There never seems to be a dearth of instances where one stumbles upon Mumbai’s many forgotten treasures. Playing an important role in keeping this legacy alive, the Bombay Local History Society (BLHS), based out of the Heras Institute, at St Xavier’s College, has been in the forefront of such endeavours. One such event was a visit to the city’s lone Armenian Church that was built in 1796. It was named after Jesus Christ’s apostle, St Peter, and was built by a generous Armenian called Jacob Peter.
The main altar inside the church with an image of the Last Supper in the background. The domed ceiling with stars is used to denote heaven. PICS/Fiona Fernandez
The packed session began with a fascinating slideshow about this branch of Christianity and its roots in the city. It was conducted by Head of Department of Ancient Indian Culture, Anita Rane-Kothare and her students. Post this, we made our way to this church; as facts about this site and the community began to emerge.
According to Rane-Kothare, Nuvart Mehta and Zebel Joshi were the last recorded Armenians in Mumbai. While Mehta, an active BLHS member, passed away in 2012, there are no records to trace Joshi.
By the 1990s Armenian services had discontinued. The beautiful church lay unused. When Catholicos Karekin II, the current head of the Armenian Apostolic Church visited India he met with Calcutta’s Armenian Bishop. They arrived at a solution — to allow members of its sister church — the Malankara Orthodox Syrian church, to use the space. Since then, services are held every Sunday in this stunning church.
At Ararat building, Nagindas Master Road (Meadows Street), Fort. Sunday prayer 7.30 am
Holy Qurbana 8.30 am
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Armenians migrated to India for trade and business, especially in Western and Central india. It is believed that the Mumbai’s Armenian Church was set up by relatives of one of Emperor Akbar’s queens, Mariam. They lived in Surat, initially, and later moved to Mumbai, and finally to Agra, where Queen Mariam also lies buried in the Armenian Cemetery. The church was functional from 1773, thanks to initiatives by the Eknan family. A descendent, Rosy Eknan lived in the apartment attached to the building, Ararat.
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Lack of contact among local Armenians in Mumbai with those from their homeland (Armenia) led to their decrease in numbers. “There are so many schools of Christianity, and Armenians are extremely strict in following their doctrines. As a result, they try to maintain their purity, and this, had led the decline,” explains Dr Anita Rane-Kothare, about the their diminishing numbers and phasing out, eventually.