Food is the glue that holds together the modern Armenian diaspora, keeping alive the traditions and memories of the homeland. Amrapali Saha writes about the Armenians of Kolkata and their unique Christmas tradition.
As the winter morning sunshine breaks through the fog, the austere edifice of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata, painted a stark white, glows lambently. Re-built in 1724, after the original wooden structure was destroyed in a fire in 1707, the church is the beating heart of the city’s small Armenian community, considered the ‘Mother Church of the Indian Armenians.’ In 1688, as the port city of Calcutta was rising to economic prominence with the development of maritime trade, the Armenians, primarily merchants and traders, accepted the invitation of the British administrator Job Charnock to settle in the city. As one of the first trading communities to establish themselves in Calcutta, the Armenians formed the backbone of Bengal’s trade and commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In her account of the community’s history in the city, The Armenians of Calcutta, Sipra Mukherjee posits that the genesis of Calcutta and the growth of the Armenian colony in the city are inextricably linked. Hence, the history of the Armenians in Kolkata is nearly as old as the city itself, mirroring the ebb and flow of historical currents that have shaped the city’s past.
Kolkata received its last substantial influx of Armenians in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey in 1915, when millions were slaughtered and survivors forced to take refuge in countries like India. Although economic migration has diminished their population in the city considerably since then, the Armenian community today continues to be a small but significant part of Kolkata’s celebrated cosmopolitan culture. One of the focal points of the community is the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, which has sustained links between Armenia and its diasporas, in Kolkata and around the world. Established in 1821 and housed in a building famous for being the birthplace of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, the nearly 200-year-old academy continues to be a highly esteemed educational center for young Armenian students coming from the mother country and its diasporic communities. An alumna of the institution, my friend, Metaksya Adiyan, has fond memories of the city that was like a second home to her for 13 years. As a girl of 10, she came to Kolkata from Armenia with her younger brother to attend the Armenian school. Even though she lives in the US now, Metaksya believes that India is one of the most hospitable nations of the world, especially given the number of years during which the Armenian community thrived in Kolkata. “We have never felt like foreigners in India, and continue to feel welcomed by the people,” she says.
But there is a difference between us, I insist, you celebrate Christmas on the sixth of January! Metaksya laughs and parses the difference between the festival known as an ‘Armenian Christmas’ and Christmas celebrations around the world. “It is true that Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December as the rest of the world does,” she agrees “What we do observe is the birth of Christ, and historically, all Christian churches celebrated the Holy Nativity on the 6th of January.” Armenians are Apostolic Christians, part of the Oriental Orthodoxy, who believe that Christianity came to Armenia through two apostles of Christ, Bartholomew and Thaddeus. Metaksya points out that apart from the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt also follows a similar tradition. Therefore, on the 6th of January, Armenians around the world celebrate the Holy Nativity of Jesus Christ. The festival is centred on the themes of the revelation and incarnation of God, which also explains Armenian Christmas greetings such as Christos dzenav yev haydnetsav! (Christ is born and revealed!). For a community that witnessed faith-based persecution and mass atrocities on an unprecedented scale at the turn of the 20th century, “being an Armenian,” says Metaksya “has always meant carrying a special identity and being loyal to our culture, language, and history.” We try to preserve all our traditions even on foreign soil.” And one way of doing that is through food.
In the book Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore, Irina Petrosian and David Underwood emphasise that turning calamity into opportunity has been one of the secrets behind the Armenian community’s survival. The culinary culture in Armenia has been deeply enriched through the cultural and gastronomic exchanges that characterise the region located at the meeting point of Europe and Asia. The researchers point out that on a global scale, the Armenian contribution to food culture lies in their ability to adopt and translate, which may be a natural outcome of the Armenian historical experience, enabling them to easily integrate into different societies. Food is the glue that holds together the various threads of Metaksya’s existence as a modern diasporic Armenian, whether in Kolkata or the US, bringing alive the traditions and memories of the homeland. In comparison to their lavish New Year culinary spread, Metaksya tells me that the Armenian Christmas table is pared down and mainly comprises traditional dishes imbued with religious significance.
Fish plays a central role on the Armenian Christmas table. “Fish, usually boiled or stewed, forms the mainstay of the Christmas meal,” reveals Metaksya. Traditionally in Armenia, the Christmas fish is served with lemons and greens. In Cooking with the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts, and Lore, writers Anthony Chiffolo and Rayner Hesse explain that eating meat was a rarity in the ancient world, and therefore fish, when available, provided an important dietary supplement. The Armenian community holds on to their ancient traditions by eating fish for Christmas, usually trout in Armenia, which is cooked with special care for the holy feast. Apart from fish, rice pilaf with sweet raisins also features prominently on the Christmas table, the raisins in it symbolic of the apostles who spread the word of Christianity around the world. Other dishes include a variety of green vegetables, such as spinach, steamed or fried, to create a healthy balance of flavours. Christmas in Kolkata, however, is incomplete without the Christmas cake; a dry fruit cake that the Armenians have their own take on. The Armenian staple, gata, a kind of sweetened bread, is integral to Christmas celebrations, as are piles and piles of dried fruit, ranging from raisins, figs, apricots, plums and more.
“What we do is try to keep our identity alive by taking the best from other cultures and integrating it into our own,” says Metaksya. Nevertheless, as Sipra Mukherjee poignantly notes in her essay, like the Jews, Parsis, and Anglo-Indians, the Armenians have also left their mark on the countries that offered them refuge. Even as Metaksya is in California and I am just visiting Kolkata, I marvel at how the different skeins of history and the ensuing currents of migration, forced or voluntary, have dextrously contrived to give us a shared past through the city where I was born and which is home to Metaksya’s alma mater. Though the glory of the Armenian community’s heyday lingers in the city’s architectural grandeur, it is up to people like Metaksya and I, and those who come after us, to cherish and nurture our cultural connections. On the morning of my visit to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, standing proudly in its tranquil beauty, stray wisps of hymns sung inside by a choir of young Armenian boys and girls drift out into the crisp morning air, and listening, hope springs eternal in my heart, of a shared future together.
Amrapali Saha is a PhD scholar at the Centre of English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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