Chennai, August 13, 2013
SURVIVORS OF TIME
Symbols of an age
Anusha Parthasarathy traces the lives of well-known Armenians who made the community an integral part of the city’s history and culture
Coja Petrus Uscan, who was first referred to in 1724 as ‘…an Armenian lately arrived from Manilha and an inhabitant of this place’ left quite a mark on Madras (according to Vestiges of Old Madras by H.D. Love). He made many contributions to keep the Thomian tradition alive in the city. In 1726, he began the construction of the first bridge across the Adyar river; Saidapet or Marmalong bridge (the bridge was named after Mambalam, a village near Saidapet), with his own money (30,000 pagodas). It was also Uscan who built the 160 stone steps to the summit of St. Thomas Mount (the oil paintings of the apostles inside the church are Armenian as well, as the characters below each painting denote). According to Madras: The Land, The People and Their Governance by S. Muthiah, he left money with the administrator-general for further maintenance.
The bridge that exists now is not the one that Uscan built but a marble plaque with inscriptions in Persian, Armenian and Latin about the construction of the bridge still exists, near the Saidapet bus stand. In 1728, Uscan was granted a 99-year lease of ‘the Company’s House’ near the Choultry Gate. Later, in the 1750s, he was the only Armenian who was allowed to live inside the Fort.
St. Matthias’ Church and School
Uscan built the Church of Our Lady of Miracles between 1730 and 1740. Originally a mission chapel of the French Capuchin friars, it fell into misfortune when the French took over Fort St. George in 1746-1748. This church was later handed over to the SPCK missionaries, till it was demolished in the mid-1800s to make way for St. Matthias’ Church. When Uscan died in 1751, he was buried in this chapel. The grave is still very much there, in the front corner of the churchyard. Buried under waste, the legend of Petrus Uscan only surfaces when visitors and heritage lovers come looking for him.
St. Maatthias Church Photo: Anusha Parthasarathy
Uscan’s successor was Shawmier Sultan, who became the leader of the Armenians when they became a community here (Madras: The Land, The People and Their Governance). According to H.D. Love’s book, he owned the ‘Great House in Charles Street’, belonging to his father Sultan David. He let out this house to Clive and others. The house was later acquired by the Company, but Shawmier does not give the date of purchase, nor mention whether he was the seller. It was ‘agreed that a Court of Admiralty be held at the Company’s House in Charles Street’ for the trial of certain mutineers. Therefore, the house came to be called Admiralty House. This house, within Fort St. George, is now called Clive House.
It is said that the last of Madras’ great Armenians was Haruthiun Shmavonian. According To Portraits Of Hope: Armenians In The Contemporary World by Huberta von Voss, he founded the first Armenian newspaper;
The tombstone of Haruthiun Shmavonian. Photo: R. Ragu
Azdarar in 1794. S. Muthiah’s book points out that it was also claimed to be the ‘first Armenian Journal in the World’. It only functioned for two years but published many Armenian classics.
Haruthiun lived almost all his life in Madras and died in 1824 and was buried in the Armenian Church churchyard (his gravestone has a book on top, as a tribute to Azardar).
The Hindu Steps leading to St. Thomas Mount. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao
Rare bible The Armenian Church itself has a couple of treasures. It holds a rare Bible that dates back to 1686 and a bell that dates back to 1754, with its builder’s name engraved on it; Thomas Maers, the man who made London’s Big Ben.
You can read the first part here.
(The two-part series on Armenians concludes)