Another World: Armenians in far-off India

Another World: Armenians in far-off India

Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth - India


By Hermineh Adamyan

Early on the morning of June 7, 2009, I started my day in Yerevan and wound up in faraway Calcutta (Kolkata).

Back in Armenia, I had some inkling of where I was headed to. Everyone who at least has a cursory familiarity with India knows that it is a nation with extreme contrasts which makes it hard to adapt to, especially if you realize that you will be spending the next year there.
The real India is far removed from the images one gets from Bollywood movies. In fact, it is hard to believe that the totality of India could ever be depicted in these romantic and dreamy films

I got my first serious impression during the flight from Dubai to Calcutta. It seemed that we had already reached Calcutta while still in the plane. It was the behavior of the Indian passengers, rather than their dress, that left this impression on me. During the flight of several hours, the cabin was transformed into veritable Indian restaurant mishmash. After filling out the health form at Calcutta International Airport, which left less than a lasting impression, designed to prevent the entry of infectious diseases, we entered the arrivals hall.

It soon became apparent that we would also have to bear with the unfamiliar oppressively humid heat that seemed to wrap around your feet and engulf you when you stepped outside. You felt that you could suffocate at any moment. My new colleague, Ms. Anjela, a song and dance instructor, appeared to have felt the same way. Both of us displayed clear feelings of unpreparedness about the place. We?d periodically turned to each other in bewilderment and asked ?Where the heck are we going?? in an attempt to makes some sense of the situation.

We were met by Very Reverend Father Khoren Hovhannisian, Manager of the Armenian Philanthropic Academy (commonly known as the Armenian College) in Calcutta and religious leader of the Indian-Armenian community. Apparently noting our confusion and irritability, he tried to put us at ease by joking, ?I hope you?ve brought warm clothes, it?s pretty cold here.?

The heat was so overbearing that for a moment we hoped he was right. But the self-deception was short-lived when we stepped outside on to the street. What startled me the most was the constant blaring of car horns, an ear-piercing clamor, so prevalent in big metropolitan cities. Then too, traffic flowed on the left, in the English tradition, and it seemed to us that we were marching against life?s normal flow. Traffic signs were posted but no one paid any attention; utter confusion reigned on the streets.

To break the thread of agitation I was experiencing, I tried to focus in on some interesting sidewalk scene as a diversion but quickly realized that I had trespassed into people?s homes, where they ate, slept and bathed.

I thought to myself ? My God, how can anyone possibly live like this? This stifling street would lead us to Mirza Ghalib Street where the Armenian College, our home and workplace for the next year, is located.

Security staff opened the gates leading to the school and our car drove through. I immediately remembered the words uttered by Catholicos Garegin II during our meeting, ?You will see both heaven and hell??

Truly, it was another world inside the gates, with its manicured lawns, buildings, playground and swimming pool. It was all clean and tidy. Father Khoren showed us to our rooms on the fifth floor. Teachers? quarters comprise a portion of the top floor; the rest is a huge balcony.

The magic of the place pushed my initial impressions of India to the background. For a moment it seemed that we had wound up in some western hotel with all the modern amenities. A place where a teacher could concentrate on her work and the staff would take care of all other mundane issues.

Even though we were exhausted after our long journey, the comforts of our new apartments gave us a second wind. We were introduced to the cuisine of India, known for its extensive use of spices, for the first time.

The next morning after breakfast we decided to take a tour of our new surroundings. Everything was superb. We met some of the students who weren?t of on vacation which they can take once every three years. They impressed us with their discipline and pleasant demeanor. Everyone left us with positive impression; from the workers to the school?s manager. It was hard not to notice the upsides to it all. It wasn?t by accident that you got to thinking that such an agreeable state of affairs could last a lifetime, that is until you walked outside the gates, and were jolted back to reality by the extreme poverty, sharp odors and polluted air. We braved entering this reality on our second day in Calcutta. We decided to go out and buy some clothing better suited for the Indian climate.

What?s amazing is that when you walk the streets you are confronted with mobs of people who either want to solicit you or sell you something. Half-naked street vendors squatting on the pavement where they sleep and bathe hawk their food items, seemingly unaware that it?s covered with flies. There are homeless children all over, who tug at your clothes begging for money. You?re forced to hand over some change otherwise they?ll keep following you, especially if they spot you leaving a store and know that you have money to spare. When we finally made our way back to the school, we made up our minds that the next time we?d leave the grounds of the college was to go to the airport for our return journey to Armenia. As you can see, our foray into the outside world that day made a lasting impression on us.

To foreigners, India seems like a land of wonders. The country has a rich culture but it is impossible not be disillusioned in India. Here, you witness representations of all the various historical time periods ? primitive lifestyle, monuments from the Middle Ages, and the legacy of modern day social and political thought and the latest values of cutting edge scientific achievements.

They say that foreigners in India cry two times. The first is from culture shock when they enter the country and the second is when they set out to return to their country of origin but don?t wish to leave India.

I think that I have gotten over the culture shock stage. I walk the streets and no longer notice everything surrounding me. It?s the only way. We Armenians here know that we can always return to the cozy confines of the Armenian College whose students call it the cleanest place in Calcutta.

It would be good to give a short description regarding how the school was founded.

The Armenian Philanthropic Academy was founded in 1821 in the West Bengali regional capital of Calcutta. In comparison, Calcutta?s college was founded in 1857 The Armenian College has had its ups and downs over the years and even was on the verge of shutting down. Today, it is experiencing a rebirth of sorts.

In 1999, the Mother See of Etchmiadzin assumed administration of the school and later on Catholicos Garegin II dismissed Mrs. Sonia John, the Manager of the College for her unsatisfactory academic supervision and hindering development of the school.

The modern period of the school starts at this point and it?s definitely on the right track today. It quickly became clear that during the term of Sonia John many violations had taken place.

From a legal viewpoint, the Mother See only has the right to administer the school. It is the Indian government who is the legal owner. For some inexplicable reason the Armenian churches in Bengal and the academy were sold to the government at a pittance.

Later on, two buildings on the academy?s grounds were rented to some unidentified individuals. During the administration of Mrs. Sonia John, the academy forfeited most of its reputation. ?Hetq? has frequently covered the situation of the Academy and readers can read the following for supplemental information. (?Armenian children are neglected in Calcutta?,  ?Armenian children are neglected in Calcutta ? 2?, ?Financial misappropriations at the Armenian College of Calcutta?, ?The Lives of Armenian Children are in Danger in Calcutta?)

Today, the Academy is attempting to regain some of its former prestige under the auspices of the Mother See. Very Reverend Father Khoren Hovhannisyan, the new manager, places great emphasis on improving the quality of education at the school. It is an issue that the College faces.

The Armenian College has a ten year curriculum and doesn?t hand out high school diplomas. It did in the past. Classes are taught in English. Armenian language and literature classes as well as Armenian history and music are part of the curriculum. 11th and 12th grade students attend other schools and the transfers are facilitated by the College administration. The school is now trying to regain its former status as a high school which would eliminate a host of bureaucratic and academic wrangling and would allow students to complete their high school education at the one site.

Those students completing twelve years of high school can go on to college. The Academy takes care of the academic expenses and gets waivers for military service. Today, the school has sixty students and there are plans to increase the number. This has been put on temporary hold until a new girls? dormitory is built. The present building is in disrepair and cannot serve as suitable housing for new students. The school?s classrooms and cafeteria have been renovated. The gymnasium is state of the art.

The Academy is co-ed, even though there is a mistaken notion that it?s an all male school. The daily academic schedule is quite precise. Students wake up at 5:30 am. They don?t change the clocks in India during the summer and winter. Right now, Indian time is a mere half hour ahead of Armenia.

Students awake, do their morning exercises, shower and have breakfast. At 8:00 am there is joint prayer and the Academy anthem is sung. Classes begin at 8:10 am. Students and teachers sit down together for lunch at 2:00 pm. Students also have rest periods and can take a dip in the school?s pool to relax. Students can also join the school?s choir and band.

The choir also sings at Sunday church services. The school?s rugby and football teams are well known in the city. An important repository of Armenian literature, the Ararat Library, is also located at the school. Sadly, most of the books have been damaged over time due to neglect and indifference.

Computers linked to the internet are also available to students at the library on a limited basis. The library also subscribes to a number of local newspapers.

The 188 year-old institution is equipped with all the necessary teaching facilities. Given that students come from Iran, Iraq and Armenia, there is a language problem.

The students joke that they have come up with a new language; a mixture of Armenian, Persian, Arabic and Indian.

As an Armenian history teacher I sometimes have a tough time in presenting the subject material. Often, I am forced to come up with several synonyms for just one word. Students here find the textbooks from Armenia to be more than they can handle and it?s a problem that teachers of Armenian studies always confront.

This year four professional instructors have been invited from Armenia to teach Armenian language, literature, history and song and dance. This is a ground-breaking step since in the past one instructor taught a combined course in these disciplines.

At the initiative of the Catholicos, the school assembly hall is being renovated and will be furnished with air conditioners and other modern facilities.

The school will also attempt to regain possession of those buildings it formerly leased. An agreement has already been reached regarding one of these structures. If the Academy manages to succeed in this regard it will go down as the most important achievement in the last 100 years. What property the school has sold off has been a result of the actions of a few petty individuals in the local community who placed personal interest over the well-being of the school.

Photo: Saint Nazareth Armenian Church in Kolkata.

1) Another World: Armenians in Far-Off India (Part 1), 22 June 2009
2) Another World: Armenians in Far-Off India (Part 2), 29 June 2009

  1. If you find this city so irritable, why you people were even here? The sad fact of life is people see what they want to see and you unfortunately see only dirt and squalor. There is much more to this great city. I came to this page, piqued with curiosity about this fascinating Armenian Church formed in 1724 located right in the heart of one of the busiest areas of Calcutta, unfortunately my first encounter with anything Armenian was you.

    Rahul Singh ([email protected])

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