“This tablet is placed as a tribute of affection by JA Johannes Esquire of the firm of Johannes Brothers, merchants of Madras, over the mortal remains of Zechariah Johannes, his eldest and beloved son, who died on 26th September 1859, aged 17 years and four months,” reads a white marble tablet placed below the belfry of the 251-year-old St Mary Church on Armenian Street in Chennai, the one and only Armenian church in Tamil Nadu. Even though Chennai was a major centre of the Armenian traders in the 17th and 18th centuries, many left the place after India got independence due to various reasons. Today, only two Armenians live in the city. There are barely 200 Armenians living across India with Kolkata housing the highest number of Armenians at about 75.
The population of Armenians may be dwindling, but their history is flourishing. A church and a street in the name of Armenians in Chennai stand testimony to it. Madras is where many significant historic events of Armenia took place. Constructed in 1772 in Georgetown in Madras, the St Mary Church stands testimony to many historic events. The first Armenian journal ever printed in any part of the world was published in Madras in 1794. As you enter the church, you see a decorated burial of Haruthiun Shmavonian (1750-1824), an Armenian priest and editor and publisher of the first Armenian journal called Azdarar (Intelligencer).
Considered the father of Armenian journalism, Shmavonian published Azdarar for 18 consecutive months until 1796. “I saw a copy of Azdarar at the central library of Armenia when I visited the country in 2007. We don’t know how he printed it and where in Madras he did it. We couldn't locate it anywhere in the city,” said Michael Stephen, who was caretaker of the church between 1992 and 2004.
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