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The Paravars: Chapter 10 – Conversion to Catholicism


Myself 

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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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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