A CHRONICLE OF THE GREEKS IN INDIA – 1750-1950

Introduction by Demetrios Th. Vassiliades


greeiksinbengalIn “A Chronicle of the Greeks in India – 1750-1950”, 
Dione Marcos-Dodis, who was born in Karachi and grew up in Calcutta, researches and records the way of life that her family, relatives and friends led during their sojourn in India.  They were part of a little known but, nevertheless, important emigration movement which brought, from the beginning of the eighteenth and up to the middle of the twentieth century, hundreds of Greek merchants to the most important cities of the Indian subcontinent.  Her book presents an uncommon and most significant research work that has ever been published concerning the contemporary history of Greek emigration to India.  Unlike previous publications which have focused on the history of the Greek community of Bengal, the author researches and records the pleasures and the difficulties faced by many forgotten Greeks who lived and worked in less known, remote areas of India.  The word “India” is used here in its wider sense, denoting the Indian subcontinent, as it includes urban areas located nowadays (after India’s partition) in Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

The author’s effort to investigate historical facts concerning the remote community of Bengal, was made quite difficult due to the fact that the archives of the Greek Orthodox Church of Calcutta were lost, possibly by the sheer negligence of certain employees of the Archdiocese of Athens, where they were shipped for safekeeping, in 1975, by the last Calcutta priest, Constantine Halvatzakis-Velladios in collaboration with the Greek Ambassador in Delhi, Dr. Vassili Vitsaxi, now President of the Indo-Hellenic Society. 

The study of the remote Greek community in Bengal is appealing in itself as it is connected with important historical realignments taking place in both worlds – the Hellenic and the Indian.  But for those studying history with a broader perspective, the presence of a Greek community in Bengal constitutes, undoubtedly, an integral part of the Greek diaspora and is, indeed, the last chapter of the long history connecting Greece with India.

The very first indications of a Greek presence in India are lost in the hazy, mythical expeditions of Dionysus and Hercules and are found, later, in the first semi-historical accounts of Scylax of Karyanda, Ctesias of Knidos, Hecataeos of Miletos and Herodotus of Halikarnassos.  The story continues with the invasion of Alexander, which bridges the great gap that separated for aeons the Eastern and the Western worlds.  Further expeditions and battles were conducted by his descendants, who founded the Indo-Hellenic kingdoms in Bactria and in northwestern India, where they ruled until they were finally defeated by the Parthians and the Kushans, around 25 B.C.

The cultural contacts between Greece and India continued with the presence of Greek sailors arriving on the shores of India and Ceylon with Roman and Alexandrian merchant ships.  According to Cosmas, the navigator, the anonymous author of the “Circumnavigation of the Red Sea”, Philostratos and various Indian chroniclers, Greek communities flourished in South India until the fifth century A.D.  The ancient Greeks of India (known in Indian literature as Yavanas and Yonas – from the Greek Iones) were gradually integrated into the local community, leaving behind them considerable influences, especially on Buddhist art, numismatics, astrology, medicine and literature.  Then, several centuries of great silence follow as India’s contact with the western world is cut off due to the dominance of the Persians overland and of the Arabs over the sea routes.  The forgotten land of India is rediscovered after many centuries, in 1498, by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who opened the way to Portuguese, Dutch, French and English settlers, who founded colonies along the coasts of India as well as inland.  Although the European colonists reached India by sea, the first Greek immigrants followed a different route.  The prevalence of Islam over the immense area which stretches from Bangladesh to the extreme limits of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans favoured travel by land either in caravans, or independently, along the great trade routes connecting India with various Greek, Armenian and Hebraic cities.  Various chroniclers mention Greek merchants, carrying their merchandise, travelling from central and western India to Smyrna, Cappadocia, Constantinople, Andrianoupolis and Philippoupolis.

The first Greek immigrants who sought their fortunes outside the limits of the Islamic world, at British held Bengal, arrived by land, mainly from the Thracian cities of Andrianoupolis and Philippoupolis, at the start of the eighteenth century.  These Greek settlers probably had business connections in other areas of central India which were, at the time, under moslem rule but chose to settle in Christian-held Bengal, where they enjoyed greater freedom and financial rewards.  The founding of British India opened the way to new immigrants who arrived either by land or by sea from Thrace, the Aegean and Ionian islands, Epirus, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Egypt and Constantinople. 

British publications of the time give us information about the life of Panayotis Alexander Argyree, the founder of the first Greek community and principal donor for the establishment of the Holy Church of Transfiguration.  They also give us reports regarding the first priests who were sent to Calcutta from the monastery of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai.  Other information concerning the Greek community of Bengal is found in journals and travelogues published from time to time in Greek newspapers and magazines.  Further important historical research, to which the author refers to, comes from Prof. Spyros Loukatos and the authors Paul B. Norris and A. Mango.  Dr. Helen Habadzi, Education Specialist at the World Bank, published an article about the Dacca Memorial and compiled detailed lists of the names and particulars of the Greeks who died in Bengal and were buried in the Calcutta and Dacca cemeteries.  Several scholars (S.A. Schulz, Maria Burgi-Kyriazi, Sarandos Kargakos, Demetrios Vassiliades) have done detailed research on the life and work of the Greek Indologist, Dimitrios Galanos, giving, at the same time, information regarding the Calcutta community, where Galanos taught the merchants’ children for six years before retiring to the Holy City of Benares.

To the history of the Greek community, as told in the existing bibliography, Dione Dodis adds fresh data using a novel and many-sided approach.  She makes use of personal interviews with the surviving Greek expatriates who lived not only in Bengal but who were scattered all over the Indian subcontinent.  Undoubtedly, personal experiences constitute the most reliable source of historical information and it is, at the same time, the hardest to find.  In this way, the author makes an invaluable contribution as she records unsparingly, before they are lost, the memories of the last surviving members of the Greek community of India.  Which were the most outstanding expatriate families?  Which were their most significant memories?  How did they relate to the Indians and the other European expatriates?  For what reasons were they, finally, obliged to quit their lucrative jobs in India and to return home, or to settle in other countries?  These are some of the many questions to which Dione endeavours to give answers in her book.  Besides describing the main historical events that influenced the life and works of the Greeks in India, the author devotes two chapters of her book to the prestigious Chian family of Rallis who founded the most flourishing mercantile firm of India (Ralli Brothers) and thus provided employment to a large number of Greeks.  In less detail, she mentions the works of other commercial firms dealing mainly with tobacco and medicaments.  In the Epilogue of her book, Dione relates the last great contribution of the Greeks in the Indian subcontinent, that of the architectural firm Doxiades Associates, who were commissioned by the Pakistani government to construct a great number of government and educational complexes in West and East Pakistan, including the design of the new capital of Pakistan, Islamabad.

Dione Marcos-Dodis presents the material she collected with the rightful satisfaction of a worthy descendant of those bygone Greeks.  Her concise and informative narrative gives a complete social history of  the Greeks of India and the rich photographic material she collected adds a vivid picture to the life of that community.  “The Life and Works of the Greeks in India” is both history and an eye-opener, awakening the interest of the most indifferent reader.  Undoubtedly, the history of the Greeks of India will be further elucidated with time, as researchers continue working in Greek, British and Indian archives but Dione’s book will remain an important source of information to those interested in studying the history not only of the Greeks of India but of the Greek diaspora in general.