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Akbar to William, the Armenian connection

Joanna Lobo
The prince’s Indian-Armenian ancestors revives interest in Indo-Armenian history.So, Britain’s Prince William is Indian. Okay, he’s at least 1/256th Indian from his mother’s side, as reports said last week. For those hiding under a rock when the news broke, researchers have traced Lady Diana’s family line back six generations to a woman named Eliza Kewark, whose father was an Armenian trader and whose mother may have been Indian.

 A service being held at the Armenian Church in Chennai.
In 1812, Kewark gave birth to Prince William’s great, great, great, great grandmother Katharine Scott Forbes in Gujarat. Tests reveal that the Duke of Cambridge carries Kewark’s mitochondrial DNA that is only inherited from mothers. That DNA has previously only been found in 13 Indians and one Nepali.
As the British and Indian media dissect this royal connection, there is much discussion on how interracial affairs were common at that time. Armenians and Indians have ties that can be traced to the Mughal empire. Besides his better-known Hindu and Muslim wives, Emperor Akbar had an Armenian wife, Mariam Zamani Begum, as well as an Armenian doctor and chief justice. This has been documented in Armenians in India by Mesrovb J Seth.
Armenians started migrating to India not just from the land of their origin, but also from the Middle East during the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, unofficial counts put their population here at 150. But that doesn’t mean our ties are weakening. The Indian-Armenian Friendship (IAF), an organisation devoted to inter-cultural ties, notes that there are Armenian-Indian marriages still taking place in India. The numbers are not spectacular, but for a community so tiny, it is
remarkable.
Delhi-based businessman Rananjay Anand first met Armenian theologist Ruzanna Ashughyan in 2009. By 2011, when Anand made his first visit to Armenia, they had decided to get married. Their wedding in Yerevan last year was a big affair — the entire Indian community was present, including the then Indian ambassador to Armenia and his wife. The duo live in Delhi.
They interact with the sparse Indian-Armenian community via a Facebook group that Anand started. “The community is scattered but there’s greater people-to-people interaction. We have found out that there are a number of Armenian girls married in India,” he says. These women are the brides of Indians who have studied medicine in Armenia, fallen in love there and brought their brides back home.
In Kolkata, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) that started in 1821 is evidence of centuries-old Indo-Armenian ties. The college is open to Armenians whose education and lodging is sponsored by the church and community.
Sevak Vartomiyan, 24, came from Iran in 2003 and studied at La Martiniere, Kolkata. He is currently doing an IHM degree from ACPA. He plays rugby for Armenian Sports Club and hopes to represent his country one day.
The first Armenian church in Agra was consecrated in 1562, possibly thanks to the patronage of the Mughals. At present, there are four Armenian churches in Kolkata, one each in Chennai and Mumbai.
Zabel Joshi (Hayakian), the mother of actress Tulip Joshi, is the only surviving Armenian in Mumbai and, thus, sole trustee of the 215-year-old St Peter’s Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church in Fort that was established in 1796. It is now being used by the Malankara Orthodox Syrians for services.
“The Chennai church is a heritage site. Once a year, a group from Kolkata, led by one of the two priests in Kolkata, visits these churches and conducts services,” says Mike Stephen, 44, an Indian Armenian, and the former caretaker of the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary in Chennai. His family has been in India since 1860.
“I’m in contact with the college, the priests, and committees through Facebook, email and phone calls. Besides I have around 3,800 Armenian friends online from places like Ethiopia, Bulgaria and South Africa,” he says.
While Stephen revels in the fact that Armenians are so spread out, his friends are equally impressed that there are still Armenians in India. The IAF is planning to create an official database of Armenians living here. “We just want the two countries to come closer together,” says Anand.
The family tree

Elisabeth (Liz) Chater is much in demand these days. She has dedicated her life documenting Armenian graves in India. Following the discovery of Indian DNA in Prince William’s genes, Chater has received many requests asking if she has come across any family connections or grave markers for Eliza Kewark. “With several hundred Armenian grave markers still to transcribe, it is difficult to know, but [it’s] quite possible,” says this family history researcher who has a database of over 10,000 individual Armenians and about 3,000 families who have had some connection with India over the last three centuries. She continues to research Armenian families in India and helps the Indian-Armenian diaspora find their long-lost ancestors.

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