What we call Chennai today has a past that has been collectively enriched by a diverse group of people – the English, Jews, Portuguese and the Armenians, among others.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there existed a flourishing colony of Armenians, which was well-established in local and overseas trade. But all that remains of the Armenian connection to the city are a white edifice in a street named after them, a bridge to their credit and few other noteworthy legacies including a current population of three.
Now here’s some interesting trivia. Ever been to the Armenian Church on Armenian Street opposite the High Court? Also called the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary, it is one of the oldest churches in the Indian subcontinent (built in 1712). The bells at the belfry tower (usually referred to as the belfry six) of the church have an international pedigree. They were all cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which is also where the Liberty Bell that was rung during the proclamation of American independence in 1776; the bells at Westminster Abbey; as well as those of the UK Parliament’s Big Ben were cast.
These bells were cast in Whitechapel, England, by wealthy Armenian merchants to Madras and donated to the church; and they have been used to announce the commencement of prayers every Sunday since 1772 (the year the church was rebuilt after being demolished during the French siege of Madras in 1746). Still making the call, the chimes serve as a poignant reminder of a once-prominent diaspora of people in this city.