Even today, among the older residents of Dhubri, a town in Western Assam, the debate about a dilapidated cottage on PM Dutta Bahadur road continues. For some, it is not more than what it appears to be: an old Assam-type house that has fallen into disrepair. Yet others believe it has a more intriguing provenance — that almost a century ago the structure was an Armenian church.
The second opinion has generated fair amount of curiosity among heritage enthusiasts over the past few months. There were a series of media reports, even picked up by the international press, which culminated in the Armenian Ambassador to India, Armen Martirosyan, inviting the Heritage Conservation Society, Assam (HeCSA) to New Delhi to discuss the matter last month.
“Kot Armenia, kot Axom?” says Jayanta Sarma, Secretary, HeCSA, alluding to vast differences in the geographies of the two locations. “If one can come up with documentary evidence of the church, it will establish a new chapter in the region’s history.”
But it is this “documentary evidence” that has remained elusive, despite many efforts to find it. So far, evidence has been secondary, and at best based on hearsay. Kolkata-based SK Bose was born in Dhubri in 1937, and lived in a home located just a few minutes away from the building.
“Growing up, we would hear that it was an Armenian Church. It is very difficult to remember who told me but that was the general story passed around,” says Bose, who specialises in numismatics (the study of coins). Last week, when Bose — now in his eighties —was in town for a lecture, he “peeped into the old house”, which now functions as a Ladies’ Club. The colonial-era club was started by the British in 1935, and the tradition has been carried forward by a group of Dhubri women.
Bhoben Barua, a writer based in Diphu who has researched Armenians in India, says that according to the 1901 Census Report at least five Armenians were listed as living in Dhubri.
“They came to the region, possibly for business, even before the British in the mid-1800s. While they traded in salt, tobacco and betel nut, the British soon began to monopolise the trade. My conjecture is that is when they must have moved to Dhubri to trade in morapaat (the dead or dried leaves used to make jute),” says Barua.
Under the British, Dhubri was first constituted as a municipal board in 1883. Later it emerged as important port town (especially for the jute trade) and served as an entry point to Assam. “It was the only place which had a direct steamer link to Kolkata back in the day,” says Barua.
He further goes on to add that Armenians were known to build churches, not in the capacity of missionaries, but for their own use. “For example, if there were even five-six people, that would be enough reason to build a church,” says Barua. The Armenian churches in Chennai, Kolkata Surat, Mumbai etc — all of which are backed by proper documentary evidence — confirm the same.
The Dhubri cottage has certain architectural features that bear similarities with those of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata: the coloured arch-shaped glass windows and a central triangular-shaped dome. “Despite these similarities, one needs to corroborate evidence to prove that it was actually a church,” says Bose.
HeCsa’s Sarma is keen to use something called a Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR) sensor (a geophysical method that uses radar pulses to image the sub-surface) to get the corroborative evidence needed. “But we cannot start until the Dhubri district administration initiates the process,” he says. Sarma has met with the members of the Directorate of Archaeology in Guwahati, who he says, are also keen to carry out a joint survey.
“But we, too, can start only if we get an official request. It is not a protected site yet — until the district administration notifies us, we can’t go and survey it for its historical importance. These are the steps we must follow,” says Deepi Rekha Kouli, head of the Directorate of Archaeology.
On the other hand, the Deputy Commissioner of Dhubri, AL Gyani, says that the administration can take steps “only if they receive a request from any other government department.”
“Also, the house belongs to the Ladies’ Club. How can the district administration intervene in a property which belongs to someone else? Even the High Court has passed a judgment regarding the same,” he says.
For years, a legal battle ensued between the Ladies’ Club and state government regarding the land the structure stands on. In August 2018, the Guwahati High Court ruled that the land — an L-shaped government-owned khas fallow property — would be shared with the Dhubri District Museum, and that the Ladies’ Club that would continue to function out of the cottage.
Meanwhile, the structure continues to exist in a dilapidated condition. In the plot on which the house stands, there is a parking space, a garage etc. A resident, who did not wish to be named, confirms that improper renovations (using cement) have been done in the past few years. “The important bit — whether it was an Armenian church or a colonial-era Ladies’ Club — is that it is a heritage building that needs to be protected immediately,” the resident says.