Where Angels Guard The Sleeping
When I first visited the Armenian Church 15 years back, it was an illustration for a weekend national paper, while the story was being dug out by an expatriate.
I had gone to the oldest church in Dhaka, in a foreign mission car, and returned in the same way, and failed to notice the environment of which I was deeply conscious this time.
Reaching there in a “baby taxi” I was almost intoxicated with the smell of the surrounding incense and candle makers, apart from the open sewerage at the entrance and around the church.
My experience in going to the churches in the subcontinent has always been pleasant. But visiting the Armenian church, which is a national monument, and a part of our legacy, was no pure pleasure.
The atmosphere was that of a haunted house, which was not the case a decade back when I had visited the church first time.
There were many foreign visitors there, and even the condition of the graveyard was much better.
The marble and the granite had now been removed from the graveyard, and the church looked unkempt, even though the Chairman of the Armenian Church Community, J Martin informed me that he had spent one and a half million taka in its facelift, which was of simply mortar and lime.
Martin informed that the church was once in the form of a chapel, from the period of 1615 to 1670.
It was extended into a church in 1781 when the Armenian community felt they could spare the funds and needed a place for their marriages, deaths, and baptisms.
The hibiscus, henna, ferns, cacti of various types, and the slender palm trees near Martin’s residence, adjacent to the church were the same, as 15 years before.
There was the same mound of money plants, except that it was covered with many more layers of dust.
One saw cracking cement over what had been a cream-coloured church. The curving and the coloured effects were gone or fading.
Even the main entrance, despite the fine basic woodwork of the hinges, was a ghastly raw red and garish green and reminded you of the rickshaw painters.
Martin had the embarrassed explanation that he wanted a quick work done for the recent Christmas festival.
At present, Martin narrated, there were exactly five Armenian families living in Dhaka. The other people who come for the services are the expatriates and members of the foreign embassies when they are informed and invited.
The church had been built by the Armenian merchants who had come to Dhaka from Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. “We were here long before the Portuguese and the Dutch.
I insist that you believe the Moghul Emperor’s second wife Zamina, was of Armenian origin. The British came to rule and not simply to trade.
We adjusted to them and you see many of our names are Anglicised, as you read on the church tomb-heads.
After Christ began his preaching in the Middle East, the Armenians were the first nation to accept the religion as a state religion.
“Our service is different from the ones, such as you find in Calcutta. It is in English and not in Armenian. This is obviously because of the British influence,” Martin informed me.
Martin, who is in the electrical business, spent a fortune on his own in making the church more presentable and has put in the basic renovations.
The Armenian from Calcutta reportedly wished to help the church in its renovation work but is said that the Indian government did not think it wise to do so.
Why doesn’t the church get funds from abroad? Martin has the ready reply: there has been an earthquake in Armenia, and US money is required there.
The refugees too have to be rehabilitated. Armenians involved in the Lebanese conflicts in the Middle East have to be succoured by the US and the European community.
Russia has its own problems and although Armenia is not separate, it has nothing but problems in its lap. It is hardly the time to ask Russia for aid.
We have to make do with what we can contrive ourselves in the city on our own.
“We will continue to negotiate with the Indian government. That is perhaps our only hope. We have been known to wing for years and must continue to do so.
The Armenians claim to own lands in Maulvi Bazar, in the form of the land of the graveyard of the Greeks and the Armenians.
The local people had been asked to look after the land. Instead, it is lamented by the Armenians, that parts of the land are being sold off illegally.
“We use pure gold and silver in our services. This was pilfered along with the brocade clothes of the priests during the liberation war.
The place has been pillaged repeatedly. Even repairing the belfry cost tk.10, 000 and he was afraid for the safety of the workers every time they were up to work.
There are sweepers, guards and gardeners –five in number –to keep the church and the adjoining cemetery in shape. Yet it appears disreputable.
Inside the church, the atmosphere is depressing. Everything is dusty. There are three conventional paintings of Jesus Christ at the cross, the last suffer and a tapestry presentation of the prophet.
Even the pulpit with its falcon is covered with several layers of suffocating dust. The chandeliers, or rather the collection of lights, and fans, are far from sophisticated.
They are simply useful. As you climb the winding wooden floor staircase to the belfry, you find heaps of derelict parts of the church.
Incidentally, there are no priests officiating at the church. Only when visiting clergy from Calcutta come, do necessary celebrations such as Christmas or Easter are observed.
You might find it a trifle strange but the only part that I enjoyed of my entire visit to church was the graveyard, with the guardian angel.
The anchor she rested on, spoke of the trade of the people and their voyaging, perhaps. The decoration in marble although, most of them have been pilfered, is soothing to the eye with the lilies and the loving inscriptions.
Tracings can be made from the carvings of some of the graces.
There are crosses to mark many of the missing headstones, which the Armenian authorities say they will replace with proper tombstones when they have time and the ensuing money.
The visit to the graveyard tells of the affection that the Armenians had for their family and also reflects their undoubted prosperity years ago, after all, the Pogose School had been started by the Armenians.
A place of worship and a national monument deserves attention, assistance, care, and promotion.
Along with the other places of historical importance, the Armenian Church has won its niche of veneration and admiration.
It is not enough to scorn the Armenians for having come to Bangladesh for shelter. So did many of us from India and elsewhere, not so long ago.
The Armenian community could be ensured more cordiality by the local people.
And we too could benefit from what might ensure. A thing of beauty is joy forever” Surely one cannot refute this point.