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The Paravars: Chapter 3 – The Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous:  The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore

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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.

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The Gulf of Mannar

Gulf of Mannar (satellite image)

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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.

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Map of the Pearl Fishery Coast (1889)
Map of the Pearl Fishery Coast (1889)

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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.

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Royal Flag of the Jaffna Kingdom.
Royal Flag of the Jaffna Kingdom.

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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.

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Previous:  The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore

Next: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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The Paravars: Chapter 1 – The Hindu Myths


Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: A Preamble

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Soorapadman vathai padalam
Soorapadman vathai padalam

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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.

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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.

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Shark

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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.

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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 fish-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.

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Rishsi Parasara and Satyawati
Rishsi Parasara and Satyawati

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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.”

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Vyasa (Author: Ramanarayanadatta astr)
Vyasa (Author: Ramanarayanadatta astr)

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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.

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Next: The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore

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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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Sri Lanka, the Island Paradise with a Colourful Heritage


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Sri Lanka map

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The “Island In The Sun” is the title song of the 1957 movie bearing the same name. It was written by Irving Burgie and sung by Harry Belafonte.

Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand

As morning breaks, the Heaven on high
I lift my heavy load to the sky
Sun comes down with a burning glow
Mingles my sweat with the earth below

Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand

I see woman on bended knee
Cutting cane for her family
I see man at the waterside
Casting nets at the surging tide

Though this song addresses the island of Jamaica, it is equally applicable to Sri Lanka the pearl of the Indian Ocean and nature’s treasure chest.

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Sri Lanka, also known as India's Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.
Sri Lanka, also known as India’s Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.

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The island paradise, formerly known as Ceylon until 1972,  is in the northern Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest.  It is one of the most delightful destinations in the world to visit.

Sri Lanka is the home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Though the island’s documented history spans over 2,550 years, evidence shows that it had prehistoric human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its history boasts of planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, and monasteries, expansive reservoirs, green forests and gardens, monuments and works of art.

Sri Lanka due to its geographic location and endowed with natural harbours has been the cynosure of strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II.

Today, Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.

Sri Lanka is home to many races speaking diverse languages, and following different religious faiths. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Veddas.

The island has a rich Buddhist heritage spanning from the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BC) of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 to 232 BCE. The first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon dates back to the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.

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Stilts or Pole fishermen, Sri Lanka (Source: agmisgpn.org))
Stilts or Pole fishermen, Sri Lanka (Source: agmisgpn.org))

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The island is one of the most beautiful and delightful destinations in the world for tourists to visit. Its historical planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, dagobas, monasteries, monuments, sculptures and other works of art, expansive artificial reservoirs, green gardens, etc., illustrate the characteristic rich history of its ancient rulers.

Here is a video titled “Heritage of Sri Lanka” produced by The Ministry of National Heritage Sri Lanka, which I enjoyed viewing and I hope you too will be delighted to view it as well.

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The Tao Te Ching and Its Many Translations


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, Chinese: 老子) literally meaning “Father” or “Old Master” wrote the Chinese classic text, Tao Te Ching (道德經;) or Daode jing (道德经), translated as “The Classic of the Virtuous Way.”

According to tradition, Laozi wrote the Tao Te Ching around 6th century BC, although the oldest excavated text dates back to the late 4th century BC, leading to the true authorship and date of composition or compilation of the text under debate.

Although a legendary figure, Laozi is usually dated to around the 6th century BC as a record-keeper at the court of the Zhou dynasty.  He is also reckoned as a contemporary of Confucius (September 28, 551 – 479 BC), the  Chinese teacher and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. However, some historians contend that Laozi actually lived during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th century BC.

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A painting of the Daode Tianzun ('the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue'), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)
A painting of the Daode Tianzun (‘the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue’), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)

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Laozi deified as the Daode Tianzun (道德天尊 – “Moral senior” or  “the Grand Pure One”) and venerated in traditional Chinese religions as “the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue” founded Taoism, an ancient tradition of Chinese philosophy and religious belief profound in Chinese customs.

Throughout Chinese history, various anti-authoritarian movements embraced Laozi’s work. As a central figure in Chinese culture, the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern people of the Li surname claimed Laozi as the founder of their lineage.

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A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)
A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)

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In 1973, archeologists unearthed a large number of silk manuscripts from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Among these were two versions of the Daode jing by Laozi, dated to around 200 BC. The two silk books are part of the Cultural Relics from the Mawangdui Tombs collection at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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The Guodian Chu Slips (Source: terebess.hu)
Th(Source: terebess.hu)

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In 1993, archeologists discovered three bundles of 71 bamboo strips with the Daode jing text written on them in a tomb in Guodian in Hubei province (east central China). The “Guodian Laozi” that has survived intact since 300 BC, is by far the earliest version of the Daode jing ever unearthed.

The Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections composed of  two parts, the Tao Ching (chapters 1–37) and the Te Ching (chapters 38–81).

The ideas in the Tao Te Ching are singular and the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions.

Many western scholars with a foundation in the Chinese language and Chinese philosophy have attempted to translate the Tao Te Ching into their own native languages.

The Tao Te Ching written in classical Chinese relies in essence on allusions.  For many non-Chinese scholars, it can be difficult to understand the verses completely due to their inherent semantic meanings, nuances, subtexts and many words are on purpose vague and open to more than one interpretation.

In Laozi’s period, people  memorized this work. They reinforced the allusions by using  them in their writings. Today, even among the modern Chinese translators, there are only a few who have a deep acquaintance with ancient Chinese literature and many have lost sight of the many levels of subtext.

As there are no punctuation marks in classical Chinese, it can be difficult to determine where a sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma would completely change the meaning of  passages. So, it is for the translator to determine where the divisions are and the meanings.

Some editors and translators say that the original texts of the Tao Te Ching written on one-line bamboo strips linked with silk threads are much corrupted, and it is difficult to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.

Many popular translations are less erudite. They give an individual author’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching that deviate from the original text and incompatible with the historical thoughts of the Chinese people.

Holmes Welch (1924-1981), an American scholar of Daoism and early 20th century Chinese Buddhism remarked: “It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved.

Today, the perseverance of non-Chinese scholars to preserve and bring out the original meaning of the Chinese text  in every respect has spawned hundreds of versions of the Tao Te Ching in western languages that in certain instances even contradictory. To prove my point, I have quoted below a few attempts by some authors to translate Chapter 74 of Tao Te Ching:

Example #1

If people do not fear death why attempt to frighten them by capital punishment?

Supposing the people are made constantly afraid of death, so that when they commit unlawful acts I arrest them and have them killed, who will dare [afterwards to misbehave]? For then there will always be yiusze, or civil magistrates, to execute them. Now the execution of men on behalf of the inflictor of the death-punishment [by those not legally qualified to do so] may be compared to hewing on behalf of a master carpenter; and people who [attempt to] hew instead of a master carpenter mostly cut their hands.

– Translated by Frederic Henry Balfour, 1884

Example #2

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

– Translated by Archie J. Bahm, 1958

Example #3

It is not the leader’s role to play judge and jury, to punish people for ‘bad’ behaviour. In the first place, punishment does not effectively control behaviour.

But even if punishment did work, what leader would dare to use fear as a teaching method?

The wise leader knows that there are natural consequences for every act. The task is to shed light on these natural consequences, not to attack the behaviour itself.

If the leader tries to take the place of nature and act as judge and jury, the best you can expect is a crude imitation of a very subtle process.

At the very least, the leader will discover that the instrument of justice cuts both ways. Punishing others in punishing work.

– Translated by John Heider, 1985.

Example #4

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone. Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter: The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

– Translated by Ren Jiyu, 1993.

Example #5

When the people are not afraid to die
Why then threaten them with death?

Even if they normally are fearful of death,
For worst offenders, we may seize and kill them.

But who dares to execute?

There is always an expert executioner who kills.

Substituting for an expert executioner,
Is like hacking wood in place of a master carpenter.

Whoever substitutes for the master carpenter,
He seldom escapes injury of his own hand.

– Translated by David Hong Cheng, 2000.

Example #6

The people do not fear death,
Why threaten them with death?

Suppose the people always fear death,
One who does strange things (ch’i),
I shall seize and kill,
Then who dares [to do strange things]?
Killing is carried out by the executioner.

To replace the executioner and kill,
Is like chopping wood in place of the master carpenter.

To chop wood in place of the master carpenter,
Rarely one does not hurt one’s own hand.

Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary by Elen Marie Chen

Example #7

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone.

Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter:
The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu by Brian Browne Walker

Example #8

If the people do not fear death,
For reasons of extreme poverty or suffering,
What is the point of threatening them with death?

If the people fear death,
And if the outlaws are captured and killed,
Who will dare to break the law?

Yet, the act of killing should always be
The exclusive province of the Great Executioner.

Therefore, to kill in place of the Great Executioner is
Like hewing wood in place of the master carpenter;
Few, if ever, will escape cutting their own hands.

– Translated by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura

Example #9

If people don’t fear death
How will you frighten them with death?
If people always fear death
And I seize and execute
Anyone who does anything new,
Who will dare to move?
There is a public executioner who kills.
Killing on behalf of the public executioner,
Is called cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter.
In cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter,
There are few who escape hurting their hands.

– Translated by A. S. Kline, 2003.

Example #10

If people are not afraid of death,
how can they be threatened by it?
But if they always live in fear of death,
and still continue in their lawlessness,
we can arrest and kill them.
Who then would dare?
And yet there is a Lord of Death whose charge it is to kill.
To take his place and kill would be like carving wood in place of the master carpenter.
Few would escape without injuring their hands.

– Translated by Tim Chilcott, 2005.

For more translations of the Tao Te Ching by other authors visit Terebess Asia Online (TAO) .

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The Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded Europe. General Subutai, a Mongolian general, and the primary military strategist of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan was the mastermind behind the invasion. Batu Khan and Kadan, both grandsons of Genghis Khan, the first Khagan of the Mongol Empire commanded the Mongolian forces.

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Mongol Empire, 13th century.
Mongol Empire, 13th century.

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The Mongol invasion caused the severe and rampant destruction of East Slavic principalities and major cities, such as Kiev and Vladimir. The invasion also affected Central Europe. The Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241 that caused the fragmentation of Poland and the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241, in the Kingdom of Hungary threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Realizing they had to cooperate in the face of the Mongol invasion, warring princes of central Europe suspended local wars and conflicts until the Mongols left their lands.

The myth of Prester John

The early missionaries to the East and Far East countries were inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes). The popular European chronicles and traditions from the 12th through the 17th century abound with various accounts about this mythical personage.

One such account depicts him as a Christian patriarch, a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures.

According to some early chronicles, Prester John, a Patriarch of the Saint Thomas Christians, resided in India. But after the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, some accounts said he ruled a “Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation somewhere amid the Muslims and pagans of the Orient in Central Asia. The authors of these chronicles must have assumed so from works like the Acts of Thomas, one of the apocrypha of The New Testament. This apocryphal work has documented the tales about Thomas the Apostle’s subcontinental travels and the evangelistic success of the Nestorian Christians. The Acts of Thomas inculcated in the minds of the Europeans an image of India as an exotic country. It described the earliest account of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian sect called the “Saint Thomas Christians“. These motifs were instrumental for the later accounts of Prester John.

It was a time when ethnic and inter-religious tension prevailed. The European Christians saw Prester John as a symbol of the Church’s universality, transcending culture and geographical bounds to encompass all humanity.

Thus, the kingdom of Prester John fired the imagination of generations of adventurers and became the object of a quest that remained out of reach.

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"Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)
“Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)

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Portuguese explorers of the time thought that they had found the king in Ethiopia, which had been a Christian kingdom since the 4th century.

Alberic de Trois-Fontaines, a 13th-century chronicler, recorded that in 1165 several European rulers, such as Manuel I Comnenus (1143 – 1180), the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I Barbarossa (1122 –  1190), the Holy Roman emperor received a letter sent by Prester John.

The Letter had a tale of wonder about the richness of the Nestorian Kingdom. The contents of the letter suggest that the author was aware of the Romance of Alexander and the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. The many marvels of the richness of the Nestorian kingdom captured the imagination of Europeans.

For centuries, the letter translated into many languages circulated accruing more embellishments with each copy. Today, more than a hundred examples of the letter still exist. The invention of printing perpetuated the letter’s popularity during the Age of Discovery. The essence of the letter was that a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians still existed somewhere in Central Asia. It is presumed the author of the Letter was a European though the purpose served by the letter remains unclear.

The credence given to the reports about Prester John  was such that on September 27, 1177, Pope Alexander III sent his physician Philip to Prester John with a letter. The physician never returned with a reply from the mythical Prester John, who never existed!

Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine

While some scholars argue the Age of Discovery began in 1492, others point toward earlier dates. I would place the Age of Discovery to the mid 13th century, when the  65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine led the  first formal Papal mission to the Mongols in April 1245 after the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe took place

With the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, sent the first formal Papal mission to the Mongols. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission. The aim of this mission was in part to protest against the invasion of the Christian lands by the Mongols, and also to gather trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their future intentions.

The mission left Lyon on Easter day April 16, 1245. Friar Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

After their perilous journey the Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. Only when they reached their destination, they came to know that Emperor Ögedei Khan had died nearly four years before they undertook their journey.

On August 24, 1246, Friar Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity.

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The Silk Road


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy's Map of the "Old World" by Jacob d'Angelo.
A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Map of the “Old World” by Jacob d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.

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Archeologists and Historians use the term “Old World” in the context of, and to contrast with, the “New World” (North and South America). The Old World, also known as Afro-Eurasia, consists of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most countries of the Old World in the area of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persian plateau, India, and China are in the temperate zone, roughly between the 45th and 25th parallels.

Herein emerged the cultural, philosophical and religious developments that produced the Western (Hellenism, “classical”), Eastern (Zoroastrian and Abrahamic) and Far Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism) religious and cultural spheres.

The Qin Empire

Qin was an ancient state in China during the Zhou dynasty. On May 7, 247 BC, Ying Zheng assumed the throne of the Qin state at age 9. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin or King Zheng of Qin.

The Qin state had a large, efficient army and capable generals. They utilized the newest developments in weaponry and transportation and had a superior military power than the other six warring states. By the 3rd century BC,  the Qin state under King Zheng of Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

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Instead of maintaining the title of king borne by the Shang and Zhou rulers, Ying Zheng created a new title of “huángdì” (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles – huáng of the mythical Three Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the dì of the legendary Five Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.

Ying Zheng ruled from 220 to 210 BC as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty bearing the name Qin Shi Huangdi.

After the death of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BC, the Qin empire became unstable. Though the Qin empire was short-lived, it had a great influence over Chinese history.

The Han dynasty

Within four years after the death of Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin dynasty’s authority collapsed. In the face of rebellion, the empire fissured into 18 kingdoms. Two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become the next person to exercise hegemony in China. Each of the 18 fissured kingdoms claimed allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. In 202 BC, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia.

Liu Bang assumed the title “emperor” (Huangdi), known as Emperor Gaozu after his death. Thus, Emperor Gaozu found the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China. He chose Chang’an as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.

Spanning over four centuries, the Han period was a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script as “Han characters”.

To the north of China, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe. Towards the end of his reign, the Xiongnu chieftain controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand.

Chinese merchants sold iron weapons to the Xiongnu along the northern borders. Emperor Gaozu imposed a trade embargo to stop the illicit sale of arms. Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found Chinese traders willing to supply their needs. Chinese forces then mounted surprise attacks against the Xiongnu who traded at the border markets. The Xiongnu retaliated by invading what is now Shanxi province and defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BC. After negotiations, the heqin (“peace marriage”) agreement in 198 BC held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance. Yet, the Han was forced to send large amounts of items such as silk clothes, food, and wine as a tribute to the Xiongnu.

Emperor Wu of Han

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Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.

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Emperor Wu of Han (June 30, 156 BC – March 29, 87 BC), born Liu Che, was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China. He reigned 54 years from 141 BC to 87 BC. His reign resulted in the vast territorial expansion. By reorganizing the  government, he developed a strong and centralized state.  He promoted Confucian doctrines. Emperor Wu, known for his religious innovations was a patron of poetic and musical arts. During his reign, cultural contact with western Eurasia increased.

As a military campaigner, Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion.  At its height, the Empire’s borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south.

In 133 BC, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory and captured one stronghold after another. The Chinese assault ended in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei. The Han commanders Wei Qing (the half-brother of Emperor Wu’s favorite concubine) and Wei’s nephew, Huo Qubing expelled the Xiongnu from the Ordos Desert and Qilian Mountains and forced them to flee north of the Gobi Desert and then out of the Gobi Desert.

The Silk Road.

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Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.
Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.

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Zhang Qian was an imperial envoy to the world outside China under Emperor Wu of Han. He played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information to the Chinese imperial court about Central Asia. This helped the Han sovereignty in territorial acquisitions and expansion into the Tarim basin of Central Asia. Today, the Chinese revered and consider Zhang Qian as a national hero for the key role he played in opening China to the world of commercial trade.

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Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

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The Han sovereignty established the vast trade network known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, which reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road or connected the various regions of the Old World. Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out by Chinese merchants along its routes during the rule of the Han dynasty.

Around 114 BC, the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road routes were expanded. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their merchants and their products. To ensure the protection of the trade route, Emperor Wu reinforced this strategic asset by establishing five commanderies and constructing a length of fortified wall along the border of the Hexi Corridor, colonizing the area with 700,000 Chinese soldier-settlers.

The Silk Road helped  establish political and economic relations between the various nations. Besides economic trade, the Silk Road served as a major factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Arabia, the Horn of Africa, and Europe and carrying out cultural exchanges among the nations along its network.

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians. From the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians joined the bandwagon. After the emergence of Islam, Arab traders became prominent users of the Silk Routes.

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The Iberian Peninsula: Part 2 – The Reconquista


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Co-existence and alliances between Muslims and Christians were prevalent, so also were the frontier skirmishes and raids.

At the end of the 9th century, the ideology of a Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula started to take shape. The Christian Chronica Prophetica (883-884), a document stressing the Christian and Muslim cultural and religious divide in Iberia set a landmark by stressing the necessity to drive the Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula. Even then, it was common for the Christian and Muslim rulers to become divided and to fight amongst themselves. Also, the mercenaries from both sides fought for whoever paid the most.

As time wore on, the idea of the Reconquista seems to have faded in the minds of the Christians. The 10th and 11th-century documents are silent on any idea of a reconquest.

By 1172, all Islamic Iberia was part of the Moroccan Berber Muslim Almohad Caliphate. Between 1146 and 1173, the Almohads wrested control of the Moorish principalities from the Almoravids and transferred the capital from Cordoba to Seville.

In the late 11th century, when staunch Muslim Jihad ideology in Al-Andalus confronted the Christians, the religious ideology of a Christian reconquest sprouted once again in the minds of the Christians and they started the Crusades. Later, military orders like the Order of Santiago, Montesa, Order of Calatrava and the Knights Templar fought in Iberia.

The Almohad Caliphate dominated Iberia until 1212. At that time, the Christian princes of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal formed an alliance and defeated Muhammad III, “al-Nasir” (1199–1214) at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morena. Soon after, the Almohad Caliphate lost all their Moorish dominions in Iberia.  In 1236, the great Moorish city of Cordova fell to the Christians. In 1248, the Christians  conquered the city of Seville.

Gradually, the Christian kingdoms to the north retook control of the Iberian peninsula, and by 1300, the Moors controlled only Granada, a small region in the south of present-day Spain.

The Catholic Monarchs

“The Catholic Monarchs” (Spanish: Reyes Católicos) is the joint title used in history for Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were second cousins from the House of Trastámara. Since both descended from John I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV gave a papal dispensation for their marriage to deal with consanguinity.

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Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.
Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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The marriage of 18-year-old Isabella and 17-year-old Ferdinand took place on October 19, 1469, in the city of Valladolid. This marriage helped to unite the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under the same crown. Isabella became the Queen of Castile in 1474 and Ferdinand became the King of Aragon in 1479. Though their marriage united the two kingdoms, what later became Spain, it was still a union of two crowns rather than a unitary state. They ruled independently and their kingdoms retained part of their own regional laws and governments for the next few decades.

The Spanish Inquisition

In the twelfth century, Pope Lucius III  created the Inquisition to fight heresy in the south of what is now France and constituted it in some European kingdoms. In 1478, the Catholic Monarchs requested the assent of Pope Sixtus IV to  introduce the Inquisition to Castile. On November 1, 1478, the Pope published the Papal bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, to establish the Inquisition  in the Kingdom of Castile. It was later extended to all Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition targeted forced converts from Islam (Moriscos, Conversos and secret Moors) and from Judaism (Marranos, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews) who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion or of having fallen back into it. Thus, Spain modeled its national aspirations as the guardian of Christianity and Catholicism.

The Granada War

The Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand set a goal to complete the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by conquering the Moorish Sultanate and Kingdom of Granada. They launched a series of campaigns known as the Granada War. Pope Sixtus IV helped the Granada War by granting a tithe and implementing a crusade tax to invest in the war.

Two Andalusian nobles, Rodrigo Ponce de León and Diego de Merlo led the Castilian forces. The Granada War began in 1482 with the seizure on the strategic town of Alhama de Granada, in the province of Granada, about 50 km from the city of Granada.

The war proved to be a long, drawn-out campaign. The 10-year Granada War was not a continuous effort, but a series of seasonal campaigns launched in spring and broken off in winter.

In 1491, the Catholic Monarchs summoned Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, the twenty-second and last Nasrid ruler of Granada to surrender the city of Granada, besieged by the Castilians.

After 10 years of fighting, the Granada War ended on January 2, 1492. Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada, the city of Granada, and the Alhambra palace to the Castilian forces.

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The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.
The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.

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Six days after the event, an eyewitness wrote a private letter to the bishop of León:

The Moorish sultan with about eighty or a hundred on horseback very well dressed went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses. According to the final capitulation agreement both Isabel and Ferdinand will decline the offer and the key to Granada will pass into Spanish hands without Muhammad XII having to kiss the hands of Los Reyes, as the Spanish royal couple became known. The indomitable mother of Muhammad XII insisted on sparing her son this final humiliation.

Though the Granada war was a joint project between Isabella’s Crown of Castile and Ferdinand’s Crown of Aragon, the bulk of the troops and funds came from Castile. So,  Castile annexed Granada. Apart from the presence of King Ferdinand himself, the Crown of Aragon provided naval collaboration, guns, and some financial loans.

The  traditional Spanish historiography  considers the Granada War  as the final war of the “Reconquista“.

The aftermath of the Granada War saw the end of “convivencia” (“live and let live”) between religions.

Between 1480 and 1492, the Christian Monarchs forced all Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Many Jews and Muslims fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

The Alhambra Decree issued in January 1492 forced the Jews in the Iberian peninsula to convert to Christianity or be exiled. In 1501, all of Granada’s Muslims were obliged to either convert to Christianity, become slaves or be exiled. By 1526, this prohibition spread to the rest of Spain and the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was complete.

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← Previous: Part 1 – Conquest by the Muslims

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The Iberian Peninsula: Part 1 – Conquest by the Muslims


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Greek geographers used the ancient Greek word Ιβηρία (Ibēría) to refer to the land mass known today as the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal). Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC), an early Greek historian  was the first to use this term during the time of the first Persian invasion of Greece which began in 492 BC.

In Europe, after the Scandinavian and Balkan peninsulas, Iberia is the third-largest peninsula, located in the southwest corner of Europe.

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Hispania in 418 AD
Hispania in 418 AD

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Hispania was the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The modern name España derives from Hispania.

Roderic, the last king of the Goths

In 711, an army of Muslim Moors composed of North African Berber soldiers with some Arabs, under Tariq ibn-Ziyad and other Muslim generals, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and landed at Gibraltar. The Islamic army began its conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania ruled by King Roderic, known in the legends as “the last king of the Goths“.

According to the Chronicle of 754, a Latin-language history in 95 sections composed in 754 in a part of Spain under Arab occupation, Roderic immediately upon securing his throne gathered a force to oppose the Moors raiding in the south of the Iberian peninsula.

Since there were just a few freemen among the Goths, Roderic gathered together an army of unwilling slave conscripts. He made several expeditions against the invaders led by the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad.

The early modern historian al-Maqqari, in his “The Breath of Perfume,” places the following long sermon to the troops in Tariq ibn-Ziyad’s mouth before  the Battle of Guadalete:

Oh my warriors, whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy. Remember that in this country you are more unfortunate than the orphan seated at the table of the avaricious master. Your enemy is before you, protected by an innumerable army; he has men in abundance, but you, as your only aid, have your own swords, and, as your only chance for life, such chance as you can snatch from the hands of your enemy.

If the absolute want to which you are reduced is prolonged ever so little, if you delay to seize immediate success, your good fortune will vanish, and your enemies, whom your very presence has filled with fear, will take courage. Put far from you the disgrace from which you flee in dreams and attack this monarch who has left his strongly fortified city to meet you. Here is a splendid opportunity to defeat him, if you will consent to expose yourselves freely to death.

Do not believe that I desire to incite you to face dangers which I shall refuse to share with you. During the attack, I myself will be in the fore, where the chance of life is always least. Remember that if you suffer a few moments in patience, you will afterward enjoy supreme delight. Do not imagine that your fate can be separated from mine, and rest assured that if you fall, I shall perish with you, or avenge you.

You have heard that in this country, there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings.

The Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik, has chosen you for this attack from among all his Arab warriors; and he promises that you shall become his comrades and shall hold the rank of kings in this country. Such is his confidence in your intrepidity. The one fruit which he desires to obtain from your bravery is that the word of God shall be exalted in this country and that the true religion shall be established here. The spoils will belong to yourselves.

Remember that I place myself in the front of this glorious charge which I exhort you to make. At the moment when the two armies meet hand to hand, you will see me, never doubt it, seeking out this Roderick, tyrant of his people, challenging him to combat, if God is willing. If I perish after this, I will have had at least the satisfaction of delivering you, and you will easily find among you an experienced hero, to whom you can confidently give the task of directing you. But should I fall before I reach to Roderick, redouble your ardor, force yourselves to the attack and achieve the conquest of this country, in depriving him of life. With him dead, his soldiers will no longer defy you.

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The weakness of the Visigothic kingdom was displayed in Roderick's stunning defeat at Guadalete / Río Barbate, (July 19, 711). It is believed that Roderick and much of the Visigothic nobility was killed in the battle and aftermath. (Source: histclo.com)
The weakness of the Visigothic kingdom was displayed in Roderick’s stunning defeat at Guadalete / Río Barbate, (July 19, 711). (Source: histclo.com)

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On July 19, 711, Tariq ibn-Ziyad defeated Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete / Río Barbate. Roderic and much of the Visigothic nobility were killed in the battle and aftermath.

Facing no further strong resistance, Tariq swept north toward Toledo, the Visigothic capital.

Al-ʾAndalūs, the Islamic Iberia

In an eight-year campaign, the Moors brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic control. In 719, they crossed the Pyrenees and took control of Septimania, the last province of the Visigothic kingdom. In 721, the Moors tried to conquer Aquitaine from their stronghold of Narbonne, but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Toulouse.

At no point did the invading Islamic armies exceed 60,000 men.

The invading Moors gave the Arabic name Al-ʾAndalūs (الإندلس) to the region under their control, maybe to mean “Land of the Vandals“. The Islamic rule lasted 300 years in much of the Iberian Peninsula and 781 years in Granada.

From their stronghold of Narbonne, the Moors launched raids into the Duchy of Aquitaine, a fiefdom in western, central and southern areas of present-day France to the south of the Loire River.

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Al_Andalus & Christian Kingdoms (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Al_Andalus & Christian Kingdoms (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

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After establishing a local Emirate, Caliph Al-Walid I, ruler of the Umayyad caliphate, recalled many of the successful Muslim commanders to Damascus including Tariq ibn Ziyad, the first governor of the newly conquered province of Al-Andalus. Musa bin Nusair, his former superior replaced him.

Governor Musa’s son, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa, married Egilona, Roderic’s widow. He established his regional government in Seville. Under the influence of his wife, Egilona, he wanted to convert to Christianity. He was then accused of planning a secessionist rebellion, and Caliph Al-Walid I ordered his assassination.

By the year 1100, local Iberian converts to Islam, the so-called Muladi formed the majority of the Iberian population. The term ‘Moor’ was the generic term used to refer to the Islamists that composed the initial Arabs and Berbers and the converted Muladi. The Iberian Peninsula transformed from a Romance-speaking Christian land into an Arabic-speaking Muslim land. However, pockets of Arabic and Romance-speaking Christians called Mozarabs and a large minority of Arabic-speaking Jews survived throughout Al-ʾAndalūs.

In the chronicles and documents of the High Middle Ages the Christians used the terms Spania, España or Espanha derived from Hispania in reference to Muslim controlled areas. King Alfonso I of Aragon (1104–1134) says in his documents when in 1126 he made an expedition to Málaga he “went to the lands of España.

During the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula housed many small states, including Castile, Aragon, Navarre, León and Portugal.

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The five kingdoms of Iberia in 1360.
The five kingdoms of Iberia in 1360.

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Towards the end of the 12th century, the whole Muslim and Christian Iberian Peninsula became known as “Spain” (España, Espanya or Espanha). The term “the Five Kingdoms of Spain” referred to the Mussulman Kingdom of Granada and the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Portugal and Navarre.

The Muslim caliphs competed with each other in the patronage of the arts. From the 8th to the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula incorporated into the Islamic world became a center of culture and learning, especially during the Caliphate of Cordoba. It reached its height under the rule of Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III.

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Next → Part 2 – The Reconquista

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Execution of 27-year-old Henry Pedris 100 Years Ago in Colonial Ceylon


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Map of Ceylon (1914)
Map of Ceylon (1914)

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A hundred years ago, on July 7, 1915, at the height of the anti-Moor riots, the firing squad of the 28th Battalion of the British Punjab Regiment, executed 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at the Welikade Prison. The young man, a Captain of the Colombo Town Guard (CTG) was a prominent socialite and scion of one of the richest families in colonial British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

On May 28, 1915, a petty incident in the town of Gampola in Ceylon, triggered a spate of communal riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims. It is now known as the ‘anti-Moor riots’ or ‘the 1915 riots’. Like wildfire, the riots swept through several districts of the Central, Western and Southern Provinces.

The Muslims in Kandy Town decided not to allow any perahera (procession) of the Buddhists beating the traditional drums, flutes and using any other musical organs to disturb worship at their mosque. But, on the following full Moon Poya Day of Vesak, the Buddhists held their usual perahera, following the usual route. When the perahera was passing the Mosque, a group of irresponsible Muslims  jeered and threw stones at the passing pageant. There was a pandemonium. The Buddhists retaliated resulting in a free-for-all leading to a conflagration.

The riots spread to Matale, Kegalle and even to Colombo. The Sinhala people harassed the Muslims throughout the country, leading to many deaths and loss of property. The Muslims sustained heavy losses.

The Right Honourable GCB PC, 21st Governor of Ceylon.
The Right Honourable Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon.

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Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon, feared he might lose control of the colony. He mistook the riots as a Sinhalese-Buddhist movement to oust the British from Ceylon, through mass violence. So, the British Colonial establishment waged war on the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

The British used untrained volunteers recruited from commercial establishments, shops, factories, and plantations, to suppress the riots.

Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.
Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.

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The soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India to help quell the riots, along with the volunteers unleashed a reign of terror in villages occupied by Sinhala Buddhists. They shot hundreds of civilians on sight and hauled up hundreds of innocent people before the military courts.

According to the available British records, 86 mosques and 17 Christian churches were burnt or damaged, around five boutiques and shops looted, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. But unsubstantiated claims say thousands of Sinhalese died of bullet wounds.

Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris

Our protagonist, the young Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at first attended Royal College Colombo. Later, he joined St. Thomas’ College. He excelled in sports and cricket. He was a member of the school’s first eleven cricket team. After some time, he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and took part in sports activities.

Hendry Pedris riding 'Rally' (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Hendry Pedris riding ‘Rally’ (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

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After he finished school, Henry Pedris was much interested in horse riding. He excelled as a horseman  and had a wide knowledge about horses. A Russian Prince gave the Pedris family a horse named “Rally”. Henry rode the horse with the composure of a prince which made the minions of the British rulers envious of him.

Once, at a cinema hall, a British official walked in and demanded his seat. Henry refused and said that he too had paid the same fare and would enjoy the film from that seat.

Lanka calling

When World War I broke out, the British mobilized the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard (CTG), a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo if attacked.

His father, Duenuge Disan Pedris, had great hopes for his son’s future. He wanted his only son to take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the business sector. But Henry Pedris opted to join the Colombo Town Guard as a private. He was the first Sinhalese to enlist to the new regiment. His excellence in marksmanship and horsemanship made him a commissioned officer in the administrative (mounted) section. Within a year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Though Henry Pedris was by no means anti-British, he was much envied by the British because of this promotion and his immense wealth.

During the ‘anti-Moor riots’, Captain Henry Pedris was responsible for the defense of the city. He was successful in disbanding several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.

The shooting incidence in Pettah

On June 1, 1915, when Henry Pedris was at his shop on Main Street, Pettah,  a  mob of Moors advanced towards his shop. Pedris came out with a gun and fired six shots into the crowd. One of the bullets hit police constable Seneviratne in the head.

Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.
Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.

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Many British and jealous Sinhalese henchmen led by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and adviser to the Governor), wished Henry Pedris and his rich family ill. They brought charges against him. They accused Henry Pedris of inciting people to march to Colombo from suburban Peliyagoda. He was also charged with shooting at the Moorish mob and attempted murder of constable Seneviratne, even though the constable survived.

The British officers and Punjabi soldiers  raided the Pedris’ residence on Turret Road.  They then broke the doors and almirahs and rifled the whole house, searching for any incriminating documents. They arrested Henry Pedris and incarcerated him in the Welikada Jail.

On June 2, 1915, Martial law came into effect throughout the country. Due to the rigor of the enforced martial law, normalcy returned within ten days. However, the Martial law was in force until August 30, 1915.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)

On July 1, 1915, a military court tried Henry Pedris. Sir Hector Van Culenburg, the elected Legislative Council member pleaded for Henry Pedris. Many prominent citizens and educationists, both British and Ceylonese alike, including Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan appealed against the judgment. An appeal was also made to King George V.

Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Layard Dowbiggin, were adamant that Henry Pedris should die.  They wanted to make the swift execution of Captain Henry Pedris a lesson for the  ringleaders of the anti-British movement.

The three presiding military judges declared Henry Pedris guilty and branded him a traitor.

The Ceylon Observer of July 5, 1915, records the death sentence passed on Henry Pedris. He was charged with “treason, shop-breaking, attempted murder and wounding with intent to murder.

The military court sentenced him to death by firing squad and set July 7, 1915, as the date of execution, without any form of appeal.

The British rulers imprisoned more 86 prominent Sinhalese leaders, members of an emerging Ceylonese élite for ‘waging war against the King‘ and abetting the riots against ‘His Majesty’s Moorish subjects.‘ Among the arrested were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena,  F. R. Senanayake, Edwin Wijeyeratne, D. B.Jayatilaka, Dr. Cassius Pereira, Dr. W. A. de Silva, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Dr. C. A. Hewavitharana, H. Amarasuriya, A. H. Molamure, A. E. Goonesinghe and several others.

Execution of Captain Henry Pedris

At 7.30 a.m., on the day of the execution, Additional District Judge Arthur Charles Allnut, a graduate of the Oxford University and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, ordered that the 86 Sinhala-Buddhist notables to  line up in the veranda outside L-Hall in Welikade Prison, and watch Henry Pedris walk to his death.

Captain Henry Pedris dressed in his Town Guard uniform, but stripped of his rank, marched with his head held high and chest forward. At the site of the execution, they strapped him to a chair.

Before his execution, Henry Pedris requested that he be shot by a Punjabi firing squad, and not a British squad, as the Punjabi soldiers were Non-Christian and Asians. Allnut acceded to his request. He ordered the soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India, to carry out the sentence. Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris rejected the blindfold offered to him. He faced the Punjabis without any fear.

After the execution, F. R. Senanayake on seeing the limp body of Henry Pedris slumped in the chair to which he was strapped, vowed that he would initiate a concerted struggle to free the country from British colonial rule.

The prison authorities then took the blood-soaked chair on which Captain Hendry Pedris sat when shot to the prison cells to warn the incarcerated Sinhalese leaders, including D. S. Senanayake, the  future first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, that they could be next.

Burial of Captain Henry Pedris

Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)
Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)

Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)
Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)

The British refused to hand over the body of Henry Pedris to his grieving parents who wanted to accord their dead son a Buddhist burial with attendant religious rites.

Before burying the body of Henry Pedris, the British rulers declared Martial law for the first time in the whole island.

They transported the body of Henry Pedris to the Kanatte cemetery in great secrecy at midnight in the midst of martial law. The British had come to know that his father Duenuge Disan Pedris had owned several family burial plots at the General Cemetery at Kanatte in Borella. They chose one of these plots for the burial. It was the only burial not recorded in the General Cemetery registers or any other official register, since 1910. For the first time, the British rulers declared Martial law in the whole island.

Duenuge Disan Pedris had not only lost his only son, but he also lost two of his sons-in-law who were also incarcerated in the Welikada Prison. Though disheartened, he was silent as he did not want any more of his family members imprisoned by the British.

Most Ceylonese viewed the execution of 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris as unjust. The Sri Lankan patriotic leaders took the cue from his death and projected him as a martyr. His death motivated the pioneering patriotic leaders of the liberation movements organize themselves and strive for a concerted campaign to liberate the country from the harsh British rule.

The execution of Henry Pedris and the many unjustifiable and arbitrary  brutal acts committed by the British during the 1915 riots hastened the formation of the Ceylon National Congress on December 11, 1919 by members of the Ceylon National Association (founded in 1888) and the Ceylon Reform League (founded in 1917).

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