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Armenian Church - Churches and Synagogues
1299    Dibyendu Banerjee    13/10/2018

Almost hidden in busy and crowded market areas in the vicinity of Brabourne Road, the stunningly peaceful Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, located at no 2 Armenian Street, is regarded as the oldest Church in Calcutta and a testimony of the city’s amazing cultural heritage. There are two other Armenian Chapels in Calcutta. While St. Mary's Chapel is situated in the Tangra area of east Calcutta, the chapel of St. Gregory, also known as the 'small church' to the local Armenians, is situated in the Park Circus area. But, the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth has a special status, as it is considered as the Mother Church of the Indian Armenians.

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Most of the early Armenians of Calcutta were descendants of the Armenians of Julfa, now in Iran. The first group of settlers was mostly consisted of rich merchants and traders and very few of them had any connection with Armenia or the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in the city of Etchmiadzin, Armenia. As they intended to reestablish themselves as a separate socio-cultural identity, they signed agreements with the British East India Company codifying their cultural, religious and trading rights and constructed alms houses, chapels and schools for the benefit the local Armenians, without contacting Etchmiadzin.

The Clock Tower - Armenian Church
The Clock Tower – Armenian Church, Calcutta

St. John's Church, the first Armenian Church of Calcutta, was solely funded by the contribution of the people on June 22, 1688. It was a wooden structure and unfortunately, it was completely ravaged by a devastating fire in 1707. The community had to wait for seventeen years, when in 1724, Manuel Hazarmall constructed the Holy Church of Nazareth on the old burial ground of the Armenian community and hence the church was named after him. The belfry and the steeple were also added by him ten years later in 1734. Much later, in 1789, Agha Catchik Arakiel presented an English clock to the church which he had ordered from the firm of Alexander Hare of London. The clock was fixed in the clock tower, after it arrived at Calcutta in 1792. Levon Ghevond, an Armenian from Iran, was the architect of the building.

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Interior of Armenian Church (courtesy of TripAdvisor)
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The altar decorated with Last Supper – Armenian Church, Calcutta

Designed by Catchick Arakie, the interior of the church is decorated with a simple combination of black and white marble. The upper floor galleries are aesthetically adorned with inset frescoes and rich paintings. The altar is gracefully adorned with a cross on its crown and decorated with three paintings. Those paintings, ‘Holy Trinity’, ‘Last Supper and ‘The Enshrouding of Our Lord’, are works of an English artist, AE Harris.

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The church was repaired and renovated by Khojah Petros Arratoon in 1763. He also embellished the church and built two altars, one on the right hand side of the main altar, in memory of his brother Gorgin Khan, the Minister and Commander-in-Chief of Nawab Mir Kasim of Bengal and the other on the left hand side, in his own memory. In this connection it may be mentioned that, Khojah Petros Arratoon was fondly called as the ‘earthly god of the Armenians in Calcutta’.

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Armenian Church
Armenian Church Yard (courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth was constructed on the old burial ground of the Armenian community and is surrounded by several ancient graves and tombstones. The churchyard still houses the tomb of one Rezabeebeh, dated 21 July 1630, which is said to be the earliest Christian tomb in Calcutta It also contains the remains of an Armenian-Persian type bath or Hamam, on the east side of the Churchyard.

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Apart from that, there a little memorial in the churchyard, known as the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Built by the Armenian community of Calcutta on 24 April 1965, the little memorial marks the 50th anniversary of their great national tragedy, the genocide of the Armenians, when about 1.5 million innocent Armenians were brutally butchered by the Ottoman Turks during and after the Great World War 1914-1918.

Armenian Church
Armenian Genocide Memorial

In response to the petitions of the Calcutta Armenians in 1995 to 1997, the Calcutta High Court has ordered that the Church and Armenian community would be independent of the Armenian Apostolic Church. However, the 18th-century Armenian Apostolic Church in Calcutta, serving as the centre of the Armenian Community in the city and the seat of the Armenian Vicariate of India and the Far East, is affiliated to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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