The 16th-17th centuries’ Armenian gravestones – a testament to the Armenian presence in Surat, India
The Armenian gravestones from the 16th and 17th centuries serve as a testament to the Armenian community’s presence in Surat, India. These monuments are an important part of the city’s history and provide insight into the lives of the Armenians who lived there. The gravestones are decorated with intricate designs and inscriptions, and many of them are still well-preserved today. They offer a glimpse into the customs and traditions of the Armenian people, and their significance in Surat’s past should not be overlooked. It is a fascinating piece of history that deserves recognition and preservation.
Historians believe that Armenians began to settle in Surat as early as the 14th century when the city was administered by governors appointed by the Delhi Sultanate. In 1895, Mesrovb Jacob Seth, Armenian author, historian, and educator based in Calcutta, wrote: “…….In Surat, the Armenians erected two churches – one in the city, which is still preserved, but is not now used; and the other which lies in ruins, in their cemetery…….”
Nonetheless, it was in the 16th century, that the city began to witness the emergence of a significant Armenian community that was engrossed in trade and had an active cultural life: there are preserved traces of an Armenian settlement in the city exactly referring to this time period. In the Armenian cemetery at Surat, which adjoins the cemeteries of the early British and Dutch, with roughly 200 gravestones placed outside the main chapel, there is a tombstone of an Armenian lady who died there in 1579 CE.
It’s known that the Armenian merchants in Surat would sell jewelry, precious stones, cotton, silk, and other products to Armenian-owned merchant vessels from Basra and Bandar Abbas, which would export them to Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Venice, and Leghorn. Unlike others from West Asia who came to India without their families, such as Arabs, the Armenians moved with their wives and children.
The business acumen of the Armenians in India was highly regarded by the British, who had contact with them in the 17th century. The British tried to gain the trust and cooperation of the successful Indian Armenians in order to secure their intercession before the Mughal court for trading privileges in India.