For decades, Europeans including the Portuguese were looking for a sea route to India from Europe while encountering attacks from the Islamic naval forces, losing thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks. The Red Sea trade route was monopolised by Islamic rulers from which they earned immense revenues. In the fifteenth century, the mantle of Christendom’s resistance to Islam fell on the Portuguese who had inherited the Genoese tradition of exploration.
Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) was obsessed with the idea of finding a sea route from one ocean to another. He was also keen to find a way to circumvent the Muslim domination of the eastern Mediterranean and all the routes that connected India to Europe.
In 1454, the stage was set for the Portuguese incursions into the waters surrounding India when Pope Nicholas V conferred a papal bull on Henry which gave him the right to navigate the “sea to the distant shores of the Orient”, more specifically “as far as India”, whose inhabitants were to be brought to help Christians “against the enemies of the faith”. And the pagans, wherever they might be who were “not yet afflicted with the plague of Islam” were to be given the “knowledge of the name of Christ.” By the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), all new territories were divided between Spain and Portugal.
In 1487, the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomew Dias, rounded the “Cape of Good Hope”, and so opened the sea route to India.
On July 8, 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460s – December 24, 1524), left Lisbon. with a fleet of four ships and a crew of 170 men. On May 20, 1498, his fleet arrived in Kappadu near Kozhikode (Calicut) on Malabar Coast. He was the first European mariner to reach India by sea.
The sovereign of Calicut, Manavikraman Raja, the Saamoothiri (or Zamorin) of Kozhikode (Calicut), greeted Vasco da Gama with traditional hospitality, that included a grand procession of at least 3,000 armed Nairs.
Vasco da Gama brought gifts from King Dom Manuel of Portugal to the Zamorin: four capotes or cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares (we do not know what those were; might have been a veils with fringes used to decorate altars), a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey. There was no gold or silver.
The Zamorin and his court roared with laughter at the trivial gifts offered by the Portuguese. The Muslim merchants in Calicut who considered the Portuguese as their rival suggested that Vasco da Gama was just an ordinary pirate and not a royal ambassador.
Despite the objections of the Arab merchants who were already trading in Calicut, Gama managed to secure a letter of concession for trading rights from the Zamorin. However, Vasco da Gama’s request to leave a factor behind him in charge of the merchandise he could not sell was turned down by the Zamorin who instead ordered that da Gama pay customs duty in gold like any other trader.
The Zamorin’s officials detained a few Portuguese agents of da Gama as security for payment which strained the relationship between the Zamorin and Vasco da Gama. Annoyed by this royal constraint, Vasco da Gama kidnapped a few Nairs and sixteen Mukkuva fishermen.
Somehow, probably by stealing, da Gama filled the holds of his ships with loot, mostly spices, worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.
In spite of all these shortcomings, Vasco da Gama’s ships finally reached Lisbon on either August 29, September 8 or September 18, 1499 (sources differ).
On September 13, 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese nobleman, military commander, navigator and explorer often regarded as among the first Europeans to discover Brazil reached Calicut. He traded pepper and other spices. After negotiations, he established a feitoria (factory/trading post) in Calicut.
Instigated by the Arb merchants, the locals conducted a surprise attack on the Portuguese feitoria at Calicut resulting in the death of more than fifty Portuguese. Outraged by the attack on the feitoria, Cabral seized ten Arab merchant ships anchored in the harbour and killed about six hundred of their crew. After confiscating their cargo he burned the ships. He then ordered his ships to bombard Calicut for an entire day in retaliation for the violation of the agreement.
On October 30, 1502, Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut for the second time with 15 ships and 800 men and signed a treaty with the willing ruler. This time, Gama made a request to expel all Muslims (Arabs) from Calicut but his call was vehemently turned down. So, Gama bombarded the city of Calicut and captured several rice vessels. He returned to Portugal in September 1503.
On March 25, 1505, Francisco de Almeida was appointed Viceroy of India. He left Portugal with a fleet of 22 vessels with 1,500 men.
On September 13, 1505, Francisco de Almeida reached Anjadip Island, where he immediately started the construction of Fort Anjediva. And then with the permission of the friendly ruler of Cannanore, he started building St. Angelo Fort at Cannanore, on October 23.
When Francisco de Almeida reached Cochin on October 31, 1505, he learned that the Portuguese traders at Quilon had been killed. He sent his son Lourenço de Almeida with 6 ships, who destroyed 27 Calicut vessels in the harbour of Quilon. Almeida took up residence in Cochin. He strengthened the Portuguese fortifications of Fort Manuel on Cochin.
The Zamorin of Calicut assembled a large fleet of 200 ships to oppose the Portuguese. However, in March 1506, Lourenço de Almeida was victorious in a sea battle at the entrance to the harbour of Cannanore which was an important setback for the fleet of the Zamorin.
In Cannanore, however, a new ruler, hostile to the Portuguese and friendly with the Zamorin, attacked the Portuguese garrison, leading to the Siege of Cannanore.
In 1507 the arrival of Tristão da Cunha’s squadron strengthened Almeida’s mission.
In March 1508, a Portuguese squadron under command of Lourenço de Almeida was attacked by a joint Mameluk Egyptian and Gujarat Sultanate fleet at Chaul and Dabul respectively, led by admirals Mirocem and Meliqueaz in the Battle of Chaul. Lourenço de Almeida lost his life after a fierce fight in this battle.
The Paravars, along with Mukkuvar and Karaiyars are the oldest groups of the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. These three seafaring-related social groups are regionally distributed and are predominantly found in the Pearl Fishery Coasts on both sides of the Gulf of Mannar with each group dominating a certain coastal belt. Moreover, there has been significant intermarriages among the Paravar, Mukkuvar, and Karaiyar castes.
Prior to the 16th century, the 60 or more hamlets, villages and towns on the Coromandel Coast were solely occupied by the Hindu Paravars interspersed with villages occupied by Muslim Paravars. There were also Paravar settlements located away from the coastal areas. On the Sri Lankan side, the Paravars inhabited the coastal areas from Jaffna to Negombo.
The Parava pearl harvesters were forever exposed to the dangers of hostile sea creatures such as sharks, underwater currents, surface waves, drowning as a result of shallow water blackout on resurfacing; and when the divers climb back on board, the water coming out of their noses and ears is tinted with blood. They generally don’t live to advanced age: their vision weakens, ulcers break out in their eyes, sores form on their bodies, and some are even stricken with apoplexy on the ocean ﬂoor.
In his book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World, the French novelist Jules Gabriel Verne writes about the perils encountered by the pearl oyster harvesters of the Pearl Fishery Coast in the Gulf of Mannar. Though the book published in 1870 is fiction, Jules Verne’s description in Chapters 2 and 3 about the hazards encountered by the Parava pearl harvesters in the Gulf of Mannar is real.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2 – A New Proposition from Captain Nemo
I went looking in the library for a book about this island, one of the most fertile in the world. Sure enough, I found a volume entitled Ceylon and the Singhalese by H. C. Sirr, Esq. Reentering the lounge, I first noted the bearings of Ceylon, on which antiquity lavished so many different names. It was located between latitude 5 degrees 55’ and 9 degrees 49’ north, and between longitude 79 degrees 42’ and 82 degrees 4’ east of the meridian of Greenwich; its length is 275 miles; its maximum width, 150 miles; its circumference, 900 miles; its surface area, 24,448 square miles, in other words, a little smaller than that of Ireland.
Just then Captain Nemo and his chief officer appeared.
The captain glanced at the chart. Then, turning to me: “The island of Ceylon,” he said, “is famous for its pearl fisheries. Would you be interested, Professor Aronnax, in visiting one of those fisheries?”
“Fine. It’s easily done. Only, when we see the fisheries, we’ll see no fishermen. The annual harvest hasn’t yet begun. No matter. I’ll give orders to make for the Gulf of Mannar, and we’ll arrive there late tonight.”
The captain said a few words to his chief officer who went out immediately. Soon the Nautilus reentered its liquid element, and the pressure gauge indicated that it was staying at a depth of thirty feet.
With the chart under my eyes, I looked for the Gulf of Mannar. I found it by the 9th parallel off the northwestern shores of Ceylon. It was formed by the long curve of little Mannar Island. To reach it we had to go all the way up Ceylon’s west coast.
“Professor,” Captain Nemo then told me, “there are pearl fisheries in the Bay of Bengal, the seas of the East Indies, the seas of China and Japan, plus those seas south of the United States, the Gulf of Panama and the Gulf of California; but it’s off Ceylon that such fishing reaps its richest rewards. No doubt we’ll be arriving a little early. Fishermen gather in the Gulf of Mannar only during the month of March, and for thirty days some 300 boats concentrate on the lucrative harvest of these treasures from the sea. Each boat is manned by ten oarsmen and ten fishermen. The latter divide into two groups, dive in rotation, and descend to a depth of twelve meters with the help of a heavy stone clutched between their feet and attached by a rope to their boat.”
“You mean,” I said, “that such primitive methods are still all that they use?”
“All,” Captain Nemo answered me, “although these fisheries belong to the most industrialized people in the world, the English, to whom the Treaty of Amiens granted them in 1802.”
“Yet it strikes me that diving suits like yours could perform yeoman service in such work.”
“Yes, since those poor fishermen can’t stay long underwater. On his voyage to Ceylon, the Englishman Percival made much of a Kaffir who stayed under five minutes without coming up to the surface, but I find that hard to believe. I know that some divers can last up to fifty-seven seconds, and highly skilful ones to eighty-seven; but such men are rare, and when the poor fellows climb back on board, the water coming out of their noses and ears is tinted with blood. I believe the average time underwater that these fishermen can tolerate is thirty seconds, during which they hastily stuff their little nets with all the pearl oysters they can tear loose. But these fishermen generally don’t live to advanced age: their vision weakens, ulcers break out on their eyes, sores form on their bodies, and some are even stricken with apoplexy on the ocean floor.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a sad occupation, and one that exists only to gratify the whims of fashion. But tell me, captain, how many oysters can a boat fish up in a workday?”
“About 40,000 to 50,000. It’s even said that in 1814 when the English government went fishing on its own behalf, its divers worked just twenty days and brought up 76,000,000 oysters.”
“At least,” I asked, “the fishermen are well paid, aren’t they?” “Hardly, professor. In Panama, they make just $1.00 per week. In most places they earn only a penny for each oyster that has a pearl, and they bring up so many that have none!”
“Only one penny to those poor people who make their employers rich! That’s atrocious!”
“On that note, professor,” Captain Nemo told me, “you and your companions will visit the Mannar oysterbank, and if by chance some eager fisherman arrives early, well, we can watch him at work.”
“That suits me, captain.”
“By the way, Professor Aronnax, you aren’t afraid of sharks, are you?”
“Sharks?” I exclaimed.
In some regions of the Pearl Fishery Coast in southern India, pearl oysters could be found on shoals at a depth of 5–7 feet (1.325–2 meters) from the surface, and in the pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar at depths ranging from 30 feet to 90 feet (9 to 27 metres). However, divers had to go 40 feet (12 meters) or even up to 125 feet (40 meters) deep to find enough pearl oysters, and these deep dives were extremely hazardous to the divers. The pearl-divers had no technology to aid their survival at such depths.
Some pearl-divers greased their bodies to conserve heat and inserted greased cotton in their ears. Some wore a tortoise-shell clip to close their nostrils. Many divers gripped a large heavy object such as a rock to descend to avoid the wasteful effort of swimming down.
The Parava pearl harvesters dived down to the seabeds on the ocean floor to gather the pearl oysters or mussels. The oysters were then brought to the surface, opened, and the tissues searched. To find at least 3-4 quality pearls more than a ton of oysters need to be searched.
Like Jules Verne, Captain James Steuart, Master Attendant at Colombo, in his book Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon (1834) describes a typical pearl-diving session:
The crew of a boat consists of a tindal or master, ten divers, and thirteen other men, who manage the boat, and attend the divers when ﬁshing; each boat has ﬁve diving stones, the ten divers relieving each other so that ﬁve divers are constantly at work during the hours of ﬁshing.
The weight of the diving-stones varies from ﬁfteen to twentyﬁve pounds, according to the size of the diver; some stout men ﬁnd it necessary to have from four to eight pounds of Stone in a waist belt, to enable them to keep at the bottom of the sea till they have ﬁlled their net with oysters: the form of a. diving-stone resembles a pine, and it is suspended by a double cord.
The net is of coir-rope yarns, eighteen inches deep, fastened to a hoop eighteen inches wide, fairly slung to a single cord. On preparing to commence ﬁshing, the diver divests himself of all his clothes except a small piece of cloth; after offering up his devotions, he plunges into the sea, and swims to his diving-stone, which his attendants have hung over the side of the boat; he then places his right foot or toes between the double cord on the divingostone, and the bight of the double cord being passed over a stick projecting from the side of the boat, he is enabled, by grasping all parts of the rope, to support himself and the stone, and raise or lower the latter for his own convenience, while he remains at the surface; he then puts his left foot on the hoop of the net, and presses it against the diving-stone, retaining the cord in his hand; the attendants taking care that the cords are clear for running out of the boat.
The diver being thus prepared, he raises his body as much as he is able, drawing a full breath, and pressing his nostrils between his thumb and ﬁnger, he slips his hold of the bight of the diving stone double cord, from over the projecting stick, and descends as rapidly as the stone will sink him.
On reaching the bottom, he abandons the stone (which is hauled up by the attendants to be ready to take him down again) clings to the ground, and commences ﬁlling his net: to accomplish this, he will sometimes creep over a space of eight or ten fathoms, and, remain under water a minute; when he wishes to ascend, he checks the cord of the net, which is instantly felt by the attendants, who begin hauling up as fast as they are able; the diver remains with the net until it is so far clear of the bottom as to be in no danger of upsetting: he then pulls himself up by the cord; which his attendants are likewise pulling, and when by these means his body has acquired an impetus upwards, he forsakes the cord, places his hands to his thighs, rapidly ascends to the surface, swims to his diving-stone, and by the time the contents of his net have been emptied into the boat, is ready to go down again. A single diver will take up in a day from one thousand to four thousand oysters.
They seldom remain above a minute underwater: the more common time is from ﬁfty-three to ﬁftyseven seconds; but when requested to remain as long as possible, I have timed them from eighty-four to eighty-seven seconds: they are warned of the time to ascend by a singing noise in the ears, and ﬁnally by a sensation similar to hiccough.
Many divers will not venture down until the shark-charmer is on the bank, and has secured the mouths of the sharks: while some are provided with a written charm from their priests, which they wrap up in oil-cloth perfectly secure from the water, and dive with it on their persons. … This worthy man is paid by the government and is also allowed a perquisite (bonus) of ten oysters from every boat daily during the ﬁshery.
The hazardous, ritually polluting traditional work of the Paravars such as harvesting pearl oysters and deep sea fishing required courage, resourcefulness, strength and other survival skills. Though they were hardened adventurers, they were also threatened and oppressed by stronger predators coming from inland fortresses or from deep-water fleets manned by Arab and Lebbais (Tamil Muslim Paravars). The latter constantly threatened, raided, pillaged or enslaved the Paravars.
The claim that the Paravars were warriors under the liege of Pandyan emperors is in a certain way true because the Paravars of the Pear Fishery Coast did have armies to protect the fisheries and their people from the attacking Arabs and the Tamil Muslim Paravars.
An Account of the Pearl Fishery in the Gulph of Manar in March and April 1797, H.J. Le Beck, Philosophical Magazine, Series 1, Vol. 5, No. 20, pp. 335-350, (1800). An early description of pearl fishing is given. The same article was published in: A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Vol. 3, (March), pp. 542-547 and Vol. 4, (April), pp. 21-27, (1801).
The Pearl Fishery, R. Percival. “An Account of the Island of Ceylon”, C. and R. Baldwin, London, Chap. 3, pp. 59-73, (1803). A description of pearl fishery and of the means used to recover pearls.
Particulars of the Pearl Fishery in the Bay of Condatschy, Author unknown, Select Reviews of Literature and Spirit of Foreign Magazines, Vol. 8, no. 45, pp. 250-254, (1812). Description of the pearl fishery based on a French account of a voyage to Ceylon made between 1790 and 1800.
Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon, James Steuart, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 3, pp. 452-462, (1835). Description of the pearl fisheries around the Gulf of Manar and the means used to recover pearls.
The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon, P.L. Simmonds, Simmonds’s Colonial Magazine, Vol. 3, pp. 127-135, (1844). Descriptions are given of the pearl fisheries.
On the Natural History of the Cingalese Pearl Oyster and on the Production of Pearls, W.S. Dallas, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Ser. 3, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 81-100, (1858). A description is given of the pearl fishery and of pearl formation in oysters.
“Ceylon − An Account of the Island”, J.E. Tennent, Vol. 2, Pt. 9, Chap. 7, pp. 560-566, Longman Green Longman Roberts, London, (1860). A brief description of the method used to recover pearl oysters off the coast of Ceylon.
The Tinnevelly Pearl Fishery, C.R. Markham, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 15, No. 747, pp. 256-260 (1867). The report of a public lecture on the pearl fishery by an individual who inspected the location in 1866, including a summary of the history of the area. Also by the same author:
Pearl Fisheries, E.I.N. Sammler, Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 7, pp. 408-409, (1874). A brief description is given of the Ceylon pearl fishery.
The Fisheries of Southern India, J.A. Boyle, The Calcutta Review, Vol. 62, No. 124, pp. 239-255, (1876). The author describes a fishery area along the south-east coast of India.
Pearls and Pearl Fisheries, W.H. Dall, American Naturalist, Vol. 7, No. 7, pp. 731-745, (1883). A description is provided of the pearl fishery, with the comment that pearl recovery was being carried out exactly as it was in the time of the Romans, 2,000 years before.
“Pearls and Pearling Life”, E.W. Streeter, George Bell & Sons, London, pp. 186-209, (1886). The author gives general information on pearls and a description of the Ceylon pearl fishery.
The Tuticorin Pearl Fishery, E. Thurston, Nature Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 1025, pp. 174-176, (1889). A description is given of the pearl fishery near the coastal town of Tuticorin in southern India.
“Notes on the Pearl and Chank Fisheries and Marine Fauna of the Gulf of Manaar”, E. Thurston, Government Central Museum, Madras, 116 pp., (1890). The author gives a technical description of the pearl fishery
The Arab invasion of northern India began in 712 AD at the Sindh Valley and by 1300 AD they had subjugated entire northern India.
The Muhammadan Invasion from the north
Bishop R. Caldwell in his work “History of Tinnevelly” says in Chapter II, page 44:
The Muhammadans appeared in the Dekhan in 1295, when Alauud-din took Devagiri.
On October 21, 1296, Alauddin Khilji was formally proclaimed as the Sultan in Delhi. Alauddin’s slave-general Malik Kafur led multiple campaigns to the south of the Vindhyas: Devagiri (1308 AD), Warangal (1310 AD) and Dwarasamudra (1311 AD) forcing the Yadava king Ramachandra, the Kakatiya king Prataparudra, and the Hoysala king Ballala III to become Alauddin’s tributaries.
In 1310 AD, the Pandya kingdom was reeling under a war of succession between the two brothers Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III and Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, sons of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. In the middle of 1310 Veera Pandyan with the help of his army vanquished Sundara Pandyan who then took refuge in Delhi under the protection of Sultan Alauddin Khilji.
During March–April 1311, taking advantage of the fraternal feud for succession to the throne, Malik Kafur raided several places in the Pandya kingdom, including the capital Madurai and plundered and appropriated all the riches there—diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies, gold, elephants etc.
After Kafur’s departure to Delhi, the Pandya brothers Sundara Pandyan and Veera Pandyan resumed their conflict which resulted in the defeat of Sundara Pandyan, who again decided to seek the assistance of Alauddin Khilji.
Alauddin again sent his army under Malik Kafur to subjugate Veera Pandyan. Malik Kafur entered Madurai and penetrated the Coromandel Coast with his army.
Amir Khusru, the court-poet of Alauddin Khilji who had accompanied Malik Kafur in his expeditions to the Pandya kingdoms refers to some Muslims who had been subjects of the Pandya kings and their wish to join Malik Kafur’s ranks. Kafur pardoned and accepted them into his ranks as they could recite the ‘Kalima’, the profession of faith, though they were ‘half Hindus’ and not so strict in their religious observances. Amir Khusru’s remark about they being ‘half Hindus’ can be surmised as “recent converts to Islam” who would not have abandoned their Tamil culture in dress, manners, language, etc., but Islam would have become central to their lives, given their capacity to recite the Kalima.
This brings out the fact that local Muslim communities had struck strong roots in the Tamil country by the fourteenth century. As Amir Khusru does not mention anything about their Arab ancestry, it could be reasonably concluded that a good number of them were local Hindu Tamils of various castes including the Hindu Paravars converted to Islam and many of whom would have served in the Pandya army, probably under the inﬂuence of Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, who in addition to being appointed by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.
By 1314, with help of Alauddin Khilji’s forces, Sundara Pandyan re-established his rule in the South Arcot region.
Later, during the reign of Alauddin’s son Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah Khilji , his slave general Khusrau Khan raided the Pandya territories. Over the next two decades, the northern part of the Pandya kingdom was captured by the Mohammedans, first under the control of the Tughluq dynasty, and later became part of the short-lived Madurai Sultanate. However, the southernmost part of the Pandya territory where the Paravar community lived remained independent.
The Muhammadans from Kerala
Even prior to the Arab invasion of northern India, there were Middle Eastern Arab traders in Calicut, Quilon and Malabar in southern India. This region was in the major sea trade route running through south-east Asia and on to China. The Arabs traded spices, cotton, precious stones and pearls. Some of these Arabs were also pearl divers who had gained their experience in the waters of the Persian Gulf.
The Zamorins (Malayalam: സാമൂതിരി/സാമൂരി / Samoothiri) – originally Eradis of Nediyirippu (Eranadu) were based at the city of Kozhikode, one of the important trading ports on the south-western coast of India. In the early 12th century, after the fall of the Cheras of Cranganore (Kodungallur), the Zamorins asserted their political independence. At the peak of their reign, the Zamorin’s ruled over a region from Kollam (Quilon) to Panthalayini Kollam. They maintained elaborate trade relations with the Middle-Eastern Arab sailors who plied the Indian Ocean and patronized them. Hence, the evolution of Kozhikode as a trading centre of international repute.
The Zamorins were not antagonistic towards the local Hindu converts to Islam. In fact, the Mappila community, the foremost among the Muslim communities of Kerala is traced back to the Arab merchants who settled at the seaports of Kerala who by marrying the native low caste Hindu women, made possible a constant increase in the Muslim population. This fact is confirmed by the 16th-century writer Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer and officer from Portuguese India who says in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), that the Moors of Malabar married as many wives as they could support and kept many concubines of low caste (of the Tiyan or Mukkuwa caste) as well. If they had children from these alliances, they made them Moors. He also makes it clear that one-fifth of the total population of Kozhikode belonged to the Muslim community whose settlements were situated adjacent to the port and shores.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the powerful seafaring Arabs having the support of the local South Indian rulers like the Zamorin of Calicut coerced the under-privileged Tamil Paravars of the caste-ridden Hindu society to embrace Islam. They converted a significant number of Paravars to Islam through preaching and by marrying Tamil Paravar women, thus giving rise to a new generation – the Muslim Paravars.
The descendants of these Muslim Paravars became known as the Lebbais and their main settlement was the town of Kayal. Kayal is the Tamil word for a backwater.
In 1292, Marco Polo described Kayal as a bustling port and the centre of the pearl trade. The town of Kayal was known to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India in 1497 by sea. Duarte Barbosa, mentions Kayal in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), one of the earliest examples of Portuguese travel literature.
By the mid-16th century, the port at Kayal probably ceased to operate and was replaced by another port, Punnaikayal (new Kayal) under the influence of the Portuguese colonists. Punnaikayal was at the mouth of the river, which as part of an estuary was under constant change, around 4 km from Palayakayal (old Kayal). It is difficult to determine with any consistency which of these locations is being referred to at various times by various authors but what does appear to be a common factor is that this was until modern times a major port for the pearl trade.
Kayalpattanam, Kulasekaranpattanam and Kilakkarai were the main villages of the Tamil Muslim Paravars.
There are different methods of assessment to understand any particular society. For example, in accordance with their respective academic and social backgrounds the anthropologists, ethnologists, and sociologists all attempt to study and understand communities. However, a complete understanding of any given community is impossible without taking its historical background and it requires an unbiased and unprejudiced approach. The writing of this series on the Paravars has been motivated by such a sense of responsibility.
As south India is situated along the ancient maritime trade routes that connected Europe and West Asia with the Indian subcontinent and East Asia, it was but natural that the ancient Tamil literature is replete with references to foreigners such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and the Chinese.
In his work on ancient India, Ptolemy who appears to have resided in Alexandria during the ﬁrst half of the second century AD had identified Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) and the Gulf of Mannar as a centre of pearl ﬁshery. He had also mentioned that Korkai, the ancient Tamil port city to the east of Kanyakumari, as the cynosure of pearl trade.
An Arabic work of the tenth century, Adja’ibAl-Hind, refers to a merchant from Alexandria known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, who sailed to south India in the sixth century AD before Egypt was Arabised or Islamised.
To the pre-Islamic Arabs, ports and towns in South India, Ceylon, and south-east Asia were along their trade routes to China. In ancient Tamil literature, the pre-Islamic Arabs along with the Greeks, Romans, Persians and Jews, who had ﬂed their homes in West Asia, were frequently referred to as Yavanas.
In the seventh century AD, the Islamic political-cum-religious revolution, based on the principle of equality that swept across Arabia opened a new chapter in world history. Very soon, parts of the world stretching from Spain to Arabia and from Arabia to China, Persia, and Sind in the Indian sub-continent, came under the influence of the revolutionary wave of Islam.
Among the early Islamised Arab travellers who sailed to India in the 9th-century was Sulaiman al-Tajir. He was a merchant, traveller and writer initially from Siraf in modern-day Iran. He made several voyages from the Persian Gulf to the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and China and wrote an account of his voyages around ad 850 AD.
J. B. Prashant More in his book “Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu” writes that Abu Zeyed Al Hassan of Siraf, though he had never set foot on Indian soil, edited and completed the work of Sulaiman al-Tajir by gathering information from merchants and travellers who had been to India and that he has left us a vivid account of certain social and political conditions of southern India and Ceylon.
According to Abu Zeyed in the densely populated country called ‘Al-Comary’, which has been identiﬁed as Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), the inhabitants went barefoot, abstained from licentiousness and from all sorts of wine, and that ‘nothing indecent’ was to be seen in this region. However, Abu Zeyed mentions the ‘Devadasi’ custom that was prevalent in the country, where some females were consecrated to the gods and such females were allowed to have sexual relationships with foreigners in exchange for money.
Also, Abu Zeyed notes that the men and women of Ceylon were extreme licentious and even the king’s daughter did not hesitate to ﬂirt with a newly arrived Arab merchant, with the full knowledge of the king. On account of such sexual permissiveness, Arab merchants of integrity avoided sending their vessels to Ceylon, especially when there were young men on board.
Neither Sulaiman nor Abu Zeyed refer to the presence of Tamil Muslim communities of mixed descent or otherwise, during the 9th-century. However, there is a strong possibility, though it cannot be clearly ascertained, whether relationships either with the women of the Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar or with the Devadasis of the Kanyakumari country resulted in offspring of mixed Arab-Indian descent.
Both Ibn Khurdadba (d. 912 AD), the famous Arabian traveller, historian and geographer who converted to Islam and the Arab historian Al Masudi (896–956), who were contemporaries of Abu Zeyed have nothing more to add to our knowledge of the origin of Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast. However, Ibn Khurdadba noted that in the country of Kumar (Kanyakumari), both drinking wine and fornication were unlawful.
During the second half of the tenth century, neither did the Persian writer, Al-Istakhri (d. 957 AD), nor the Arab Muslim writer Ibn Hawqal (d. 978 AD), who spent the last 30 years of his life traveling to remote parts of Asia and Africa, shed any light on the Tamil Muslims of the Coromandel coast.
In the 9th century, Southern India came under the control of the Cholas but around the mid-1200s, after a series of battles reverted back to the control of the Pandyan kings.
The 9th century Tamil classic Thiruvasakam written by Manikkavasagar does not shed any light on the Tamil Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast but mentions the Arab horse traders. that was carried on in the Tamil country with the Arabs.
Though the 12th century Tamil classic Periya Puranam written by the great poet Sekkilar does not mention the presence of Tamil Muslims on the Coromandel coast, we nevertheless find in it many references to ships, merchants and the conservative nature of the then Tamil society.
The earliest available written records by a foreigner about the Tamils of the southern coast are the accounts of Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian traveller, merchant, explorer, and writer. In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a merchant ship he entered the kingdom of the Tamil Pandyas on the Coromandel coast. His accounts reveal that the most powerful sovereign of the Indian sub-continent of that period was Nasiruddin Mahmud, the Turkish Sultan of Delhi and though both Sind and Bengal acknowledged his supremacy, no part of south India was under his control.
King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I
During the middle part of the 13th century, the Pandya kingdom was ruled by many princes of the royal line. This practice of shared rule with one prince asserting primacy over the others was common in the Pandyan Kingdom.
Between 1268–1308/1310 AD, the Pandyan king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I ruled most of the regions of the Pandya kingdom by asserting his primacy over other princes of the Pandyan royal family. The other co-rulers of the Pandiyan kingdom were Jatavarman Vira Pandyan I (ruled 1253-1275 AD), Maravarman Vikkiraman III (acceded 1283 AD) and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan II (acceded 1277 CE).
In Sri Lanka, Bhuvanaika Bahu I, the king of Dambadeniya who reigned from 1272 to 1284 AD moved his capital northward to Yapahuwa, lying midway between Kurunegala and Anuradhapura for security. The citadel Yapahuwa was built around a huge isolated granite rock rising abruptly almost a hundred meters above the surrounding lowlands which he strengthened with ramparts and trenches. The fortress was also known as Subhagiri as the rock was used by a military officer named Subha before King Bhuvenekabahu converted into his citadel.
In the late 1270s, King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan sent an expedition to Sri Lanka headed by his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti who defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He then plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan”s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.
Sri Lanka was under Pandyan Suzerainty for the next twenty years and regained its independence only in 1308 AD.
The Persian historian Abdulla Wassaf of Shiraz claims that an Arab Muslim named Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, son of Muhammadut Tibi was appointed by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser, he was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.
In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a typical merchant ship the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo arrived on the Coromandel Coast of India. Marco Polo refers to king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I as the “eldest of five brother kings“. His accounts reveal that the hitherto independent kingdoms of southern India were as yet untouched by foreign conquest and the gold accumulated through the ages lay in their temples and treasuries, making them easy prey for any invader.
Marco Polo identiﬁed the port at Kayal under the control of king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan. Ships from the Islamised countries of Hormuz, Kis, Dofar and Soer, Aden and the other Arabic countries touched Kayal, carrying merchandise and horses. Foreign merchants, mostly Arabs and Persians, were well received and treated with fairness by the ruler of Kayal who might have been Takiuddin Abdur Rahman.
In 1296 AD, Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, the illegitimate but favourite older son of Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan associated himself with the government. Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III, the legitimate younger son attained to that dignity sometime in 1302 AD.
Sundara Pandyan felt discontented by the preference given to Veera Pandyan by his father by advancing him to the position of co-regency. According to Muslim historians, Wassaf and Amir Khusrow, in 1310 AD, Sundara Pandyan killed his father Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan in a moment of rashness and placed the crown on his head in the city of Madurai. With the support of the troops loyal to him, he moved a part of the royal treasures to the city of Mankul (must be one of the Mangalams, Méla Mangalam or Kila Mangalam, in the western hills, not far from Madura and quite close to Periyakulam.)
The death of King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan led to a long protracted war between his sons Veera Pandyan and Sundara Pandyan that lasted from 1308 to 1323. During a skirmish, both the brothers ﬂed from the battle ﬁeld, each ignorant of the fate of the other but Veera Pandyan being unfortunate, and having been wounded, seven elephant loads of the gold fell to the army of Sundara Pandyan.
Until then, during Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan’s rule which extended over forty years, neither any foreign enemy entered his kingdom, nor any severe malady conﬁned him to bed.
Until then, the Paravar community lived and traded their catch of fish and natural pearl oysters in peace and prospered.
In Chapters 1 and 2, I dealt with the Hindu myths and the Jewish lore respectively that were readily accepted and endorsed by the affluent Paravars, who wish to remove the stigma placed on the occupation of their caste namely, fishing, diving for pearls and chanks, and producing salt which were considered “low and ritually polluting occupations.” From this chapter onwards I will be writing about what we know historically and from ancient Tamil literature about the origin of the Paravar community.
From the earliest recorded times, the Paravars were an independent, seafaring people, involved in sea-related activities such as fishing, specializing in the seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chanks, navigation, boat building, and production of sea salt. In ancient times, being seaborne traders, they were occasionally given to piracy and smuggling.
In the Madras Census Report, 1901, it is noted:
… there are in reality three castes which answer to the name Paravan, and which speak Tamil, Malayalam, and Canarese respectively. Probably all three are descended from the Tamil Paravans or Paratavans. The Tamil Paravans are ﬁshermen on the sea coast. Their headquarters is Tuticorin, and their headman is called Talavan … The Malayalam Paravans are shell collectors, lime burners and gymnasts, and their women act as midwives. Their titles are Kurup, Varnkurup, and Nurankurup (nuru, lime). The Canarese Paravans are umbrella-makers and devil- dancers.”
It has been further speculated that the splitting of the latter two groups from the first may have been as a consequence of a desire to flee from the ancient tribal areas in Tinnevelly to avoid the oppression by the Muhammadans.
In the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Volume 4 in Art. V, “Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas” Simon Casie Chitty wrote:
In the classiﬁcation of the Tamil castes, the Parawas rank ﬁrst among the tribes of ﬁshermen, and they are generally allowed to have been the earliest navigators in the Indian Ocean, like the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean. They are described in the Tamil dictionary, entitled Nigundu Sulamani, under the head of Neythanilémakkal, or inhabitants of the sea-coast. In Sanscrit, they are called Parasavas, or Nishadas, and in Tamil, Parathar, Parathavar, and Paravar.
Little is known about the Paravars from the 5th to the 15th century.
Robin Arthur Donkin (1928–2006), an English historian and geographer who in 1990 served as a reader in Historical Geography in Cambridge University’s Department of Geography has argued that with one exception, “there are no native literary works with a developed sense of chronology, or indeed much sense of place, before the thirteenth century”, and that any historical observations have to be made using Arab, European and Chinese accounts.
Pandyan king Arikesari Maravarman (r. c. 670–710 AD), also known as Arikesari Parankusa, ruled parts of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to the Velvikkudi grant (stone inscription), he won battles at Pali, Nelveli, Uraiyur and Sennilam. Except for Uraiyur, the identity of these places is not certain. E. Hultzsch identified Nelveli with modern Tirunelveli. The larger Chinnamanur grant states (stone inscription) that Arikesari Maravarman won battles at Nelveli and Sankaramangai, and also defeated the Pallavas. The inscription further states that he ruined the Paravar (a southern fishing community).
Though works in the Tamil Sangam literature such as Ettuthokai, Paththupaattu, Ahanaanooru, Madurai Kaanchi and Pattinappaalai refer to the lives of the Paravars, there are different views regarding events up to the early 16th century among the investigators of the Paravar history.
Madurai Kaanchi (Tamil: மதுரைக் காஞ்சி), a Tamil poetic work in the Pathinenmaelkanakku anthology of Tamil literature, belonging to the Sangam period (spanning from c. 3rd century BC to c. 3rd century AD) contains 583 lines of poetry written by the poet Mankuti Maruthanaar in praise of the Pandya King Nedunjeliyan II on the occasion of his victory at the battle of Talayanankanam. In this work, the Paravas are described as being most powerful in the country around Korkai:
“Well fed on ﬁsh and armed with bows, their hordes terriﬁed their enemies by their dashing valour.”
Madurai Kaanchi describes Korkai as the chief town in the country of Parathavar and the seat of the pearl ﬁshery, with a population consisting chieﬂy of pearl divers and chank cutters. When the Pandyan kingdom was powerful. the Paravas had grants of certain rights from the monarchy, paying tribute from the produce of the ﬁsheries, and receiving protection and immunity from taxation in return.
Stephen Neill in his work, “A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707” says:
The Paravas lived in a number of villages, perhaps about twenty in all, strung out over a narrow strip of land about a hundred miles in length, from Cape Comorin to Vembar. A hardy race, they live by the sea in two senses of that expression. For most of the year their livelihood is ﬁshing; because of the association of this trade with the taking of life, they are not reckoned by the Hindus as belonging to one of the higher castes. They have developed astonishing skill in the management of their catamarans, each with its single lateen sail. This stern and exacting labour gives them immense physical hardihood and a strength of character which at its best is courage but may take the form of a rather rough aggressiveness. For the most part, the boats remain not far from the shore and return with the off-sea breeze in the evening. But violent tempests can arise and sweep the boats far out of sight of land; every year a number of lives are lost.
What gave variety to Parava life, and importance beyond the local scene was the annual pearl-ﬁshery. The collection of oysters begins in March and lasts for twenty to thirty days. The oyster beds lie at a distance of ﬁve to six miles from the coast. Fantastic tales are told of the length of time that a diver can remain underwater; observation shows that the time is usually not more than a minute, and in no case exceeds a minute and a half. The work is extremely exhausting; by midday, the diver has done his work for the day and is ready to return to shore for the sorting of the catch. In a good season, the proﬁts can be very high; but the man who does the hard work is far from being the only beneﬁciary.
Isaac Rajendran and Freda Chandrasekaran have said in their work “History of the Indian pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar”. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India, that up to the 16th century the Paravars had held almost a monopoly of the rights to exploit the pearl fisheries, having negotiated with successive kings to achieve this.
The Pandyan kings allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of the location of the oyster beds and the art of tending them. The Pandyan kings exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the harvested oysters.
Theodore Maynard in his work “The Odyssey of Francis Xavier” has claimed, the south Indian coastal areas around Kanyakumari were “the greatest pearl fishery in the world”, and that the Hindu people who fished for oysters there “… were known as the Paravas, a caste sufficiently low, although not of the very lowest.”
Although Robert Eric Frykenberg, in his book “Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present” has described them as a “… proud and venturesome seafaring folk engaged in fishing, pearl diving, trading, and piracy,” Adrian Hastings in his book “A World History of Christianity” has pointed out that the piracy (and some smuggling) was only an occasional activity and that their more normal occupations demanded courage, strength and stamina, which made them “hardened adventurers”.
During the reign of the Pandya kings, the Paravars had their headquarters at Korkai harbour and were spread out into several fishing hamlets in the pearl fishery coast of Gulf of Mannar and adjacent Comerin coast:
In some villages, Karaiyars, a sub-sect of Paraiyars, and Mukkuvars also lived along with the Paravars. The Mukkuvars were found mostly in Kanyakumari and in the villages west of it. Members of these three castes – Paravars, Karaiyars and Mukkuvars – on the Fishery Coast were illiterate fisherman and divers who harvested pearl oysters and chanks.
The Paravar fishermen, with dark-brown complexion, wore only a kovanam (loincloth) and a white scarf around their head. Most of them were poor and addicted to intoxicating brews such as coconut toddy and arrack distilled from the juice of the palmyra palm.
Adultery was rampant among the Paravars.
The affluent males Paravars pierced their earlobes and wore heavy pearl-studded gold ear ornaments. Some writers say that a few prosperous Paravars had slaves.
The funeral custom of Sati where a widow immolates (burns) herself on her dead husband’s pyre existed among the Hindu Paravars since they believed that the women who committed Sati would live along with their husbands when reborn. Those women who refused to (immolate) themselves were forced to leave their home and become public women. And those who opposed the custom of Sati, male or female, were killed.
The Paravars were superstitious and the soothsayers and necromancers played a significant role in their lives. They sought the shark charmers to ward off shark attacks during fisheries.
Surprisingly, the Paravars did not slaughter cows for meat.
The Paravars believed the unsubstantiated myth that god Kartikeya, also known as Murugan and Subramanian married a Parava lass named Deivanai and so they had a special affinity to the Murugan Temple at Tiruchendur which is considered as one of the six holy abodes of the deity. During the religious festivals of the temple, the inhabitants of the seven Paravar villages – Manapadu, Alanthalai, Virapandiapattanam, Punnaikaval, Thoothukudi, Vembar and Vaipar – took an active part along with the people of Tiruchendur. The Parava headman of Virapandianpattanam was given the first honour of pulling the vadam (Tamil: வடம்; rope) attached to the ther (Tamil: தேர்; festival car) of the deity during festivals.
Some writers say that the palanquins of the prosperous Paravars of Virapandianpattanam were borne on the shoulders of Idayars (shepherds) who bore the idols of the deities during festivities at the Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur.
The Paravars had a succession of chiefs among them, distinguished by the title ‘Adiarasen‘, later, the leaders were known by titles such as: Thalaivan, Pattankattiyars, Araiyars and Adappannars.
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Volume 4 in Art. V, “Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas” Simon Casie Chitty, Maniyagar of Putlam, Ceylon, M. R.A. S. &c., &c., &c.
Isaac Rajendran and Freda Chandrasekaran, “History of the Indian pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar”. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India. 18 (3): 549–550,
Donkin, Robin A. (1998). “Beyond price: pearls and pearl-fishing: origins to the age of discoveries”. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. 224. ISBN 978-0-87169-224-5.
Maynard, Theodore (1936). The Odyssey of Francis Xavier. Longsman, Green.
Frykenberg, Robert Eric (2008). Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-19-826377-7.
Hastings, Adrian (2000). A World History of Christianity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 166–168. ISBN 978-0-8028-4875-8.
Stephen Neill F.B.A., A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
Library of Congress catalogue card number: 82-23475 ISBN 0 521 24351 3 hardback, ISBN 0 521 54885 3 paperback.
The most ancient sources of pearl, the queen of jewellery,are believed to be the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar that lies between India and Sri Lanka. Pre-historic people of these regions were probably the first to find the first pearls known to mankind, obviously during their quest for food. However, to pinpoint an exact region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began may be difficult.
In 315 BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, pupil and successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school wrote that pearls came from the waters off the coast of India, and certain islands in the Red Sea and in the Sinus Persicus (Persian Gulf).
Megasthenes, the Greek geographer and writer, who accompanied Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator in his Asiatic conquests, visited many regions of India, including Madurai, the capital of the Pandya kingdom. While in southern India, he also learnt about the neighbouring island of Sri Lanka which he called “Taprobane,” and its valuable resources, such as pearls and a variety of gemstones. Subsequently, in his famous work “Indica” he wrote that Taprobane was an important source of large pearls.
The Alexandrian-Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemy ( c. AD 100 – c. 170) wrote about the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, both on the South Indian side and the Sri Lankan side.
The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythrian Sea), written by an unknown Alexandrian-Greek author, in the second half of the 1st-century A.D (approximately 60 A.D.), mentions the route to the east coast of India, is through the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka. It provides an extensive account of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, particularly on the Indian side of the Gulf, and the pearl fishery of Epidprus (Mannar Island) on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf.
The Gulf of Mannar
The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay, a part of the Lakshadweep Sea. It lies between the southeastern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka. The estuaries of the river Thamirabarani of south India and the Malvathu Oya (Malvathu River) of Sri Lanka drain into the Gulf of Mannar.
Geological evidence suggests that in ancient times India and Sri Lanka were connected by land. An 18-miles (30 km) long isthmus composed of limestone shoals, and coral reefs, popularly known as Adam’s Bridge or Rama’s Bridge or Ramsethu, lies between the Rameswaram Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India, and the Mannar Island, off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Adam’s Bridge separates the Gulf of Mannar in the southwest from the Palk Strait in the northeast. The sea in the area is very shallow, only three to 30 feet (1 to 10 metres) deep in places, and hinders navigation. Some of the sandbanks are dry. Some claim that up to the 15th century, Adam’s Bridge was completely above sea level and people travelled between India and Sri Lanka on foot. The bridge they say was breached, fissured and the channel deepened by storms when a cyclone devastated the region in 1480.
In ancient times, this coast was known worldwide for its natural pearls. Greeks, Romans and Arabs sought the beautiful pearls harvested in these waters. From the time of the known history of the Tamils, pearl trading became one of the principal sources of revenue of the Tamil kings.
The bed of the Pearl Fishery Coast in the Gulf of Mannar is a fertile breeding ground for pearl oysters. There were two distinct fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar – one on the South Indian coast, the other on the northwestern Sri Lankan coast.
On the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar, the Pearl Fishery Coast of southern India extended along the Coromandel Coast from Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin). This fishery coast has been known in different periods of time in various languages as the Cholamandalam coast, Colkhic Gulf, Comorin coast, Coromandel coast, Fishery Coast, Kuru-Mandala coast, Ma’bar coast, Paralia, Pescaria, Fishery coast, Tirunelveli coast, Madura coast, etc. The coast took its name from the presence of natural pearls in the bed which is a fertile breeding ground for pearl oysters.
The pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar stretch from the island of Mannar, off the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, south to Chilaw.
The Pearl Fishery Coast in Southern India and in Sri Lanka were predominantly populated by the Paravar caste. The Paravars were fishers, seamen and maritime traders. Majority of the Paravars specialised in the seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chank and for thousands of years.
The Pandyan kings allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of the location of the oyster beds and the art of tending them. The Pandyan kings exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the harvested oysters.
In ancient times, this Pearl Fishery Coast was known worldwide. Greeks, Romans and Arabs sought the beautiful pearls harvested in these waters by the many Parava fisheries that operated to exploit them. From the time of the known history of the Tamils, pearl trading became one of the principal sources of revenue of the Tamil kings. By the first century AD, pearls and shanks were among the important exports from southern India.
In the late 1270s, Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I sent an expedition to Sri Lanka under his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti near the end of the Sri Lankan king Bhuvanaikabâhu I’s reign (1272-1285 AD). Aryachakravarti defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Kulasekaran’s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.
Most historians agree that on later expeditions it was this Arayachakravarti who stayed behind to create the Arayachakravrati dynasty in the Kingdom of Jaffna, and raided the western Sri Lankan coast. From then on, the pearl banks came under the sole dominance of the Aryachakravarti line of kings of Jaffna kingdom.
Political and military leaders of the same family name left a number of inscriptions in the modern-day Tamil Nadu state, with dates ranging from 1272 to 1305, during the late Pandyan Empire. According to contemporary native literature, the family also claimed lineage from the Tamil Brahmins of Rameswaram in the modern Ramanathapuram District of India.
In 1450, a Tamil military leader named Chempaha Perumal under the directive of the Sinhalese king Sapumal Kumaraya of the Kotte kingdom invaded the region which remained under the control of the Kotte kingdom up to 1467. After that, the region once again came under the Jaffna kingdom.
The Arayachakravrati dynasty ruled the Jaffna kingdom from the 13th until the 17th century, when the last ruler of the dynasty, Sankili II, also known as Sankili Kumaran confronted the Portuguese. Thereafter, the entire pearl fishery on both the Sri Lankan and the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar came under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Portuguese.
The pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar were controlled independently of one another, by the Pandya, the Chola or by the regional rulers on the Indian side, and by the Sinhalese or Tamil kings on the Sri Lankan side. Sometimes, the two fisheries came under the jurisdiction of the same authorities, such as the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Portuguese (in 1619), the Dutch (in 1658), and the British (1796), whoever controlled the regions on both sides of the Gulf of Mannar.
Today, most of the Paravars live mainly in and around the seaport towns in the Tirunelveli district in south India and in some of the provinces on the north-west coast of Sri Lanka and are steadfast Roman Catholics. To the affluent Paravars, who wish to remove the stigma placed on the occupation of their caste which was considered “low and ritually polluting occupations,” namely, fishing, diving for pearls and chanks, and producing salt, the following information about Parvaim and Ophir ought to warm their hearts.
In 1873, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Volume 4, Issue 07, January 1837, pp 130-134, a paper submitted by Mudaliyar Simon Casie Chitty (1807-1860), District Judge of Chilaw and Maniagar of Puttalam, Ceylon, a writer of great repute, says:
“In the classification of the Tamil castes, the Parawas rank first among the tribes of fishermen, and they are generally allowed to have been the earliest navigators in the Indian Ocean, like the Phœnicians in the Mediterranean. They are described in the Tamil dictionary, entitled Nigundu Súlamaní, under the head of Neythanílémakkal, or inhabitants of the sea-coast. In Sanscrit, they are called Parasavas, or Nishadas, and in Tamil, Parathar, Parathavar, and Paravar. The author of the Historia Ecclesiastica (published in Tamil, at Tranquebar, in the year 1735), identifies them with the Parvaim of the Scriptures, and adds, that in the time of Solomon they were famous among those who made voyages by sea; but it does not appear that there is any solid foundation for this hypothesis.” (Art. V.—Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas)
Tranquebar is present-day Tharangambadi, founded by the Danish East India Company in 1620.
The word Parvaim occurs only in 2 Chronicles 3:6 in the Bible, as the place from which Solomon obtained gold for decorating his Temple.
He also covered the house with precious stones for splendor; the gold was from Parvaim. (2 Chronicles 3:6)
Some scholars have suggested that Parvaim derives from the Sanskrit word purva, a general term for ‘east’. Whether there was such a place called Parvaim in the East is doubtful.
Some scholars have identified Parvaim with Ophir, but it is uncertain whether it is even the name of a place.
In the Bible (and the Torah) The Books of Kings and Chronicles tell of a joint expedition to Ophir, a port on the Red Sea, by King Solomon and the Tyrian King Hiram I from Eziongeber. They brought back vast amounts of gold, precious stones and almug wood from Ophir:
They went to Ophir, and obtained four hundred and twenty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon. ( 1 Kings 9:28)
Hiram’s fleet, which used to bring gold from Ophir, also brought from there a very large quantity of almug wood and precious stones. ( 1 Kings 10:11)
But now, because of the delight I take in the house of my God, in addition to all that I stored up for the holy house, I give to the house of my God my personal fortune in gold and silver: three thousand talents of Ophir gold, and seven thousand talents of refined silver, for overlaying the walls of the rooms for the various utensils to be made of gold and silver, and for every work that is to be done by artisans. Now, who else will contribute generously and consecrate themselves this day to the LORD?” (1 Chronicles 29:3-5)
The servants of Huram and of Solomon who brought gold from Ophir also brought cabinet wood and precious stones. (2 Chronicles 9:10)
In those times Solomon went to Ezion-geber and to Elath on the seashore of the land of Edom. Huram had his servants send him ships and his own servants, expert seamen; they went with Solomon’s servants to Ophir, and obtained there four hundred and fifty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon. (2 Chronicles 8:17-18)
King Solomon also built a fleet at Ezion-geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea in the land of Edom. To this fleet, Hiram sent his own servants, expert sailors, with the servants of Solomon. They went to Ophir, and obtained four hundred and twenty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28)
Almug (sometimes rendered Algum) is a type of wood referred to in the Hebrew Bible, however, the variety of this wood is unknown. King Solomon constructed the Temple using almug together with cedar and pine. Almug was also used to craft musical instruments for use in the Temple. Likely the wood brought from the distant country of Ophir was very valuable.
There are references to the ‘gold of Ophir’ in several other books of the Bible:
And treat raw gold as dust, the fine gold of Ophir as pebbles in the wadi, (Book of Job 22:24)
Daughters of kings are your lovely wives; a princess arrayed in Ophir’s gold comes to stand at your right hand. (Psalms 45:10)
I will make mortals more rare than pure gold, human beings, than the gold of Ophir. (Isaiah 13:12)
There are specific possibilities that Ophir is in the Southern part of India – a region well-known for gold, ivory and peacocks. In ancient times, sandalwood came almost exclusively from South India.
In a dictionary of the Bible published by Sir William Smith in 1863, Hurd and Houghton, 1863 (1870), a note on page 1441 says that the Hebrew word for peacock Thukki, is derived from the Classical Tamil word Thogkai referring to peacock. Thogkai is just one of the classical Tamil words along with words for ivory, cotton-cloth and apes mentioned in the Torah.
This theory that Ophir is in Tamil Nadu, India, is further supported by other historians like K. S. Ramaswami Sastri, in The Tamils and their culture, Annamalai University, 1967, pp.16; Gregory James, Tamil Lexicography, M. Niemeyer, 1991, pp.10; Edna Fernandes, The last Jews of Kerala, Portobello, 2008, pp.98.
Some identify Ophir as Uvari, a coastal village in Radhapuram Taluk in Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu State, India. It is 59 kilometres towards the South from Tirunelveli and 704 kilometres from Chennai. The main occupation of the villagers is fishing. Many of the men are sailors.
In this and the next chapter, I will attempt to present in a condensed form some of the myths that pertain to the origin of the Paravars.
Myth #1: Paravars are offsprings of a Brahmin and a Sūdra woman
The word ‘Tantras’ refer to various scriptures of several esoteric traditions rooted in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.
Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765 -1837), an English orientalist and a former director of the Royal Asiatic Society, followed some of the Tantras while enumerating Indian classes, and he represented the Paravars as descendants of a Brahmin who consorted a Sūdra woman.
Myth #2: Paravars are offspring of a Kurava male and a Chetty female
Mudaliyar Simon Casie Chitty (1807-1860) of Sri Lanka, a writer of great repute, cites the Jātībēdi Nūl (a work of some celebrity among the Tamils) which describes the Paravars as “the offspring of a Kurava (or basket-maker) begotten clandestinely through a female of the Chetty (or merchant) tribe.”
Myth #3: Paravas descended from Varuna (the god of water)
Some Paravas have among themselves a different tradition about their origin. According to them, their progenitor was Varuna (god of water).
Soorapadman, the leader of the Asuras (evil spirits) after performing a tapas (an act of devotion through deep meditation) received a boon from Shiva that protected him from death except a being manifested from Shiva himself. Having gained immortality, Soorapadman vanquished the Devas (heavenly spirits) and made them his slaves. The Devas appealed to Vishnu, but he refused to help them. Next, they appealed to Shiva.
Shiva decided to take action against Soorapadman‘s increasing arrogance. He opened his third eye – the eye of knowledge – that started releasing flares. There were six flares in total. Shiva gave Agni, the god of fire, the responsibility to take the flares to Saravana Lake. Soon after, a beautiful child manifested on a lotus in the Lake with six faces.
Six sisters known as the Kṛttikā (constellation Pleiades) were given the responsibility of taking care of the child and thus the child came to be known as Kārtikeya.
According to an extension of the myth, the Paravars also manifested along with Kārtikeya and were nursed by the constellation Kṛttikā. Since the Paravars were born out of the water they naturally became the descendants of Varuna, the god of water.
Kārtikeya became the supreme general of the Devas. He led the army of the Devas to victory against the Asuras. On the fifth day of Kandha Sasthi, Soorapadman visited Kārtikeya and saw his Vishwaroopam.
Soorapadman faced Kārtikeya in battle and was defeated even though he used illusions. As a last stand when all his illusions had failed him, Soorapadman transformed himself into a mango tree hoping to escape death. Kārtikeya with his vel (spear) split the tree in two. One half became the peacock, the vehicle of Kārtikeya and the other half became the cockerel, the emblem on Kārtikeya‘s flag.
Myth #4: The fable in Valaivīcu kāviyam
In Valaivīcu kāviyam: Tiruviḷaiyāṭal kataippāṭal, an epic composed by the Tamil poet Ār̲umukapperumāḷ Cir̲avān̲, Parvati, the consort of Shiva, and her son Kartikēya, having offended the deity by revealing some ineffable mystery, were condemned to quit their celestial mansions, and pass through an infinite number of mortal reincarnations, before they could be re-admitted to the divine presence. However, when Parvati pleaded with Shiva, he reduced the punishment to one incarnation each.
About this time, Triambaka, King of the Paravas, and Varuna Valli his consort were performing tapas (acts of devotion) to obtain an issue. Parvati conceded to their prayer and incarnated as their daughter under the name of Tīrysēr Madentē.
Kartikēya transformed himself into a fish and roamed the North Sea for some time. He then entered the South Sea, where, after growing to an immense size, attacked the vessels of the Paravas and became a threat to their traditional fishing and seafaring trades.
An enraged King Triambaka publicly declared that he would give his daughter in marriage to whoever would catch the fish.
Shiva, assuming the character of a Parava fisherman, caught the fish, and was once again reunited with his divine consort.
Myth #5: Ancestors of the Paravars were fishermen of river Yamuna
Some Paravars believe that they migrated from the ancient city of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Rama and that prior to the Mahābhārata war, they inhabited the territory bordering the river Yamuna.
One day, Girika, the wife of King Vasu, bathing and purifying herself after her menstrual course, told him her state. But that very day the Pitris (spirits of the departed) of Vasu came unto him and asked him to slay a deer for their Sraddha (a ritual performed for one’s ancestors, especially dead parents). The king, thinking that the command of the Pitris should not be disobeyed, went a-hunting.
The whole forest was maddened by the sweet notes of the kokila and echoed with the hum of maddened bees. The king became possessed with desire, and could not keep his mind away from the thought of his beautiful wife Girika. Beholding a swift hawk resting close to him, the king, acquainted with the subtle truths of Dharma and Artha, said, “Amiable one, carry thou this seed (semen) for my wife Girika and give it unto her. Her season hath arrived.”
The swift hawk took it from the king and rapidly soared through the air. While thus passing, the hawk was seen by another of his species. Thinking that the first hawk was carrying meat, the second one flew at him. The two fought in the sky with their talons and beaks. While they were fighting, the seed fell into the waters of the Yamuna wherein dwelt an Apsara named Adrika, transformed by a Brahmana’s curse into a fish.
As soon as Vasu’s seed fell into the water from the claws of the hawk, Adrika rapidly approached and swallowed it.
Ten months later, Parava fishermen caught that fish. From the stomach of that fish came out a male and a female child of a human form. The Apsara after having given birth to the twins, and killed by the fishermen was freed from her curse. She left her fish-form and assumed her own celestial shape.
The fishermen approached King Uparichara, their ruler, and said, “O king, these two beings of human shape have been found in the body of a fish!“
King Uparichara took the male child under his wings who later became the virtuous monarch Matsya. The King gave back the fishy-smelling daughter of the Apsara to the fishermen, saying, “Let this one be thy daughter.”
That girl, named Satyavati, gifted with great beauty with tapering thighs and had a graceful smile – an object of desire even with an anchorite was also known as Machchakindi).
As was customary with the Parava fisher-women Satyavati ferried passengers over the waters of the Yamuna river. One day, while engaged in this vocation, the great wandering Rishi Parasara saw the celestial beauty and desired to consort with her.
He said, “Accept my embraces, O blessed one!“
Satyavati replied, “O holy one, behold the rishis standing on either bank of the river. Seen by them, how can I grant thy wish?“
The ascetic thereupon created a fog which enveloped the region in darkness. The maiden, beholding the fog became suffused with the blushes of bashfulness and she said:
“O holy one, note that I am a maiden under the control of my father. O sinless one, by accepting your embraces my virginity will be sullied. O best of Brahmanas, my virginity being sullied, how shall I, O Rishi, be able to return home? Indeed, I shall not then be able to bear life. Reflecting upon all this, O illustrious one, do that which should be done.“
That best of Rishis, satisfied with all she said, replied:
“Thou shall remain a virgin even if thou grantest my wish. And, O timid one, O beauteous woman, ask for the boon that thou desirest. O thou of fair smiles, my grace hath never before proved fruitless.”
The maiden then asked the rishi for the boon that her body might emit a sweet scent instead of the fish-odour that it had. The illustrious Rishi thereupon granted her wish.
Having obtained her boon, she became highly pleased, and her season immediately came. She accepted the embraces of that Rishi of wonderful deeds.
She thenceforth became known among men by the name of Gandhavati (the sweet-scented one); and since men could feel her scent even from a distance of a yojana (16 km), she was also known as Yojanagandha (one who scatters her scent for a yojana all around).
After this, the illustrious Parasara went to his own asylum.
Satyavati gratified with having obtained the excellent boon in consequence of which she became sweet-scented and her virginity remained unsullied conceived through Parasara’s embraces. She brought forth the very day, on an island in the Yamuna, the child begot upon her by Parasara and gifted with great energy. The child, with the permission of his mother, set his mind on asceticism. He went away saying, “As soon as thou rememberest me when the occasion comes, I shall appear unto thee.”
It was thus that Vyasa (the arranger or compiler), the author of the Mahabharata, as well as a character in it, was born of Satyavati the fisherwoman through Parasara the ascetic.
The people belonging to the Paravar caste in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southern India, and in the west coast in Sri Lanka are coastal inhabitants, fishermen, seafarers, maritime traders. The Paravars are also known as Parava, Parathavar, Bharathar, Bharathakula Pandyar, Bharathakula Kshathriyar and so on.
There is a variety as well as a discordance of opinions about the origin of the Paravars. The available materials on the origin of the Parava communities are so full of contradictions that it is almost an impossible task to reduce them to order and coherence.
There are many theories – most of them myths from Hindu Vedas and Puranas and a few slanting towards Jewish. Many of these myths were readily accepted and endorsed by the affluent Paravars, who wish to remove the stigma placed on the occupation of their caste which was considered “low and ritually polluting occupations,” namely, fishing, diving for pearls and chanks, and producing salt.
In his book “The Madura Country: A Manual, Compiled by the Order of The Madras Government” published in 1868, James Henry Nelson of the Madras Civil Service states:
THE FISHERMEN belong to several castes. They are usually called Sembadavans if they fish in tanks and streams, and Savalakaarans if they fish in the sea. Those again who live on the sea-coast, karei, are also called Kareiyaans. Some of them are Mahometans and some of them are Paravans.
These last were the earliest converts made by the Portuguese: and resorted to the first Roman Catholic Church in Madura before the time of Robert de Nobilibus. They are constantly spoken of by the Jesuits. After they lost the protection of the Portuguese they sank into great poverty and wretchedness.
The Paravas of the District appear from the list to have numbered only five and thirty in 1850-51. This seems very strange. Formerly they were very numerous along the whole coast from Cape Comorin to the Paamban Pass, and I know of no reason why they should have died out. I can only account for the fact of their fewness (if indeed it is a fact, which I doubt) by supposing that most of them are now either Roman Catholics or Labbeis, i. e. Mahometan converts, and appear as such in the census returns.
It appears from a letter of Father Martin dated 1st June 1700, that when the Portuguese first came to India, they found the Paravas groaning under the yoke of the Mahometans, and assisted them to shake it off on condition of their becoming Christians.
The Paravas flourished after this and built many substantial villages. But they became poor and wretched after the decline of the Portuguese power: and when this letter was written, were in a very miserable condition.
Though works in the Tamil Sangam literature such as Ettuthokai, Pathupattu, Ahananuru, Maduraikkanci and Pattinappaalai refer to the lives of the Paravars, there are different views regarding events up to the early 16th century among the investigators of the Paravar history.
Simon Casie Chitty mentions in The Ceylon Gazetteer that the ancient name “Taprobane” for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) might have been named after the Paravars:
Among the Greeks and Romans, it was known by the name of “Taprobane,” the etymology of which is disputed by many authors. Some deduce it from the Phoenician words “Tap-parvaim,” or “the shore of the Parvaim;” alleging that the latter (whom they identify with the modern Paravas) were at one time masters of the commerce of the Island; others, from “Tapo-rawan,” or “the Island of RAWANA,” the giant king who was conquered by RAMA; others from the Sanskrit term “Tepo-vana,” or “the wilderness of prayer;” while many, with more probability, suppose it to have originated from the Pali word “Tamaba-pannya,” which signifies a betel leaf, and to which the Island bears some resemblance in its figure.
Little is known about the Paravars from 5th to the 13th century. There are no native literary works with a developed sense of chronology, or places, before the arrival of the Portuguese, and the ‘en masse’ conversion of the Hindu Paravars to Roman Catholicism. Therefore, any historical observations have to be deduced using Arab, European and Chinese accounts.
Every origin myth is a tale of creation and they describe how some new reality came into existence. In some academic circles, the term “myth” properly refers only to the origin and cosmogonic myths. Many folklorists reserve the label “myth” for stories about creation. Traditional stories that do not focus on origins fall into the categories of “legend” and “folktale.”
According to Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), Romanian historian of religion, writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago, nearly every sacred story in many traditional cultures qualifies as an origin myth. By tradition, humans tend to model their behaviour after sacred events, seeing their life as an “eternal return” to the mythical age. Because of this conception, nearly all sacred stories describe events that established new paradigms for human behaviour, and thus nearly every sacred story is a story about a creation.
Mircea Eliade says that an origin myth often functions to offer an aura of sacredness to the current order. Here are some observations:
When the missionary and ethnologist C. Strehlow asked the Australian Arunta why they performed certain ceremonies, the answer was always: “Because the ancestors so commanded it.“
The Kai of New Guinea refused to change their way of living and working, and they explained: “It was thus that the Nemu (the Mythical Ancestors) did, and we do likewise.“
Asked the reason for a particular detail in a ceremony, a Navaho chanter answered: “Because the Holy People did it that way in the first place.“
We find exactly the same justification in the prayer that accompanies a primitive Tibetan ritual: “As it has been handed down from the beginning of the earth’s creation, so must we sacrifice. … As our ancestors in ancient times did—so do we now.”
This reminds us of the doxology, a short hymn of praises to God in various Christian worship services often added to the end of canticles, psalms and hymns. For example, the Catholics while praying The Rosary recite:
“Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was, in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
And so also are the glorified myths borrowed from the Hindu Vedas and Puranas and a few from the Jewish traditions that have been concocted, accepted, and endorsed by the affluent Paravars who wish to hide the stigma placed on their low and ritually polluting occupations namely, fishing, diving for pearls and chanks, and producing salt.
Catalan is a Western Romance language derived from Vulgar Latin and named after the medieval Principality of Catatonia, in northeastern modern Spain. Pereira is a topographic name derived from Catalan Perera meaning ‘pear tree’.
There are other variants for Perera in the Iberian Peninsula meaning “pear tree”:
In Catalan: Perer
In Extremadura, Salamanca and Valladolid: Perero, Pereros
In Portugal: Pereira, Pereyra, Pereyras, Das Pereiras, Paraira
In the Pyrenees: Pereire, Pereyre
In Galicia: Pereiro, Pereiros
The Portuguese colonists introduced the name Pereira to the Goanese in Goa and to the Paravars in Tamil Nadu in India.
Perera and its variants are common surnames in Portugal, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, and most of the Lusosphere (regions where people speak Portuguese, either as native speakers or as learners).
After Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in February 1510, the Portuguese converted the Hindu Goanese to Catholicism and gave them Portuguese names such as Fernando, da Souza, Pereira and so on.
In 1516, when the Hindu Tamil Paravars of the Pearl Fishery Coast in Southern India sought the help of the Portuguese to circumvent the oppression of the Middle Eastern Arab Merchants and their Muslim Paravar brethren, one of the stipulations laid out by the Portuguese was that the Paravars should convert to Catholicism.
The Middle Eastern Arab Merchants getting wind of these negotiations dispatched two envoys to Cochin to bribe the Portuguese Captain Pero Vaz de Amaral, to not allow conversion of the Paravars to Catholicism, but Pero Vaz refused to do so.
Pero Vaz immediately arranged for the baptism of 85 Paravar leaders in Cochin by the Vicar General, Miguel Vaz, probably in December 1535. The Paravar leaders were given Portuguese names as surnames. Pereira was one of the names given to the Paravars as a surname.
In 1505, Lourenço de Almeida, a Portuguese explorer and military commander made his first voyage to Ceylon and established a settlement there. From then on, the Catalan name “Perera” became one of the surnames among both the Catholics and Buddhist Sinhalese.