"You know I'm going to India," dropped a friend, during a casual conversation.
"No, I didn't. What for?"
"There's a pilgrimage to the Armenian churches there."
"I wanted to go too but it's too late now."
"Try this number and see."
So I did, without a second thought or a review of the itinerary. It was an excellent opportunity to visit India but rather a rash decision, ten days before final departure, without an airline booking or a visa. I don't fly off to unknown lands on impulse but the offer was attractive and I needed an escape. Call it "travelosis" if you will.
Friends were shocked as much as I was.
"India? What for? Did you run out of countries to visit?"
Granted, India may not sound as adventuresome as a Himalayan hike, or a cruise on the Amazon into the jungle, much less like a romantic escapade to Paris, but I had a compelling reason. The Supreme Head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Karekin II, was going to re-consecrate renovated churches, inaugurate the refurbishment of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy under new management, and celebrate the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Calcutta, now Kolkata.
The 300th anniversary is no mistake. The dates are verifiable on the graves in the adjoining cemetery. The dead don't lie. It appears that Armenians had established a thriving community in Calcutta and thereabouts, and were in business "some sixty years before British adventurers became established traders" there, extending their activities all the way to the Philippines. They were merchants, not conquerors. They had the lucidity and foresight to establish a community complete with church, school through college, and the first Armenian newspaper in print, also serving Armenian students from other cities in India, Iran, Armenia and now Iraq - sort of the Eastern equivalent of the Melkonian Institute in Cyprus.
Travel to India is not for the faint of heart. Overpopulation, pollution, congestion among carts, bicycles, rickshaws on tricycles, motorized three-wheel vehicles, regular taxis and buses, all claiming the right of way among pedestrians, beasts of burden, cows and weight-carrying humans create a chaos of traffic germane to third-world countries. Honks are ineffective. Under the circumstances, driving a tourist bus through narrow streets, within an inch of other users of the road, is a risky and at times hair-raising experience. It took me a week to realize that Indians drive on the left side of the road.
Our group of twenty-two, give or take a few during different legs of our trip, included four former students from the Armenian school, and a family of eight going back for a homecoming. The age of travelers spanned six years to seniors over seventy, mostly Armenian-Americans from across the United States, a gentleman from England stationed in Germany - one of the former students - and a couple from Vienna. We had the perfect opportunity and sample to test if the adage "the best way to assess one's personality is either to travel with him/her or play a competitive game" was on target. There was the cheerleader, piping out familiar Armenian tunes refreshing our faded memories, the gatekeeper for rules, the romantic, the incurable "shopoholic" busy even at pit stops, the entrepreneur, the organizer, the intrepid, the quiet mouse. Further probes into our roots revealed other hyphens - ex-Egyptian, ex-Bulgarian, ex-Rumanian, etc. - creating a chart of Eastern and Western Armenian dialects seasoned with Hindi, Farsi, English, Turkish, and Arabic, in short a masala (spicy) group. Daily interaction adjusted us to each other's singularities, accommodating the noisy, the tardy, the bossy, the funny. We quickly surmounted our language and character differences too. We were a resilient group of Hyes after all.
Although tourism was not our main focus, we did visit the old and newer, sophisticated, quarters of Delhi, ride camels in Mindawa, hop over elephants to a mountain top, visit the famous Taj Mahal in Agra and other ancient palaces, attend dinner in a maharaja's residence, and thereafter proceed to Kolkata, where Catholicos Karekin II and his entourage, the 27-member Echmiadzin Choir, and Armenians from Iran, England, Armenia, and Australia would congregate to celebrate the recent renovation of five churches in the Armenian-Indian community. Little did I know that I had signed up for a once-in-a-lifetime event!
Our 16-hour overnight trek by rail to Kolkata will certainly be a story to tell posterity about. Sleeping in proximity on stacked beds behind curtains, through the dark of the night, when whispers, snores, telephone calls, and the squeaking wheels of the rails gain extra volume, the privacy of home seemed like a distant dream. The uninitiated baby-boomers among us certainly shrieked at the Indian-style sanitary amenities common to developing countries. Though the comfort level was reasonable by local standards, the element of surprise magnified the extent of the hardships.
The highlight of our trip was ahead in Kolkata, following the footsteps of Catholicos Karekin II, to the renovated churches in Chennai and Tangra, and the Armenian College in Kolkata. Each one of them kept impeccably clean, stood out in beauty, order and serenity, in sharp contrast to the disarray in the neighborhood. After each event, members of the local Armenian community offered their graceful hospitality, all the way to Saidabad, a seven-hour trek from Kolkata each way, due to traffic and potholes - a very bumpy trip that made a hash of our bones.
It was, indeed, God's little acre on earth, home to the Aivazian family in our group. The driver's maneuvers to park the bus were akin to "passing a camel through the eye of a needle." Of course we were within the sacred compound of church grounds and any miracle was possible. A delicious lunch served after the services under a tent set up outside, in the idyllic setting by the lake, revived our energy for the return trip.
The final evening banquet, at Taj Bengal Hotel, topped the list in elegant dining, with the Catholicos and guest dignitaries congratulating the Armenian-Indian community for the monumental task of regenerating their existence. Experience gained during our outbound trip to Kolkata made the return to Delhi almost pleasant.
In retrospect, the sharagans (hymns) we sang in the churches with the Etchmiadzin Choir sparkle in memory. In these remote (for us) churches, as we recited our "Hayr Mer," dressed in saris, Western-style clothes or loose Eastern-style garments, the famous lines of poet Vahan Tekeyan, "The Armenian church is the birthplace of my soul," hovered in my mind. We stood united in faith. We could not but express our appreciation and our awe to the dwindling Armenian-Indian community of eighty in Kolkata, and to the student body, for offering us this opportunity of communion with them, and for preserving our national character and heritage. They stand tall as viable members of the Armenian Diaspora.
We were strangers when we started our trip. After our fellowship of 18 days through thick and thin, from regal accommodations to cramped quarters, from modern conveniences to sub-standard (per Western outlook) amenities, from palatial residences to local bazaars, and from luscious meals to snacks on the run, we had become family, till deadline did us part.
Will I visit India again? I doubt it. Will I go looking for Armenians in the South Pole or in Timbuktu? Perhaps. Right now I will attend to updating my list of valuable new friendships.