Ranjini Balan visits a historic part of the crowded city.
Amidst all the hustle and bustle of George Town, searching for a merchant establishment, I took a walk down Armenian Street. It led me to the quaint little Armenian Church built by the Armenian population which had settled in Chennai as traders during the 16th Century. The graceful façade stood lit in splendour by the late afternoon sun.
The Church is visible from the street only as a stone stairway leading up to two massive doors but once you enter the church complex through the stone cloister, what greets you is a small chapel with wooden shutters, the breath-taking belfry and the tranquil gardens housing the Armenian cemetery. The thing that strikes you first is the peaceful silence that engulfs you and you are surprised such an oasis could exist in the crowded, dusty Old Madras trading quarter. A walk through the green garden pathway reveals centuries gone by of a once thriving Armenian population as seen in the Armenian inscribed epitaphs. The chapel has wooden benches beneath wood-panelled ceilings with three antique chandeliers The carved church altar has a fresco of the Virgin Mary placed on a wooden pedestal. The simplicity and intricacy of the woodwork is fascinating by itself.
The Armenian Church was first constructed in 1712 and reconstructed in 1772 after it was demolished in 1746 during the French occupation of Madras. It is famous for its magnificent belfry. There are six bells in the belfry tower, each weighing about 200 kgs. The bells belong to different eras and were cast at different points of time. Inscriptions show that two of the bells were gifted by a leading Armenian merchant, Aga Shawmier Soothanoomian, in memory of 19 year Eliazar Shawmier, his youngest son, buried in the Church’s garden.
The church functions only as a heritage site, and is funded by the main Church in Armenia. It is maintained by The Armenian Church Committee in Calcutta.
When in Parrys, from the NSC Bose road turn into Armenian street, which essentially cuts off into several streets where the traders and merchants of Chennai have continued through centuries. All around are buildings which are a delightful sight of sheer architectural beauty which have stood solemn and steady through the vagaries of time for more than 300 years. Cycle rickshaws ply down the trading streets and you can almost breathe the serene history of Old Madras. This piece of hidden Chennai sets itself apart from all the chaos of the city with its besotting old world charm.