Tag Archives: Pearl Fishery Coast

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 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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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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