You will have to make your way through the bylanes of Kolkata’s chaotic and crowded Burrabazar to find the oldest church in the city. The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, is not just historic it is also symbolic. It is the city’s connection to the Armenian community that once controlled commerce and the famous jute trade of Kolkata.
Armenians played an important role through Indian history. They migrated from Armenia in West Asia, in the face of growing religious persecution in the 16th century CE and thrived as traders. By the time of Akbar’s reign the Armenians were an economically affluent and powerful community.
They were appointed to high administrative positions and the first Armenian Church in India was built by Akbar, in Agra in 1562 CE. The Armenians often held high office. The Chief Justice of Akbar’s court was an Armenian, Abdul Hai.
Akbar’s successors Jahangir (1605-1627 CE) and Shah Jahan (1628-1657 CE) continued to encourage more Armenians to settle down in India. As their trade networks spread, the Armenians started settling in places such as Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Surat. They traded mostly in commodities such as woollen cloth, amber, Venetian glassware, mirrors, guns and swords; in return they sent out spices, pearls, precious stones and cotton from India.
Armenians played an important role through Indian history
The late 16th century CE marked the heyday of Armenian trade in Calcutta. The Armenians first settled in Chinsurah near Calcutta where the jute trade was centred. Later, they established themselves in Calcutta and the city became home to the largest Armenian community in India, then. In 1715 CE, it was the Armenians who helped the British establish themselves in Bengal and make Calcutta the new commercial centre. As they prospered their community grew and more Armenians churches were built across India.
Kolkata’s Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, was originally built in 1688 CE, but its wooden structure is said to have been burned down in a terrible fire in 1707 CE. The present church was built on an old Armenian burial ground after a span of 17 years, in 1724 CE. The architect of this church was an Armenian, named Levon Ghevond from Iran.
The oldest marker of Armenian presence in Kolkata is the tomb of an Armenian woman Rezabeebeh Sookia, close to the church, dating all the way back to July 21, 1630 CE.
The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, is said to have undergone a final set of renovations in 1763 CE by a philanthropist, Khojah Petros Arratoon. He is said to have built two altars- one on the right of the main altar- to commemorate his brother Gorghin Khan who was the commander-in-chief of the army of Nawab Mir Qasim of Bengal and another- on the left of the main altar- in his own memory. The interior of the church is adorned with strikingly beautiful paintings and frescoes.
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The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth is located 3 kms from Howrah Railway station and 15 kms from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, Kolkata.