In the shadow of Ararat

January 8, 2017

To Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, awed by its rich history, and connections with the Indian subcontinent

In the shadow of Ararat

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather

-- John Ruskin

A freezing morning of December in Yerevan took me into the depth of another winter. I had been staying just next to the main opera theatre of the town and was getting impatient to reach Tsitsernakaberd Hill. I felt as if the hill had been calling out to me.

In the company of a former director of garages, who now drives a taxi, we were moving from downtown towards the woods. There had been heavy snow for the last three days, forming piles of powdery snow on the rooftops of cars and houses: the thin branches of trees bending due to the load of cotton-like snow; an overwhelming whiteness giving the roads, buildings and neighbourhoods the look of a painting drawn with overflowing canals of thick milk.

Low-lying parks had turned into skating tracks teeming with joyful cries of children and youth engaged in different fun sports.

As we turned towards the upland woods, we drove on a narrow pathway under the umbrella made by embracing trees. A snugly dressed-up group of men and women was carrying shovels and rakes clearing the snow-dunes on the way leading to the monument at the hill where a flame was burning to commemorate the victims and survivors of a ‘contested’ genocide.

"The Opera Hall is the place which witnessed a 24-hour demonstration of about 1 million people in 1965 and only then this flame was kindled with the Kremlin announcing to establish the Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd Hill," a local remarked.

Despite these intermittent invasions, Armenian language, music and culture remained a predominant identity-marker for the population.

Turkey, accused of this genocide, refutes the assertion and interprets it as ‘collateral damage’ of a war rather than ‘genocide’. One may continue arguing about the right word for human killings in retrospect; nonetheless, independent records state that about 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in a Turkish onslaught during the peak of Ottoman Empire. For more than 100 years now, the Armenians have failed to disassociate themselves from the traumatic memories of early 20th century which comprised a ‘black winter’ for them. I was awestruck by the memorial plants buried under some thick, stoned and white layers of snow.

Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, sleeps in the shadow of mythical Ararat Mountain where Noah’s biblical ark appeared. Hrazdan River cuts across the town with the current population of about 1.3 million. Historically, Yerevan remained a source of constant contest and periodical battlefield of interchanging neighbouring empires -- Roman, Russian, Persian and Turkish. Despite these intermittent invasions, Armenian language, music and culture remained a predominant identity-marker for the population; and still the largest and official language remains Armenian with Russian being the second widely-spoken and understood language. English is a new entry to the region.

In a bid to reclaim pre-Christian identity, the Armenian youth has launched an interesting campaign seeking the signatures of the population and demanding the return of fragments of a bronze-gilded statue of a mythical mother goddess. It appears to be somewhat similar to the Koh-i-Noor controversy in India. However, Anahit is an ancient female deity and believed to be the mother goddess of fertility, healing, water and wisdom.

The bronze-gilded fragments of the statue of Anahit are currently being kept by the British Museum, London. "Come home, Mother Goddess" and "bring home the Mother Goddess" are popular slogans charging the campus environment and national sentiment in contemporary Armenia.

Armenians take pride in being the first Christian state and believe that the large number of churches built in and around Armenia by the kings and priests is a testimony of this fact.

However, it was Czarist Russia which adopted a religious charter for Armenia in 1836 according to which the rights of the Armenian Church were restricted leaving it only as a religious-spiritual space and excluding any attempt of interfering in politics and state affairs. This was not accepted happily by the majority of Armenians; however, as time goes by and regimes continue reshuffling their hold over Armenian lands, life and culture remain prone to multiple variations. Still, about 95 per cent of Armenians hold onto Christianity and go to the church frequently.

Yerevan also hosts an 18th-century Blue Mosque built by Iran and currently known to be the only ‘active mosque’ in Armenia. The churches and mosques stopped functioning as places of worship during the Soviet era. According to some reports, religious services were completely stopped and the only function the mosque performed then was that it served as the Museum of the City of Yerevan. Only in 1999, the building was totally restored and renovated, and started to operate as a Shia mosque again after Armenia gained independence and received significant support from the Iranian government for that purpose.

With the withdrawal of USSR from Armenia in post-glasnost reforms in the 1980s, the city witnessed a proliferation of bars, cafes, restaurants and other public places of social interaction.

I got curious when I saw a Pakistani speciality, harissa, listed in the menu of a traditional Armenian restaurant in the basement of an old building. Later, a local told me that bread and salt are staple foods for Armenians while harissa is a traditional meal, consisting of wheat grain and lamb cooked over low heat.

There is also a story about harissa: According to Armenian folklore, the patron saint of Armenia, Gregory the Illuminator, was offering a meal of love and charity to the poor. There weren’t enough sheep to feed the crowds so wheat was added to the cooking pots. They noticed that the wheat was sticking to the bottom of the cauldrons. Saint Gregory advised, "Harekh!" (stir it). Thus, the name of the dish, harissa, came from the saint’s own words.

Harissa has been offered as a charity meal, and the dish is traditionally served on Easter day. Surprisingly, harissa appears to be a tasteful link between Lahore and Armenia as it is considered to be the national dish of Armenia.

While roaming around the snow-covered roadside of Yerevan one evening, I found the memorial portrait of a female opera singer, Gohar Gasparyan (1924-2007). She was declared a ‘People’s Artist of USSR’ and is revered as national hero even today.

A discussion with some local music experts revealed that there was another musical link between Armenia and Indian sub-continent. The Indian singer and dancer, Angelina Yeoward, later named Gauhar Jan (1873-1930) who went on to become the Bari Malka of India owing to her accomplishments in ghazal, thumri and dhadhra was of Armenian descent. Historical records reveal that Gauhar Jan performed at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali in Matiaburj near Calcutta and was the contemporary of Malka Jan of Pukhraj.

Staying in Yerevan for a few days was like living with an unexplored historical mystique of millennia. I felt as if there still was much more to explore in terms of connections between the plains and people of Ararat and Indus.

In the shadow of Ararat