Under the shade of frangipani trees in the quiet garden of Chennai’s 245-year-old Armenian Church is a grave decorated with an open book. Engraved on the book in block letters is the word “Azdarar”, which means “The Intelligencer” in Armenian. This was the first Armenian journal in the world, published in Madras in the year 1794, when the merchant community from the mountainous, Eurasian country was thriving in the city.
The grave belongs to Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian (1750-1824), who was the editor and founder of Azdarar, hailed as the Father of Armenian Journalism. Shmavonian was born in Shiraz, a cultural hub in Iran. After the sudden death of his two sons, Shmavonian moved away from the crowded city to study Persian, which he ultimately mastered. His later voyages led him to settle down as a priest in Old Madras, where he eventually began the journal Azdarar on October 28, 1794 publishing business and world news in Armenian for the settlers in Madras.
The journal lasted only for 18 months, for reasons unknown. “The journal, sad to say, did not last long – and the few attempts to revive it also failed,” wrote city historian and chronicler S Muthiah in his book Tales of Old and New Madras.
Little is known about this Armenian journal today. While much has been written about the elegant architecture and the famous bell tower of the Armenian Church in city newspapers, the journal usually receives only a passing mention.
The Armenian connection with Madras dates back to the 1600s, when merchants arrived by sea to trade in jute and silk, spices and precious stones. The first traces of Armenian settlements in India can be found in Surat in the 13th Century, where Armenians settled after fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic Caliphate in Persia and the Armenian Highlands. The community soon spread its network and settled in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Madras.
Armenian Street in northern Chennai still serves as a reminder of the city’s links with the Eurasian country. The bustling street, which is now lined with street vendors and tea shops, also houses the remnants of an era long past. The Armenian Church, where the grave of Shmavonian lies, was once the focus of the city’s Armenians – not only for religious gatherings but also as a storehouse and library for a large collection of books for the local community. According to one study on Armenian print culture, a merchant prince named Shahamir Shahamirian, established the first Armenian printing press in India in the city of Madras in 1772 in India. This press also published a number of important works of Armenian political thought and modern constitutional thinking around 1787, including The Snare of Glory by Shahamirian – the first republican-inspired proto-constitution of the future state of Armenia.
But these books dwindled in numbers along with the community. After the city’s last Armenian moved to Bengaluru around 2007, there were no more descendants of the original settlers in Chennai. But even today, the Republic of Armenia acknowledges its strong ties with India, and Madras in particular, as it prepare to build a monument in front of the Victory War Memorial in Chennai to mark 25 years of diplomacy with India.
“The Armenians of Madras were famous for their printing press and charitable work,” the Consul General of the Republic of Armenia, Shivkumar Eashwaran, told The Times of India. “They even set up an Armenian newspaper Azdarar, which they printed and distributed in the city.”
“What would the history of Armenian journalism be without the world’s first Armenian newspaper Azdarar, published for two consecutive years by Haruthiun Shmavonian in Madras from 1794 to 1796?” asks historian and Armenian studies scholar Sebouh Aslanian.
Reverend Haruthiun Shmavonian was “the last of the great Madras-Armenians,” according to S Muthiah. The first Armenian leader was the magnetic Kojah Petrus Woskan, who was responsible for the strong relationship the community had with the British. Woskan was also known for building the first bridge across the Adyar river and the flight of 160 steps up the St Thomas Mount.
Shmavonian’s Azdarar however, had an impact not only on the local community but across the world. The periodical was considered to be one of the origins of Armenian nationalism. “It was the first attempt to speak for the community which was scattered across many port cities,” said Hari Vasudevan, Professor Emeritus of Calcutta University. The centenary jubilee of the the founding of the journal was celebrated in 1894, by Armenian journalists in Venice, Vienna, Marseilles, Constantinople and many other cities.
According to Aslanian, Azdarar contained novel features for the 18th century Armenian readers. Since the Armenian community were primarily traders, several pages in each issue were devoted to making commercial information publicly available – such as the timetables of commercial shipping traffic in the Madras port, the price lists of various commodities traded in local markets and advertisements of goods for sale.
Shmavonian himself apparently noted in his first editorial that his main aim was to “provide useful news to Madras’s then fledgling community and especially to its business leaders.” But Azdarar had a wide variety of articles. Besides business news, each issue also contained social and political news about various Armenian communities across India, said Aslanian. The periodical also had sections that would recap news from Europe, which was excerpted and translated from English language newspapers in India and Europe.
The publishing of the Armenian journal on a regular basis was quite an unusual phenomenon, said Hari Vasudevan. “The publishing of a non-English, non-European periodical was not something very common,” he said. “This notion of producing for a reading public was not known in Iran and East Turkey at that time. It was usually only almanacs that were distributed, concerning details of the position of stars and auspicious dates of the month.”
Scholars suspect that the British newspapers and periodicals circulated were an important influence on Armenian print culture. Since the British were their competitors in trade, the Armenians needed to keep their community up to speed with the latest trade developments. “Many of these innovative features were creative adaptations from English-language newspapers that had just begun to appear in India, including the idea of presenting information pertinent to the business community in a public forum,” wrote Aslanian.
The Armenian merchants were regular travellers, and culturally united by the churches they built and their Christian practice. But the Azdarar is regarded as one of the first non-religious attempts to bring the community together. Today, in a Madras church that lies 4,000 kilometres away from their homeland, the inscription on a grave is testament to the first voice of the Armenians.
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