The Paravars: Chapter 7 – The Hazardous Occupation of Harvesting Pearl Oysters


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom

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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.

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‘Pearl fishing on the coast of Tuticorin by Paravars using thoni’ from ‘La galerie agreable du monde. Tome premier des Indes Orientales.’, published by P. van der Aa, Leyden, c. 1725 (Source: columbia.edu)

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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?”

“Certainly, captain.”

“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.

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Pearl fishing in Ceylon. Wood engraving from 1889. Author Joseph Nash (1809–1878). (Top L-R)The descent, Pearl Oysters, On Deck, At work on the Pearl Banks (Bottom Right)

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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.

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Nest: The Paravars: Chapter 8 – Arrival of the Portuguese in India

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom

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RELATED ARTICLES

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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