Tag Archives: Jules Verne

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


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

.

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

.

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.

.

‘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)

.

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.

.

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)

.

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.

.

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

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

.

RELATED ARTICLES

 

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

 

Advertisements

Was the Indian Railways Born on April 16, 1853?


.

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

.

It is generally believed that the railways were first introduced to India on April 16th, 1853. The Bori Bunder to Thane line is customarily seen as the birth of the world’s largest railway systems, but the plan for the first rail system was drawn in 1832. The laying of an experimental track began in 1836 near Chintadripet, in Madras (now Chennai). When the experiment proved successful, a 3.5 mile (5.6 km) rail track was laid between Red Hills and St. Thomas Mount in Chennai.

On December 22, 1851, the first steam locomotive in India was used during the construction of the Solani canal near Roorkee, a city in Haridwar district, Uttarakhand. Bengal Sappers of the Indian Army built the railway line to carry soil for the construction of the canal from Piran Kaliyar, 6.2 miles (10 km) from the city.

It is commonly believed that the two-wagon train was hauled by a Jenny Lind class locomotive built by E.B. Wilson and Company at their Railway Foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England or something very similar in design, by the name of “Thomason“. However, surviving work records do not substantiate this fact.

The engine had a short life. A boiler explosion destroyed it a few months after it started operating. It might have been a secondhand engine. Nonetheless, it pioneered a new era in the transportation history of India.

The locomotive rail paths are still intact.

Replica of Jenny Lind in Roorkee (Courtesy of Kota Shivaranjan/Flickr gallery of travel photos)
Replica of Jenny Lind in Roorkee (Courtesy of Kota Shivaranjan/Flickr gallery of travel photos)

A replica of what the locomotive might have looked like is exhibited at Roorkee Railway Station in original LB&SCR (London, Brighton and South Coast Railway) livery as a monument to the historic moment.

The National Railway Museum in Delhi also has illustrations of a Jenny Lind with the name “Thomason” the shop.

 

On April 16th, 1853, at 3.35pm, the first train in India left Bori Bunder, in Bombay (now Mumbai), for its destination Thane, 34 kilometres away. (Source: oldphotosbombay.blogspot.in)
On April 16th, 1853, at 3.35pm, the first train in India left Bori Bunder, in Bombay (now Mumbai), for its destination Thane, 34 kilometres away. (Source: oldphotosbombay.blogspot.in)

Although the first rails were laid at Chintadripet in Madras, the first train flagged off was on April 16, 1853, between Bori Bunder (later Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Thane. It travelled 21 miles (34 Km) with the aid of three locomotives: Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan. 400 invited guests in 14 carriages enjoyed the historic ride. This journey set a milestone in passenger train service. The governor, Lord John Elphinstone flagged off the train at 3:30 pm.

Robert Maitland Brereton (2 January 1834 – 7 December 1911) was an English railway engineer in India. (source: en.wikipedia.org)
Robert Maitland Brereton (2 January 1834 – 7 December 1911) was an English railway engineer in India. (source: en.wikipedia.org)

A British engineer, Robert Maitland Brereton, was responsible for the expansion of the railways from 1857 onwards. The Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line of the East Indian Railway was opened in June 1867. Brereton linked this track with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, resulting in a combined network of 4,000 miles (6,400 km). And, from March 7, 1870, onwards, it became possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta. “Around the World in Eighty Days,” the classic adventure novel written by the French writer Jules Verne was partly inspired by this railway.

At the opening ceremony, the Viceroy Lord Mayo concluded:

“… it was thought desirable that, if possible, at the earliest possible moment, the whole country should be covered with a network of lines in a uniform system.

An  Indian train (Source - dhankedeshme.blogspot.in)
An Indian train (Source – dhankedeshme.blogspot.in)

In 1951, the various railway systems were nationalized and brought under the banner of the Indian Railways becoming the world’s largest railway network. It covers more than 71,000 miles (115,000 km) of multi-gauge track – broad, metre and narrow gauges – over a route of more than 40,000 miles (65,000 km) and 7,500 stations. Its operations cover all the states and seven union territories in India. It also provides limited international services to Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Indian Railways have roughly over 200,000 (freight) wagons, 50,000 passenger coaches and 8,000 locomotives. Indian Railways also own locomotive and coach production facilities at several places in India.

On April 16th, 1853, at 3.35pm, the first train in India leaves Bombay for Thane (Source: oldphotosbombay.blogspot.in)
On April 16th, 1853, at 3.35pm, the first train in India leaves Bombay for Thane (Source: oldphotosbombay.blogspot.in)

In 2011, Indian railways transported more than 24 million passengers daily, roughly half of which were suburban passengers, amounting to 8,900 million passengers annually (not counting the ticketless travellers), and over 2 million tonnes of goods daily.

In 2011–2012, the Indian Railways had revenues of: ₹1119849 million (US$19 billion) consisting of ₹696760 million (US$12 billion) from the freight and ₹286455 million (US$4.8 billion) from tickets issued to passengers.

.