• Ashot Hindilyan graciously offered to show us around the Armenian Quarter of old Jerusalem.

    “Is your name linked to India?” I asked.

    “Naturally, -hindi- Hindilyan. At some point of time my family traded with India. So much so I am told that I even look like an Indian. Do I?”

    “Y-e-e-s, I guess so. Your nose is definitely not an Armenian nose...”

    A professor at Birzeit University, Dr Hindilyan took us to every nook and corner of old Jerusalem’s Armenian quarter with its narrow cobbled streets lined with stone houses, the library, the cemetery. We witnessed the ancient church service in the 11th century Armenian Church of St James. As special guests, we were shown some church treasures. These were cotton block-printed altar curtains depicting the life of the Holy Family – all made in Madras! One of the most treasured ones was an enormous block-printed curtain with images of plants. Below each image was its name in Armenian script. Hindilyan read out – imli and looked up as if to ask if it made any sense.

    “Of course, that’s an imli tree!”

    We tried to identify the other plants too. Why anybody would make a veritable encyclopaedia of South Indian plants for an Armenian church’s altar curtain is anybody’s guess. Perhaps some Armenian with a passion for botany had guided the block printers while writing down the names in Armenian script for them to copy. This particular altarpiece was made in the 18th century.

    Well, this episode spurred my curiosity. I remembered a Mr Khachaturian who, long long ago, had been my cousin’s landlord in Bombay. So I started foraging for more information.

    We are ignorant about our Armenian links that go back to the second century. Armenians had once traded in many parts of India and their settlements were scattered along the coastline: Bombay, Surat, Madras, Calcutta, and later in Agra, Lucknow, Delhi, Lahore, Gwalior. Persia’s Shah Abbas encouraged Armenians from Persia in the 17th century to trade with India. Their numbers swelled and soon they set up schools in Madras and Calcutta. The first Armenian language periodical was printed in Madras in 1794 and not in Armenia. It was the British who gradually forced them out, feeling threatened by their commercial expertise.

    The Ain-i-Akbari mentions numerous Armenians who had been invited by Akbar to settle down in Agra. Mariam Zamani Begum, one of Akbar’s wives, was allegedly an Armenian, as were the Chief Justice, Abdul Hai (in Armenian ‘hai’ means Armenian), the Lady Doctor, Juliana, and several others.

    Some claim that Sarmad, an outstanding Sufi poet of the 17th century, was an Armenian Jew, while others that he was Armenian Christian. He arrived in India in 1654 from Kashan in Persia, became a bhikshu, and later turned to Sufism. Better known as the Naked Sufi, he attracted followers from all faiths and classes. He wrote in one of his Persian quatrains, “I obey the Koran. I am a Hindu priest and a monk; I am a Rabbi Jew, I am an infidel and I am Muslim.”

    Among his disciples was Dara Shikoh, the prince philosopher and humanist. Aurangzeb killed both Dara Shikoh and Sarmad. To this day people lay floral tributes on the grave of Sarmad located near Delhi’s Jama Masjid.

    The Zamzama canon outside the Lahore museum was made in 1761 by an Armenian gun-maker, Shah Nazar Khan, for Ahmed Shah Durrani, the Afghan invader of the Punjab. The Sikhs later captured it.

    What a lot we owe the Armenians! An Armenian lady doctor opened the first nursing home in Calcutta; an Armenian conducted the first archaeological digs. There are so many unsung Armenian heroes in our history who fought the British alongside us. Colonel Jacob Petrus commanded Scindia of Gwalior’s Army for 70 years (1780-1850) against the British. Mesrovb Jacob Seth writes:

    “His reputation was so high and he was so respected that the entire city of Gwalior mourned his death in 1850. Thousands including the nobility and military attended his funeral, and guns were fired ninety-five times from the ramparts of the historic Gwalior Fort, to mark his age.”

    Then there was the legendary Gorgin Khan, Commander-in-Chief of Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal’s army, and Movses Manook, a Colonel in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Army. The list of Armenian military officers is long. There were historians too. Tovmas Khojamalyan wrote a history of India in 1768. It included the period of British rule, which could provide a very important source of alternative information, especially in the chapters about the infamous ‘black hole’ tragedy.

    Was this a one-way traffic? Not at all! The 4th century Syrian historian Zenob Glak mentions that from the 2nd to the 4th century AD there existed in the Armenian area of Taron, an Indian settlement of some 15,000 Indians, which prospered for over two hundred years and consisted of 20 Indian villages. They were wiped out with the coming of Christianity to Armenia. A Toran village by the name of Hindkastan existed until the early 20th century as well as other names – Hindukhanum, Hindubek and Hindumelik.
à compléter