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Monday, 18 July 2016

Lost In The Passage Of Time: The Origins Of One Of The Other St. John's Church of Rangoon



                                                                                                     
This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.
                                                                                                    

 *NOTE: The hyperlinks in square brackets [ ] do not work in this blog, please scroll to the bottom to read the links.

Generally speaking, when one thinks of St. John’s Church Rangoon one normally thinks of the Armenian Church. Currently enjoying a renaissance in popularity, the Yangon St. John the Baptist Armenian church is breathing easier these days, thanks to the recent intervention of the Armenian Holy See to reclaim and revive it from years of stifled possession of an unauthorised non Armenian incumbent.  Rescued in the nick of time, its beginnings, roots and history are once again proudly and rightly lauded by Armenians around the world. Its precious fabric now rests securely for future generations and visitors to worship in.

But what of the other St. John’s Church of Yangon? No, it is not Armenian, but it does have a significant Armenian association, and one that is sadly forgotten today.   Even the St. John's Catholic Church website cannot fully recite its own early years. 

Time has diluted the importance of the Armenian connection.  Let me try to revive it.

St. John’s Catholic Church Yangon. Built in extraordinarily quick time, within a 20 month period. It was made possible by the generosity of a Catholic Armenian of Rangoon, Gregory Avanis.
Image courtesy of http://yangonarchitecture.tumblr.com/page/10

The basic foundations were dug after the end of the second Burmese-Anglo war in 1853.  Bishop Balma had decided to make the city his permanent place of residence, and it was at this time that he laid down in the military cantonments, the foundations of the church of St. John the Baptist.” This early development was “left in an unfinished state until the year 1857.[1] Questionable as to whether it would ever be built, it remained like this until a Catholic Armenian, Gregory Avanis came to the rescue.

In his Will[2] he donated the entire cost of the structure, bequeathing the sum of Companys Rupees 20,000 and ensuring its completion.
Gregory Avanis stated in his Will that he had a number of valuable Bengal Promissory notes, these totalled Companys Rupees 54,000. Declaring his bequests, he went on to say: “I further leave and bequeath one Bond for the sum of Company’s Rupees twenty thousand for the purpose of building a Chaple (sic) at Rangoon in the name of Saint John.”

Over the last few years, I have read hundreds, probably even a few thousand pages of old Armenian Wills and Inventories in an attempt to piece together many fragments of lost Armenian family history in India. The Will of Gregory Avanis is written in the same vein as scores of others in Asia. He could not have realised how his act of generosity would help build a church that continues to stand today. He died in Madras in April 1858, having declared his final wishes less than a month before in Madras. 

It seems his heart was in Rangoon.


Leaving a legacy such as this in a Will does not necessarily mean the wishes of the testator would be fulfilled. It is fortunate that in the book “An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission” by Reverend Bigandet he gave crucial details of the re-commencement of the building process of the church. 

“In February 1858, the corner stone of the church of Rangoon was laid down amidst a great concourse of people. The ceremony was presided by the Bishop, assisted by the Rev. P. Barbe, C. Paruza, C. Pacchiotti and V. Gabutti. The band of the European Regiment enlivened the ceremony. M. Th. Chrestian laid down the corner stone. During the rainy season, the work was interrupted, to give time to the foundations to sit well in the ground.

The work resumed in the month of October, and carried on without interruption. The church was blessed and, for the first time, opened for divine service on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, of the year 1859. It was erected solely at the expense of Mr. Gregory Avanis an Armenian, native of Rangoon, who since the war of 1824 had migrated to Madras, where he died on the 2nd of April 1858 having just received the information that the work of laying the foundation of the church had been begun.

He bequeathed the sum of 20,000 Rupees, for building the church, and a similar sum in Company’s papers, with the injunction that the interest should be used for repairing the church, and praying for the repose of his soul.”

Rev. Bigandet’s recollections are the perfect independent proof and provenance that St. John’s Catholic Church, Rangoon was started by a Bishop, completed by an Armenian and enjoyed by all who worship there.

After Gregory’s death a tablet was placed in his memory at the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Madras by his brother Stephen whose own family continued to reside in Rangoon. The memorial inscription reads: “Sacred to the memory of Gregory Avanis, Esq., aged 75 years. This tablet was erected by his affectionate brother Stephen Avanis.[3]

With a little digging, some patience and a lot of time this is another small piece of forgotten Armenian family history brought back to life.

For my earlier story on another Armenian who built a Catholic  church you can find it here “Catholic Armenians: Let’s Build a Church”.


Acknowledgements:

Image of St. John's Catholic Church, Yangon Architecture

[1] An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission From The Year 1720 to 1887.  By Paul Ambroise Bigandet
[2] The Will of Gregory Avanis. British Library L/AG/34/29/258/7 1858.
[3] List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans in the Madras District. P.55

Monday, 4 July 2016

Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem:Early Days in India




                                                                                                     
This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.
                                                                                                    



Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 This year sees the wonderful achievement of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata reach its 195th anniversary.

To help mark the occasion I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of the old ex students from this long established Armenian school in the heart of the busy city.

Throughout this year I will be showcasing a number of ex students in my blog and telling the story of how they ventured forward in their lives. I make no apology for using the invaluable publication from 1965, “Armenian College Old Boys’ Union Souvenir. Golden Jubilee 1909-1959”. This booklet was written and compiled by the then managers of the Armenian College in their capacity as leading members of the Armenian College Old Boys’ Union: Messrs. Haik Nadjarian, John Michael, Joseph Joe Arathoon and Mack Arathoon respectively.

I reprint in its entirety the brief but informative biography on the late Archbishop Guregh Israelian the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Many do not know of his early life in India, and the Old Boys’ Souvenir has invaluable biographical detail of Archbishop Guregh’s time in the country, in particular at the Armenian College,  and I believe it is most worthy of a complete re-print.

Image courtesy of Liz Chater’s private archive
 Extract from the Armenian college Souvenir book on Tigran Israelian, later Archbishop Guregh Israelian.

“Tigran Israelian was born in Julfa in Iran on the 18th January 1894 and was baptised as Tigran. He was the son of the late Revd. Father Mashtots Israelian, Arch Priest of the Indo-Iranian Diocese, who served the Armenian Churches at Julfa, Calcutta and Madras for 50 years during his lifetime.

Tigran Israelian received his primary education in Julfa in the Armenian schools of St. Katherine, Gevork Kbananian and Kendronakan (Central). At the age of 12 he accompanied his father, who was journeying to Madras as an officiating priest. There he was placed in St. Joseph's School of Madras and after a year, on his father being transferred to Calcutta, Tigran was brought to Calcutta and placed in the Armenian College on the 13th December, 1907 with the Roll No. 305. He appeared for the Matriculation Examination of the Calcutta University and was placed in the 1st Division. Later he took the Intermediate Arts Examination at St. Xavier's College, Calcutta . In 1911 and on completion of this course he contemplated taking a course in Divinity to qualify for holy orders but with the outbreak of the First World War his programme was changed. Meantime, he had been appointed a teacher in the Armenian College, and during the time Mr. lsraelian acted as a teacher he spared no effort for the improvement of his beloved school and concentrated all his efforts for the betterment of education. He taught Armenian, English, Mathematics, Science, History. Geography and Religious knowledge.

Born and brought up in the atmosphere of a religious home. Tigran Israelian had a desire to be ordained as a clergyman, but his duel professional and directorial position forced him to remain in the College until a suitable opportunity could arise. It was in these days that His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian, the delegate of His Holiness Khoren, Catholicos of all Armenians, arrived in Calcutta on a mission of mercy to collect funds for the orphaned and scattered Armenian victims of the massacres and deportations by Turkey during 1915. Here was the opportunity and Mr. Israelian, on coming to know His Eminence, conveyed to him his heart's desire. After obtaining approval of His Eminence, Mr. Israelian took leave of the College and his beloved pupils and joined His Eminence as his personal secretary, travelling with him to Singapore, Java, and back again to Singapore, Rangoon and Calcutta, all the while accomplishing his secretarial work conscientiously. He was now prepared to go to Jerusalem with His Eminence and travelled with him to Cairo, where he took up the post of a teacher in the National Galoostian School and also became the secretary of the Prelacy of Egypt in 1921. During the same year Mr. Israelian accompanied His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian to Jerusalem as his personal secretary.

In Jerusalem. Mr. Israelian won the attention of the Brotherhood of St. James and was especially noticed by the then Patriarch, Egishe Durian, who accepted. him as a member of the Brotherhood of St. James. Three months later be was ordained a deacon by His Grace Mgerditch Agavnounian and while still a deacon he became a teacher in tbe "Jarangaworats" Seminary and worked as the secretary of the Chancery of the Throne of St. James.

In 1923 he was ordained an Archimandrite by His Beatitude Patriarch Durian who gave him the Ecclesiastical name of Revd. Guregh (Cyril). Hereafter the Very Revd. Guregh was appointed as Vice-Principal and later the Principal of the Seminary and the head of Thargmanchats (Translators) Co-educational School. He also took up the responsibilities of the two libraries, Gulbenkian and Manuscript Libraries until 1939.

In the same year in recognition of his ardent and meritorious work he was elected as the head of the Sacristy, which is the most important and responsible office after the Patriarch's.

In 1945 Revd. Guregh proceeded to Armenia, where be participated in the election of the New Catholicos in Echmiatsin in the person of His Holiness George VI, who also consecrated the Revd. Guregh as a bishop.

After the death of the Patriarch of Jerusalem His Beatitude Archbishop Mesrovb Nshanian, the very Revd. Guregh assumed the position of Locum Tenens and later in the year was elected as the Armenian Patriarch to the Apostolic Throne of St. James in Jerusalem.

The Patriarchship of His Beatitude Archbishop Guregh Israelian coincided with the terrible days of 1948 in the history of Palestine. In May, 1948, Great Britain's mandate over Palestine ended by the decision of the United Nations. The departure of the British caused great alarm because of the imminent clash between the Jews and the Arabs. The Armenians in Palestine considered the safety of their lives only and thousands of Armenian families left everything behind them and, only with the clothes in which they stood, took refuge inside the courtyard of the Cathedral in St. James.

Like a "good shepherd that knoweth his sheep", the Patriarch gathered around him the members of the Brotherhood and shouldered the responsibility of the welfare of his flock, both spiritual and material by providing shelter, food and clothing for all who had left their towns on account of the bombardment of their homes. The years 1948-49 were extremely difficult days for the Patriarch and his health deteriorated considerably, owing to the incessant work he was engaged upon. He was overcome by illness, necessitating his going to the hot water springs of El Hamma in Syria and thence to the American Hospital in Beirut. The strain and stress of the two previous years had been too much for him and his illness took a serious turn. A few days after an operation he died on the 28th October. 1949.

For the work he accomplished, for the service he rendered, for the love for his people which he displayed, with complete disregard for himself, he "laid down his life for his friends" he will live for centuries in the pages of Jerusalem's Armenian History and will be considered a true successor of the earlier patriarchs. Paronter and Sheghtayakir.

His Eminence is the most precious jewel in the crown of our Alma Mater. May his soul rest in peace and his spirit permeate the members of our College.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guregh_Israelian_of_Jerusalem
One of many impact stories from the Armenian community in India: Archbishop Guregh Israelian.

Monday, 27 June 2016

The Oldest Christian Grave in Chennai is Armenian



                                                                                                     
This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.
                                                                                                    

Some of the oldest Christian graves and tombstones in India and Bangladesh are Armenian.


*NOTE: The hyperlinks in square brackets [ ] do not work in this blog, please scroll to the bottom to read the links.*

Madras


For many a tourist, the start of an afternoon’s visit to a small church in Chennai begins at the foot of a large flight of stone steps, leading on to the Little Mount Catholic Church of ‘Our Lady of Good Health’. Already they have missed a significant monument of historical importance, one that has been written about many times, but for some reason not popular enough to photograph and record as they eagerly climb up to visit the wonders of the church and its caves. The language is unfamiliar to many, the script tricky for locals to read; Armenian history is at their feet as the daily routines of people pass by.  It is the oldest Christian grave in Madras, and it is Armenian.

Forgotten.
But not any longer.

Images courtesy of Very Rev. Fr. Oshagan Gulgulian


A record of the inscription can be found in at least two books, Mesrovb Seth’s ‘Armenians in India’ as well as a ‘List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Madras’ by Julian James Cotton, but no images have so far made it in to the public domain.

Described as a milestone in shape, and perhaps maybe even mistaken as such in this busy city, the tombstone, dated 1663 of Khojah Margar, is one of a handful of the oldest Christian graves in India that happens to be Armenian. The others can be found in Surat, Agra, Calcutta, Chinsurah and Dacca respectively.



For those interested in knowing about the other centuries old Christian graves and monuments in India that are Armenian, here is a brief summary.

Agra


The Martyrose Chapel



Images from the private archive of Liz Chater

I expected the Armenian cemetery at Agra to be a little worse for wear and care, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  It is incredibly well preserved and conserved by the local Agra authorities, the grounds and shrubbery are well kempt and some of the stones and their inscriptions look as fresh and clear as the day they were carved.

Mesrovb Seth writing of the Martyrose Chapel said: “This Mausoleum which is not built of marble, like the world-famed Taj, is nevertheless the oldest Christian structure in Northern India. It was erected in 1611 at the old Armenian Cemetery”.

Agra Municipality are clearly showing their sympathies towards these beautiful historic stones and structure, making wonderful efforts in creating an attractive location for tourists to visit.


Image courtesy of Liz Chater’s private archive


Although not the original stone, there is a marker inside the chapel remembering the earliest Armenian burial in Agra, Khwaja Mortenepus, 1611.


Calcutta


Probably the most well known in the group of oldest Christian tombstones, is situated at the Armenian Church in Calcutta. A modern day plaque in English placed there in 1971 rests upon an 18th century intricately carved stone, bearing an inscription and date of 1630.  “This is the tomb of Rezabeebeh, the wife of the late charitable Sookias, who departed from this world to life eternal on the 21st day of Nakha in the year 15 i.e., on the 21st July, 1630.”

It is in the compound of the churchyard where other interesting tombstones and inscriptions can be found.

Image courtesy of the private archive of Liz Chater


Chinsurah


The Armenian Church in Chinsurah is the second oldest church in Bengal. It was erected by the Marcar family. Johannes Marcar laid the foundation for the church in 1695. He died just two years later and was buried inside the church. Protected from sun, wind and rain, it is in wonderfully good condition.

Image courtesy of the private archive of Liz Chater

The transcription is a combination of Mesrovb Seth’s work and present day scholar and historian Sebouh Aslanian to whom I am most grateful for his up-to-date translation: THIS IS THE TOMB WHEREIN LIES INTERRED THE FAMOUS QARIB [GHARIB OR STRANGER/WANDERER] CALLED KHWAJA JOHANNESS, THE SON OF MARCAR OF JULFA, FROM THE CITY OF SHOSH. HE WAS AN EMINENT MERCHANT, HONORED BY KINGS AND RESPECTED BY PRINCES. HE WAS HANDSOME AND AMIABLE AND HAD TRAVELED SOUTH, NORTH, WEST AND ALL THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE WORLD. HE DIED SUDDENLY, ON 27TH DAY OF NOVEMBER, 1697 IN THE EASTERN PART OF THE COUNTRY, AT THE CITY OF HUGLI, AND DELIVERED HIS SOUL INTO THE HANDS OF THE ANGEL AND RESTED HERE WITH NOSTALGIA FOR A HOME.

THE END OF THE WORLD SHALL COME, THE CROSS OF THE EAST WILL DAWN, THE TRUMPETS OF GABRIEL WILL BE BLOWN SUDDENLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, THE SEAT OF JUDGMENT WILL BE SET UP THAT THE BRIDEGROOM SHALL COME AND SIT THEREON AND SAY "COME YE THE BLESSED OF THE HEAVENLY FATHER." AND MAY HE DEEM HIM [KHWAJAH JOHANNESS MARCAR] EQUALLY WORTHY LIKE THE FIVE WISE VIRGINS, TO BE IN READINESS TO ENTER THE SACRED PAVILION WHICH ONLY THE RIGHTEOUS THAT ARE ON THE RIGHT, CAN INHERIT.

OH YE WHO MAY COME ACROSS THIS TOMB PRAY FOR HIM EARNESTLY AND MAY GOD HAVE MERCI ON YOUR PARENTS AND ON ME, REVEREND GREGORY WHO AM A NATIVE OF ERIVAN. HERE ENDETH THE TRANSCRIPTION."

Surat

 
In January 1907 when Mesrovb Seth was travelling around India recording Armenian tombstones and gathering research material for his book, he visited the Armenian cemetery in Surat.  There he came across a tombstone of an Armenian lady who died in Surat in 1579 A.D.

Having seen the stone, Mesrovb Seth gave the following inscription, translated from ancient Armenian verse,

"In this tomb lies buried the body of the noble
lady, who was named Marinas, the wife of the priest
Woskan. She was a crown to her husband, according
to the proverbs of Solomon. She was taken to the Lord
of Life, a soul-afflicting cause of sorrow to her faithful
husband, in the year one thousand and twenty eight of
our Armenian era, on the fifteenth day of November at
the first hour of Friday, at the age of 53.
Ye who see this tomb, pray to the Lord to grant mercy.”

The year 1028 of the Armenian era is equivalent to the
year 1579 A.D.

Sadly, it would seem that this particular stone is no longer visible, or perhaps has simply been overlooked. The cemetery is being well cared for by the Surat Municipality and monitored by the Science Museum and I know the museum regularly check the condition of the stones. The staff are very proud and tremendously passionate about the treasures in their care. However this particular grave does not appear to be in their inventory.

The oldest surviving marker stone is in the Mortuary Chapel at Surat belongs to the late Kalendar Kalendar, carved on what looks like a piece of ancient wood, and, according to Seth says:


This is the tomb of Kalandar, the son of Phanoos Kalandar of Julfa, who departed this life on Saturday, the 6th day of March 1695.

Image courtesy of Sanjay Choksi Surat Science Museum


Thank you Surat for the care and preservation you do for the remaining Armenian tombstones.


Dacca


Inside the Roman Catholic church (Note: Not the Armenian church) of "Our Lady of Rosary," at Tejgaon, two and half miles from Dacca, on the Dacca-Mymensingh Road, built in 1677, there are some old graves of Armenians who died at Dacca between the years 1714 and 1795.

Image courtesy of The Daily Star, Bangladesh from a series of articles on the Armenians in Dhaka, June 2013

The oldest Armenian marker in the cemetery is this one: “This is the tomb and resting place of Avietis the merchant, who was the son of Lazar of Erivan, whom may Christ and His Second Advent find worthy of His presence. In the year 1714 August 15[1].”

Referring once again to Mesrovb Seth’s ‘Armenians In India[2]’, he notes that,  “there is also an inscription in Portuguese, in which the date of his death is given “7 de Junho” (7th June). We cannot account for this discrepancy, but we are inclined to think that the date given in the Armenian inscription is the correct one, as the old Armenians were very particular about dates.”

It is sad that more of the very old Armenian stones and markers in India, Bangladesh and SE Asia have not survived the years, but at the same time we are very lucky that many still do survive and are falling under the protection of relevant bodies that recognise their significance in the combined history of India and Armenia.

Important historical graves exist today in the Armenian Church at Dhaka. My book, “Armenian Graves Inscriptions and Memorials in India: DACCA” is the first publication to catalogue in full the remaining tombstones in the Armenian language with English translations. For many years they were locked in the beautiful ancient Armenian language but accessible only to a limited audience. This book releases these astonishing inscriptions to the world-wide family history researcher and for the first time, allows them to trace their Armenian ancestry in Bangladesh.

To preview a selection of pages or purchase the book, please use the link.



If you ever find yourself in Chennai, take a visit to The Little Mount but look for Khojah Margar before you climb the steps to the caves.


[1] Full transcription extracted from Bengal Past and Present short article on the Armenian Church of Dacca, 1916.
[2] Armenians In India P.571. For a free download of this out of copyright publication https://archive.org/details/ArmeniansInIndia_201402