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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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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 →

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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.

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