Armenians make pilgrimage to Kolkata

Celebration marks 300th anniversary of St. Nazareth Armenian Church 

By Paul Chaderjian
Armenian Reporter 
Published: Friday November 07, 2008

RAJDANI EXPRESS TRAIN FROM NEW DELHI TO KOLKATA, India, Nov. 7  - After jetting across the Pacific and Atlantic, boarding planes in Australia and Austria, enduring layovers in Hong Kong and Dubai, hundreds of Armenians from all over the world are gathering this week in Kolkata, the historic former seat of the Mogul and British rulers of these regions and home and focal point of the once-thriving Armenian communities in Northeast India.

On this Thursday into a Friday morning, one group participating in this multinational pilgrimage is on a 16-hour, cramped train ride into Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. The group's mission it to join others from around the world in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of the St. Nazareth Armenian Church of Kolkata.

Joining the pilgrims to Kolkata will be Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness will be in India to visit his flock and perform reconsecration services at the Holy Virgin Mary's Armenian Church in Chennai, formerly Madras, a city some six hours southeast of Kolkata. Holy Virgin Mary's Church has been under renovation for the past few years.
What once was...
The guests of the Kolkata Armenian community will also help the remaining 80-plus members of the community and the students of the Armenian College (an elementary and high school) to honor the long history of the Indian-Armenian community.

The Kolkata-Armenian community once thrived with more than a thousand members. It boasted successful merchants, businesspeople, hotel operators, scholars, and spiritual guardians of Armenian culture in one of the most spiritual and religiously diverse centers of the world.

Armenians in India remained true to their identity in a nation that is home to more than a billion people, many of whom live in some of the most challenging conditions of poverty.

"The Armenian community has deteriorated over the years," said Helena Cray, an India native who organized one of the pilgrimage-tours from North Hollywood. "In spite of that, we have been able to maintain our churches. We have been able to maintain our heritage, our culture, and we have had mass in all of our churches."

Ms. Cray gave the Armenian Reporter an overview of the events before her group boarded the 16-hour Rajdahani Express from Delhi to head to East India. Her interview was conducted in the Mandarin Hotel, a few miles from the Taj Mahal, while the BBC and CNN International blared news of Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential race.

"Armenians came here under British rule," said Ms. Cray, whose own grandfather left a village near Isfahan in Iran to resettle in Saidabad. He had had a vision that told him he needed to find a neglected Armenian house of worship in a faraway place and that he would be its caretaker.

"A majority of the Armenians were migrants from Isfahan," said Ms. Cray. Back in the early 17th century, Shah Abbas I, the Persian emperor, had moved some 200,000 Armenians from Armenia to near his capital, Isfahan. Some of them came to play an important role in trade with India.

Armenians were known to have come to India as early as the 1500s at the time of the Moguls that ruled northern India. There were Armenian settlements in the cities of Agra - home of the Taj Mahal - and Delhi, India's capital city.

"The majority of migration from Persia or Iran started in the early 1700s while the British were in power," said Ms. Cray. "Eventually the Armenian community that started with merchants doing business on the Silk Road boasted a large enough population and thus the community grew and flourished and the number of churches grew."

St. Nazareth was established 300 years ago, and now there are seven churches. The seven churches include one in Chennai, another in Tangra, and a third in Chinsurah.

"We also have a second church in Calcutta," said Ms. Cray, "and we have one church in Bombay. We had one in Delhi, but that one is destroyed and has not been a functioning church for many years. There are Armenians in Delhi, however, including the Consulate of Armenia."
Kolkata's Armenian wealth
Merchants and business may have drawn the original Persian-speaking Armenians to the region, but their entrepreneurship, business acumen, resourcefulness, and language skills prompted several to land prominent positions in the Indian court.

One of Shah Jahan's three wives is said to have been an Armenian from Portugal. She was named Mariam and eventually made it possible for one of the earlier Armenian churches to be built in Agra, near the Taj Mahal.

"We had Armenians who had lots of properties, who had hotels," said Ms. Cray. "They have been in the hotel industry."

Several hotels and mansions still stand today and are now owned by the Armenian Church.
"We just collect the lease on the properties," said Ms. Cray. "One of the hotels was the Grand Hotel, which still stands. That one is not owned by Armenians any longer, but the hotel is still operated. There are two other hotels that are operated and are currently owned by Armenians. One of the hotels is called the Fairlawn Hotel, and the second one is the Kenilworth."

Thanks to the generosity of historic figures like Paul Chater, Mnatzagan Varden, T.M. Thaddeus, David Aviet David, and Asdwadsatoor Mouradkhanian and their large endowments to the Armenian Church, the current community of some 80 Armenians is the recipient of annual benefits that keep the seven Armenian churches and the local Armenian College alive.

The Armenian College was established in 1821 and continues to offers a free education to any Armenian with at least one Armenian parent from anywhere in the world.

The student population had dwindled to eight in recent years until school officials made a proactive attempt to bring students from war-torn Iraq and Armenia.

Scholarships are courtesy of the interest income from past benefactors. The annual income from these endowments is said to be in the millions. It is administered through the Republic of India and used to keep the community's school and churches in good condition. There is even an elderly and special needs home that takes care of Armenians with special needs.
Church in Saidabad
The Holy Virgin Mary Church in Saidabad was founded in 1758. Some one hundred years after its founding, in the mid 1800s, the local Armenian community had dwindled to zero and there were no nearby homes. The sister of a Hindu-Indian accountant at the Church of Nazareth in Kolkata had volunteered to take care of the building on a weekly basis.

This young Hindu woman would come to the church regularly, clean debris, light candles, burn incense, and bring flowers. She would eventually be baptized as an Armenian Christian and take the name of the Church. She was said to have been a very spiritual woman who had visions that a man would come from a foreign land to take care of the Church - and she would marry him.

"My grandfather, my mother's father, Matevous Carapetian, came from Iran, from Julfa, in Isfahan. He was married. He had kids. He had a family back in Iran. One day he woke up and said he had had a vision, and in his vision, he was told he needs to go to a certain part of this world, to this particular church, and he did not know why he needed to go there. All he was told was that he needed to go."

Even though Mr. Carapetian didn't know where he was supposed to go, he ended up at the Church of Nazareth, from where he was directed by Helena Cray's great uncle, the Indian accountant, to Saidabad and the Holy Virgin Mary Church, which had practically been abandoned and fallen into ill repair.

"He did not know the name of the church," said Ms. Cray. "He was just following his vision and ended up in a place in the outskirts of Calcutta called Murshidabad. There was an Armenian church there in a neighboring village called Saidabad."

Mr. Carapetian was in his mid 30s and knew he had to come and take care of a church. His descendents say that after being taken to the Saidabad Church, he took a nap at the altar - the coolest place in the church. This is where he was discovered by young Mary.

"He was awakened by this young girl, who was placing flowers at the altar, and she was lighting candles," said Ms. Cray with tears welling up in her eyes. "She wakes him up to find out who he is, and sees that he doesn't speak her language. Somehow they communicate. She takes him, gives him shelter, and over the years, they eventually marry."
Spiritual Mary of the Holy Virgin of Mary
The spiritual, saintly woman who was Hindu was baptized by Mr. Carapetian, who named her after the church they would be taking care of.

"She basically accepted Christianity," said Ms. Cray. "He performed the baptism. They got married, and they had children, and they became the caretakers of the church.

"Even though there were no Armenians left in the village, neighboring villagers realized that this man had healing powers," said Ms. Cray. "They firmly believed that he was blessed by God. He and my grandmother used to heal the sick. They used to bring sick children and sick people, and they used to heal them with prayer and with medicine they had."

Ms. Cray says that legend has it that when women in the nearby villages could not conceive, they would come to pray on the graves of some of the 20 children Matevous and Mary had given birth to but had died shortly after being born.

"He used to pray for them on the grave of his children that had passed away, and they used to bear children," said Ms. Cray.
Family reunion
Ms. Cray's mother, Lucy, was born to Matevous and Mary Carapetian. She was one of 20 children the couple had; only eight survived to live full lives. Several were victims of malaria and other diseases. Now only Lucy and one brother, Martyrose, survive.

Eight members of the Carapetian-Aivazian-Cray clan are making the pilgrimage to Calcutta to pass on their family's stories and traditions to younger generations of the family.

At the Mandarin Hotel before the train trek, Ms. Cray told her grandmother's story in tears.
"I get a lump in my throat," she said.

Pressed to explain the emotions she is experiencing, she said in humor, "Don't do this to me."
She paused.

"I grew up there with so much love," she said. "Love. Mary was love. Basically, my grandmother Mary raised me. She was my angel."

"You miss her," I said.

"Yup," she said.

"How was she an angel?"

"She was a very spiritual woman," she said. "I always feel her presence. When I came back after 23 year of being away from India, I went to visit Saidabad again. The locals who knew her and came by when they heard that I had arrived. They saw me and said Mary's spirit lives me in."

"She touched a lot of lives," I said.

"Yeah, a lot of lives." said Ms. Cray.

"Do you feel like this whole pilgrimage and church blessing is honoring her memory," I asked.
"Absolutely. Absolutely."