Armenians in The Unique Culture of India

Armenians in The Unique Culture of India

India and Armenia are bound by a centuries-old friendship. India has always attracted Armenians with its unique culture, traditions, history and, of course, exotic goods.

The first written evidence that the Armenians had well known the roads to India and possessed a wealth of information about this country is found in ancient Greek writer, commander, and politician Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” (4th century BC), where he describes the life and rule of Persian King Cyrus.

There, it is noted that King Cyrus asked Armenian merchants to accompany his ambassador to India since Armenians had often traveled to the country, had warm relations with local rajas and maharajas, and knew the customs and languages of the locals.

Information about India can be found in the works of many Armenian historians, including Movses Khorenatsi (5th century), Yeghishe (5th century), David Anhakht (6th century), Anania Shirakatsi (7th century), Vardan Areveltsi (13th century), Stepanos Orbelyan (13th century), King of Cilicia Hethum (14th century), and others.

Many sources testify that the Armenian merchants had such authority, such respect among local rulers and the population that they had access to those areas and markets which foreigners were forbidden to enter. There is evidence that European missionaries and Arab merchants, aware of this, dressed as Armenian merchants in order to freely enter the restricted areas.

However, today, we will talk not about the Armenian merchants but about those Armenians who were renowned in India in other fields.

Let’s start with the Mughal period and one of its rulers, Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556-1605). Akbar was particularly known for his tolerance. He often led theological conversations with representatives of different religions and had four wives – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Marwari. The palace of each wife was built in the style of their religion.

Akbar’s Christian wife was an Armenian from Iran, Mariam Zamani Begum. Henry George Kane in his book “Sketches of Industan” writes: “Then, Akbar married two foreign women – an Armenian and the princess of Marwar.”

Henry Bloshman in his comments on the translation of Ain-i-Akbari also writes that “there is no doubt that Akbar had an Armenian wife.”

It is also thought that the second wife of Shah Jahan (the grandson of Akbar), Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory he built the Taj Mahal, was an Armenian.

In the palace of Akbar, Abdul Hai, an Armenian by descent, was the chief justice in the Mughal Empire. His daughter, Lady Juliana, was the doctor of the emperor’s harem. The emperor married her off to Jean Philippe de Bourbon of Navarre from the French royal family. The following record was found in the missionary archives of the city of Agra: “The Church of Agra was built by Jean Philippe de Bourbon of Navarre and his Armenian wife Juliana, who was a doctor at the emperor’s harem.”

The Portuguese-Indian translator of Akbar was Armenian Domingo Pires. Akbar sent him to Goa as part of the embassy staff and wrote in the accompanying letter: “I am sending my ambassador Abdullah and Dominic Peres, an Armenian Christian interpreter, asking you to send me back two educated men and books of laws, especially the Bible, so that I can learn the Law and its superiority. ” From the letters of the Jesuit fathers, we learn that Domingo was Akbar’s favorite, and that the emperor was even present at his wedding.

The emperor adopted Juliana’s son, who was an Armenian merchant from Aleppo, and entrusted his Armenian wife, with whom he had no children, with his care. This boy later became a famous poet known under the name Mirza Zul-Qarnain. He was a wonderful poet, composer, and singer. His best works are included in the “Ragmale” – a collection of the most beloved and popular Indian songs.

Another famous Armenian poet in India was Sarmad, who lived in the 17th century. He is often referred to as Sarmad Firdushi, Khayyam, Saadi, or Hafez. In the Eastern Biographical Dictionary of Thomas William Biehl, it is written that Sarmad is the poetic name of one Armenian merchant.

Sarmad arrived in India from Persia for trade. However, under the influence of Indian philosophy and Sufism, he became a recluse and a dervish, devoting his whole life to the search for Truth. There is historical information about his supernatural abilities.

Sarmad had hundreds of students – among them was the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan Dara Shukoh. Sarmad always told the truth, which was disliked by Dara Shukoh’s brother Emperor Aurangzeb. Due to this, Aurangzeb looked for a pretext to get rid of Sarmad. The pretext became the below verse, due to which the poet-philosopher was sentenced to death:

“It is said that Mohamed went to heaven,
Sarmad says that paradise descended to Mohammed.”

And before the execution, Sarmad delivered his last verse:

“It was noisy, and we opened our eyes from eternal sleep,
We saw that the night of evil was continuing, and we fell asleep again…”

The manuscripts of Sarmad’s 400 verses are now kept in the British Museum of London.

There were also Armenian poetesses in India. Among them was Malika Jan (second half of the 19th century) who wrote songs in Urdu. Her daughter from an English Jew – Gohar Jan – was a dancer famous across India. She has been on stage since the age of 13 and has sung in 20 Indian languages. Besides, Gohar Jan was the first singer in India whose works were recorded on a phonograph record.

Armenians in India were also engaged in military affairs, including weapon manufacture. There were even separate Armenian detachments that fought for the independence of India from British colonialism. And after each victory, the Armenian flag was raised along with the Indian flags.

In the second half of the 18th century in the east of India, in Bengal, the name of Gorgin Khan was very well known. English historian Marshman writes that the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal Mir Qasim owed his victories over the British to Grigor, an Armenian born in Isfahan, who is better known by the name of Gorgin Khan. Prior to that, Grigor had been engaged in trade, but when he was entrusted with military affairs, he turned out to be a talented military figure. In less than three years, he created a 15,000-strong cavalry and 25,000-strong infantry, as well as set up the production of muskets and cannons.

In the army of Mir Qasim, there were also 8 high-ranking military men and 100 other Armenian soldiers. Among them was General Margar Kalantar who had previously served in the Netherlands. For his selfless service, the Nawab awarded him the title of prince. One Hovhannes Nazar also was the head of the Mir Qasim’s security service.

Colonel Hakob, a commander who served under the Rajah (Prince) of Gwalior for 70 years and died at the age of 95 years in 1850, was also a famous military man. He, too, was from a family of merchants, but he found his vocation in military affairs.

Much more can be said about Armenians in India, but this cannot be done in a single article. Still, one can unequivocally state: with their behavior and attitude, the Armenians of India showed that they are not indifferent to the fate of the country that sheltered them and became their second homeland, and each of them supported it to the extent of their capabilities.

Naira Mkrtchyan



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