My niece sent me the link to this interesting slide show featuring the now tiny and fast disappearing Armenian community of Kolkata (Calcutta), India.
Minorities everywhere, when sufficiently removed from mainstream cultures but otherwise unmolested, especially when they are also dwindling fast in numbers, make colorful subjects for news reports and curious tourists.
The Armenians of Calcutta arrived in the city from Iran in the 1600s and became prosperous businessmen. They preceded the mercantile community of Baghdadi Jews from Iraq and Iran who too at one time had a small but significant presence in Calcutta's business community. (Baghdadi Jews also lived in Mumbai and Pune in western India). Both the communities have now been reduced to a handful of living members, as also another group - the Anglo Indians -, losing their members to emigration.
I saw the Holy Nazareth Armenian Church featured in the slide show (#8 and #9) during a recent visit to Kolkata, but only from outside. When my sister and I arrived on a Sunday morning in the winter of 2010, the church was locked, scheduled to open at a time known only to its tiny congregation. Incidentally, the famous Baghdadi Jewish synagogue, the Magen David is located only a few streets away. We were denied entry into the synagogue also. Since the Nov 26, 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, access to non-congregants is granted only with a security clearance permit from the central government in New Delhi. The non-Jewish caretaker took pity on a pair of very curious, insistent and non-terrorist looking middle aged women and let us into the synagogue grounds to look around but wouldn’t unlock the doors to the interior. Thwarted at two places, my sister and I spent a leisurely couple of hours in Tagore's birthplace of Jorasanko, now a college and a museum, which too is located in the same neighborhood.
Not many people in India outside Kolkata know the history of the Armenian community of India. But the history of the once prosperous and active diasporic population is well known in modern day Armenia. Los Angeles has a fairly significant Armenian immigrant population. On a few occasions during my visits there, I have encountered Armenian-American cab drivers who upon discovering that I was born and grew up in India, invariably asked me about the Calcutta Armenians. They know about the community which maintained its religious and cultural heritage in a foreign land teeming with people of many different faiths and living habits. They had seen documentary films on the subject broadcast on the state television of Armenia. India enjoys a favorable reputation among Armenians as a place where a minor diasporic part of their community thrived without the fear of persecution.
As I said, minority communities of the past, especially if they were culturally distinct, prosperous and left behind visible architectural mementos, are remembered with a sense of colorful exotica. This article was in the NYT's India related blog, India Ink, published just yesterday is an example.