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A Traveler Of Eternity Holy Etchmiadzin PDF Print E-mail
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Old Etchmiadzin 

(A Page from the History of Missionary Outreach of Armenians of India)


A significant role has always been attached to the missionaries (nviraks) of the Mother See in the spiritual and cultural life of the Armenian people.  This fact was in its turn conditioned by the exceptional role played by the Holy Etchmiadzin in preservation of the nation, as a symbol of the national spiritual unity of the Armenian people. This spiritual unity was expressed in sending, once in seven years, the Chrism (Muron) from the Holy Etchmiadzin to the Armenians living throughout the world, which as a sacrament of chrismation, was perceived as a national seal of the Armenians. Every Armenian baptised with the Chrism, was linked, through a mystical ray, with Holy Etchmiadzin and Armenia. As Bishop Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, one of the most prominent figures of our church in the beginning of the 20th century, writes:  “The Holy Muron is the closest and the strongest uniting solder for the Armenians living throughout the world. The Holy Muron cleans, with the divine power, our sinful souls and clears the way for us to the eternal heaven.”1

Arakel Davrizhetsi, historian of the 17th century, has written about Holy Etchmiadzin as the collective symbol for the innermost sanctuaries of Armenia and about the Holy Oil distributed therefrom: “Their fathers’ and predecessors’ graves are in Armenia, the monasteries and churches where the tombs of the saints find their place and, in particular, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, where the Right Hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator – through which the Holy Oil is blessed – is situated, and from there Etchmiadzin’s Muron is spread to Armenians all over the world, irrespective of the place they reside. That is why the whole Armenian nation obeys the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos where he resides.”2

Once in seven years, the missionaries of the Mother See would take the blessed Muron from the Holy Etchmiadzin to the different dioceses of the Armenian Church, including the most remote ones. The clergymen who would take the Muron with them are called Nvirak because they would depart from the Holy Etchmiadzin and tell the Armenians in Diaspora about the innermost sanctuaries of the motherland and distribute the sacred gift – the Muron, and afterwards collect the voluntary contributions – the spiritual gift for Mother See, from the dioceses they visited. Thus, the missionaries both distributed and received gifts.

The directive called “On the Missionaries of the Mother See of the Holy Etchmiadzin”3, written in the 18th century defines, through 12 points, the powers and duties of the missionaries. Point 3 of this Directive states:

“The duty of the missionary is to inform about the well being and existence of the Mother of Light, Holy Etchmiadzin to all those who ask, actuated by the love towards a parent, and to distribute the Muron which is the purest milk of their heavenly immaculate parentage and the maternal gift to its children.” The next point indicates that the missionaries should first of all accept with gratitude “the gifts and donations which our loving and pious Armenian people present to their luminous parent the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin through their devout filial love.”

The more remote the Armenian communities were, the less was the communication with the motherland, and the missionaries visiting the diocese once in seven years brought  together with the patriarchal contagions and the Muron, the innermost genius of the motherland, telling them about Armenia and providing spiritual consolation to her sons living far from its boundaries.

The Armenian Community of India was one of those remote communities where the ‘nviraks’ reached with great difficulties, mainly by sea route, departing from Basra (Iraq) and reaching India through the Indian Ocean.

While en route, they were subjected to the turbulent sea and attacks by the pirates, but they moved forward without fear, in order to deliver, as soon as possible, the blessings and the Muron of Holy Etchmiadzin to the Armenians of India.

Bishop Hovhannes Pontatsi was one of the missionaries of the Mother See, who undertook such a difficult route.

He boarded the ship with his companions on 20 January 1762 and took the innermost route, heading to India from Basra. Having sailed for forty days, they reached the port city of Surat in India. After completing their missionary work in the Armenian community there, they sailed for Calcutta in April. The voyage lasted sixty days. Approaching Calcutta, Bishop Hovhannes Pontatsi described, that, when the ship “was in such a distance from the land, as Holy Etchmiadzin was from Yerevan, a heavy storm rose”. It is worth mentioning that for a clergyman coming from the motherland, the distance between the religious centre and the political centre of the Armenians becomes the unit of measurement – a peculiar Armenian measurement.

In the tumultuous sea, the ship began to sway, being tossed unsteadily from side to side. The passengers tried to escape the foundering ship by squeezing themselves in the small boats or holding on to the logs of the vessel, drifting on the waves of the ocean in the hope of survival.

However, Bishop Hovhannes grasping a wooden board with his companions, reached the shore and were saved as if by a miracle.  Facing the shore, they prayed and thanked God for being saved.

During the shipwreck, the missionary’s trunk, bishop’s clothes, patriarchal contagion and several books were drowned into the sea.

The missionary was deeply saddened for this loss, but the raging waves threw the container of the Holy Muron, undamaged, to the shore in a miraculous manner. He describes the finding of the Muron in a fantastic manner:  “we escaped from the sea two days after the Feast of Holy Transfiguration on Tuesday morning, during sunrise, and while we were walking across the shore, we miraculously found the Muron, together with its container, tied with ribbon and sealed with wax. We found it undamaged, as it was before the storm, and I cannot describe in writing our exhilaration at that moment. There were several books in the trunk excluding the clothes and other things, but none of them could be found on the shore. We only found the Chrism” and having found it in excitement they had left the shore with happiness.4

The storm had drifted them from the shores of Calcutta and cast them to a deserted sea-shore along which they walked for several days seeking for habitation. They met several temptations along this route. One night, a lion appeared from the nearest forest and tore to pieces some of the people who had survived the shipwreck. Those who were saved by a miracle had to climb on trees at nights in order to ward off any attacks by predatory animals.

Undergoing different threats, yet, moving ahead half-starved for days, they met British troops passing by and were eventually rescued.

Bishop Hovhannes Pontatsi, a missionary of the Mother See, wrote on 15 January 1763 from the city of Saidabad, Bengal about the threats he had undergone. At the end of his descriptive letter addressed to Catholicos Hakop V Shamakhetsi, he said that he was describing in brief the threats and temptations he had undergone in order not to tire His Holiness by narrating a long list of the challenges he had faced.

At the end of the letter, it is stated that he was writing the letter on Wednesday of St. Sargis Fast, calling himself an undeserved missionary of the Holy Etchmiadzin and reprobate servant of His Holiness.

By overcoming such difficulties and challenges, the missionaries of Holy Etchmiadzin took the blessings and the Chrism of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin to the Armenians living far from their motherland, establishing a “living” bond between the Mother See and the Armenians of Diaspora.

  1. Bishop Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, Blessing of the Holy Oil, St.Etchmiadzin,1912, p.5
  2. Arakel Davrizhetsi,Chapter - XVII century history, work of G. Arakelyan, Yerevan, p.161.
  3. Compilation of the Armenian History, Book C, Tiflis,1894, pages 808-824.
  4. "The adventures of a missionary of India", "Tsaghik", Konstantinopolis, 1904, No. 5

Very Rev.Fr.Khoren Hovhannisyan

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