Armenians are believed to have come to India, when some joined the auxiliary forces under the command of Alexander the Great when he crossed Armenia en route to India. The earliest documented references to the mutual relationship of Armenians and Indians are found in Cyropaedia (Persian Expedition), from an ancient Greek document by Xenophon (430 BC – 355 BC). These references indicate that several Armenians traveled to India, that they were well aware of land routes to reach India, as well as the general and political geography, socio-cultural milieu, and economic life of the Indian subcontinent.
Armenians had trading relations with several parts of India, and by the 7th century Armenian settlements had appeared in Kerala, an Indian state located on the Malabar Coast. Armenians controlled a large part of the international trade of the area, particularly in precious stones and quality fabrics.
An archive directory (published 1956) in Delhi, India states that an Armenian merchant-diplomat, named Thomas Cana, had reached the Malabar Coast in 780 using the overland route. Seven hundred years thereafter, in the year 1498, Vasco da Gama would reach the Malabar Coast by sea. Thomas Cana was an affluent merchant dealing chiefly in spices and muslin. He was also instrumental in obtaining a decree, inscribed on a copperplate, from the rulers of Malabar, which conferred several commercial, social and religious privileges for the Christians of that region. In current local references, Thomas Cana is known as “Knayi Thomman” or “Kanaj Tomma”, meaning Thomas the merchant.
Several centuries of presence of Armenians, described as “The Merchant Princes of India”, resulted in the emergence of a number of several large and small Armenian settlements in several places in India, including Agra, Surat, Mumbai, Chinsurah, Chandernagore, Calcutta, Saidabad, Chennai, Gwalior, Lucknow, and several other locations currently in the Republic of India. Lahore and Dhaka – currently respectively in Pakistan and Bangladesh, – but, earlier part of Undivided India, and Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, also had an Armenian population. There were also many Armenians in Burma and Southeast Asia.
- Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughal emperor, invited Armenians to settle in Agra in the 16th century, and by the middle of the 19th century, Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited. In 1562, an Armenian Church was constructed in Agra.
- During the 16th century onwards, the Armenians (mostly from Persia) formed an important trading community in Surat, the most active Indian port of that period, located on the western coast of India. The port city of Surat used to have regular sea borne to and fro traffic of merchant vessels from Basra and Bandar Abbas. Armenians of Surat built two Churches. A cemetery and a tombstone (of 1579) in Surat bear Armenian inscriptions. The second Church was built in 1778 and was dedicated to Virgin Mary. A manuscript written in Armenian language in 1678 (currently preserved in Saltikov-Shchedrin Library, St. Petersburg) has an account of a permanent colony of Armenians in Surat.
- The Armenians settled in Chinsurah, near Calcutta, West Bengal, and in 1697 built a Church there. This is the second oldest Church in Bengal and is still in well preserved on account of the care of the Calcutta Armenian Church Committee.
- During the period of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a decree was issued which allowed Armenians to form a settlement in Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad, the capital of Mughal suba (province) of Bengal at the time. The imperial decree had also reduced the tax from 5% to 3.5% on two major items traded by them, namely piece goods and raw silk. The decree further stipulated that the estate of deceased Armenians would pass on to the Armenian community. By the middle of 18th century, Armenians had become very active merchant community of Bengal. In 1758, Armenians had built a Church of the virgin Mary in Saidabad’s Khan market.
Today, there are less than 100 Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata. The best known Armenian institution in India is the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (est. 1821), the Armenian College in Kolkata, funded by endowments and donations. The management of the college was handed over to the Armenian Holy See of Echmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church years ago. There are presently some 125 children studying there from the Republic of Armenia, Iran and Iraq and the local Armenian population. There is also an active Armenian Sports Club (est. 1890).
Landmarks of contributions made to the city of Chennai still exist. Woksan, an Armenian merchant who had amassed a fortune from trade with the Nawab of Arcot, invested a great amount in buildings. The Marmalong Bridge, with many arches across the river Adyar was constructed by him, and a huge sum of maintenance donated to the local authorities. Besides building rest houses for pilgrims, he built the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles in Madras. The only reminder of the bygone era is the Holy Virgin Mary church of 1772.