THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC)
First issue of the first Armenian newspaper, “Aztarar”
(October 16, 1794)
The small community of India, which was an offspring of the famous Armenian community of New Julfa (Nor Chugha), created in the early seventeenth century near Ispahan (Persia), went into history for two main reasons: the publication of the first draft of an Armenian Constitution (1773) and the birth of the first Armenian newspaper (1794).
Father Harutiun Shmavonian (1750-1824) was born in the city of Shiraz, in Persia. He studied at the local school and learned Armenian and Persian language and literature. Years later, he was sent to Madras, in India, to become the priest of the local church.
After long meditations and preparations, Shmavonian founded a print shop of his own in 1789, the second Armenian printing house in Madras. His publications reflected his interest in books which were able to satisfy the requirements of the Armenian communities. For instance, he published textbooks, such as Baghdasar Tpir’s Grammar of the Mother Language; the translation of Porphyry of Tyre’s Introduction to Categories, and David the Invincible’s Book of Definitions. His collaborator and friend, Fr. Samuel Ghaytmaziants, wrote later: “He always wished the common benefit and the flourishing of the nation; he left aside the care of his family and children, lived in foreign lands, and worked to this effect.”
Shmavonian decided to publish a monthly newspaper. The Armenian community was ripe for such a project. Despite its small size, Armenian intellectuals in Calcutta and Madras were in touch with British and French traders and officials, and read European publications. The publications of the Armenian printing house of Nor Nakhichevan, in the northern Caucasus, were regularly sold in Madras. He was also encouraged by Archbishop Yeprem, who had arrived in India as legate of the Catholicate of Etchmiadzin.
Aztarar, unlike most of the press of the time, was not primarily coverage of commercial issues. The contents of the monthly were mostly cultural and historical. The print-run was 200 copies.
Many Armenian merchants wrote to the monthly from Madras, Calcutta, Basra, and as far as China and the Philippines. The publication printed news from Yerevan and Shushi, in Karabagh. Most of the articles were written in Classical Armenian (krapar), but some appeared in a mix of classical and vulgar language, which reflected the dialect of New Julfa.
Articles on political and patriotic issues were also included in the monthly, sometimes written by columnists who mostly signed with pseudonyms.
Aztarar was published for eighteen months until it folded in March 1796 due to economic difficulties. Father Shmavonian continued his activities in community life. He was active as a book publisher until 1817. He passed away in 1824, submerged in poverty.
Father Harutiun Shmavonian’s tomb at the Holy Virgin Armenian Apostolic Church in Chennai (formerly Madras), India