time here, and sometimes hear our forefathers talking to us. We hear their voices, because they are also happy that we haven't abandoned them, and that we are praying for them, and are proud of them."
The Mogul emperor gave Armenians a parcel of land here in 1665, and a successful Armenian merchant built the Holy Virgin Mary Church when Armenians lived in the area when it was near the capital of Bengal.
Service of Calling
"Vehapar chose Saidabad for this service in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Holy Nazareth Church of Kolkata," said Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian, official interpreter for the Catholicos and foreign press secretary at Etchmiadzin. "It was also chosen in recognition of the fact that Deacon Harutyun served here so selflessly and with such great energy and vigor."
Fr. Devejian said an ordination of an Armenian priest may not have taken place in India for more than a century, and the ordination services in Saidabad are now part of the continuation of the making of history for the Indian-Armenian community.
"His Holiness wanted to make it a special event in the life of the Indian-Armenian community as well as a special event in the life of Deacon Harutyun and his family," said Fr. Devejian. "So, the decision was made to select an Armenian church that was created on the land of India centuries ago to show that the continuity remained, that there is still life for Armenians in India and an ordination in this church."
As the Service of Calling ceremony took place inside the Holy Virgin Mary Church, the pontiff asked the bishops around him who was sponsoring Deacon Harutyun into the priesthood.
The Catholicos then asked whether the Deacon was joining the priesthood under duress or under obligation, and whether anyone had forced him to come.
Having determined that Deacon Harutyun was at the service out of his own free will, Karekin II asked the bishops and archbishops present whether the deacon had true faith.
The Catholicos asked Deacon Harutyun's sponsors whether the deacon had acquired the knowledge needed by a priest, knew the testaments, the writings of the Church Fathers, patristics - the study of early Christian writers - and theology.
"When the answers are in the affirmative," said Fr. Devejian, "then the question is asked, ‘Does he have the moral standing, does he have the moral character to be a priest?'"
Knowledge is important, Fr. Devejian told the Armenian Reporter, "but he also has to have the moral fortitude to withstand the rigors of service. The answer was again given in the affirmative."
Since Deacon Harutyun is married, the Catholicos asked his wife whether she was willing that he become a priest.
After hearing the affirmative answer, and after all in the church had attested to the deacon's abilities, his knowledge, and his moral standing, the Catholicos asked the deacon directly whether he had faith.
Once all the answers were given in the affirmative, Deacon Harutyun recited the Nicene Creed, the summarized doctrine of the church.
"He had to attest to the fact that he is the follower of our Church Fathers," said Fr. Devejian, who went through this very same ceremony at Etchmiadzin and became the first U.S.-native to be ordained at the Mother See.
"He had to renounce the heretics that the church had renounced from the first century on forward," said Fr. Devejian, "and in the end, the Vehapar laid his right hand on him as part of the apostolic succession that took the deacon down the road to priesthood."
"The ceremony was a special event," said Deacon Harutyun after the service in Saidabad. "I prepared for it over the course of a long time. It's hard for me to describe the emotions and thoughts, and perhaps it won't be that easy to explain, because you are offering your life to the church and to God to serve wholly."
Deacon Harutyun - now Fr. Avedis - told the Armenian Reporter that the path to priesthood required a lot of preparation, and that he had made his decision to become a priest far in advance of coming to serve as administrator of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in India.
"I come from a family of believers," he said. "From a young age, I knew that I wanted to study at the Armenian College and serve the Church. Since then, these dreams have formulated, and after graduating and becoming a deacon, I was convinced that this was the path to take."
Deacon Harutyun said it was an honor and that he was grateful to God that the Catholicos himself officiated at the Service of Calling ceremony and at the ordination.
Among those attending the Service of Calling ceremony were Helena Cray and her family, the Aivazians. Ms. Cray's grandparents Matevous and Mary Carapetian were the caretakers of the Holy Virgin Mary Church for decades.
"Hearing the choir in the church was like the angels were singing for my grandparents" said Ms. Cray. "It was bringing up a lot of memories. Growing up here, I do not recall service being held here. It was only after my grandparents passed away that they had an actual service here, and we came and we attended."
Ms. Cray said the Friday pilgrimage will forever be added to the other memories that linger in the walls of Saidabad.
"It is nice to know where my grandparents rest in peace, the church bells rings once again," said Ms. Cray. "The echoes of people talking here today, and just knowing that we are remembering those who rest in peace here is what I will remember always."
Ms. Cray's mother, Lucy Aivazian, was born and raised at the grounds of the church in Saidabad.
When she had come to visit in 1991, the Holy Virgin Mary Church was in absolute ruins. When she returned in 2006, it had been renovated and she was very surprised.
"The first time when I came in 2006, I didn't know whether to cry, to laugh or to be happy or to be sad," said Mrs. Aivazian. "I felt that I've come home."
Mrs. Aivazian said when she visited in 2006 after the church and grounds were renovated, she was extremely overjoyed and surprised at the sights.
"The bishop from Australia came with us two years ago," said Mrs. Aivazian. "He saw the place, and he said this was a jewel in the jungle. He said he never, ever expected this and that he was going to go back and tell everybody that they have to visit this place and see what a jewel it is."
Mrs. Aivazian said she was very happy, because witnessing the church services in her birthplace with her were her son, who had not seen the church grounds since 1991. Mrs. Aivasian had also brought her daughter-in-law, also named Lucy, and her grandsons Dante and Michael to Saidabad for the first time.
"It was a great reunion, and I feel like I'm with my parents," Mrs. Aivazian said. "My mom is buried here. What my husband Peter did was he brought some earth from my father's grave in Tangra and put it on my mother's grave, and he said, ‘Now I have joined them together.'"
In addition to earth from Mrs. Avazian's father's grave, Peter Aivazian brought to India handmade crosses and lecterns that he personally made.
The former ironworker from Kolkata received special recognition from Karekin II at the Saturday evening banquet at the Taj Bengal Hotel, where community members gathered for the culmination dinner of the weeklong 300th anniversary celebrations.
Liz Chater from the United Kingdom, who helped organized the pilgrimages with Ms. Cray, said at the banquet that she was very moved by the events this week that included pilgrimages to churches, chapels, and cemeteries in Saidabad, Chennai, Chinsura, Tangra, and Kolkata.
"It was thought provoking," said Ms. Chater, whose vocation and avocation are researching the Indians of Armenia. "It was just everything, more than I could possible have imagined. I'm very, very touched and privileged beyond belief that I'm actually here to share this 300th anniversary. It's really a very, very special occasion."
Saidabad - nearly abandoned
Armenian Community Council warden Susan Reuben said that she first was told about the church in Saidabad when she was elected a warden in 1997.
"When I went on to my second year, that was when the chairperson of that time said that it was a beautiful place," said Ms. Reuben. "But the chairperson told us that since Saidabad is so far, since there was nobody out there to look after the place, and since it was just in ruins, she had planned to give the property away."
The decision to abandon the Armenian history and legacy in Saidabad by Sonia John, the former chairperson of the Armenian Community Council of India, didn't sit well with other members.
"We were not very happy about it," said Mrs. Reuben. "We didn't want to give away our properties. So Queeny Sobpr and I decided to make a trip up here to see what the place looked like."
Ms. Reuben said the journey was very sentimental for Mrs. Sobpr, since her family, the Aivazians, had been part of the history of Saidabad.
"Even I felt the place really had something really special," said Ms. Reuben about her first visit. "It got into me, and we decided that no, somehow we have got to hold on to this place."
Ms. Reuben said that upon their return to Kolkata, the committee voted to save this treasure of the Armenian Church.
"Mrs. John didn't like it, because we stood up against her," she explained. "Then we made two or three trips. We spoke a lot about the place, but really nothing happened because Queeny expired. Her son Sunil then came on the scene, and he took over where she left off. We started making trips out here and getting people to see the place, making estimates to see how we could do it up. We finally got to work, and it took us some time but then you can see the results for yourself."
Ms. Reuben said when she came to Saidabad for the first time in 1997, the property was encroached upon; the land and lake were being used by villagers. She said that the church was in ruins, had no roof, and there were snakes in the walls of the structure.
"When the villagers saw us coming out here, they didn't know who we were, and they thought we've come to take over their place," she said. "So they were very agitated, and they tried to attack us. But we had our people with us also. There were talks, and there were fights. But eventually, we managed to get our place back. We managed to get a lot, but there's still a lot of land we cannot get back."
Asked by the Armenian Reporter to elaborate on the "fights," Ms. Reuben said there were physical fights with armed villagers, who had weapons and bombs.
"You know villagers, how they fight, and screaming and shouting and creating chaos all over the place, and trying to collect crowds to push us away," she said. "But we were not afraid of anything, because we were doing something good. So we kept on with it, and God was with us."
"We were actually taken aback," said committee member Sunil Sobpr. "We never expected anything of the sort. It took a while to sort these things out."
Mr. Sobpr said he conducted a search in the records of the Republic of India to determine how much of the property around the Holy Virgin Mary Church belonged to the Armenian community.
"We salvaged most of the land, but there's still a lot more," said Mr. Sobpr. "We demolished some temporary huts and walls, but we cannot make these people homeless. We got back the land which they weren't using. We at least managed to get that back, and let's see what we can do in the future."
At the banquet at the Taj Bengal on Saturday night, Catholicos Karekin II told those gathered that someone had asked him why so much effort was being exerted at such great expense to preserve these Armenian properties in India when the Indian-Armenian community was so small and its churches were silent.
"These churches are indeed living," said the Catholicos. "They are breathing houses of worship. They are not just simply stones. They are prayers, living prayers, because they are our history, and they are part of our identity."
The Catholicos said that to allow the Armenian treasures in India to disappear would be reconciling with the end of Armenia and Armenians' national identity and being.
"A nation is made up of the sum of its part," said the Catholicos. "To care for these separate parts is to make them meaningful within our lives. These sacred relics are the source and inspiration for our identity. The renovation, the reorientation of the Armenian College and our churches shall continue. We shall continue to build and make them stronger and make the Armenian community in India stronger."
The pastor of the Indian-Armenian community, Fr. Gulgulian quoted poet Bedros Tourian's poem "My Death" when asked about Saidabad.
"Tourian wrote, ‘Whenever you remember me, at that time, I'm alive. The minute that you forget about me, then I will die,'" said Fr. Gulgulian. "As long as we remember our ancestors, our forefathers, they will be living with us. They will be alive in us, even though they are six feet under. They are living with us, because we are remembering them."
Fr. Gulgulian said that when the pilgrims come to Saidabad, the souls of those buried there rejoice. The biggest challenge of the Armenian Church faces in India according to Fr. Gulgulian is the lack of Armenians and the lack of people coming to visit these holy shrines.
"Very few Armenians are left, and we have, with our exaggerated numbers, about 200 all over India, plus the students at the Armenian College," said Fr. Gulgulian. "Our hope is that every decade, two or three of the students will stay and live here and start a new life in India, where we can live to a new birth to the Armenian community, sort of new beginnings that will be."
Fr. Gulgulian said that the community has the resources, and hopes that Armenians from the embattled regions of Iraq will move to India, even if only for a few years.
"If they don't want to live the rest of their life here, if they stay, let's say for five years, that will also be good," said Fr. Gulgulian. "Because that will attract as much as possible, and will give longevity to the life of the community."
The pastor said the Church has lots of space and can take care of those who come to India.
"We have facilities to build more homes for our people, for them to come and live and work. We'll sponsor, and we'll assist them in every way," he said.
Abandoning Armenian churches is the continuation of the genocide, said Fr. Gulgulian.
"As long as we go and we take care of these places, we'll rejuvenate," he said. "Three years ago, this was a devastated zone, and today, it's a jewel. It's up to us, everywhere around the world to do the same, to keep our education centers, our cultural homes, our churches open, to teach our children."