For the Ashes of their fathers and the temples of their Gods: The Hindus of Armenia

Prelude

Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:

“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,

And for the tender mother who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses his baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus, that wrought the deed of shame?

Though one of our worst enemies, this poem of Thomas Babington Macaulay has never failed to move our heathen sensibilities and none exemplify the spirit more than the ancient and now forgotten Hindus of Armenia who died defending the temples of their Gods even though their cause was hopeless against the Christian fanatics.

According to the Syrian writer Zenob, a disciple of “St.” Gregory and a witness to this tale, the Hindus of Armenia descended from two Hindu princes named Gissaneh and Demeter of Kanauj who fled to Armenia around 149 BCE after they were caught conspiring against their king Dinakspall. They were supposed to have been welcomed along with their followers by King Valarsaces of Armenia and given the province of Taron (western Armenia, now Turkey) where they built a city called Veeshap. They then proceeded to install the Hindu Gods alongside the national Gods of the Armenians in the city of Ashtishat, famous for its temples.

Later the king was supposed to have executed the two princes though no reason is given by Zenob. They left behind three sons named Kuars, Meghten, and Horeas who inherited the privileges granted to their fathers in Taron. The Hindus were supposed to have deified Gissaneh (Krishna) and Demeter after their deaths, built them temples and appointed priests for their worship. The colony thus flourished for around 450 years and grew in numbers but it was not to last for the first great plague was just beginning to spread.

We presume that the deities Gissaneh and his brother, Demeter must be the vr.s.n.i kula warriors Kr.s.n.a and Balabhadra. Demeter is the Greek Goddess for harvest and Balabhadra with His halAyudha very much qualifies for the title Demeter.

In 301 CE the bearer of the Christian plague “St.” Gregory converted the Armenian ruler Tiridates III and thereby inaugurated a reign of terror on the heathens of the land. Armenian pagans were converted by force. The temples of Gods were destroyed to make way for pretAlaya-s. The tiny Hindu minority were also targeted by Gregory. This made the world to witness the grand resistance offered by these few Hindus with the meager resources available. It was the first time that Hindus had to face the iconoclasm of Abrahamic traditions. Faced against great odds, the Hindu civilians fought battles against the well trained Armenian army in order to defend their dharma and their Gods. KavirAja bhUs.an.a said:

“himmata amAna mardAna hinduvAnahU ko” (pointed out by Sarvesh ji bhUShaNa’s characterization of different nations)

Hindus are known for their courage and manliness.

These words especially apply to those Armenian Hindu brethren who breathed courage such that they fought for their dharma against all odds and preferred death to ignominy. Those Hindus had indeed internalized the teaching of Kr.s.n.a – “svadharme nidhanam s’reyaH” (gItA – 3.35) – To die following one’s dharma is indeed most excellent and preferable – than giving up one’s dharma for something else.

War Breaks Out

Let us go to the vivid description, given by Zenob, of the resistance offered by the miniscule minority community of Hindus against the Armenian armies. Soon after the conversion of the king, the Hindus got wind of the Christian plans to demolish their temples of Gissaneh (Krishna) and Demeter as they did with the Armenian temples. The Hindus removed the temple treasures to a safe place at night and sent messages to the arcaka-s of nearby village, Ashtishat, to collect an army and join them to resist.

Zenob gives us the message sent as follows:

“Gather every man who is a warrior and hasten to reach us tomorrow for the great Gissaneh (Kr.s.n.a) will go into battle against the apostatizing princes.”

The head arcaka Artzan (Arjun – indeed a fitting name for an arcaka who had taken up arms for Kr.s.n.a) and his son Demeter (must be BalarAma or Balabhadra) took charge of the 400 Hindu troops and prepared an ambush for the 300 Christian troops coming in to demolish the temples. “St.” Gregory was leading the 300 Armenian troops towards Kuars near which the temple of Kr.s.n.a stood.  Hindus had taken position on a hill opposite Kuars through which invading armies had to pass.

The pretAcArin had expected no real resistance as he proceeded with three princes and the three hundred men without a care. He must have thought that with the strength of the Armenian royalty at his side, no one will dare to rise against him, especially the small minority of Hindus. But the Hindus of Armenia were born to prove what BhUs.a.n.a wrote 13 centuries later.

When the Armenian troops had ascended the hill where our brethren had stationed themselves, Arjun caused the battle horns to be sounded and came out with his men to attack the Armenians with full might. The Armenians responded as though the great archer Arjuna himself was blowing his conch devadatta and attacking them. The fear, which filled the hearts of the kaurava army when Arjuna was seen in virAt.a battle, came to occupy the hearts of the Armenians upon seeing the gleaming standards of the Hindus who had come to defend their Gods and dharma to death.

The princes sent the pretAcArin to safety with three riders and tried to hold back the Hindus. The Armenian forces who tried to stop the surging Hindus were put to death. Hindus of nearby village had also gathered along the way of Armenian retreat and began to chase the pretAcArin and his men. Gregory took refuge at the fort of Vogkhan. Hindus laid siege to it. The Armenians had to beg for help from a nearby prince who came with an army of 4000 men to beat the Hindus back with his superior numerical strength.

Arjun rallied his forces at the same hill where he had defeated the Armenians earlier and began to curse the Armenians for abandoning the Gods of their ancestors. Zenob reports the following conversation:

“Advance,” he said, “O you who are irreligious and who have forsaken your nation’s Gods; you who are the enemies of the glorious Gissaneh. Do you not know that the great Gisaneh has come out in battle against you and he will deliver you into our hands and will strike you with blindness and death.”

At this an Armenian prince rushed forward and said “Oh you braggart, if you are fighting for your gods, you are false, and if it is your for your country, you are altogether foolish for behold the prince of the house of Angegh and the prince of the house of Sunnies and the other nobles whom you know but to well.”

To which, Demeter, the son of Artzan replied thus.

“Listen unto us O you Armenian princes, it is now forty years since we are engaged in the service of the mighty gods and we are aware of their powers, for they fight themselves with the enemies of their servants. We are not, however, able to oppose you in battle for this is the house of the king of Armenia and you are his nobles, but let it be known to you all that although we cannot possibly conquer you, yet it is better for us to die a glorious death to-day in upholding the honor of our Gods rather than live and see their temples polluted by you. Death is, therefore, more welcome to us than life. But you, who are the prince of the house of Angegh come forward and let us fight singly.”

What better words could have come from the mouth of this son of Arjuna!! We are indeed reminded of Abhimanyu, who preferred fighting to death against insurmountable odds. Here, we have a son of another Arjuna from a later era. But we see the same flame for dharma burning brightly within him, filled with courage to the brim.

Such a sacrifice for dharma has never been alien to Hindu history. When Alexander invaded our lands, brAhman.a-s exhorted the local rulers to stand up to that barbarian. Alexander is said to have furiously targeted the brAhman.a community as they made the entire western AaryAvarta to rise in revolt against him. Greeks mention several small cities which stood up to Alexander and fought till the last man rather than submit to him. Where the Persians had submitted to Greeks meekly, Hindus of even small states gave a tough time to the Greek conqueror. Later, during the invasions of Muslims, we find jauhar and saka being performed by Hindus where the women immolated themselves to death and men fought to death against insurmountable odds. This was done to avoid the ignominy of being forced to change one’s svadharma. The same ideal is echoed in the words of this Abhimanyu from Armenia who roared that they will die a glorious death upholding the honor of Gods rather than live to see their temples being polluted by the pretAcArin’s men.

Sacrifice for Dharma – Death over apostasy

In a single combat between the old Arjun and an Armenian prince, Arjun managed to inflict wounds on the prince but the prince managed to cut Arjun to death. While the Armenian troops were rejoicing about this victory, Hindu civilians led by their arcaka-s came to that hill and began attacking the Armenians with great vengeance. When the Armenian troops tried to flee downhill, Hindu infantry threw rocks and weapons from atop causing damage to their cavalry while the villagers who gathered at the foothills began to attack the fleeing Armenians. The trained Armenian army was then rallied around by the princes who managed to get a foothold on one side of the hill and held it when the sun began to set – battle was called off at that juncture.

On the next day, as per Zenob, Hindus had managed to gather 6946 men while Armenians had gathered 7080 troops. There were other Armenian troops numbering a few thousands in the vicinity – who were indulging in looting and destruction of the Hindu villages. Where the Hindu army consisted of local Hindu civilians who had come to defend their temples and dharma, Armenian army consisted of trained warriors. The advantage of a well trained army began to show when Armenians began to gain upper hand over the Hindus. A sliver of hope came to Hindus when a vassal prince of Hashtyank, who was a Hindu, switched sides to join his Hindu brethren against the pretAcArin’s hordes. Armenian troops were clobbered under his leadership – he was well known to be a great warrior and leader. But the hope was shortlived as the other Armenian princes rallied their troops again and one of the princes managed to behead the prince of Hashtyank. Demeter, the son of Arjun, managed to kill the son of an Armenian prince. But this was not enough to stop the well trained Armenian troops.

The grim scenario of defeat, which was expected by the Hindus but welcomed to avoid a meek surrender, came clear later in the day when the leaders of their army, the temple arcaka-s fell in the battle one after another. Demeter, the son of Arjun and their last leader left, was also beheaded and his head was collected in a sack by an Armenian prince. 1038 Hindus were killed in this battle and the rest were captured alive & stripped naked.

The local Hindu priests buried their dead there and also proceeded to bury the dead Armenians. The place was marked with the following inscription as per Zenob in Syriac and Greek:

“This was the first battle of Artzan, the high priest and a great warrior. He is buried here and with him are 1038 men. And we fought this battle for the idols of Gissaneh and Demeter and for Christ.”

Gregory, the pretAcArin, was brought back and he ordered to destroy the murtis of Kr.s.n.a and Balabhadra. Six arcaka-s of the temple, who were alive at that time, fought the Armenians who had entered the temple. The arcaka-s had stated

“Let us die first and then let the great Gissaneh be destroyed!”

This reminds us of those rAjpUt warriors who defended the temples to their last breath. Kavi PadmanAbha records how the warriors died defending the temple of SomanAtha during the reign of Ala-uddin. The beginning of this tradition was made in Armenia by the small community of Hindus. Even as late as 18th century, 3000 rAjpUt-s entrenched themselves in the temple of S’rI ran~gam to save the temple from the European AtatAyin-s. They vowed to defend the temple from intrusion of any non-Hindu until the last one of them was alive. This prevented the victorious British from indulging in any misadventure within that temple. The fire lit at Armenia was kept burning here by successive generations of Hindu warriors who preferred death to apostasy. This indifference towards death and firm resolve to defend dharma have been the main source for the Hindu resistance movements under the Muslim yoke.

Gregory destroyed the two temples  (of Kr.s.n.a & Balabhadra) and built a pretAlaya over the remains. An arcaka was caught alive and he was tortured to find out the location where the temple treasures were hidden. But the arcaka remained true to His dharma and did not utter anything – preferring to embrace death than lead the barbarians to the treasures.

Gregory then had the civilians of the Hindu villages converted to his preta cult. 5000 men and youth apart from women were baptized. After this, he collected the children of the arcaka-s and the attendants of the temples – numbering 438 in all. He offered to baptize them as well. The children replied

“Keep this in mind, as long as we live, we shall seek revenge upon you; even if we should die, the Gods will exact their revenge”

One Armenian prince ordered to shave their head (the Hindus had sported s’ikhA-s) and sent these brave children to prison. Nothing is heard about them after this. We can imagine what their fate would have been. These brave young souls faced their end with the grace of seasoned warriors – preferring a torture and death to the dishonor of abandoning their Gods.

Zenob also notes that while the Hindu civilians had been converted. They still had not given up their ancestral religion. Hindus continued to ensure that their children sported s’ikhA and the worship of their Gods was maintained in a clandestine manner. Zenob warns the pretAcArin-s to be attentive towards this tendency of Hindus, lest this practice spread in other lands. We hear nothing about Hindus in Armenia after a century or so. It seems that the Christian fanatics destroyed the remnants of these Hindu communities so thoroughly that nothing is left now.

Thus ended the first struggle between the Hindus and the Abrahamic fanatics. Where the Armenian heathens were cowed down by the might of the army, Hindus put up a brave struggle – setting stage for the centuries of struggle that followed in order to protect their religion and traditions. While we have lost half of our lands and people due to numerous mistakes on our part, we cannot deny that our survival has also been due to the single biggest strength of dharma – it inspires its followers to face even insurmountable odds than submit meekly. It gives us courage to face our enemies.

There are a few lessons to be learnt from this chapter in our history. We shall look at them in another post.

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