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.
When you hear the name Aladdin (Arabic: علاء الدين), immediately what comes to our mind is the story of a youth and the wonderful magic lamp. It is one of the best known Middle Eastern folk tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights which is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English-language edition (c. 1706 – c. 1721), which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.
The story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was not in the original collection of “The Arabian Nights“. There is no evidence among the Arabic sources for the magical tale.
Antoine Galland, a Frenchman, translated “The Arabian Nights” into French. He called his book “Les Mille et Une Nuits“. He incorporated the tale of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” in his volumes ix and x, published in 1710.
In his diary, in the entry made on March 25, 1709, Galland wrote that he met the Maronite scholar named Youhenna Diab (“Hanna”). This scholar was brought from Aleppo to Paris by Paul Lucas, the celebrated French traveller. Galland says he heard the story of Aladdin from Hanna.
According to Antoine Galland, Aladdin was a Chinese, not an Arab.
The story is set in China, and Aladdin is a Chinese youth. Most of the characters in this Middle Eastern tale have Arabic names. The emperor in this tale seems more like an Arab ruler than a Chinese emperor. There is a Jewish merchant who cheats Aladdin after buying his wares, but there is no mention of Buddhists or Confucians. This suggests that the storyteller had only a sparse knowledge of China. He was unaware of the existence of the New World. To him, Aladdin’s “China” was “the Utter East” and the sorcerer’s homeland in the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) was “the Utter West”.
Some commentators suggest the story was set in Turkestan that encompasses Central Asia and the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
I believe the narrator of the Aladdin tale had without qualms used an exotic setting as a common storytelling device.
Here is the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” in a summarized form:
Aladdin, an impoverished youth, lives in a Chinese town. A sorcerer from the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) approaches Aladdin and his mother. He introduces himself as the brother of Aladdin’s late father Mustapha the tailor. He promises Aladdin’s mother that he would set up the youth as a merchant.
The sorcerer’s real motive was to retrieve a wonderful lamp from a booby-trapped magic cave with the help of young Aladdin. He lends Aladdin a magic ring for protection.
As soon as Aladdin retrieves the lamp from the cave the sorcerer double-crosses him and traps Aladdin in the magic cave.
Fortunately, the sorcerer’s magic ring is with Aladdin. When Aladdin rubs his hands in despair, he rubs the ring inadvertently. A jinnī (or “genie”) appears and takes him home to his mother. Aladdin gives the dirty lamp to his mother. When the mother tries to clean the lamp, a genie more powerful than the genie of the ring appears and declares that he is bound to do the biddings of the person currently holding the lamp.
With the help of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin becomes rich and powerful. He marries Princess Badroulbadour, the Emperor’s daughter. The genie of the lamp builds Aladdin a magnificent palace more luxurious than that of the Emperor.
The sorcerer returns. As Aladdin’s wife is unaware of the lamp’s importance, the sorcerer tricks her to part with the old lamp by offering to exchange “new lamps for old“.
The sorcerer then orders the genie of the lamp to move Aladdin’s palace along with all its contents, including the princess, to the Maghreb.
Aladdin gets help from the lesser powerful genie of the magic ring. The genie transports Aladdin to the Maghreb where he recovers the wonderful lamp and kills the sorcerer in battle. Aladdin then asks the genie of the lamp to move the palace along with all its contents, including the princess, back to its proper place.
The sorcerer’s more powerful and evil brother disguises himself as an old woman known for her healing powers. The princess falls for his disguise and commands the “old woman” to stay in her palace to cure anyone who falls ill.
The genie of the lamp warns Aladdin about the sorcerer masquerading as the ‘old woman’. Aladdin slays the imposter. Aladdin succeeds to his father-in-law’s throne and everyone lives happily ever after.