| Priest Oshagan Gulgulian gives away prizes at Armenian College on Wednesday morning. Picture by Aranya Sen
One of the first trading communities to settle down in Calcutta had come all the way from Armenia, once part of the USSR. The church off Armenian Street where these people worshipped is the oldest in this city. Paved with inscribed gravestones, the oldest dates back to 1663.
Once the large, thriving Armenian community was one of the richest anywhere in India. Like the Jews and the Chinese they gave the city its cosmopolitan character.
The Armenians owned some of the most valuable real estate here. Before the coronation of Elizabeth II, when it was renamed Queens Mansion, the building on Park Street was named after J. C. Galstaun, the businessman who constructed it. To him also goes the credit of building the landmark opposite the crossing of Camac Street and AJC Bose Road, known today as Nizam Palace.
Upmarket neighbourhoods such as Queen’s Park remind us of the once famous Apcar family. Stephen House in Dalhousie Square and the Oberoi Grand building, too, once belonged to prominent members of this community. One of the greatest divas of Hindusthani classical music, Gauhar Jaan, traced her origin to the Armenians.
Today, there are only about 100 of them left in Calcutta, most of whom are old and infirm. In the past, Armenians used to be the driving force of rugby teams in the schools of Calcutta. But fresh blood has been injected in recent times. Armenian College in Free School Street has about 120 children who have come from faraway lands whose names conjure up visions of war, death and violence – Iran, Iraq and Armenia. More are expected from Syria and Lebanon. Few of the children have parents here and the church takes care of all their needs, says Sonia John, manager of the institution and chairperson of the Armenian Church Committee. Prizes were given away to all the children on Wednesday morning. To help them integrate with the local people they learn Hindi, English, Armenian and Russian. To improve deportment they are taught Indian classical dance. The strength of students will increase to 300.
The Armenians have a new priest as well. In his early 40s, Oshagan Gulgulian is a Hayr Sourp, Armenian for holy father. Born in Lebanon, he has lived in America for the past 17 years, and his accent bears testimony to it. Tall and handsome he looks imposing in a light coloured vestment. He came for the first time to the city in February, and has already visited Madras and Saidabad, where the impact that this trading community had made is still quite visible in churches and tombstones.
The celibate priest, hierarchically a step below a bishop, says he was sent here by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (the Vatican of the Armenian Church), which is celebrating its 1,700th anniversary this year. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion but priests are not allowed to convert people of other faiths.
The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth next to the Brabourne Road flyover, that was built in 1724 and bears a striking resemblance with the Mother See, is being renovated. Oshagan Gulgulian said all Armenian churches look similar because they are meant to be likenesses of Mount Ararat.
Sonia John said thanks to dry rot, the wooden rafters and beams of the church had become hollow. This was discovered after one wooden beam crashed to the ground about a year ago.
These have been replaced by steel joists. Plastering will be completed soon, and by May the church will be reopened to the public.