This morning I was at George Town with an overseas visitor. Our aim was to cover as many pre-Mutiny sites as possible in the course of four hours. Our last stop was Armenian Church. As always, we were welcomed by the warm and friendly caretaker Mr Alexander.
The church is now a sight for sore eyes. And its pristine condition and upkeep speak volumes about the heritage consciousness of the Armenians. It would be significant to point out that Chennai has no Armenians now. And yet, thanks to those of the community from other parts of the world, the Church, along with Armenian Churches in the rest of India was restored a couple of years ago. On completion of the exercise in 2008, the Catholicos (the equivalent of the Pope) of the Armenian Church came to Chennai and reconsecrated the shrine. Today, though no services are held, the church is open to visitors of all faiths between 9.30 am and 2.30 pm. It is a haven of peace and what more do we need in a place of worship?
There are over 300 graves of Armenians in the church. There is a plaque in memory of Coja Petrus Uscan who in the 1750s did much for the city including the building of the St Mathias Church, Vepery, the St Ritas Church, the building of the steps to St Thomas Mount and the Marmalong bridge at Saidapet. A grave that stands by itself with a 1960s monument on it is the one of Shimovinian who in 1794 brought out the first Armenian journal – Azdarar, from Madras.
Lastly, there is the bell tower. You can climb up past angels carved out of plaster and reach the belfry where hang six bells, in three rows. The oldest dates back to the 1750s and has an inscription in Armenian. There are two dating to the 1780s and these are in memory of Shawmier, an Armenian Merchant. Two others date to the 19th century and bear the legend that these were cast by Thomas Mears of London. There is a venerable old one right at the top of which nothing can be made out from where we stand. But you can imagine the sound that they must have made when Madras had no traffic and very little noise other than human voices.