AN ANCIENT HINDU COLONY IN ARMENIA

In an article published by Johannis Avdall in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol V, published in 1836, the author Johannis Avdall states that a singular account of a certain colony of Hindus, that emigrated from India into Armenia in 149 BC, is recorded in the historical work of Zbnobius, a Syrian Bishop and a primate of the Convent called Innaknian (which was built over destructed Pagan and Hindu temples), that flourished in Armenia in the beginning of the third century. This interesting work was published in Venice, in the year 1832, being collated from five manuscript copies, written in different periods.

Four years later, in 1836 the description of this Hindu colony of Armenia was translated from the narrative of Bhishop Zbnobius by Johannes Advell, and published in the Asiatic Journal of Bengal. More importantly this article includes an account of the now forgotten religious wars waged between the first propagators of Christianity in Armenia and the Hindu community that lived there.

Zbnobius describes the Hindus of Armenia thus, "These people had a most extraordinary appearance. They were black, long-haired, ugly and unpleasant to the sight. They claimed their origin from the Hindus. The story of the idols, worshipped by them in this place, is simply this: Dbmbtri and Kbisanby were brothers, and both Indian princes. They were found guilty of a plot formed against their king, Dinaskby, who sent troops after them, with instructions either to put them to death or to banish them from the country. The felons, having narrowly escaped the pursuit, took a shelter in the dominions of King Valarsacks, who bestowed on them the principality of the country of Taron." Taron was then known as Ashtishat. Here a city was built by the Indian princes and was given the name Vishap."

Zbnobius further states, "Having come to Ashtishat, they raised idols there in the name of those they worshipped in India." From the writings of Zenobius, it is obvious that there should be some remnants of Hindu temples in Ashtishat. Or more likely new structures must have been built over old Hindu temples.

The names recorded by Zbnobius are certainly distorted. An interesting fact is the word Astishat itself. It is quite possible that this hill capital was given the name Ashtishat by the two Hindu princes themselves because its close cognate Arthisaat (अर्थिसात्) means 'to grant anything to a person who asks for it' in Sanskrit. This is exactly what King Valarsacks had done, granted the two princes what they had asked for. In the absence of any evidence though the name Ashtishat is believed to derive from the Avestan Astghik, the Armenian deity of fertility and love, her name derived from 'astl' or star, astl is a deviation of the Sanskrit 'str' (स्त्रि) meaning star. Though why a goddess of fertility should be named after the word 'star' has no explanation and indicates to the possibility that the meaning of the names given to gods and goddesses in the Armenian pantheon may have been imposed later and also indicates that these names may have arrived into the Armenian literature from other sources.

The Hindu princes named their principality Vishap (विशाप), Sanskrit for 'freed from a curse'. This makes sense because the two princes had escaped from the curse of King Dinaskby from India. Once again the Armenian meaning given to the word Vishap as Dragon does not fit the bill here. In any case Vishaps are phallic stones associated with water much like the Shivalingas of India. However Vishaps are also associated with poison and hence the connection to the name with Sanskrit is established for 'Vish' is 'poison' and 'ap' is water. Hence also the association with Lord Shiva! The lore of Shiva who drank the poison of the seas and bound it in his throat is perhaps distorted and reflected in the Armenian tradition through the Vishapas.

In this context one may note the existence of a lake with the name Sivan not far away from the site of ancient pagan temples of Armenia including the most ancient and well known, the Temple of Garni about which a note is added in this blog post. The general agreement is that the word Sevan originated from the Urartian word su(i)n(i)a, usually translated as 'lake' and that the term is engraved  on an 8th-century BC cuneiform inscription found near the lake. However, Sevan is the same as the Sanskrit 'savini' (सविनी) meaning a 'water body' or 'river'. For a Hindu a waterbody named Sivan with Shivalinga like Vishaps surrounding it will always resonate as Shiva.

It is also clear that the name of the Indian king Dinaskby, as recorded by Zernobius, itself is distorted for Dinaskby has no meaning in the Sanskrit language. It is a characteristic of Hindu names that each one of it has a known meaning. And though the first syllable Dina the second syllable is a distortion of a Sanskrit word, and has been interpreted as 'pal', meaning 'one who looks after' by some scholars, as 'pal' appeared very commonly in the names of Hindu kings Demeter and Krishnaby, may also be decoded as Damodar and Krishna, since they otherwise have no meaning, though some have also equated the name Dbmbtri with the lore of Balabhadra. This is an indicator of how a name or a word may lose its meaning and become unrecognizable through distortions, which may result from the ignorance of the writer, in this case Zbnobius.

Zbnobius continues with the story. "Fifteen years after their settlement in the country, both of the brothers were put to death by the king, for what fault I do not know. He conferred the principality on their three sons, named Kuar, Mbohti and Horain. The first built a village, and called it after his own name Kuars. The second founded a village on the plain, and called it after his own name Meghti. The third also built a village in the province of Palunies, and gave it the appellation of Horains."

The names of the sons of the two princes are also distortions from Sanskritic names. Kuar is most likely a distortion of Kumar, which means 'prince'. The second Meghti is probably derived from the name of the magnificent kingdom of Magadh that flourished in India from 500 BC to 500 AD, and was at the height of its glory when our story takes place. Horains too is probably a distortion of the name Haryanka which was the name of the second ruling dynasty of Maghada.

Zenobius then states, "After a certain space of time, Kuar, Meghti and Horain, of one accord, resolved on changing their abode. They sojourned on the mountain called Karki....Here they raised edifices, where they set up two idols, respectively dedicated to Kbisanby and Dbmbtri….Kbisanby had long flowing hairs, in imitation of which his priests allowed the hairs of their heads to grow, which custom was afterwards prohibited by authority...".

Mt. Karki is now known as Tigranashen, a picturesque area not far away from Mt. Ararart. Waters from River Araxes and River Vedi flow through this area rendering the area green and fertile. In fact the city of Vishap was built on the confluence of the two rivers as was the tradition in India where confluence of rivers are considered auspicious and sacred sites. The rivers have since shifted their course. The river names are Sanskritic in origin with Arexes being a cognate of Arax (आरक्ष) meaning 'protect' and Vedi (वेदि) meaning 'pedestal'.

In one of the hills in the region stands what is called the Khor Virap Monastery where St. Gregory was held captive for 13 years, before King Tridat III fell sick and was cured by St. Gregory, leading to his release and the conversion of the Pagan King to Christianity followed by the conversion of his Armenian population. The name Karki is probably a truncated form of the word Artishat. And the name Khor Virap too most likely gets its name from Vishap.

Johannis Avdall comments in his article in the Journal of Asiatic Society, "The description of this idolatrous colony is entirely accordant with the colour, appearance, manners and religion of the present Hindus. The cause of their emigration from India is distinctly stated by Zbnobius, but through what route or in what period they found their way into Armenia, it is very difficult to determine. It is, however, clearly evident that they had formed a permanent settlement in our country prior to the commencement of the Christian era." Advell states that the city of Ashtshat was a place where sacrifices were offered to the gods and goddesses of Armenia. In his evaluation it was comparable to Jagannath or Kali Ghat of India.

Zbnobius was not only a witness to the story, he was also an active participant in this major event that took place in the history of Pagan Armenia. Zernobius himself accompanied St. Gregory or as he was otherwise called, St. Gregory the Illuminator (257-331 AD), the patron saint and first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church was a religious leader who is credited with converting Armenia from paganis to Christianity in 301. Armenia thus became the first nation to make Christianity its official religion. St. Gregory was born in a pagan family, but his father who was born in a family of nobles, was accused of conspiring to assassinate the Arsacid king of Armenia and was put to death. Gregory himself narrowly escaped death. His caretakers gave away Gregory to a Christian Holy Father and he therefore was raised as a devout Christian. His mission in life was established from the tumultuous childhood he lived.

Zernobius and St. Gregory first heard about the existence of Hindu temples in Vishap (Taron) as it was then known. Zernobius states in his writings, "Having- taken our departure from Thordan, we intended to proceed to Carin and Hare. Saint Gregory was informed by some of the princes of the existence of two idolatrous temples in the province of Taron, the inhabitants of which offered sacrifices to the devil. Hereupon, our course was changed to the place where these temples stood, with a view to effect their demolition. Having arrived in the country of Palunies, in the extensive village called Keisaney, near the town of Kuars, we met there some of the heathen priests. Having ascertained from the prince of Hashtens that on the following day the great images of Keisaney and Dembtr were to be levelled to the ground, they repaired to the temples in the dead of the night, and removed from thence all the treasure into subterraneous places. Intimation of the impending danger was forthwith sent to the heathen priests in Ashtishat, who were earnestly urged to collect warriors, and quietly join them on the morrow in order to take an active part in the battle, which was to be fought by the great Kbisankby with the apostate princes. In like manner the inhabitants of Kuars were also instigated to lie in ambush in the hedges of gardens, and ruffians were sent to waylay the Christians in the forests. The head priest, called Arzan, and his son Dembtr, took the command of the troops stationed at Kuarstan, and halted there, awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from other quarters. On the following day they made a descent to the skirts of the mountain, in order to indulge in marauding and pillage."

In Zenobius's description some more Indic names come up, one was the village of Keisaney, obviously named after Krishna. The name of the head priest of the temple was Arzan, once again a distortion of the name Arjun (अर्जुन). St. Gregory, was accompanied by three Armenian princes an a small number of troops amounting to about three hundred, and together ascended the mountain in the third hour of the day, where Arzan, the priest of the temple lay in ambush along with his son Dbmetr. It was here that the trumpets of war were sounded.

Zenobius then goes into great detail about the battle which went on for some time between the Christian forces and the Hindu Armenians who lost the battle eventually. The temples were razed to the ground and the wealth looted. Zernobius describes the conversation between Arzan, whos name should read, Arjun and the three Armenian princes who till then were Pagan by belief but soon converted to Christianity. In the conversation it appears that the two names earlier mentioned as the two princes was probably a reference to Krishna and Damodar, who is Krishna himself.

In the description of the battle at one point Arzan or Arjun address the three Armenian princes and says, "Step forward, said he, you base apostates, who disbelieve the gods of your ancestors, and are opposed to the glorious Kbisanby. Do you not know that it is Kbisanby that wages war with you this day, and will subdue you under our hands, and inflict you with blindness and death?"

Dbmetr, the son of Arzan, adds, "Listen unto us, ye Armenian princes! It is now nearly forty years since we are engaged in the service of the mighty gods. We have an experience of their powers, and are assured that they fight with the enemies of their servants. We are not, however, able to cope with you in battle. This is the habitation of the king of Armenia, and ye are his nobles. But, be it known to you all, that though it is out of our power to conquer you, yet we prefer to die a glorious death to-day in upholding the honor of our gods, than to live and see their temples polluted by you. Death is, therefore, more welcome to us than life.' Arzan died at the very spot that he spoke thus and was buried on the very spot, which to this day is called, after his name, Arzan.

Dbmetr fought on much longer before he fell. The number of troops on both sides was more than 5000. The fall of Dbmetr was made a signal of cessation of battle and the trumpet of peace was sounded by order. The killed on both sides were collected in heaps, and buried in pits dug for the purpose. Monuments were raised on their graves, bearing the following inscription, in Syrian, Hellenic, and Ismaelitish characters.

"THE FIRST BATTLE FOUGHT VERY FIERCELY,
THE CHIEF COMMANDER IN THE BATTLE WAS ARZAN THE HEAD PRIEST,
WHO LIES HERE INTERRED,
AND WITH HIM ONE THOUSAND AND THIRTY-EIGHT MEN.
WE WAGED THIS WAR FOR THE IDOL KEISANEY
AND ON BEHALF OF CHRIST."

The idol of Keisaney is definitely a reference to an idol of Sri Krishna. Zernobius was an eye-witness to the scene he describes. This victory was celebrated by the Armenians with the greatest pomp and merriment. The Hindu temples were razed to the ground, and the images of Krisanry and Dbmbtr were broken to pieces. They were both made of brass. The length of the former was fifteen feet, and that of the latter twelve feet. The priests of the idols, with tears in their eyes, intreated the victors to put themselves to death, rather than destroy their mighty Kbisanby. Six of the priests were killed on the spot, for the resistance they offered to the Armenians. On the restoration of peace, the Armenians proceeded to the village of Kumar, and succeeded in persuading its inhabitants to forsake idolatry or Hinduism and embrace the Christian religion. The number of persons, says Zernobius who were christened amounted to five thousand and fifty. Some of the heathen priests and their families, however, tenaciously adhered to the idolatrous ways and refused to convert, they were taken prisoners, their heads shaved. The number of these prisoners amounted to four hundred.

This piece of history is lost and forgotten for the most part though it exists in great details in the writings of Zernobius which reveals amongst other things that the lore of Krishna was flourishing in Armenia around 300 AD and so was a Hindu community before it gradually converted to Christianity and before putting up a brave fight in which many laid down their lives.

The oldest surviving pagan structure in Armenia is the Temple of Garni dedicated to Mithira, the Sun God. Mithira is said to have been adapted into the Zoroastrian pantheon from the Rig Vedic deity 'Mitra' who is 'an important divinity of Indic culture, and the patron divinity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings'. Also the word 'mitra' (मित्र) often translated as 'friend' from Sanskrit, means 'sun'.

The name Garni could be seen as derived directly from Sanskrit 'GhRNi' (घृणि) meaning the 'Sun'. 'Om GhRNi sUryAya namaH' is the Vedic mantra for worshiping the Sun. 'GhUrNa' (घूर्ण) means to revolve, rotate. And this too is about those planets including the Sun and the Moon, which revolve on the celestial circular orbit.


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The Temple of Garni was dedicated to Mithira, the Zoroastrian sun god.
However, the original structure was destroyed and re- built in 1969-1975.
Only the base is ancient. 

Built in the middle of the 1st century CE, the Temple of Garni remarkably survived the destruction of pagan temples following Armenia's conversion in the 4th century CE, until its collapse in 1679 CE. Temple of Garni was reconstructed between 1969-1975 CE.


The ruined Temple of Garni, early 20th century.
The Temple was completely destroyed.
Only the foundation and base survived.

The ancient Garni base structure can be seen as a representation of the cosmos, with nine steps leading to a raised platform representing the 'navagraha' (नवग्रह) or 'nine planets' of Vedic cosmology which include the Sun and Moon; Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn; and the two nodes - Rahu and Ketu. The temple has 24 basalt columns representing the 24 hours of the day.


The carving on the frieze of the Garni temple
does not appear on its 24 columns
indicating that the base belongs to a
different time and school of architecture

Garni Temple was made of basalt, probably transported from the nearby Geghard monastery which itself was partially carved out of a monolithic basalt mountain - much like the cave temples of India. The Geghard monastery is built over the site of a sacred spring arising inside a cave. This too indicates a Vedic and Hindu link. Springs are sacred in India and there are many many ancient temples built around spring areas. Caves too are held sacred and have been the seat of ascetics since antiquity.


Geghard Monastery, 10 km away from
Temple of Garni was carved out of a basalt mountain
built on the site of a spring inside a cave
sacred to ancient Armenians.
Armenia is home to many caves which all seem to have been either used for inhabitation, or as burial and sacred sites in ancient times. An example of this are the Areni Caves located near the Arpa and the Gnishik rivers, known to have been inhabited since 6000 BCE.

Once again the name Arani (अरणी ) in Sanskrit means 'sun', and it may be assumed that the caves were a sacred site and may have acquired its name from the sun worshippers of Mithira. The river names Arpa and Gnishik are Sanskrit too, with Arpa (अर्प) bearing the meaning of 'offering', with Nishikta (निषिक्त ) meaning 'sprinkler'.

There are many more sites in Armenia which are Indic in essence and Sanskritic by name and it may therefore be concluded that the Hindu colony that Zernobius wrote about was neither the first one nor the only one to have been established in Armenia.


AN ANCIENT HINDU COLONY IN ARMENIA AN ANCIENT HINDU COLONY  IN ARMENIA Reviewed by The Hindi Blog on April 29, 2020 Rating: 5
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