The Paravas in Sri Lanka and South India in the Sixteenth Century

Chandra R. de Silva

It is likely that the paravas (also known as Bharathas in Sri Lanka to indicate their Indian origin) were working as fishermen and mercenaries in South India and the north western coast of Sri Lanka well before the sixteenth century. Tradition links them to the evolution of the catamaran (a small craft with two hulls) and with a major role in pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar. They were also proficient in chank (turbinella pyrum) fishing: chanks being seashells that were used to make ornaments and drinking vessels. The coming of the Portuguese to the region in the sixteenth century provides us many Portuguese records that illuminate the history and seafaring skills of this community.. Historian Jorge Manuel Flores, for example, quotes a mid-sixteenth century Portuguese document which records thanks to a parava convert named Duarte de Miranda for assistance in navigating the seas off South India.

Many Portuguese records center on the importance of this community for the pearl fishery. Evidence from the Portuguese historian João de Barros indicates that the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar was one of the two major pearl fisheries of the world, rivaled only by the fishery off Hainan, China. Since pearl fishing was seasonal, the paravars must have made a living also through fishing and providing other services. By the early sixteenth century the ports of Palayakayal and Kilakkarai in South India as well as Karaitivu island and the port of Chilaw in Sri Lanka had become the centers of the pearl fishery.

At this time Palayakayal was under a Chera ruler who controlled much of Travancore and the southern part of Tinnevelly district. Kilakkarai, located further couth was under the ruler of Vanga. Both these rulers were vassals of the emperor of Vijayanagara. However, the situation was even more complicated by the fact that the actual fisheries were controlled by Muslim chieftains, who no doubt paid a share of their income to the the local rulers. In Sri Lanka, the King of Kotte claimed part of the revenues of the pearl fishery though the King of Jaffna also put in a claim.

The King of Kotte is said to have received one out of five days catch in good weather and one out of eleven days when the weather was bad. The Portuguese chronicler, Duarte de Barbosa claims that the Muslim chief at Palayakayal received the total catch of the last week of the fishery. The revenues must have been substantial because the Sinhala chronicle, Rajavaliya, reports that Kadi Rayana, ruler of Palayakayal, unsuccessfully attempted to use force to fish off the coasts of Sri Lanka and was beaten off with losses.

However, by the end of the second decade of the sixteenth century political turmoil led to difficulties for the paravas who depended on pearl fishing for an enhanced income. The South Indian rulers were adjusting to increased political pressure by the Emperor of Vijayanagara and the arrival of the Portuguese in the area and were paying less attention to the fishery. In Jaffna, the new king, Sankili was consolidating his position after his seizure of power in 1519 and Kotte was weakened even before it was effectively partitioned among three brothers in 1521. As António de Mirando de Azevedo wrote to his king from Colombo on November 8, 1519, “In the island there is a pearl fishery, Your Highness could make a good profit from it if it were forbidden to fish in it without your authorization because the rulers of these kingdoms are having a great war about it so that there has been no fishing for a long time.”

The Portuguese quickly followed up on de Azevedo’s advice. An agreement made with the rulers of Palayakayal and Kilakkarai in 1523 stipulated that the Portuguese Crown would get an annual payment of 1500 cruzados from the fishery. Portuguese dominance brought new burdens on the paravas. As sixteenth century Portuguese historian Gaspar Correia reports, “in order the factor [Flores] might not be able to steal any money from the rent of the fishery, he [de Frias] took other measures obtaining from the fishers themselves the pearls, whereby he committed many robberies.” The revenues accruing to the Portuguese are recorded as rising to 5,400 cruzados in 1524.

Meanwhile, the paravas began to face other problems. Up to this time the paravas had been Hindu. In 1532, a dispute between a Muslim man and a parava woman had escalated into group conflict in which the parava were beaten up. The Hindu regional rulers were unable to protect them. At this time Dom João da Cruz, an Indian from Calicut who had been converted to Christianity, visited the area in an effort to sell horses. He promised the parava patangatin (chiefs) that if they converted to Christianity, the Portuguese would protect them from violence and exactions by the Muslims. A parava delegation accompanied da Cruz to Cochin an,d after negotiations, the Vicar-General of Cochin and four clerics came to the fishery ports. The number of parava converted is estimated to have exceeded twenty thousand. The Chera king was persuaded to allow the conversion on the promise of a supply of Arab horses. For the Portuguese, the conversion also provided access to a valued cadre of local warriors. For instance, Miguel Ferreira, planning an attack on Jaffna in 1546, counted on using more than 10,000 soldiers from the Fishery Coast and in 1591, Andre Furtado de Mendonça, also planning to attack Jaffna expected to recruit 5,000 paravas from Mannar.

Conversion intensified in the 1540s after the arrival of St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits and the number of parava converts is said to have risen to fifty thousand. Members of some other communities including the mukkuvas and karavas were also converted. After conversion, these people were regarded as Portuguese subjects no longer subject to local rulers. They paid their dues directly to a Portuguese factor stationed in the area. This practice let to disaster for the paravas in Sri Lanka. In 1543, some parava Christians in Mannar invited St Francis Xavier to convert some of their Hindu brethren. It is said that Xavier visited Mannar and converted some 600 Hindus. Sankili, the king of Jaffna was enraged by this erosion of his authority and marching to Mannar in 1544, put to death all those who refused to give up Christianity. The missionaries called for retaliation, but although some schemes were hatched to dethrone the king of Jaffna, nothing was done in the immediate years that followed.

From the 1540s, the pearl fishery now came to be directly organized by the Portuguese under a Captain and Factor of the Fishery was stationed at a settlement called Punnaikayal on the seashore south of Tambrapanni river. The new dispensation did not inaugurate an era of plenty for the paravas who found that they had merely exchanged one set of oppressors for another. The post of Captain of the Fishery was given for a fixed period as a reward for services to the Portuguese Crown and the holder thought it legitimate to exploit the position to make his fortune. The Captain, therefore, forced the paravas to sell chanks (valuable seashells) to him or his designated merchants at fixed low prices. He assumed monopoly rights over the import and sale of rice and fixed the price of rice. Paravas were forbidden to sail to other regions without buying a safe-conduct (cartaz) from the Captain. Paravas also had to pay dues for the fish they caught for their own sustenance. Pearl fishery dues were imposed irrespective of whether the fishery was held or not or was successful and new converts had to pay a tenth of their income to support the church.

However, the Jesuit missionaries saw the poverty of the paravas and spoke up for them. On March 8, 1546, the authorities in Lisbon inquired from the Viceroy of India as to whether there was no way to hold a pearly fishery without a Captain and a fleet that oppressed the people. The paravas, with support from Jesuits, refused to hold a pearl fishery in 1547 and refused to pay dues. This enraged Aires de Figueredo, the Portuguese Captain of the Fishery who charged that this was simply a conspiracy by some thirty or forty rich owners of fishing vessels. He appealed to the Portuguese Viceroy of India, João de Castro to treat the paravas as rebels.

The Viceroy, however, took a more sympathetic stance. He ruled the illegal exactions of the Captain of the Fishery should cease and that paravas sailing to Sri Lanka did not need to get safe-conducts from the Captain. He also decreed that paravas had the right to sell the chanks they fished to whoever they wished. However, he rejected the request of the Jesuits to let them manage the pearl fishery and their proposal that the funds paid to the Jesuits by the paravas should be deducted from their dues to the crown. These measures were officially approved by the Portuguese king on March 10, 1552. Paravas were allowed to sell their chanks freely. No taxes or dues were to be imposed on their food. Additionally the king decreed that royal dues had to be paid only for the years when the pearl fishery was held. However, there was always a gap between policy decreed at the center and implementation in outlying areas of the empire. Paravas continued to face oppression from the Portuguese. In 1558, the Portuguese Governor of India, Francisco Barreto forbade Portuguese entrepreneurs from residing in the fishery coast for more than a year and gave the Captain of the Fishery power to expel those who were reported for misbehavior by the Jesuits. In 1568, Jesuit Francisco Perez writing from Coulam described the paravas as a poor and oppressed group. In 1601, a letter from Lisbon to the Viceroy in India requested immediate action to remedy injustices in the fishery.

There were also reports of clashes between paravas and other caste groups. In 1571 and 1572 there were clashes with karava Christians and in 1581 there was report of clashes with mukkuvas. The Jesuits tried to mediate and keep the peace. More significant was hostility from local Hindus. As early as April 22, 1547, João Villa de Conde complained to the Viceroy, “they are so elated that not only they, but with their help the Moors of this coast commit many affronts on the Portuguese and much worse on the Christians, killing them and beating them and robbing them of their property as a result many of them turned to be Moors, chiefly those between Calacare [Kilakkarai] and Beadella [Vedalai].”

In 1560, Visvanatha, ruler of Madura, moved against the Portuguese after they did not agree to his demand for the right to a day’s catch when the pearl fishery was held. In August 1560 his forces attacked and devastated Punnaikayal and other parava settlements including Manapadu, Tiruchendur, Virapandyanpattanam, Talambuli, Palayakayal and Vembar. It was this attack that led the Portuguese Captain of the Fishery, Manoel Rodriguez Coutinho, to take a group of parava fishermen to Mannar, which had just been seized from the kingdom of Jaffna. Coutinho was appointed Captain of Mannar and thenceforth, Mannar became the headquarters of the pearl fishery.

In the course of time the conflict with the Nayak of Madura was ameliorated. In the time of Virappa Nayak (1572-1595) the Portuguese agreed to give the nayak a day’s catch when the fishery was held. Some parava families returned to South India, possibly because of a devastating epidemic in Mannar in 1563-1564. A clash between the vellalas and paravas in 1576/1577 was resolved with mediation by the Raja of Cochin after the Portuguese agreed to pat 20,000 pardãos in compensation. However, the problems continued. Documents suggest that there was no official pearl fishery from 1604 to 1634. However, Manoel Godinho de Eredia reported in 1619 that the fishery was conducted under the cover of darkness. It was a game of negotiations. A bank of pearls was miraculously discovered after Conde de Linhares, Viceroy of India, 1630-35, temporarily waived the tax on divers.

The pearl fishery was the key event in the parava calendar. The decision on whether to hold the fishery was taken on the basis of a pilot survey carried out in the previous year to check likely locations. Samples of oysters taken by a survey were taken to headquarters and the decision on the fishery was based on evidence from the sample.  Then the oysters were opened and the makeshift settlement was dismantled by the end of the month. In the month before the fishery some temporary buildings were constructed on shore near the oyster beds. Then vessels and divers that would participate were registered. A contemporary estimate of the total number of divers, merchants and others comes to 50,000 to 60,000 people. The best period for the fishery was February-April due to the calm weather in the area at that time. Seventeenth century evidence indicates that it usually began on March 11 at 4.00 AM and continued till April 20. Occasionally pearl fishing was also done September to November (the small fishery or pescaria pequena), but this period was generally used for fishing chanks.

Seventeenth century writer, João Ribeiro describes the work of parava fishermen as follows: “Each champana [small sea-going craft] carries some square stones of two arrobas in weight, well secured and hanging outside. Immediately on anchoring, one of the divers places one foot on a stone, at the same time clinging to the cord, he takes another fastened to his waist and a big sack made of net tied to it. So they let him go and he makes his way to the bottom as quickly as he can; on reaching there he throws himself from the top of the stone and fills his bag with the chipre which they say is found , one on top of the other, as soon as the bag is full, he pulls at the cord which he has at his waist; two sailors stand ready with their hands on thi and they draw him up as quickly as possible and from the moment that he enters the water till he comes up again would be the space occupied by saying two credos. The moment his head emerges from the water, another diver plunges to the bottom and in that same fashion they all go down, turn and turn about.”

As sixteenth century author, Caeser Fedrici states:

“The divers follow each other in succession in this manner till the boat is loaded with oysters and they return in the evening to the fishing village. Then each boat or company makes their heaps of oysters at some distance from each other so that a long row of heaps of oysters are seen piled along the shore. These are not touched till the fishing is over, when each company sits down beside its own heap and falls to opening the oyster which is now easy as the fish within are all dead and dry. If every oyster had pearls in them it would be a profitable occupation but there are many who have none. There are certain persons called Chatini [Chettis] who are learned in pearls and are employed to sort and value them according to their beauty and goodness.”

The Portuguese distinguished between aljofre (seed pearls weighing less than one carat) and perolas or pearls. A sixteenth century document gives the value of pearls – ranging from 16 fanams for one weighing two carats to 500 fanams to one weighing eight carats. Seed pearls and flawed pearls were cheaper.

It is difficult to find out how much the paravas received as compensation. Duarte Barbosa says that at Palayakayal the divers dived for themselves during the week and gave Friday’s catch to the owner of the boat. Pedro Teixeira gives a somewhat different picture: “The fishermen as divers are regularly paid and have also their catch, save that every day they must give one dive to the owner of the boat at his choice and at the end of the week one whole day’s fishing.” However, they also had to pay dues. According to the 1645 revenue register of Jaffna, a Christian diver had to pay four and one sixth pardaos while non-Christians had to pay double this amount.

There is much more that can be written about the paravas in the sixteenth century including the story of their relations with the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church (see articles by Fr. M. Quere in the Bibliography).  Contemporary documents indicate that conversion raised questions as to whether paravas should refrain from fishing on Sundays and that the Portuguese continued to encourage paravas to move from India and settle in the north-western coast of Sri Lanka.  This essay should therefore merely be regarded as an introduction to the subject.

The land bridge between Mannar Island and the Coromandel coast of south India …. from insertion by The Editor, Thuppahi


References to specific Portuguese documents and chronicles which form the basis of this account are found in the following publications:

Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612, Colombo: Lake House, 1966.

De Silva, Chandra Richard, “The Portuguese and Pearl Fishing off South India and Sri Lanka,” South Asia, new series, Vol. I (1), 1978, pp. 14-28.

De Silva, Chandra Richard, The Portuguese in Ceylon, 1617-1638, Colombo: H. W. Cave and          Co., 1972.

De Silva, Chandra Richard, and Pathmanathan, S. The Kingdom of Jaffna up to 1620, University of Peradeniya, History of Sri Lanka, Vol. II, ed. by K. M. de Silva, Peradeniya: University of Peradeniya, 1995, pp.105-121.

Flores, Jorge Manuel, Os Portugueses e o Mar de Ceilao: Trato, Diplomacia e Guerra (1498-          1543), Lisbon, 1998.

Quere, Martin, Christianity in Sri Lanka under the Portuguese Padroado, 1597-1658, Colombo,    1995.

Perniola, V. (ed), The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka: The Portuguese Period, Vols I-III,          Dehiwala, 1989-1991.

Ribeiro, João, History of Ceilao with a Summary of Barros, do Couto, Antonio Bocarro and           the Documentos Remettidos with Parangi Hatana and Kustantinu Hatana, trans. P. E.           Pieris, Colombo, 1909

Vink, Markus P. M. ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Christian Paravas, a           “Client Community” in Seventeenth-Century Southeast India’, Itinerario, xxvi, 2 (2002).

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