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Armenians in Mughal Delhi | Omar Khalidi

14 March 2018

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The Omar Khalidi Website

Armenian presence in India is documented at least since the sixteenth century. At that time the Mughals ruled much of northern India, whereas various Muslim sultanates ruled the Deccan or the interior southern region (1).

Persian was the language of court, commerce and administration in northern India up to the 1830s and in the Deccan until 1880s. Thus the mercantile and cultural climate in medieval India was in many ways similar to that in India’s neighboring western and central Asian regions. Though some Armenians may have arrived in pre-Mughal India through the northern overland route, there is no documentation to establish this assertion (2).

Most of the Armenians who came to India as traders did so from Persia via the sea routes entering through the ports on the western coast. The Armenian traders’ influx into India began when Emperor Shah Abbas I deported them from Julfa to the Isfahan suburb named as New Julfa in memory of their abandoned town in early seventeenth century. During the course of the sixteenth century, a few Armenians and some settlements could be found in different places in India. Among other places, Agra, the Mughal capital in northern India attracted some Armenians.

While most Armenians in India came for trade, some did for other pursuits. Given their fluency in Persian and familiarity with Islamic culture, many became interpreters, emissaries and informants for European trading companies of various nations. A handful of Armenian clerics also came to tend to the religious needs of the community. The Armenian trade in India is now increasingly better documented, though Armenian heritage is waiting to be researched, particularly with reference to Delhi (3). My aim in this paper is to document Armenian inscriptions in Delhi and to discuss the disputed identity of a building called by some as an Armenian chapel and by others as the mausoleum of Manuel D’Eremao in a Christian cemetery in India’s capital.

There are only a handful of references to the Armenian presence at the Mughal court in the imperial cities of Agra and Delhi. Domingo Pires, an Armenian who adopted the Portuguese name, carried Mughal Emperor Akbar’s farman, edict, to the Jesuit Provincial in Goa asking him to send learned Christians capable of informing the Grand Mogul about Christianity (4). Then, there is a legend about one of the Emperor Akbar’s wives being an Armenian (5). Juliana, the sister of Akbar’s Armenian wife is credited with building the first Armenian church at Agra in 1562. His chief justice is also said to have been an Armenian, Abd alHay, who undoubtedly used this Arabic name to his advantage as it could also been seen as an Armenian name, Hay, being the Armenian word for Armenian! Mirza Zulqarnain (1592-1656) was a grandee at the Mughal court in Emperor Jahangir’s time (6).

According to Muhammad Salih Kanbo, (d. 1674), the author of Amal-i Salih also known as Shah Jahan Nama, a near-contemporary account of the Shah Jahan’s ( 1628-58) reign, “within the city many prosperous Khatri and Armenian merchants had fancy houses,” some “were six to seven story high” (7). In Emperor Awrangzib’s time, 1658-1707, Muhammad Said Sarmad, a poet and mystic of multiple identities is believed by some scholars to be of Armenian origin (8). Delhi is among a late seventeenth century list of Indian cities where there were either Armenian settlements or where Armenians had commercial transactions. Costand (d. 1702) was the compiler of this list (9). Khwaja Manoor, a Delhi-based Armenian, obtained two edicts from the Emperor Farrukhsiyar for the safe journey in 1713 of an English embassy from Calcutta to the Mughal capital (10).

Two years later, in July 1715, the East India Company sent an embassy to Emperor Farrukhsiyar consisting of John Sarman [Surmon] and Khwaja Israel di Sarhad. Upon arrival from Calcutta in Delhi, an Armenian priest Rev. Stephanus received them with dresses of honor (11). This led historian Mesrovb Seth to conjecture that there “must have been a been a church too, for wherever the Armenians settled in India during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the first thing they did was to erect a church of their own with a priest to officiate therein” (12). There is in fact, a priest Crecour or Krikor who died in 1807 and was buried in the D’Eremao cemetery (13). An Armenian inscription was discovered in late 19th century pertaining to a house built by a Joseph Diphanos in 1781, thus providing further evidence of Armenian presence in the imperial capital (14).

However, “a pontifical bull from the Holy See of Etchmiatzin dated 31 December 1850 is addressed to the Armenian residents at Calcutta, Chinsura, Saeedabad, Dacca [all in Bengal], Agra, Gwalior, Cawnpur, Lucknow, Fattihabad, Lahore, Bombay, Surat, Hyderabad, Madras, Masulipatnam…” (15) but not Delhi, thus suggesting the Armenians’ presence had ended from the Mughal capital by mid eighteenth century.

Delhi went through major devastations in 1739 during the invasion of the Persian invader Nadir Shah and the uprising of 1857, during which many buildings and monuments were destroyed. However, one cemetery escaped the devastation. This was known as the D’Eremao cemetery located outside the walled city in the Northern part of the capital. Probably the first modern writer to notice this cemetery was H.C. Fanshawe, the Commissioner of Delhi in the late nineteenth century. He wrote, “across the canal and reached by the road which runs from the front of this [Kashmiri] gate is an interesting Armenian graveyard, containing a number of tombs which are much the oldest Christian graves in Delhi. It is known by the name of the family of D’Eremao, which was once connected with the imperial court” (16).

The D’Eremao cemetery came to the notice of George William De Rhe-Philipe and Miles Irving, the two compilers of A List of Inscriptions on Christian Tombs or Monuments in the Punjab, in 1910 when it was published (17). Mesrovb Seth probably came to know of this cemetery and the Armenian graves through this as he acknowledges in his account of the visit he made, “in October 1919, when we were deciphering the Armenian and other inscriptions in that deserted and snake-infested cemetery, situated in a jungle, about 15 minutes drive from the Ganesh Flour Mills in Subzimandi, we saw a huge snake coiled at the foot of a pomegranate tree in the lower portion of the cemetery where the graves had disappeared owing to the accumulation of water during the rains, and in trying to escape from the poisonous reptile, we almost fell into a deep well in the middle of cemetery. Such are the risks and dangers to which research workers expose themselves sometimes in pursuit of a hobby. But that was not the only ordeal. When we arrived at the cemetery, we found the gate locked, as the caretaker had gone to the city on account of a Hindoo festival. But as we had found the place with great difficulty after a long and tedious drive, over trackless fields, in a bone-shaking country-carriage called ekka, we were determined to see the place with the sole object of rescuing from oblivion some Armenian tombstone in that cemetery. Northing daunted, we scaled the wall and gained, burglar-like, access to the cemetery as if a great treasure was hidden there. There are in all 24 graves, with tombstones, in that cemetery, the oldest bearing the date 1782” (18). Seth, ever enthusiastic about Armenian achievements in India also did mention this structure as a chapel, although commenting on the Armenian priest’s reception of an East India Company embassy in Delhi, he wrote that “if there was a priest there must have been a church” (19).

From the Archaeological Survey of India’s notification date 13-12-1922, it is clear that the cemetery had attracted the attention of the authorities for it to be registered in an inventory even if protection could not be provided(20). An officer of the colonial army Brig. Humphrey Bullock (1899-1959), was a historian of British Indian army in India. In 1936, he visited the D’Eremao cemetery where, “to the best of my recollection there were considerably more than 6 M.I. [monumental inscriptions)” than just six as documented in translation by Seth during his 1919 visit (21).

Just around their departure from India in mid 1947, the British had not thought through what will happen to the European cemeteries. In fact they probably did not know how many existed. In order to document the cemeteries Brig Bullock was appointed by the government. It took him two years to do so. In March 1949, the British Secretary of State said that the European cemeteries had become the responsibility of his government and that 50,000 pounds sterling were set aside for their protection and upkeep. The cemeteries’ land—including D’Eremao– belonged to the Indian government but the upkeep was to be the responsibility of the UK High Commission (embassy) in New Delhi (22). But the Indian Partition upheaval uprooted large number of people in Delhi and Punjab due to violence between Hindus and Muslims. Thousands of uprooted people took refuge in tombs and cemeteries, including the D’Eremao Cemetery. Those settling into the D’Eremao Cemetery were native Indian Christians of Methodist denomination (23).

In a report on the cemetery after the cataclysmic events of mid 1947, Bullock wrote, “All marble tablets were stolen and wanton damage (though perhaps random) done to many graves and to the large D’Eremao Mausoleum, which forms the principal feature of the cemetery… The recent damage which it has sustained was probably due to its being mistaken for a Muslim graveyard, and the Mausoleum for a Muslim shrine or tomb, despite the fact that there are large incised black crosses (about three feet high) on the walls of the Mausoleum and the majority of tombs also display fairly legible crosses…” (24) This is the first time we hear of a mausoleum, not mere graves or tombs. According to an official of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, Chander Bhan “The control of the chapel and cemetery remained with the Central Government up to March 1948. The control was thereafter handed over to the U.K. High Commissioner with effect from 1.4. 1948. The U.K. High Commissioner intimated in 1951 that he would not undertake the charge. In 1952, the control was handed over to the Delhi Administration” (25).

The Indian Ministry of Defense approached the U.K. High Commission seeking its help in protecting the cemetery in April 1962. To this request the High Commission replied: “The question of the future of the graves and monuments which still exist in this cemetery has been carefully considered, but in view of the present condition of these monuments, and the fact that they are mainly of persons of Armenian origin, it is not considered that the cost of their removal would be justified. The Acting High Commissioner would, therefore be glad if the Delhi State would take over the cemetery as it exists” (26). Matters rested where they were until a Delhi Armenian, Joseph Nahapiet visited the cemetery on 16 May 1958 in the company of Father Terenig Poladian (27). Nahapiet established a Delhi chapter of the Armenian Association then active in Calcutta. With the help of the parent organization, he initiated action to take possession of the cemetery and the chapel six years after visiting the cemetery (28). As a first step, his Association decided to insert a tablet proclaiming “Armenian Chapel and Cemetery, Rama Bagh, Kishangunj Delhi,” and “Trustees Armenian Association, 5 Outram Street Calcutta-16,” onto the structure in the cemetery believing it to be the Armenian chapel. The tablet was prepared following the visit of His Grace Bishop Assoghik Ghazarian, Apostalic Delegate of His Holiness Vasgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians to the cemetery on 14 September 1962 (29). When inserted on the east wall of the Chapel-Mausoleum in the D’Eremao cemetery on Good Friday 12 April 1963, the tablet read, “Armenian Cemetry (sic) and the second line as “Trustees Armenian Association, 5 Outram Street Calcutta-16,” (See Photo 9). It is not clear why the word chapel was omitted, as it would have been an important assertion of the Armenians’ claim that the building was in fact a chapel, not a mausoleum as Bullock claimed.

In a letter to Nahapiet, C.A. Martin, the Armenian Association Secretary said, “The Armenian tombstones are practical evidence of our interest and ownership which has been accepted both by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Deputy Commissioner of Delhi” (30). To legally establish its claim, the Association filed a suit in the Court of Additional District Magistrate III at Tis Hazari Court in Delhi on September 16, 1963 against the occupants seeking eviction. The refugee occupants of the cemetery appealed the court. The matter rested there. India’s over burdened judiciary takes decades to hear cases, and this instance was not different. In the meanwhile, further efforts of the Armenian Association directed from Calcutta through Nahapiet met with no success. To start with, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) informed the Association on 19 July 1969 that, “the Armenian Chapel and Cemetery at Kishangunj was never put under the management of the Armenian Association. The land in question vests in the Government…You may kindly approach the Government of India…so that its possessions may be handed over to your Association after removal of trespassers” (31). The Association wrote to the Ministry of Defense, Government of India on 24 March 1971, but nothing seems to have happened as the occupants continued to live on the cemetery. With the ever-escalating housing crisis in Delhi, little wonder that the poor encroachers, a newspaper headline noted were, “thriving on the land of the dead” (32).

The cemetery with its chapel-mausoleum was all but forgotten, even by historians and conservationists. As a city rich in splendors of Islamic architecture and modern town planning, Delhi monuments and cemeteries have been better documented than most other Indian cities. However, it is surprising that it was left out from even a thorough survey like Delhi: The Built Heritage: A Listing (33).

Unknown to the compilers of this major work, Ingeborg Bottrall, a German scholar resident in India from 1986-90, joined the Delhi Conservation Society (DCS) to help preserve the built heritage, including the D’Eremao cemetery. She worked with the DCS and the Armenian Association to preserve the graves in the cemetery. In notes prepared 1989, she found that no steps were taken since 1972 by the Armenian Association, ASI or anyone else to evict the occupants from the cemetery. Bottrall rightly stressed the need to establish ownership and control by the Association through a court order. However this did not happen despite her efforts. Politicians claiming to represent the occupants, lack of clear legal documents establishing title, overburdened courts, are clearly reasons why the Association did not succeed.

The Armenian Chapel and Burials in D’Eremao Cemetery

In order to document the cemetery and chapel-mausoleum, I visited the D’Eremao cemetery on 31 December 2005. A retired military officer and historian, Lt. Gen. S.L. Menezes, who had visited the cemetery in 1987, accompanied the present writer. Located off Old Rohtak Road, about 200 yards from the Kishanganj Railway Station, the Cemetery (See Plan) is located in Green S. Jacob’s Christian Compound, also known as Church Compound. (See Photo 1) The Compound is inhabited by Indian Christians of Methodist denomination.

Louis M. Jacob, born in 1947, is the President of the Christian Welfare Society (founded in 1965, registered in 1990) that looks after the interests of the Compound dwellers, 55 families in all, except 3 Hindu, 3 Muslim families. Mr. Jacob is a railway contractor and spoke to me in Urdu though he and the Compound dwellers were initially surprised and curious about the purpose of our visit. Jacobs informed us that the families have been in the Compound since the 1950s. I visited the cemetery again on 16 March 2006 in the company of William Dalrymple, the author of White Mughals.

A large tomb-like square building of brick and mortar stands in the center of what is now a fully encroached cemetery (See Photo 2). Its thin bricks indicate that it is built in the eighteenth century during the decline of the Mughals. A dome tops the building with a distinct Latin or Armenian cross on it under which there is a lotus, suggesting it to be a Mughal structure of a hybrid style, (See Photo 3). The four corners of the building have short cupolas. Inside the building on all four walls are incised black crosses (about three feet high) exactly as Brig. Bullock described, (See Photo 4). Now filled up, there were four openings or doors of this chapel-mausoleum. I found the chapel-mausoleum cluttered with broken furniture and other belongings of Jacob.

There are no graves inside the building or vestiges of any. However, Methodists use the central part of the building for daily Christian services though no Armenians live there. According to the officiating Pastor Rev. Samson Nath, the building in fact has been a chapel for “ages” (34). There is an altar in the building and modern framed images of Jesus and Mary. Is the building in the cemetery in fact an Armenian chapel? Or is it the mausoleum of D’Eremao? Only a trained archaeologist may be able to tell aided by evidence from other sources. George William de Philipe and Miles Long, the compilers of the inscriptions noted earlier mention neither the chapel nor the mausoleum. Casting doubt that it was an Armenian chapel was the observation of J.D. Arathoon, the Honorary Secretary of the Armenian Association in June 1989, though his Association wanted to take possession of the cemetery and the chape-mausoleum. He accompanied Ingeborg Bottrall on her first visit to the cemetery on 27 February 1989. When she remarked that the chapel looked like a Muslim tomb, Arathoon responded that the building in fact was not a chapel but the tomb of Manuel D’Eremao (35). The Archaeological Survey of India’s Delhi Circle’s documentation notes only the cemetery without any reference to the mausoleum or chapel (36).

The blue enamel ASI plaque familiar to scholars and visitors to the archaeological sites was missing, though the occupants may have removed it. What is certain is that everyone who documented the graves has always called the cemetery as the D’Eremao Cemetery. However, the Armenian Association always referred to it as the Armenian Chapel and Cemetery without conclusively establishing it as such. The cemetery is evidently named after Captain Manuel D’Eremao (d. 1829) who was connected with the Mughal court (37).

In the cemetery, I located 15 graves, (See Photo 5 showing two graves) all in poor condition with domestic utensils and flowerpots resting on the graves, (See photos 6a-6e). Two of the graves are in fact in rooms built over them, without demolishing the graves. Three graves have inscriptions in Persian, only two are partly readable, (see the Photos 7a.-7c) On east wall of the building was a plaque plastered over by the Compound dwellers, (see Photo 8). One of the young men in the Compound got onto a ladder and scratched off the plaster revealing an inscription in stone, “Armenian Cemetry,” (sic), (See Photo 9), placed by the Armenian Association as noted earlier. The dwellers removed drying laundry from the graves at my request to take better pictures. Children and chicken alike were running around what is in fact a cemetery completely encroached. Regardless of whether the building was in fact an Armenian chapel or the mausoleum of D’Eremao, it is certain that some Armenians were buried in the cemetery named after the Captain. The Armenian inscriptions are gone, the remaining ones in Persian are fast fading.

Unless immediate steps are taken to relocate the occupants, repair the graves and conserve the chapel-mausoleum, an important part of Indian, Armenian, and European heritage would be lost. The following are inscriptions in Armenian and Persian relating to the Armenians in Delhi, the first was in the Archaeological Museum, the rest on the graves. The original Armenian inscriptions were published originally in transliteration, the one in Persian in Persian script in the two sources cited here.

Appendix A
Armenian and Persian Inscriptions in Delhi Relating to Armenians

Appendix B
Plan of the Armenian Chapel and Burials in D’Eremao Cemetery:

[ See original paper at: Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies" 15 (2006): pp. 177-187 ]


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