Chennai’s forgotten Armenian Church

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The 300 years-old Armenian Church  (Click to hear Jude Johnson, the caretaker of the church take you on an audio tour) in Chennai bears evidence of the tumultuous past of its builders, the Armenians. The simple church adorned with Burma wood windows and doors can very well be read as an effort by the affluential Armenian community to hide their wealth in a country they had just entered.

The Armenians entered India after fleeing from Iran and thrived here as a trading community dealing in silk, spices, stones and others. They controlled trade in Europe and the far East. The now white washed one story church was built in 1712 but its wooden structure was pulled down and rebuilt in 1722. The church has one hall with thick wooden beams cutting its ceiling in vertical sections. The beams have now been coloured in dark brown to match the Burma wood color of the prayer benches and the altar furniture.

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Unlike a catholic church embellished with angels in periodic cornices, this Armenian church is relatively simple in that regard as it has only one archway embellished with baby angles blowing the bugle.

Next to the long corridor is a three storied high bell tower which is one of the main attractions of the church. The tower is crowned with two domes atop each other, replicating a basilica. The wooden staircase leading up to the bells has been closed for tourists due to its fragile nature, explains the church’s caretaker, Jude Johnson who has been working here for the past 15 months. The inner walls of the four arches at the base of the tower have angles welcoming you. The six bells in the tower weigh around 150 kgs each and were made in London. They are rung on Sundays at 9.30 AM sharp by Jude.

The bell tower.

“Special care is taken for the upkeep of the bells. They are extremely heavy and one of the reasons why we don’t allow tourists in the tower now,” says Jude.

Chennai has currently no Armenian community. The last living Armenian in the city passed away 14 years ago and left behind charcoal paintings of the church which adorn the entrance wall along with pictures of the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians when he visited India.  The church currently holds masses only on request and on Christmas eve. The Bishop comes down from Kolkata to hold the mass and news of the mass is circulated in close circles.

Though the church rarely sees devotees praying, it’s perfect form is maintained by a trust in Kolkata. Despite the lack of presence of people of its faith, the church does manage to pull in close to 10 curious tourists on a daily basis who lovingly leave behind comments on Jude’s meticulously maintained visitor’s book.

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