Category Archives: Pearls

The Paravars: Chapter 10 – Conversion to Catholicism


Myself 

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous The Paravars: Chapter 9 – Seeking Help from the Portuguese

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In 1534, the Malabarian João da Cruz trading in Arabian horses, was in Cape Comorin waiting for payment for the horses he had sold.  The distraught Paravar leaders who knew about his connections with the Portuguese met him and told their woes.

João da Cruz felt sorry for the Paravars who were then fearing atrocities from the Muslims. He told the Paravars that as the past events showed they could not expect help from the Viceroy of Madura. So, to find a permanent solution to their problem he advised them to approach the Portuguese Captain of Cochin who would be willing to help them.

So in 1535, fifteen of the most influential Pattangattis (Parava leaders) led by Vikirama Aditha Pandya, accompanied João da Cruz to Cochin.

Here there seems to be a discrepancy in the name of the place that João da Cruz took the Paravars to. Some writers say that João da Cruz accompanied Vikirama Aditha Pandya and the other Pattangattis to Goa and it had been duplicated by others, but from what I have read I would like to differ.

In Cochin, Captain Pero Vaz de Amaral received them cordially since the Portuguese were waiting for such an opportunity to gain a strategic foothold and control of the pearl fisheries in the Coromandel Coast. He said that the protection would be granted on the condition that the leaders who had come were baptised immediately as Catholics and that they would encourage their people also to convert to Catholicism. To this, they gladly consented.

As part of the arrangement for protection from the Muslims, Vikirama Aditha Pandya offered to manage the pearl diving on behalf of the Portuguese.

Fortunately for the Paravars, Fr. Miguel Vaz, Vicar General of India, was in Cochin at that time and he instructed them in the Christian faith. Some days later they were baptized.

Fortunately for them, Fr. Miguel Vaz, Vicar General of India, was in Cochin at that time and he instructed them in the Christian faith. Some days later they were baptized.

In Volume 6, page 123 of his work “Castes And Southern India“, Edgar Thurston quotes what Philippus Baldaeus, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church said concerning the Paravas:

The Paruas being sorely oppress’d by the Mahometan, one John de Crus, a Native of Malabar, but who had been in Portugal, and honourably treated by John, the then king of Portugal, advised them to seek for Aid at Cochin against the Moors, and to receive Baptism. According‘ly some of the chief Men among them (call’d Patangatays in their Language) were sent upon that Errand to Cochin, where being kindly receiv’d, they (in honour of him who had given His Advice) took upon them the Sirname of Crus, a name still retain’d by most persons of Note among the Paruas.

So, as described by Philippus Baldaeus, the name João da Cruz was appended to the name of all the Pattangattis including Vikirama Aditha Pandya to honour the Malabarian who guided them and brought them to Cochin to be baptized and seek the help of the Portuguese.

When the baptized leaders returned to the Fishery Coast the other Paravars at first did not believe the report they brought back with them; so a larger delegation of eighty-five Paravars was sent to Cochin.

On  getting wind of these negotiations between the Paravars and the Portuguese, the Middle Eastern Arab Merchants who were then trading in the Pearl Fishery Coast dispatched two envoys to Cochin to bribe the Portuguese Captain Pero Vaz de Amaral, to not allow conversion of the Paravars to Catholicism, but Pero Vaz Amaral refused to do so.

Captain Pero Vaz immediately arranged for the baptism of 85 Paravar leaders in Cochin by the Vicar General, Miguel Vaz, probably in December 1535. The Paravar leaders were given Portuguese names as surnames such as Fernando, Pereira, Vaz,  Almeida, Peres, da Cruz and so forth.

In 1536, Peter Goncalves the vicar of Cochin and three other priests came to the Coromandel Coast along with a naval force conveying troops. They found the men of the Hindu Paravar community assembled for the pearl-fishery and then and there baptized them en masse to Catholicism. It is said that 20,000 Paravars were baptized. The women and children who had been left behind in the villages during the fishery were added to the flock later.

By the end of the year 1537, most of the Hindu Paravars of the seven Paravar villages – Manapadu, Alanthalai, Virapandiapattanam, Punnaikaval, Thoothukudi, Vembar and Vaipar – were baptized and were accepted as subjects of the King of Portugal. Some, however, did not receive baptism till the arrival of Saint Xavier at the end of 1542.

On June 27, 1538, the Portuguese proceeded to destroy the Arab fleet when they met fortuitously at Vedalai in the present Ramanathapuram district.

The Portuguese then firmly settled the rights and privileges of the Paravas and the Rajas no longer dared to interfere with the Paravas or attempt to impede or abridge their prerogative on the Pearl Fishery Coast. The Rajas were then compelled to allow separate laws for the Paravas from those which bound their own subjects.

The Portuguese kept for themselves the command at sea and exercised their sovereignty over the Paravas, their villages, harbours and the pearl fisheries.

Thus the Paravas dwindled into subordination to the Catholic priests and the Portuguese and had to forego having their own chiefs and their own laws. Though the Catholic Paravar community as a whole enjoyed renewed prosperity from that point in history, they became a client community of the Portuguese.

In reality, the declaration of acceptance of the Catholic faith by the Paravars did not prevent them from continuing to worship their old deities of the Hindu pantheon in the manner they had done before being baptized. There were no translators to spread the Catholic message from Latin and Portuguese to Tamil. Also, the conversion was seen by the Paravar people as being merely a convenient arrangement to obtain protection from the atrocities of the Muslims. In fact, the Paravas became a “Christian caste in Hindu society“, whose distinctive Catholic rites and doctrines came to reinforce their place in the Hindu caste structure.

The Portuguese first settled in Tuticorin in 1543, and the port began to expand until it eventually became the hub of the pearl fishery.

In 1543, the Portuguese rewarded Vikirama Aditha Pandya alias João da Cruz for his bartering with the elders of the Paravar caste to convert the community to Christianity since 1535. They offered him the management of the pearl fisheries on their behalf. He became known as Senhor dos Senhores Dom João da Cruz (“first among notables Dom João da Cruz”). The Portuguese recognised him as jathi thalaivan (head of the caste) and also as their official intermediary from 1543 to 1553.

The Portuguese also recognised the caste elders in the various villages perhaps because they were the first to be converted. In the eyes of the Paravars and non-Paravars alike, this led to a formal system of hierarchical control, based on religious authority and economic standing that extended from the jathi thalaivan to the elders and then to the villagers.

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To be continued…

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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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Next: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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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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