The Armenians of India
'Hayastan', or Armenia in English, is a small landlocked country sandwiched between Turkey to the west, Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan to the East and Iran to the south and it is steeped in history. The first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity, the country has played an important role in history. As travelers, merchants, and financiers, Armenians seem to have made the world their own, throughout history. In fact so entrenched were they in the Mughal court in India, that during the liberal rule of Emperor Akbar - a Mughal Queen - one of Akbar’s wives, his Chief Justice and some of the most influential merchants and financiers of the time, were all Armenian!
It was St. Gregory, whose enormous statue stands behind St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, who played a pivotal role in making Armenia a Christian nation with the full support of its ruler King Thiridates III. It must be remembered that the faith was brought here by Jesus' own disciples Thaddeus and Bartholomew. But the faith evolved in a unique way. The Armenian Orthodox Church, a branch of Christianity, has its own Pope – the Catholicos who is based in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. The very first Catholicos was St. Thaddeus, while his more famous fellow disciple Peter became the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
– The Armenian Orthodox Church, a branch of Christianity, has its own Pope – the Catholicos
The Ottoman and the Safavid conquests of the Armenian highlands in the 15th century CE meant that many Armenians left their home country and dispersed across the Ottoman and Persian empires, in search of better fortunes than were available back home. They established themselves in Constantinople, Baghdad, Isfahan, St. Petersburg and even at the Mughal capitals of Delhi and Agra. While their Zoroastrian friends chose the sea route to India, arriving first in Gujarat, the Armenians went overland with the Persian camel caravans through Persia, Bactria (Afghanistan) and Tibet, then finally to Delhi and across to Bengal.
There is very little evidence of Armenian settlements in India before 16th century CE. However, the book 'Armenians in India' by Mesrovb Jacob Seth states that the oldest reference to an Armenian in India dates back to the year 780 CE, when an Armenian merchant named Thomas Cana landed on the coast of Malabar and was given trading privileges by ruler of Kodangallur . The book states that the story of this merchant is mentioned in several chronicles of Christians of Malabar, who refer to him as Kanyi Thommam or Kana Tomma.
However, it was in the 15th century CE, in the court of Akbar, that Armenians gained great positions of power and influence. One of Emperor Akbar’s wives – Mariam Zamani Begum; his Chief Justice – Abdul Hai; the lady doctor to the royal court – Juliana and even a personal friend, Hakobjan, were all Armenians. Akbar provided land to them to build a church, which came up in 1562 CE.
– In Akbar’s court, many Armenians held great positions of power and influence
Another Armenian, Iskander, married the Chief Justice’s daughter. One of their sons was the famous Mughal poet Mirza Zul-Qarnain (his birth name was Alexander), who was close friends with Shah Jahan. When Zul-Qarnain’s father died in 1613 CE, he was earning 5-6 lakhs a year from the salt farms in Rajputana and even owned a jagir. Zul-Qarnain was very close to the Mughals, having been childhood friends with Shah Jahan and served with his son Sultan Shuja in Bengal in 1645 CE. He also served with Shah Jahan in Kashmir in 1651 CE and again in Lahore in 1652 CE.
The French author Jean Baptiste Tavernier writes of Zul-Qarnain in 1665 CE:
‘This Armenian had been brought up with Cha-Jahan, and in regard he was an excellent wit, and an excellent poet, he was very much in the King’s favour, who had conferred upon him many fair commands, though he could never either by threats or promises win him to turn Mahometan’.
The Indian-Armenian historian, Mesrovb Jacob Seth, whose detailed book ‘Armenians In India’, published in the 1930’s, says
‘The Armenians of that period were not men of letters. They were shrewd businessmen and had not the tastes or aptitudes of a historian. They were simply concerned with trade, current events and local politics. Their only ambition in life was to amass wealth being born with a commercial genius like the Jews and Marwaris.’
Seth refers to a mysterious painting, although he does not name the location, painter or owner (except for “A well-known Armenian gentleman”) of Akbar and his wife Mariam –
‘The lady is depicted in semi-Asiatic, semi-European costume, without any of those rich and highly gaudy crowns on the head which characterise the paintings of Hindoo or Mahomedan Queens of that time, but she has a beautiful double row pearl necklace with a plain Armenian gold cross, with a diamond in the centre, hanging from the necklace.’
In 1688 CE it was an Armenian who had introduced a then unknown ‘Company of the Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’ to the Mughal court, as part of an agreement between the company and the Armenian, Khojah Phanoos Kalandar, duly signed by both parties on the 28th of June 1688 CE. Kalandar happens to be an ancestor of this article’s author, and the company he acted as an agent for was the East India Company! The first declaration alone spells out what would later prove to be a highly profitable venture
‘First – That the Armenian nation shall now, and at all times hereafter, have equal share and benefit of all indulgences this Company have or shall at any time hereafter grant to any of their own Adventurers or other English merchants whatsoever.’
It was also an Armenian in the court of Farrukh Sayar who helped the East India Company get their ‘Grand Firman’ in 1715 CE, Khojah Israel Sarhad.
Sadly, Armenians were not very good chroniclers and so there are hardly any first-hand accounts from within the community. The only exception seems to be the Armenian historian of Bengal, Thomas Khojamall. Writing about the East India Company’s rise in eastern India, he provides us with the first clues about Armenians away from the Mughal court in Delhi. Khojamall lived during the reign of Shah Alam at Allahabad and wrote his accounts in 1768 CE. His manuscript was lost for decades, having being passed around the Armenian community until finally Colonel Jacob, the Armenian Brigadier General in the Maharaja of Scindia’s army, got hold of it and gave it to an Armenian Bishop, who again sat on it until it was finally published in 1849 CE.
In Bengal, Armenians played both sides of the fence with the Indians and the East India Company. Clive refers to his confidant “...the Armenian Petrus”, Petrus Arathoon. Meanwhile, his brother Gregory Arathoon had become the Commander in Chief of Mir Jaffar’s army, having adopted a name that would blend in better – Gorgin Khan!
Major John Zephaniah Holwell, a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, wherein soldiers of Nawab of Bengal locked British prisoners in a small room resulting in several deaths and on whose contemporaneous account all knowledge of which is based, wrote
‘Khojah Gregory is in the highest degree of favour with the Nawab and his adherents and has posts of the greatest trust near the Nawab’s person, and through him the Armenians in general are setting up an independent footing in this country and carrying on a trade greatly detrimental to our investments in all parts.”
Later, after the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, compensation was paid by the Nawabs,
‘For the effects plundered from the Armenian inhabitants of Calcutta, I will give the sum of seven lacs of rupees’
Armenians continued to play major roles across India under various rulers. In Bengal, Sir Gregory Charles Paul still holds the record of being the longest serving Advocate General of Bengal. Going south, the King of Golconda had an Armenian in the post of Governor of Mylapore (San Thome) called Marcus Erezad. On the other side of Asia, Sir Paul Chater made his mark as a billionaire businessman, back in Calcutta JC Galstaun was doing the same through his property empire.
The Armenian presence can still be felt today – there is an Armenian Church in every major city in India, the one in Calcutta’s Burra Bazaar being the oldest in the city, one of three in the city limits with more in the periphery. The architectural legacy still stands visible across the city, even the Chief Justice of West Bengal lives on, what was once, Armenian property.
The culture has also permeated into the famous Bengali cuisine – an Armenian dish called Dolma, minced meat with rice and light flavours wrapped in a grape leaf – has been adopted and adapted to suit the Bengali palate and available ingredients: Potol’er Dolma.
Armenian Christmas always turns up in the newspapers too. The modern branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar on the 25th of December. The Armenian Orthodox Church is true to form, still abiding by the Gregorian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated on the 6th of January instead.
In the very heart of Calcutta stands the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, one of the oldest schools in India and the birthplace of the British author William Makepeace Thackeray. Although not in the top tier leagues in terms of academic performance, the school has another platform to take on the very best of Kolkata’s schools – including their lifelong sporting enemy, La Martiniere – the rugby pitch. For decades, the rugby cup has been won by either the Armenians or La Martiniere. The Armenian College motto is "To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding", which is from the Bible and is the first sentence ever written in Armenian.
Today, Armenians have wandered off the path. Their culture and religion have been abandoned by most. Many mistakenly identify themselves as Anglo-Indians, being the closest in terms of identity due to their language, food and general culture. Some have gently stepped into Indian culture too in their dress, language and inter-marriages.
Is that strange? Does it seem out of the ordinary? Not if you consider that well before the Armenians ever left their nation, two Hindu Princes were said to have fled India and settled in Armenia 150 years before the birth of Christ.
Anthony Khatchaturian is an Armenian and a descendant of Sir Paul Chater on his maternal side and JC Galstaun on his paternal side. Based in the UK and having worked for the Metropolitan Police Service ('Scotland Yard'), he has been in India since 2013 working to bring modern Indian history to life through walks, tours, heritage consultancy and heritage awareness, and will be releasing his first book soon.