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     Volume 8 Issue 73 | June 12, 2009 |

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The Last Armenian

Audity Falguni

Front view of the Armenian Church.

Dhaka, our beloved city, once the melting pot of hundreds of ethnic communities, faiths, creeds, languages and professions over the centuries. This year Dhaka has completed 400 years. A walk in old Dhaka still reminds us of the lively presence of different communities like the Dhakaiyyas (old Dhaka residents), shankharis (manufacturers of different ornaments and artifacts from conch shells), Shias and of course, the famous Armenians who have lived for a prolonged period and contributed to our culture and heritage.

After you pass the Dhaka University Campus and its adjacent Nilkhet area, you come in close contact with hundreds of legendary lanes and by-lanes of the old Dhaka. Then just cross the gate of Dhaka Central Prison and move forward to Armanitola. You would see that historical Church of Armanitola which was established in 1781.

There he lives. The last Armenian of Dhaka. His name is Mikhail Martirosen. Of the nine children of the Armenian couple Hofsef Martirosen and Elena Martirosen, only Mikhail is now guarding this centuries old Church and around 150 graveyards of the Armenians who once lived and passed away in this city.

“The Armenians came in the Indian sub-continent particularly in Bengal in the last decades of the Mughal empire and within a few years of emergence of sovereign Bangladesh in 1971, the Armenians left this country for ever,” says the eighty year old Mikhail Martirose.

J.M.Martin, the last Armenian of Dhaka.

“My four sons and daughters now live in Canada. Other brothers and sisters are scattered over India, Myanmer and London…different countries and cities of the world. I talk with them over the phone. So, I am not alone. Because, my wife sleeps here! My parents sleep here. So, I would stay here till I die!” Martirosen says all this in his broken Bengali with lots of English and Hindi words.

The 228-years' old Church is 750 feet high and comprises of four doors and 27 windows. The Church now looks old and a bit pale with little renovation and decoration. Even Sunday prayers are withheld over many years. A number of epitaphs over around 150 graveyards are no longer readable. Most of the epitaphs were written in both English and Armenian alphabets. The Armenian alphabets have some resemblance with the Russian alphabets.

“Some local hooligans used to trespass within this graveyard and steal the marble epitaphs. This is why now I do keep a lock on the gate for 24 hours. I have permitted you to enter simply because you are a woman and so cannot be very harmful!” Martirosen offers me a cup of tea. The old man often gets angry but he has a soft heart within his apparently hard shell.

Discoloured and faded epitaphs still capturing a distinctive Armenian design.

“Even Sunday evening prayers are withheld for many years. Who would come and who would offer prayers? No one in our community now lives in Dhaka. Even there is no Bengali Christian community in my surrounding areas except the Hindu and Muslim abodes. This is why I keep the main gate of the Church closed. But, I can show you the interior,” he comes out of his shell.

Within the Church there is a beautiful icon of Jesus Christ by an Anglo-Indian painter Charles Paut, a teacher of Pogos School in Dhaka. Like the interior of the Church, the condition of the graveyard is also quite sad. “Shankar, my assistant, looks after this whole graveyard all by himself. This is why it cannot be very well maintained,” Martirosen shows me Shankar, his assistant.

The graveyard in the premises of the Church contains graves of Armenians who died as early as the seventeenth century. They came here from Julfa, Ispahan and Carmen of Persia (Iran) and Basra of Iraq. There is even a grave of an Irish soldier of the East India Company. That Irish soldier was the husband of an Armenian lady and killed by the rebel Indian soldiers in the mutiny or the first Indian Independence Struggle of 1857. It is in this struggle that the Indian soldiers first took arms against the British colonial rulers since their defeat in the war of 1757.

Avetick Thomas who died in 1877. His wife installed this statue to adorn the grave.

James Wise, the famous historian cum Civil Surgeon of Dhaka in 1870, writes in his widely acclaimed book Notes on Races, Castes and Trades of Eastern Bengal: “There is no brief history of the Armenian habitat in Dhaka. The first evidential information we get on the Armenians is an old and dilapidated grave in the Tejgaon graveyard of Dhaka. It could be known from the epitaph of this grave that this is the grave of an Armenian businessman named Avitis. He died in 1714.”

Muntasir Mamun, in his “Dhaka: Smriti Bismritir Nagari (Dhaka: The City of Memoirs and Forgetfullness),” narrates: `Some famous or eminent Armenian families living in the Dhaka of 19th century were Pogos, Aratoon, Paniati, Koja Michael, Manook, Harni and Sarcis. Incomes from land and business were their major source of livelihood.” It is the Armenians who have the glory of establishing famous architectural installations like Ruplal House or Pogos school. The Armenians first introduced horse carriages in Dhaka. They earned a lot from salt and jute business. But insularity, intermarriage, inability to adapt to the heat and a reluctance to interact with the locals were the major causes behind the decline of Armenian population in Dhaka. The Armenians also started leaving Dhaka by the first decade of the 20th century.

“The government, media and conscious citizens of the country should come forward for preservation, maintenance and promotion of the different historical, archaeological and heritage sites of this city which largely contribute to the culture of diversity of Dhaka,” observes the historian.

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