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Easter with Armenians

Inspired by Karo Christine Kumar’s “Seven Church Walk” (March 31), I want to share my unique Good Friday experience at the small chapel adjoining the Lower Circular Road cemetery.

Observing the occasion was the Armenian community, whose presence in the city predates that of even Job Charnock. The Armenians played a key role in shaping Calcutta’s economy but their number has diminished steadily since Independence. Today about 40 families are all that is left of the community.

Members of the community follow one of the oldest forms of Christianity. According to historians, Armenia was the first country to make Christianity a state religion, way back in 301.

The Armenian Church, officially known as the Holy Church of Nazareth, was originally built in 1707. The present structure, off Brabourne Road, dates back to 1724 and is the oldest Christian church in the city.

Christians worldwide used to celebrate Christ’s birth on January 6 till the fourth century. Rome changed the birth date to December 25 to override a pagan festival dedicated to the birth of the sun.

The Armenian church stuck to the original date. The Armenian Christmas is celebrated on January 6 at the Armenian Church in Calcutta, with the recreation of Christ’s baptism.

The Good Friday service, which recreates Christ’s burial, is held at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Chapel at Park Circus. The chapel, built in 1906, is in a long, winding lane and is quite difficult to locate.

The beautiful compound — with lawns and flower beds, an oasis of peace in a chaotic part of the city — also houses an old-age home named after eminent city Armenian, Sir Catchick Paul Chater.

The service, which started at 3pm, was led by Rev. Father Khoren Hovhannisyan, pastor (priest) of Armenians in India. He was assisted by Rev. Fr. Geghart Ghabaghyan along with boys from the Calcutta Armenian School and College.

A small, black and empty coffin, beautifully decked out with flowers, was kept on the altar. Two boys stood on either side, holding candle stands. Prayers were said and songs were sung. Sadly everything was in Armenian and I didn’t understand a word but the effect was mesmerising.

After prayers and rituals, pall-bearers lifted the coffin and slowly walked outside to make a round of the chapel. Further prayers followed. The service ended with the distribution of the flowers used to decorate the coffin. The flowers are said to bring good luck.