(Last Updated on : 08-04-2009)
At Agra, the capital of the Mughal Empire, their advance at the imperial court was rapid: the chief justice was an Armenian who adopted the name of Abdul Hai ('Hai' means Armenian); Domingo Pires, the chief interpreter was an Armenian with a Portuguese name; the doctor of the royal harem was also an Armenian, Lady Juliana; Akbar's Christian wife was Mariam Begum and he had adopted an Armenian son, Zul Quarnian whose real name was Alexander.
In Surat, as well as in other places, the Armenians traded in precious stones, silks and spices. Surat was an important trading centre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and there was a large Armenian settlement there. The English had their factory and commercial house there and the Dutch and Portuguese traders also competed with the Armenians. The Armenians built a church there just as they built churches wherever they went and they also had their own large cemetery and some of its tombstones are works of art, now preserved by the Archaeological Department of the Government of India.
In the eighteenth century, when Surat's commercial importance began to wane, the Armenians moved to Bombay which became their greatest trading centre in Western India. Here they built a church, St. Peter's, in 1796, in Medows Street and lived mostly in the area around it. This church was pulled down after 160 years and a new one built in 1957. In front of this was erected the six-storey building 'Ararat' (after the Biblical Mount Ararat in Armenia). These two buildings reflect great credit on the small Armenian community in Bombay.
In Gwalior, there was a colourful Armenian figure, Jacob Petrus, who about the time of the decline of the Mughal Empire, (later half of the eighteenth century) rose to be the commander of Scindia of Gwalior's army, holding this position for seventy years.
It is said that there were least forty Armenian officers in Jacob's army, of whom several amassed fortunes.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were Armenian settlements at Delhi and Lucknow and also are Lahore and Kabul. But little is known about them. In these places also they built churches and had cemeteries.
The first Armenian to arrive in Madras is said to have been Thomas Cana who is supposed to have landed on the Malabar Coast in 780 AD. There were Armenians in Madras as early as the sixteenth century and there was an Armenian settlement there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Armenians here dealt mainly in textiles, spices and precious stones and amassed great fortunes. Among them was Petrus Woskan who became a member of the Madras East India Company's Council. When the Nawab of Arcor visited Madras, Woskan is said to have draped the main streets with rich silks and to have him entertained royally. When the Nawab asked Woskan what he would like as a favour in return, Woskan asked for the monopoly of the important trade in Madras and the hinterland. His request was granted and as a result he later became a millionaire. He built the Marmalong Bridge on the river Adayar which still stands and the flight of 160 stone steps to the crest of the hill on which St. Thomas's Church was erected, on the reputed site of the martyrdom of the apostle Thomas. The first Armenian Church in Madras was built in 1712 and a second in 1772 in Armenian Street. The Armenians have considerable church property. It is presently managed by the Armenian Association in Kolkata.
In due course the main centre of Armenian activities in India became Bengal. The Armenians first settled down in Murshidabad (the then capital of Bengal), in the seventeenth century. In the time of Clive, there was among these Armenians a Petrus Arathoon who helped in the overthrow of Siraj-ud-Daula in favour of Mir Jaffar as the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. He was also involved in the overthrowing of Mir Jaffar.