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


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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

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The Paravars, along with Mukkuvar and Karaiyars are the oldest groups of the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. These three seafaring-related social groups are regionally distributed and are predominantly found in the Pearl Fishery Coasts on both sides of the Gulf of Mannar with each group dominating a certain coastal belt. Moreover, there has been significant intermarriages among the Paravar, Mukkuvar, and Karaiyar castes.

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

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Prior to the 16th century, the 60 or more hamlets, villages and towns on the Coromandel Coast were solely occupied by the Hindu Paravars interspersed with villages occupied by Muslim Paravars. There were also Paravar settlements located away from the coastal areas. On the Sri Lankan side, the Paravars inhabited the coastal areas from Jaffna to Negombo.

The Parava pearl harvesters were forever exposed to the dangers of hostile sea creatures such as sharks, underwater currents, surface waves, drowning as a result of shallow water blackout on resurfacing; and when the divers climb back on board, the water coming out of their noses and ears is tinted with blood. They generally don’t live to advanced age: their vision weakens, ulcers break out in their eyes, sores form on their bodies, and some are even stricken with apoplexy on the ocean floor.

In his book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World, the French novelist Jules Gabriel Verne writes about the perils encountered by the pearl oyster harvesters of the Pearl Fishery Coast in the Gulf of Mannar. Though the book published in 1870 is a fiction, Jules Verne’s description in Chapter 3 about the hazards encountered by the Parava pearl harvesters in the Gulf of Mannar is real.

In some regions of the Pearl Fishery Coast in southern India, pearl oysters could be found on shoals at a depth of 5–7 feet (1.325–2 meters) from the surface, and in the pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar at depths ranging from 30 feet to 90 feet (9 to 27 metres). However,  divers had to go 40 feet (12 meters) or even up to 125 feet (40 meters) deep to find enough pearl oysters, and these deep dives were extremely hazardous to the divers. The pearl-divers had no technology to aid their survival at such depths.

Some pearl-divers greased their bodies to conserve heat, put greased cotton in their ears. Some wore a tortoise-shell clip to close their nostrils. Many divers gripped a large heavy object such as a rock to descend to avoid the wasteful effort of swimming down.

The Parava pearl harvesters dived down to the seabeds on the ocean floor to gather the pearl oysters or mussels. The oysters were then brought to the surface, opened, and the tissues searched. To find at least 3-4 quality pearls more than a ton of oysters need to be searched.

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

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Like Jules Verne, Captain James Steuart, Master Attendant at Colombo, in his book Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon (1834) describes a typical pearl-diving session:

The crew of a boat consists of a tindal or master, ten divers, and thirteen other men, who manage the boat, and attend the divers when fishing; each boat has five diving stones, the ten divers relieving each other so that five divers are constantly at work during the hours of fishing.

The weight of the diving-stones varies from fifteen to twentyfive pounds, according to the size of the diver; some stout men find it necessary to have from four to eight pounds of Stone in a waist belt, to enable them to keep at the bottom of the sea till they have filled their net with oysters: the form of a. diving-stone resembles a pine, and it is suspended by a double cord.

The net is of coir-rope yarns, eighteen inches deep, fastened to a hoop eighteen inches wide, fairly slung to a single cord. On preparing to commence fishing, the diver divests himself of all his clothes except a small piece of cloth; after offering up his devotions, he plunges into the sea, and swims to his diving-stone, which his attendants have hung over the side of the boat; he then places his right foot or toes between the double cord on the divingostone, and the bight of the double cord being passed over a stick projecting from the side of the boat, he is enabled, by grasping all parts of the rope, to support himself and the stone, and raise or lower the latter for his own convenience, while he remains at the surface; he then puts his left foot on the hoop of the net, and presses it against the diving-stone, retaining the cord in his hand; the attendants taking care that the cords are clear for running out of the boat.

The diver being thus prepared, he raises his body as much as he is able, drawing a full breath, and pressing his nostrils between his thumb and finger, he slips his hold of the bight of the diving stone double cord, from over the projecting stick, and descends as rapidly as the stone will sink him.

On reaching the bottom, he abandons the stone (which is hauled up by the attendants to be ready to take him down again) clings to the ground, and commences filling his net: to accomplish this, he will sometimes creep over a space of eight or ten fathoms, and, remain under water a minute; when he wishes to ascend, he checks the cord of the net, which is instantly felt by the attendants, who begin hauling up as fast as they are able; the diver remains with the net until it is so far clear of the bottom as to be in no danger of upsetting: he then pulls himself up by the cord; which his attendants are likewise pulling, and when by these means his body has acquired an impetus upwards, he forsakes the cord, places his hands to his thighs, rapidly ascends to the surface, swims to his diving-stone, and by the time the contents of his net have been emptied into the boat, is ready to go down again. A single diver will take up in a day from one thousand to four thousand oysters.

They seldom remain above a minute underwater: the more common time is from fifty-three to fiftyseven seconds; but when requested to remain as long as possible, I have timed them from eighty-four to eighty-seven seconds: they are warned of the time to ascend by a singing noise in the ears, and finally by a sensation similar to hiccough.

Many divers will not venture down until the shark-charmer is on the bank, and has secured the mouths of the sharks: while some are provided with a written charm from their priests, which they wrap up in oil-cloth perfectly secure from the water, and dive with it on their persons. … This worthy man is paid by the government and is also allowed a perquisite of ten oysters from every boat daily during the fishery.

The hazardous, ritually polluting traditional work of the Paravars such as harvesting pearl oysters and deep sea fishing required courage, resourcefulness, strength and other survival skills. Though they were hardened adventurers, they were also threatened and oppressed by stronger predators coming from inland fortresses or from deep-water fleets manned by Arab and Lebbais (Tamil  Muslim Paravars). The latter constantly threatened, raided, pillaged or enslaved the Paravars.

The claim that the Paravars were warriors under the liege of Pandyan emperors is in a certain way true because the Paravars of the Pear Fishery Coast did have armies to protect the fisheries and their people from the attacking Arabs and the Tamil Muslim Paravars.

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

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

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • Account of the Pearl Fisheries of the North-West Coast of the Island of Ceylon by James Steuart Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 3

 

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


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period

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The Arab invasion of northern India began in 712 AD at the Sindh Valley and by 1300 AD they had subjugated entire northern India.

The Muhammadan Invasion from the  north

Bishop R. Caldwell in his work “History of Tinnevelly” says in Chapter II, page 44:

The Muhammadans appeared in the Dekhan in 1295, when Alauud-din took Devagiri.

On October 21, 1296, Alauddin Khilji was formally proclaimed as the Sultan in Delhi.  Alauddin’s slave-general Malik Kafur led multiple campaigns to the south of the Vindhyas: Devagiri (1308 AD), Warangal (1310 AD) and Dwarasamudra (1311 AD) forcing the Yadava king Ramachandra, the Kakatiya king Prataparudra, and the Hoysala king Ballala III to become Alauddin’s tributaries.

In 1310 AD, the Pandya kingdom was reeling under a war of succession between the two brothers Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III and Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, sons of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. In the middle of 1310 Veera Pandyan with the help of his army vanquished Sundara Pandyan who then took refuge in Delhi under the protection of Sultan Alauddin Khilji.

During March–April 1311, taking advantage of the fraternal feud for succession to the throne, Malik Kafur raided several places in the Pandya kingdom, including the capital Madurai and plundered and appropriated all the riches there—diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies, gold, elephants etc.

After Kafur’s departure to Delhi, the Pandya brothers Sundara Pandyan and Veera Pandyan resumed their conflict which resulted in the defeat of Sundara Pandyan, who again decided to seek the assistance of Alauddin Khilji.

Alauddin again sent his army under Malik Kafur to subjugate Veera Pandyan. Malik Kafur entered Madurai and penetrated the Coromandel Coast with his army.

Amir Khusru, the court-poet of Alauddin Khilji who had accompanied Malik Kafur in his expeditions to the Pandya kingdoms refers to some Muslims who had been subjects of the Pandya kings and their wish to join Malik Kafur’s ranks. Kafur pardoned and accepted them into his ranks as they could recite the ‘Kalima’, the profession of faith, though they were ‘half Hindus’ and not so strict in their religious observances. Amir Khusru’s remark about they being ‘half Hindus’ can be surmised as “recent converts to Islam” who would not have abandoned their Tamil culture in dress, manners, language, etc., but Islam would have become central to their lives, given their capacity to recite the Kalima.

This brings out the fact that local Muslim communities had struck strong roots in the Tamil country by the fourteenth century. As Amir Khusru does not mention anything about their Arab ancestry, it could be reasonably concluded that a good number of them were local Hindu Tamils of various castes including the Hindu Paravars converted to Islam and many of whom would have served in the Pandya army, probably under the influence of Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, who in addition to being appointed by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.

By 1314, with help of Alauddin Khilji’s forces, Sundara Pandyan re-established his rule in the South Arcot region.

Later, during the reign of Alauddin’s son Qutb-ud-din Mubarak Shah Khilji , his slave general Khusrau Khan raided the Pandya territories. Over the next two decades, the northern part of the Pandya kingdom was captured by the Mohammedans, first under the control of the Tughluq dynasty, and later became part of the short-lived Madurai Sultanate. However, the southernmost part of the Pandya territory where the Paravar community lived remained independent.

The Muhammadans from Kerala

Even prior to the Arab invasion of northern India, there were Middle Eastern Arab traders in Calicut, Quilon and Malabar in southern India. This region was in the major sea trade route running through south-east Asia and on to China. The Arabs traded spices, cotton, precious stones and pearls. Some of these Arabs were also pearl divers who had gained their experience in the waters of the Persian Gulf.

The Zamorins (Malayalam: സാമൂതിരി/സാമൂരി / Samoothiri) – originally Eradis of Nediyirippu (Eranadu) were based at the city of Kozhikode, one of the important trading ports on the south-western coast of India. In the early 12th century, after the fall of the Cheras of Cranganore (Kodungallur), the Zamorins asserted their political independence. At the peak of their reign, the Zamorin’s ruled over a region from Kollam (Quilon) to Panthalayini Kollam. They maintained elaborate trade relations with the Middle-Eastern Arab sailors who plied the Indian Ocean and patronized them. Hence, the evolution of Kozhikode as a trading centre of international repute.

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The Zamorin of Kozhikode (1495–1500) on his throne as painted by Veloso Salgado in 1898.

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The Zamorins were not antagonistic towards the local Hindu converts to Islam. In fact, the Mappila community, the foremost among the Muslim communities of Kerala is traced back to the Arab merchants who settled at the seaports of Kerala who by marrying the native low caste Hindu women, made possible a constant increase in the Muslim population. This fact is confirmed by the 16th-century writer Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer and officer from Portuguese India who says in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), that the Moors of Malabar married as many wives as they could support and kept many concubines of low caste (of the Tiyan or Mukkuwa caste) as well. If they had children from these alliances, they made them Moors. He also makes it clear that one-fifth of the total population of Kozhikode belonged to the Muslim community whose settlements were situated adjacent to the port and shores.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the powerful seafaring Arabs having the support of the local South Indian rulers like the Zamorin of Calicut coerced the under-privileged Tamil Paravars of the caste-ridden Hindu society to embrace Islam. They converted a significant number of Paravars to Islam through preaching and by marrying Tamil Paravar women, thus giving rise to a new generation – the Muslim Paravars.

The descendants of these Muslim Paravars became known as the Lebbais and their main settlement was the town of Kayal. Kayal is the Tamil word for a backwater.

In 1292, Marco Polo described Kayal as a bustling port and the centre of the pearl trade. The town of Kayal was known to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India in 1497 by sea. Duarte Barbosa, mentions Kayal in his book Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), one of the earliest examples of Portuguese travel literature.

By the mid-16th century, the port at Kayal probably ceased to operate and was replaced by another port, Punnaikayal (new Kayal) under the influence of the Portuguese colonists. Punnaikayal was at the mouth of the river, which as part of an estuary was under constant change, around 4 km from Palayakayal (old Kayal). It is difficult to determine with any consistency which of these locations is being referred to at various times by various authors but what does appear to be a common factor is that this was until modern times a major port for the pearl trade.

Kayalpattanam, Kulasekaranpattanam and Kilakkarai were the main villages of the Tamil Muslim Paravars.

 

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

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • History of Tinnevelly by Bishop R. Caldwell, Asian Educational Services.

The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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There are different methods of assessment to understand any particular society. For example, in accordance with their respective academic and social backgrounds the anthropologists, ethnologists, and sociologists all attempt to study and understand communities. However, a complete understanding of any given community is impossible without taking its historical background and it requires an unbiased and unprejudiced approach. The writing of this series on the Paravars has been motivated by such a sense of responsibility.

As south India is situated along the ancient maritime trade routes that connected Europe and West Asia with the Indian subcontinent and East Asia, it was but natural that the ancient Tamil literature is replete with references to foreigners such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and the Chinese.

In his work on ancient India, Ptolemy who appears to have resided in Alexandria during the first half of the second century AD had identified Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) and the Gulf of Mannar as a centre of pearl fishery. He had also mentioned that Korkai, the ancient Tamil port city to the east of Kanyakumari, as the cynosure of pearl trade.

An Arabic work of the tenth century, Adja’ib Al-Hind, refers to a merchant from Alexandria known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, who sailed to south India in the sixth century AD before Egypt was Arabised or Islamised.

To the pre-Islamic Arabs, ports and towns in South India, Ceylon, and south-east Asia were along their trade routes to China. In ancient Tamil literature, the pre-Islamic Arabs along with the Greeks, Romans, Persians and Jews, who had fled their homes in West Asia, were frequently referred to as Yavanas.

In the seventh century AD, the Islamic political-cum-religious revolution, based on the principle of equality that swept across Arabia opened a new chapter in world history. Very soon,  parts of the world stretching from Spain to Arabia and from Arabia to China, Persia, and Sind in the Indian sub-continent, came under the influence of the revolutionary wave of Islam.

Among the early Islamised Arab travellers who sailed to India in the 9th-century was Sulaiman al-Tajir. He was a merchant, traveller and writer initially from Siraf in modern-day Iran. He made several voyages from the Persian Gulf to the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and China and wrote an account of his voyages around ad 850 AD.

J. B. Prashant More in his book “Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu” writes that Abu Zeyed Al Hassan of Siraf, though he had never set foot on Indian soil, edited and completed the work of Sulaiman al-Tajir by gathering information from merchants and travellers who had been to India and that he has left us a vivid account of certain social and political conditions of southern India and Ceylon.

According to Abu Zeyed in the densely populated country called ‘Al-Comary’, which has been identified as Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), the inhabitants went barefoot, abstained from licentiousness and from all sorts of wine, and that ‘nothing indecent’ was to be seen in this region. However, Abu Zeyed mentions the ‘Devadasi’ custom that was prevalent in the country, where some females were consecrated to the gods and such females were allowed to have sexual relationships with foreigners in exchange for money.

Also, Abu Zeyed notes that the men and women of Ceylon were extreme licentious and even the king’s daughter did not hesitate to flirt with a newly arrived Arab merchant, with the full knowledge of the king. On account of such sexual permissiveness, Arab merchants of integrity avoided sending their vessels to Ceylon, especially when there were young men on board.

Neither Sulaiman nor Abu Zeyed refer to the presence of Tamil Muslim communities of mixed descent or otherwise, during the 9th-century. However, there is a strong possibility, though it cannot be clearly ascertained, whether relationships either with the women of the Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar or with the Devadasis of the Kanyakumari country resulted in offspring of mixed Arab-Indian descent.

Both Ibn Khurdadba (d. 912 AD), the famous Arabian traveller, historian and geographer who converted to Islam and the Arab historian Al Masudi (896–956), who were contemporaries of Abu Zeyed have nothing more to add to our knowledge of the origin of Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast. However, Ibn Khurdadba noted that in the country of Kumar (Kanyakumari), both drinking wine and fornication were unlawful.

During the second half of the tenth century, neither did the Persian writer, Al-Istakhri (d. 957 AD), nor the Arab Muslim writer Ibn Hawqal (d. 978 AD), who spent the last 30 years of his life traveling to remote parts of Asia and Africa, shed any light on the Tamil Muslims of the Coromandel coast.

In the 9th century, Southern India came under the control of the Cholas but around the mid-1200s, after a series of battles reverted back to the control of the Pandyan kings.

The 9th century Tamil classic Thiruvasakam written by Manikkavasagar does not shed any light on the Tamil Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast but mentions the Arab horse traders. that was carried on in the Tamil country with the Arabs.

Though the 12th century Tamil classic Periya Puranam written by the great poet Sekkilar does not mention the presence of Tamil Muslims on the Coromandel coast, we nevertheless find in it many references to ships, merchants and the conservative nature of the then Tamil society.

The earliest available written records by a foreigner about the Tamils of the southern coast are the accounts of Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian traveller, merchant, explorer, and writer. In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a merchant ship he entered the kingdom of the Tamil Pandyas on the Coromandel coast. His accounts reveal that the most powerful sovereign of the Indian sub-continent of that period was Nasiruddin Mahmud, the Turkish Sultan of Delhi and though both Sind and Bengal acknowledged his supremacy, no part of south India was under his control.

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King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I

During the middle part of the 13th century, the Pandya kingdom was ruled by many princes of the royal line. This practice of shared rule with one prince asserting primacy over the others was common in the Pandyan Kingdom.

Between 1268–1308/1310 AD, the Pandyan king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I ruled most of the regions of the Pandya kingdom by asserting his primacy over other princes of the Pandyan royal family. The other co-rulers of the Pandiyan kingdom were Jatavarman Vira Pandyan I (ruled 1253-1275 AD), Maravarman Vikkiraman III (acceded 1283 AD) and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan II (acceded 1277 CE).

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Yapahuwa rock fortress (Photo: Adam Khan)

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In Sri Lanka, Bhuvanaika Bahu I, the king of Dambadeniya who reigned from 1272 to 1284 AD moved his capital northward to Yapahuwa, lying midway between Kurunegala and Anuradhapura for security. The citadel Yapahuwa was built around a huge isolated granite rock rising abruptly almost a hundred meters above the surrounding lowlands which he strengthened with ramparts and trenches. The fortress was also known as Subhagiri as the rock was used by a military officer named Subha before King Bhuvenekabahu converted into his citadel.

In the late 1270s, King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan sent an expedition to Sri Lanka headed by his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti who defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He then plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan”s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.

Sri Lanka was under Pandyan Suzerainty for the next twenty years and regained its independence only in 1308 AD.

The Persian historian Abdulla Wassaf of Shiraz claims that an Arab Muslim named Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, son of Muhammadut Tibi was appointed by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser, he was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.

In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a typical merchant ship the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo arrived on the Coromandel Coast of India. Marco Polo refers to king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I as the “eldest of five brother kings“. His accounts reveal that the hitherto independent kingdoms of southern India were as yet untouched by foreign conquest and the gold accumulated through the ages lay in their temples and treasuries, making them easy prey for any invader.

Marco Polo identified the port at Kayal under the control of king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan. Ships from the Islamised countries of Hormuz, Kis, Dofar and Soer, Aden and the other Arabic countries touched Kayal, carrying merchandise and horses. Foreign merchants, mostly Arabs and Persians, were well received and treated with fairness by the ruler of Kayal who might have been Takiuddin Abdur Rahman.

In 1296 AD, Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, the illegitimate but favourite older son of Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan associated himself with the government. Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III, the legitimate younger son attained to that dignity sometime in 1302 AD.

Sundara Pandyan felt discontented by the preference given to Veera Pandyan by his father by advancing him to the position of co-regency. According to Muslim historians, Wassaf and Amir Khusrow, in 1310 AD, Sundara Pandyan killed his father Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan in a moment of rashness and placed the crown on his head in the city of Madurai. With the support of the troops loyal to him, he moved a part of the royal treasures to the city of Mankul (must be one of the Mangalams, Méla Mangalam or Kila Mangalam, in the western hills, not far from Madura and quite close to Periyakulam.)

The death of King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan led to a long protracted war between his sons Veera Pandyan and Sundara Pandyan that lasted from 1308 to 1323.  During a skirmish, both the brothers fled from the battle field, each ignorant of the fate of the other but Veera Pandyan being unfortunate, and having been wounded, seven elephant loads of the gold fell to the army of Sundara Pandyan.

Until then, during Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan’s rule which extended over forty years, neither any foreign enemy entered his kingdom, nor any severe malady confined him to bed.

Until then, the Paravar community lived and traded their catch of fish and natural pearl oysters in peace and prospered.

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

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

 

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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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Islands in the Gulf of Mannar: Part 3 – Islands and Islets of Sri Lanka


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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The island nation of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean has several small offshore islands and islets as well as islets in its various bays and lagoons.

I have listed below, in alphabetical order, most of the known islands (and islets) lying in the waters of the Gulf of Mannar on the western coast of Sri Lanka. Please note that this list is not comprehensive.

Mannar District, Northern Province

  • Kalliaditivu / Galadi doova, 1.71 sq km, 8°56′54″N 79°54′42″E.
  • Mannar Island / Mannaram doopatha, 126.46 sq km, 9°03′10″N 79°49′42″E.
  • Puliyantivu / Kotidoova, 0.90 sq km, 8°57′19″N 79°54′01″E.

Puttalam District, North Western Province

  • Ambanttativu / Sambanda-doova, 0.17 sq km, 8°12′40″N 79°46′06″E. In Puttalam Lagoon.
  • Erumaitivu / Mahisadoova, 0.90 sq km, 8°16′07″N 79°46′44″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Henativu / Havativu / Haavadoova, 0.78 sq km, 7°58′22″N 79°49′09″E. In the channel between Puttalam Lagoon and Mundal Lagoon.
  • Ippantivu / Ibbandoova, 0.76 sq km, 8°19′49″N 79°48′22″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Karaditivu / Karadiva, 0.09 sq km, 7°54′42″N 79°48′54″E. In channel between Puttalam Lagoon and Mundal Lagoon.
  • Karaitivu, 8°27′45″N 79°47′15″E. West of Portugal Bay.
  • Mantivu / Maandoova, 0.38 sq km, 7°42′03″N 81°39′43″E. In the channel between Puttalam Lagoon and Mundal Lagoon.
  • Maripututivu / Maliputhu diva, 0.10sq km, 8°10′33″N 79°44′59″E. In Puttalam Lagoon.
  • Mattutivu / Maddu doova, 0.12sq km, 8°13′02″N 79°47′00″E. In Puttalam Lagoon.
  • Neduntivu / Maedundoova, 0.10 sq km, 8°14′06″N 79°46′45″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Oddakarentivu / Uddakadoova, 0.20 sq km, 8°16′37″N 79°45′54″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Periya Arichchal / Maha Arakgala,0.32 sq km, 8°17′59″N 79°47′45″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Periyativu / Mahadoova, 1.10 sq km, 7°56′57″N 79°48′58″E.
  • Pullupiddi / Kotipitiya, 0.11 sq km, 8°11′21″N 79°46′40″E. In Puttalam Lagoon.
  • Sinna Arichchal / Podi Arakgal, 0.16 sq km, 8°17′02″N 79°47′32″E. In Dutch Bay.
  • Udayurputi / Udukurupoththa, 0.42 sq km, 8°10′07″N 79°48′31″E. In Puttalam Lagoon.

Mannar Island

Mannar Island. (Source:- Google Map)
Mannar Island. (Source:- Google Map)

Of these listed islands, Mannar Island is the largest having an area of 48.83 square miles (126.46 sq km). It is a part of Mannar District. It is linked to the main island of Sri Lanka by a causeway.

The island is dry and barren, mainly covered with vegetation and sand.

The main occupation of the people living in the area is fishing.

Major settlements are Mannar and Erukkulampiddi on its eastern coast, and Pesalai on its northern coast. All these towns are connected by the A14 road which leads across the bridge to mainland Sri Lanka.

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Islands in the Gulf of Mannar: Part 2 – The 21 Islands of India


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Government of India has established 18 Biosphere Reserves of India. Nine of these biosphere reserves are a part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, based on the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme list. This list includes the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve that covers an area of 4,054 square miles (10,500 sq km) on the south-east coast of India in the Gulf of Mannar.

In addition to protecting the flora and fauna in the region, protection is also given to the human communities who live in these regions, and to their ways of life.

Gulf of Mannar is one of the richest coastal regions in southeast Asia. It nurtures over 3,600 species of flora and fauna. Biological researchers have identified more than a hundred hard coral species. Dolphins, sharks, sea turtles and oysters abound in the gulf. Frequent visitors to the gulf are the globally endangered sea cow (Dugong dugong), a large marine herbivorous mammal. Other endangered species are the dolphins, whales and sea cucumbers. Also, the gulf has six endangered mangrove species endemic to peninsular India.

The Indian coast in the Gulf of Mannar extends from Rameswaram island in the North to Kanyakumari in the South of Tamil Nadu.

The Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park is a protected area of India consisting of 21 small islands in the Gulf of Mannar covering an area of nearly 216 square miles (560 sq km). It lies up to 10 km away from the east coast of Tamil Nadu, South India, stretching about 160 km between Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) and Dhanushkodi. It is the core area of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve which includes a 10 km buffer zone around the park, including the populated coastal area. The park is endowed with a high diversity of plants and animals in its marine, intertidal and near shore habitats. The park is part of the 87 miles (140 km) long and 15.5 miles (25 km) wide Mannar barrier reef. It lies between 8° 47’ to 9° 15’ N latitude and 78° 12’ to 79° 14’ E longitude.

The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve comprises the 21 islands of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, with estuaries, mudflats, beaches, forests of the near shore environment, including marine components like algal communities, sea grasses, coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves.

The 21 islands vary from 0.25 hectares (0.62 acre) to 130 hectares. (321.2 acres). Total area of the islands is 2.41 sq miles (6.23 sq km).  Well-developed coral reefs occur around all these offshore islands which are mainly composed of calcareous framework of dead reef and sand,and have a low and narrow sandy coast.

Indian Islands in the Gulf of Mannar.
The 21 Indian Islands in the Gulf of Mannar.

The islands are listed below, southwest to northeast.

Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) group (Four Islands):

1. Vaan Tivu, 16.00 ha, 8.83639°N 78.21047°E
2. Koswari Island, 19.50 ha, 8.86879°N 78.22506°E
3. Kariyashulli Island, 16.46 ha, 8.95409°N 78.25235°E;
*4. Vilangushulli Island, 0.95 ha, 8.93815°N 78.26969°E.

*Due to excessive coral mining, Vilangushulli Island island is now 1 metre below mean low tide level.

There were two more islands named Pandayan and Punnaiyadi at 8.78075°N 78.19536°E. But these were destroyed during the construction of the new artificial deep-sea Tuticorn Port.

There are numerous other nondescript islands located close to Thoothukudi city. Of these Muyal (or Hare) Thivu and Nalla Thanni Islands attract visitors during weekends and festival seasons.

Vembar group (Three Islands):

5. Uppu Thanni Island, 22.94 ha, elevation 4 m, 9.08921°N 78.49148°E
6. Puluvinichalli Island, 6.12 ha, elevation 5.5 m, 9.10320°N 78.53688°E
*7. Nalla Thanni Island, 101.00 ha, elevation 11.9 m, 9.10667°N 78.57885°E.

*Nalla Thanni Island island was populated recently.

Kilakarai group (Seven Islans):

8. Anaipar Island, 11.00 ha, elevation 2.1 m, 9.15294°N 78.69481°E
9. Valimunai Island, 6.72 ha, elevation 1.2 m, 9.15354°N 78.73052°E
10. Appa Island, 28.63 ha, elevation 6.4 m, 9.16582°N 78.82596°E
11. Poovarasan Patti, 0.50 ha, elevation 1.2 m, 9.15413°N 78.76695°E
12. Talairi Island, 75.15 ha, elevation 2.7 m, 9.18133°N 78.90673°E
13. Valai Island 10.10 ha, elevation 3.0 m, 9.18421°N 78.93866°E
14. Mulli Island, 10.20 ha, elevation 1.2 m, 9.18641°N 78.96810°E;

Mandapam group (Seven Islans):

*15. Musal or Hare Island, 124.00 ha, elevation 0.9 m 9.19912°N 79.07530°E
16. Manali Island, 25.90 ha, 9.21564°N 79.12834°E
17. Manali-Putti Island, 2.34 ha 9.21581°N 79.12800°E
18. Poomarichan Island, 16.58 ha 9.24538°N 79.17993°E
19. Pullivasal Island, 29.95 ha 9.23699°N 79.19100°E
*20. Kurusadai Island, 65.80 ha 9.24690°N 79.20945°E
21. Shingle Island, 12.69 ha, elevation .6m 9.24174°N 79.23563°E.

*Musal (or Hare) and Kurusadai Islands were recently populated. The shallow waters surrounding these islands harbour three species of seagrass that are found nowhere else in India. Representatives of every known animal phylum except amphibians are found on this island.

Next: Part 3 – Islands and Islets of Sri Lanka →

← Previous: Part 1 – Adam’s Bridge

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Islands in the Gulf of Mannar: Part 1 – Adam’s Bridge


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Laccadive Sea

The Laccadive Sea or Lakshadweep Sea is a body of water that includes the Lakshadweep islands, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka.

Laccadive Sea
Laccadive Sea

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The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Laccadive Sea as follows:

  • On the West. A line running from Sadashivgad Lt., on west coast of India (14°48′N 74°07′E) to Corah Divh (13°42′N 72°10′E) and thence down the west side of the Lakshadweep and Maldive Archipelagos to the most southerly point of Addu Atoll in the Maldives.
  • On the South. A line running from Dondra Head in Sri Lanka to the most southerly point of Addu Atoll.
  • On the East. The southeastern coast of India and west coast of Sri Lanka.
  • On the Northeast. Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

The Gulf of Mannar and Adam’s Bridge

The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay, a part of the Lakshadweep Sea between the southeastern coast of India and the West coast of Sri Lanka. The estuaries of the river Thamirabarani of south India and the river Aruvi Aru of Sri Lanka drain into the gulf.

Adam's Bridge separating Gulf of Mannar from Palk Bay
Adam’s Bridge separating Gulf of Mannar from Palk Bay

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An 18-miles (30 km) long isthmus composed of limestone shoals, and coral reefs, popularly known as Adam’s Bridge or Ramsethu, lies between Pamban Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India, and Mannar Island, off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

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Aerial view of Mannar Island and Adam's Bridge.
Aerial view of Mannar Island and Adam’s Bridge.

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Geological evidence suggests that this bridge formerly connected India and Sri Lanka.

The Rameswaram cyclone of 1964 started with the depression that formed in the South Andaman Sea on December 17, 1964. On December 19, it intensified into a severe cyclonic storm. From December 21, it moved westwards, 400 km to 550 km per day. On December 22, it crossed Vavunia in Sri Lanka with a wind speed of 280 km per hour. On December 22-23 night, the cyclone and moved into Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, India. The devastating tidal waves that were 7 metres high submerged all houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town. The death toll rose to 1,800.

In the past too, high-intensity cyclones and storms often ravaged the area around Rameswaram in India.

Records from Hindu temples say that Ramsethu was completely above sea level that could be traversed on foot, until a cyclone in 1480 AD submerged it.

A study conducted by the Geological Survey of India indicated that in 1948-49 the southern part of erstwhile Dhanushkodi Township, facing Gulf of Mannar, sank by almost 5 meters due to vertical tectonic movement of land parallel to the coastline. As a result of this, a stretch of land of about half a kilometre wide and 7 km in length, along North-South direction, submerged into the sea together with many roads, residential areas, places of worship, etc.

Now, some sandbanks of the Adam’s Bridge are dry, and the sea is very shallow, only 3 feet to 30 feet (1 metre to 10 metres) deep. This geographical feature of the Adam’s Bridge acts as a barrier to heavy vessels that cruise from India’s west coast to India’s east coast and ships have to take the long circuitous route around Sri Lanka.

The chief seaports on the Gulf of Mannar are Thoothukudi (formerly Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu, India and Colombo in Sri Lanka. These ports can accommodate deep-draft vessels, but the shallow sea in the Adam’s Bridge region allows only small shallow-draft vessels.

In July 2005, the Indian Government envisaged the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project to dredge and scrape out a deep channel to open a direct shipping route for heavy vessels to ply from the southeastern Gulf of Mannar to the northeastern Bay of Bengal and avoid the long trip around Sri Lanka. However, environmentalists have warned that the project could cause grave damage to the sea life of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, and thereby affect fisheries in both the southeastern coast of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka.

.                                                                     Next: Part 2 – The 21 Islands of India →

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