The Paravars: A Preamble


Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Fishermen (Source: Heritage Vembaru)

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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.

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Next:  The Paravars: Chapter 1 – The Hindu Myths

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13 thoughts on “The Paravars: A Preamble”

  1. I am attaching a soft copy of a book written 1948 by my uncle Mr. John Motha of Tuticorin. I got a copy from their family and reprinted in Sri Lanka under the title, “The History of the Pandyas”. True enough that it has some mytholicial references, but from 1308 or so of the time of Sundera Pandyan and Veera Pandiyan, it has some historical value. The Tamil words in it are in the Kalyani font and it would be fine first to instal Kalyani and then open the file.

    Hope you and Assunta are doing well. Will try to meet you around 28th of April when I will be in Chennai for the Silver Jubiliee of my nephew who stays in Kolathur.

    Stanis

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