Indian imprint on Armenia

The remote village of Odzun reveals an Indian connection.

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

THE CHURCH OF Odzun and, to the left, two roughly hewn rectangular rock obelisks encased in huge blocks of stone. The structure is believed to be a gift an Indian king gave an Armenian general for his help.-

THE CHURCH OF Odzun and, to the left, two roughly hewn rectangular rock obelisks encased in huge blocks of stone. The structure is believed to be a gift an Indian king gave an Armenian general for his help.-

THE road from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tiblisi, Georgia, goes through impressive terrain. The twin summits of Armenia's Bible Mountain, Mt. Great Ararat and Mt. Little Ararat (5,165 metres and 3,925 m respectively), loom mesmerisingly to the south. From the shoulder of Mt. Aragats (4,090 m) after Pushkin Pass, the steep walls of the hills gradually move closer to the road. The space at the base of the narrow and deep Debed Gorge is shared between a railway line and a road that are marvels of scientific daring. Throughout this route are strewn many relics of the Soviet past. Huge factories that once employed thousands in these remote mountains are smokeless and silent. Now there are only some signs of optimism checking the otherwise all-pervasive decrepitude evident in the rows of attendant apartment blocks that surround the many industries along the way.

High above Debed Gorge, is a surprising plateau. The zig-zag road from the lowest point in Armenia (380 m above sea level) suddenly becomes straight, lined with fields, and bordered with huge trees. Shepherds with their flock hold up traffic and smile at the impatience of car drivers. This is the lovely village of Odzun, once known an Awjun.

A 7th century Armenian church is perched on a shoulder dramatically overlooking the deep Debed Gorge. The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates mass differently from the way churches do in the West. There is no written order of service. There are no chairs. There is a spacious domed hall in which people stand. There is usually at least one high-vaulted porch for entrance. The focus is the altar, which, except in the more important churches, is very simply dressed. The service continues for hours and worshippers enter and leave at will. This kind of freedom is much like the informality of worship in eastern temples. The Odzun church was from A.D. 717 to A.D. 728, the seat of the Armenian Pope Hovhan Odzntsi, better known as Catholicos Yovhan Awjnec. This church was built before his time. He, however, shifted to Echmiadzin near Yerevan and since then that has been the seat of all Armenian Popes.

The Odzun church is cavernous, gloomy especially in winter, and spartan. It is surrounded by three aisles, which have now collapsed. It has lasted the depredations of the Persians and the Arabs, albeit not without repair. Like most buildings in the area, it is built in pink felsite stone. It does not appear to have windows at waist-level, which is typical of the period. Instead, they are close to the roof, perhaps to intensify the no-hope melancholy air. There are graves of prominent persons from several hundred years ago to the present in the surrounding graveyard. There is also a memorial commemorating people from Odzun who died fighting in the Second World War; it has a fresco of Stalin decorating one small corner of it. Stalin was born in Gori in nearby Georgia.

Opposite the north wall of the church is an unusual monument. The priest taking us around the ancient three-aisled Basilica said that that structure of two roughly hewn rectangular rock obelisks encased in huge blocks of stone was a tribute given by an Indian king for the help given him by an Armenian general from Odzun. Local legend has it that it is a fertility symbol. No more of this legend could I get out of this priest. Interestingly however, on either side of a sunrise-facing window (symbolism to be marked) stand sculpted angels holding snakes. The two snakes entwine to decorate a bust of Christ, a design extremely uncommon in Christian art. Veeshap is the Armenian name for a snake, which could well have its roots in the Sanskrit word, vish that is poison, and the Hindi word for snake, saamp. It is said that the descendents of two Hindu princes founded a village named Veeshap in nearby Turkey. This influence, strange and foreign, can be seen today only in Odzun in the entire region.

I subsequently found that Armenia's Indian connection was a fact, though little is known about this particular bit of history. In the appendix to an informative book published in 1937 called Armenians in India - from the earliest times to the present by Jacob Seth, an Armenian in Kolkata, I found an interesting story.

In 149 B.C., Gissaneh and Demeter, two princes of Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, tried to plot against their father, Dinaks Pall. These names are from Armenian sources and thus only vaguely resemble Indian names, and the imagination has to be exercised somewhat to detect the linkage. According to Seth, Gissaneh could be Krishna and Demeter, Juganath. Dinaks Pall could be Dinesh Pal.

The conspiracy was detected and the princes fled to the sub-Caucasus kingdom of Armenia. At that time the country was not landlocked as it is now; it had access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and had merchant ships that used to go to India and China. The two princes and their families, courtiers and a small army most probably travelled by ship and did not cross the difficult overland route to Armenia.

They were welcomed hospitably by King Valarsaces, the brother of Arsaces the Great. Sixteen years earlier the latter had lost some territory to the Persian king Selucus, and his brother may have thought that this could be a useful alliance. Within 15 years these two princes were put to death for plotting against the king. However, their three sons, Kuars, Meghtes and Horean, were allowed to rule over Taron (now in Turkey's province of Van) and established cities known by their names. They later founded the city of Kharkh, high in the mountains of north-west Armenia, and set up two temples in the names of their fathers. These cities prospered and expanded unhindered until A.D. 301.

By then Christianity, which entered Armenia in A.D. 66, had spread all over the kingdom. But small pockets still stuck to their old beliefs. These were mainly Hindus who had settled there for 450 years. Any person who was not with the majority was considered to be against it and so in A.D. 301 a fierce battle broke out between the Armenians led by the prince of Angegh and the Hindus led by Demeter and a soldier priest called Artzan or Arjun. A detailed description of what followed is given by Zenob, a Syrian follower of St. Gregory, The Illuminator, who spread Christianity in Armenia. Zenob describes how the Hindus were eventually defeated after a prolonged conflict in which some of Armenian troops, who were converted Hindus, joined their former brethren. Artzan, Demeter, and a popular Armenian prince were killed in battle. Zenob records that 1,038 Hindus were buried. Seeing so much blood shed, a truce was called. A structure to celebrate the Armenian triumph was built - perhaps the strange two-arched monument holding obelisks that we see in the Odzun church today. The obelisks could be remnants of phallic symbols from the Hindu temples that are thought to have existed once on the site. The inscription on the monument mentions the last of the conversions to Christianity.

Armenia and India have had commercial links for centuries. There have been colonies of Armenians in India's coastal cities for four centuries. In Yerevan's ancient manuscripts library, Matenadaran, is a 17th century copy of the first journal published in Armenian, which was printed in Madras (now Chennai). Many armies of the feudal states in India and also the British army had Armenian soldiers and officers.

Odzun's cultural and religious link has thus far gone unrecorded. Artzan means statue in Armenian. Odzun, also pronounced as Awjun, sounds very much like Arjun. There is little doubt that this could have been the scene of the struggle between the two communities and that the strange monument remembers that trial of strength.

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