The Vale of Arjootz

A Hindu colony in ancient Armenia

Many years ago, an article in the TDN (Turkish Daily News – our English newspaper in Istanbul) mentioned a village in Turkey where some Indians had once lived. I faintly recollect that it had something to do with people from Malabar and possibly Khilafat, but I have since then failed to find any detail or a link to that article to corroborate. However some months ago, when fellow blogger and friend Nick Balmer tipped me to this story, I was not sure what to expect. But when I finished reading a few articles and Dr.Mesrob Jacob Seth’s article as well as his book Hindoos in Armenina, I was, so to say, stumped.

Since historic times, there have been all kinds of people visiting and living in what they called mystic and rich India, for in the old times, information and trade flow was quite free and we did not ask for visas and passports as others demand from Indians these days. But well, that was another time, I guess, and Armenians used to come to India as they did since the time of Semiramis and Indians used to go there, if they had to. Many a troubled person or ostracized tribe found their way to India like the troubled Syrians, Jews, Armeninas, the Parsis and so on and so forth. We accepted all, asked nothing in return. They lived their times in their chosen areas, and some like the Jews decided to leave back to Israel. The Armenians who thrived in India, especially Calcutta, Madras and Bombay vanished slowly, also leaving for other flourishing cities, after the British left. As Dr Seth Stated: They were hardly interested in politics, and rarely took part in intrigues, their field of action lay, rather, in the bazaars, the commercial marts, and the emporiums of India, over which they exercised vast influence, in the absence of any foreign commercial element, and thereby monopolized the greater portion of the export trade, which they carried on for a considerable period.

However I will just detail here an interesting account of the Hindus who once lived in a region in ancient Armenia, now part of Turkey. Having lived in Turkey, I had heard quite a bit about Armenia, though I had no clue about this until recently (Was this the village the TDN reporter mentioned? Perhaps it was and my memory is on the decline!). Further reading of the original article and work of Johannes Advall and Naira Mkrtchyan helped me understand the legend better.

To get to the bottom of this story or as many put it, legend, I have to take you to a remote place called Taron or Tarawn. Taron was a canton of the Turuberan province of Greater Armenia, now part of the Muş Province, Turkey. Mus (pronounced Mush) situated on a large plain in Eastern Anatolia, is a small city on the road from Bingöl to the Van Lake, near the Murat and Karasu rivers. Set amidst high mountains on all sides, lakes and lush green plains, it offers a weary traveler serene surroundings and a rarified air. The surrounding hills are covered with vineyards and oak scrub. Called Tarun by the Arabs, the town came under Ottoman domination in 1515 and was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. Sorry that all this sounds like a tourist brochure, but well, as you will soon see, the history of this small city starts in curious fashion. The story is known to us through the records of King Mamikonian and cleric Zenobius (Zenob Glak) titled History of Taron.

Interestingly the history of Taron began with the arrival of two Hindu princes from India, fleeing some 1500 miles from their home kingdom. This is the story of the Hindu colonies they established, and we will explore a bit of their life and times and the final decline after they and their priests were decimated and the reminder converted to Christianity by St Gregory the Illuminator. The final remenants can probably be found under the remains of the famed Saint Karapet monastery at Mus.

I have to take you back many centuries, this time to 149BC - Two princes named Gissaneh and Demeter after a failed conspiracy against King Dinaks pal (Pushyamitra?), the King of Kanauj, flee to Armenia, some 1500 miles away (must have been a mighty long and tiring journey through the mountain terrain) and request asylum from King Valarsaces (a brother of Arsaces the Great) and the founder of the Arsacidae dynasty which ruled Armenia as the story happened.

Let’s look at North India circa 149-148BC –Kannauj was an ancient city in UP, in earlier times the capital of Emperor Harsha. It was the tail end of the Mauryan dynasty’s rule. The Sungha dynasty was coming up after emperor Ashoka’s death and Pushyamitra was the king around 151BC (assuming that the brothers travelled for a couple of years to reach Armenia) and there were many wars afoot a period when apparently Buddhists were being persecuted (perhaps these two were actually Buddhist princes, but that theory does not hold forte for they raised statues and idols of worship at Taron). This was a time when the remaining Mauryans were conspiring against the new king Pushyamitra. It is surprising that the princes travelled westward instead of south or east where Buddhism was more prevalent, and which would have been more conducive, but the Sunga empire was vast and the borders far and wide. The name Gissaneh gives you a feeling that it was probably Yajnasena of the erstwhile Maurya dynasty, who according to historians later enters into a truce with Agnimitra (Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra), but as Dr Seth will explain later, may turn out to be somebody else, entirely.

Zenob, describes the Hindus whom he sees for the first time on his arrival in Armenia, with St.Gregory, the Illuminator, in the year 301 A.D thus – “These people have a most extraordinary appearance for they were black, long-haired and unpleasant to the sight, as they were Hindus by race”.

Gissaneh and Demeter settled down at the province of Taron where they built a nice city called Veeshap (which in Armenian means a Dragon) and a snake temple. They then moved to Ashtishat there they set up the gods which they had worshipped in India. But sadly, they were destined to die in this far away place, for they were, 15 years after their arrival, put to death by the king for which no reasons or motives are assigned by Zenob. These two were succeeded by three sons whose names were Kuars, Meghtes and Horean, and the Armenian king (I wonder why for the king had put their fathers to death in the first place, maybe he realized his folly later and repented by gifting to the sons), bestowed on them the colony and the principality of the province of Taron. Kuars built a small town and called it Kuar after his own name. Meghtes similarly built his town and named it Meghti after himself, whilst Horean built his town in the province of Poloonean and called it Horeans. They then went to a mountain called Karki (Ararat province aka Tigranashen in Azerbaijan) where they built their big temple and put up two gods named as Gisaneh and Demeter, after their murdered fathers.

These idols were apparently made of brass, the former, according to Zenob, was twelve cubits high, and the latter fifteen cubits and the priests appointed for the service of these gods were all Hindus. The Hindu colony thus flourished for a considerable time in Taron.

As Naira explains - Within a short period of time, the Indians built 20 towns, and in each of them they erected temples. Some of these towns, mentioned by Zenob, retained their names and existed till the middle of the nineteenth century. Until the early twentieth century, one of the villages in Taron was called Hindkastan (Armenian name for India). The names Hindubek, Hindu, Hindukhanuln, Hindumelik were often used by the Armenians of Taron. The Armenians of those districts, where the Indians were settled, used to enact the dance of Demeter and sing Indian melodies. Some scholars argue that the cult of Vahagen (the Armenian god of fire, as well as the conqueror of dragons) was introduced to the Armenians from the Indians, through the Indian god Agni. The Hindu population comprised over 15,000 members.

But it was not to last, for St.Gregory the Illuminator arrived with his troops, and had the many famous temples of Gisaneh and Demeter razed to the ground, the images broken to pieces whilst the Hindu priests who offered resistance were murdered on the spot, as faithfully chronicled by Zenob who was an eye-witness of the destruction of the Hindu temples and the gods. The Christians believed that the temple of Kissaneh was the "Gate of Hell and Sandaramet, the seat of a multitude of demons. On the site of these two temples at Taron, St.Gregory had a monastery erected where he deposited the relics of St John the Baptist and Athanagineh the martyr which he had brought with him from Ceaseria, and that sacred edifice, which was erected in the year 301 A.D., exists to this day and is known as St.Carapet of Moosh (Mus). This monastery was a place of pilgrimage for Armenians from all parts of the world, but that too was not to last for it was destroyed soon.

The story of the massacre can be read in detail in the e-links provided under references and I will not go into the gory details. The survivors in many thousands were converted to Christianity. Some of these converted Hindus adhered tenaciously to their old customs and religious practices. They went even further and taunted the Armenian princes by telling them that if they lived they would retaliate for the harsh treatment they had received at their hands, but if they died, the gods would wreak their vengeance on the Armenians on their behalf.

As Seth puts it, ‘Upon hearing this, the prince of the house of Angegh ordered them to be taken immediately to the city of Phaitakaran where they were incarcerated and their heads shaved as an insult and a sign of degradation. These prisoners numbered four hundred’. With that all rebellion stopped and these Hindus, who up to the advent of Christianity in Armenia had remained a distinct community gradually merged into the native Christian population, as no reference is made to them by any of the Armenian historians who came after Zenob.

Anyway, many would ask what happened to the many thousand of those Hindu setters in the region of Taron. Naira has some theories - There are some hypotheses on the fate of these Indians. These are: (i) they moved to the north and founded the city of Kyiv (or. Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine); (ii) they were absorbed into the Armenian population;(iii) they returned to India; and (iv) Armenian priests with their followers headed by the head priest Mamgoon joined the Hindus, taking with them ancient Armenian books. This last is a crucial fact for Armenia, as there are no books of the pre-Christian period in Armenia. Recently, it has been stated by some scholars that these Armenians came to India and settled in the Punjab and Kashmir. This statement could be true, given that Punjabis and Kashmiris look like, Armenians in their appearance and are similar in their habits and character. The people of the region believe that some remnants joined the gypsies or the Kurds, and that many of them spoke Sanskrit.

As for the Armenians, I wonder if the curse of the priests is still on their head. The monastery is gone, Taron was razed by an earthquake and the people of the region underwent much sorrow through the centuries. But one temple may have remained, as a chapel, as explained by Romesh Bhattacharji in his Frontline article.

Indian Settlement in Armenia and Armenian Settlements in India and South Asia - Naira Mkrtchyan
Armenians in India: from the earliest times to the present day - Mesrovb Jacob Seth
Memoir of a Hindu Colony in Ancient Armenia. - Johannes Avdall
Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor  - Henry Fanshawe Tozer
The Heritage of Armenian Literature: From the sixth to the eighteenth century - Agop Jack Hacikyan, Gabriel Basmajian, Edward S. Franchuk, Nourhan Ouzounian
History of Taron – John Mamikonean 

Check here for photos & videos of Mus

Google pics & Wikipeida– thanks
Mus pics – Adem Sonmez

1. Now what did Demeter and Gissaneh mean in the first place? Dr Seth believes that Gisaneh may have been the corrupt form of Krishna, and Demeter possibly Ganesh. As for the sons, Kuars according to him may be identified with Kailash, Meghtes with Mukti, Horean with Harendra and Artzan with Arjun, all of which are Hindu names of Ancient India. Arjootz was the term used for Hindus (Possibly people under the leadership of Arjun – Ajuwn mentioned in the Hindu article)

2. John Mamikonean (Hovhannes Mamikonean) is the author of the 7th century History of Taron, a continuation of the account of Zenob Glak (Zenobius). Zenob Glak was a 4th century Syrian who became the first abbot of the Glak monastery (also known as Surb Karapet Monastery) in the Taron region of Greater Armenia. He began the chronology that would become the History of Taron. The editors of the Heritage of Armenian Literature feel that both Zenobious and Mamikonean are pseudonyms of a court writer.

3. The St. Karapet Church of Mush doesn't exist anymore. The Kurdish village of Changly is there now. The village has sprung up right where the church used to be. And the church has disintegrated in the village – over the decades the church stones have been used to build new Kurdish houses. The Mayor of Changly says, “I feel very sorry. What fools our fathers were to destroy this church. If the church were still standing our villagers would make their living selling tan to tourists. If you can give us old pictures and drawings of the church we could rebuild it even partly to attract tourists to the village.” The Varagavank, partly destroyed, has become a very important source of profit for the Kurdish village. They sell needlework in the chapel. The church has turned into a kind of art gallery.

4. Check out this Frontline article on Romesh Bhattacharji’s trip to those regions.



binjose said...

An interesting article indeed Maddy. Just a passing thought, can Demeter be Damodar by any chance?

SUNIL said...

Amazing indeed. Think about a world where people traveled miles with poorer means of transport. Indeed a world with no boundaries. But persecution of opposite races were high also. Growing up to this day was full of pain, for human race. And pain continues also though less.

Thanks a lot

P.N. Subramanian said...

Interesting article. I have also heard about such a settlement whose people converse in Sanskrit.Never thought that it could be so old. Thanks.

MY VERSION said...

Great article indeed. but it leaves me musing.You for all practical purpose seem to have settled in the US. Do you practice Hinduism freely or you have slowly converted to Christianity? . Do you boldly take the initiative to establish Hinduism in your surrounding or are you just a passive follower?

Maddy said...

hi binjose..

thanks for the comment - well, it could very well be damodar. the connection is quite natural!!

Maddy said...

thanks sunil..

yes, it was a time when the persecuted traveled in excape , very much like the roma about whom you can see an article in varnam

Maddy said...

Thanks PNS...
there are i am sure many many more..

Maddy said...

thanks Rohini..

I wonder why the question came up for it must have been clear if you read many of my blogs..

No I am what you would call a passive Hindu. I am content with observing, understanding (which itself is very difficult unless your mind is open and something most don't even bother to do) and trying to figure out the why's and why nots's on most happenings, especially as related to religion.

As i wrote before, religion was man made with very a purpose, be it any kind. And I have absolutely no intention to establish or promote one over the other, nor do i believe one to be better than another. each has its place, for those who believe in what they like and how they wish to follow it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating - and not so surprising, really, in light of the amount of cross-border traveling and trading that went on in antiquity.
Another terrific article, Maddy, I really enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

Maddy - This is an astonishing and fascinating story although the ending is depressing. I've also heard of this group of people in Lithuania who speak Sanskrit. I wonder what the story there is.


Maddy said...

thanks kamini
it was a complete surprise for me too and if I had known it while living in Turkey I would have gone to the Van area!!

Maddy said...

Thanks Arundhati..
the Lithuania story is new to me..yes, u are right, the end was kind of depressing, but well that is how most of history turns out at times

Dr. Kalieswaran said...

hello maddy,
gone through your article... I found it great... I was also searcing for the same things as I am going to write an article in my blog for the same purpose.. I am a student in Armenia.. If I get by chance, I would go to those places for sure... And thanks to your article..

Maddy said...

hope you get to see the places...

Unknown said...

I feel extremely lucky to have stumbled upon this site.
Your subjects are SO diverse and yet so painstakingly complete in all details.

But the best part is ... the surprisingly easy & the totally enjoyable .. readability.

Needless to say, all your hard work (& generosity) ... has brought an incredible wealth of knowledge to a lesser individuals such as me.

Thank you

Maddy said...

Thanks kamal..
I am glad you liked reading this and other posts
Of course, please do keep reading and commenting and i will continue with the writing...

test Kapil Goyal said...

Visited Istanbul Archaeology museum today relic looks like Lord Krishna. Send ur email adderess I'll send u d pic...cheers