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Pearls and pearl divers


Passing through Kuwait end of July on travel, I read the Arab Times and found an article titled ' Young Sailors Return Home, ' dated 24 July 2010. It was the end of their Pearl Diving Heritage Revival Festival with the return of their pearling boats. Kuwait kept alive their tradition of pearl diving of long ago which was one of their main livelihoods then.

Young men were trained on pearl diving and they went out to sea for ten days where they explored the sea bed for pearls. Many pearls were collected after harvesting the oysters and cracking them. The article went further to say that on the arrival day of the young men, when the boats were sighted on the horizon, there was uproarious excitement, when family, friends and visitors assembled eagerly to welcome them on the shore. Then the feasts began,

Gulf of Mannar

In a different era, in Mannar, in the north western coast of Sri Lanka, men were diving for pearls in the Gulf of Mannar. The great chronicle of history of the island, the Mahavamsa, records that when Prince Vijaya (later to become King Vijaya) arrived on the island in 5th century BC, pearl diving was well established. During the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras pearl diving flourished and more so in the 18th century. When the multitude of boats brought the pearl divers ashore in the Bay of Condatchy in Mannar, there was similar excitement like that in Kuwait. The large eager crowds rushed to the waves on the beach, their faces showing so much emotion. A roaring cheer went up as some of the boats would be laden with riches. The boat owners displayed anxious expecting countenances. The crowd was of jewelers, brokers, merchants of all colours and descriptions, both native and foreign, who were occupied with pearls. Their work was either separating and assailing the pearls or weighing, valuing and ascertaining their numbers. Others were either hawking them, or drilling and boring the pearls for future use. This shows the value and importance of the object and the endless bustle it created on the shores of Mannar.

Several thousands of people of different skin hues, countries, castes and occupations continuously passed and repassed in the busy crowd. The vast numbers of small tents and huts erected near the shores had many a bazaar or market place dotted here and there. In fact, at that time, life was teeming there. The enticing smells of spicy food mingled in the sea breeze with occasional whiffs of the stench of the decaying and discarded oyster shells. The harvesting of pearls mainly started in the month of February and went on till April and it happened every third year, so that once the oysters were harvested, there was sufficient time for the new pearls to grow in the new oysters.

Galle harbour
Added to the melee on the shores of Mannar, were the astrologers and the religious men. The former gave the auspicious times and days for good harvesting and also foretold the future, the latter prayed over the divers, invoked blessings on the boats going out to sea. Amidst this exciting mass of humanity and the carnival atmosphere, there were much serious activities going on. The divers had to keep themselves fit and supple as they descended many fathoms into the sea. They had their noses pinched with wooden clothes pegs like tweezers and they plunged into the waters with stones attached to their feet or waist. There simply was no scuba diving apparatus and likewise in those days. The divers' job was an exacting one. The ones who could stay under water the longest were the best and gathered many oysters. The duration under water was on average about 2 minutes, maybe 3. There were some who could stay under for 4 or more minutes and that was a feat. They got rid of the stones quickly at the bottom and swam about gathering as many oysters clinging to the rocks. Some divers were deft enough to gather oysters with their feet too. They collected them in the nets hanging from their necks or waist. Then they tugged at the rope attached to them and were quickly hauled up. They did the diving in relays when the first five or ten dived and came up, the next lot was ready to dive. Thus a diver did about 50 or 60 dives a day. There were also the underwater hazards of shark, manta rays and other marauders which they had to avoid and always be on the alert.

Robert Percival has described the pearl fishers in his book titled, An Account of the History of Ceylon, well. We can see from his account that the diver's task was arduous. The exertion undergone during the process is so that on being hauled up to the boat, they discharge water from their mouth, nostrils and ears and sometimes even blood. But this does not deter them from diving again in turn. During the season all the boats regularly sail and return together. The boats, it is said, reach the oyster banks before daybreak. The sailing goes on daily during the 2-3 month period unless storms happen. Another considerable interruption to the sailing is the diversity of religious holidays observed by the divers of different sects and nations.
Ancient times

Galle in the south of our island is said to be the Tarshish in the Bible. Many ships sailed to and fro from Galle and other ports in Sri Lanka in ancient times. At those times, the Gulf of Mannar together with the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea were reputed to be the hub of the international pearl trade. Pearls from the Gulf of Mannar are believed to have reached the courts of kings and emperors of ancient empires such as Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician, Scythian, Roman, Byzantine etc. In the 10th century BC King Solomon's ships are believed to have reached the ports of Sri Lanka, from where they filled their cargo with pearls, rubies, sapphires, ivory and peacocks. The Phoenician trade fleets are also believed to have reached the Gulf of Mannar to purchase pearls.

The Mahawamsa and the Chulawamsa record that pearls were sent as gifts by Kings of Sri Lanka to Indian Kings in the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. The Greek ambassador to the Mayuran king, Chandragupta was Megasthenes and he had written in the 3rd century BC. that "the island of Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than the Indias." The 16 - 20 centuries had the Portuguese, Dutch and British ruling Sri Lanka in turn. Looking back, the entry of the western nations into the pearl trade of Sri Lanka, was a disaster for the people of the area and their livelihood, as these nations used fire power to terrorize the people.
This caused a lot of tension and insecurity in the area in contrast to the peaceful atmosphere that prevailed during pearling activities for thousands of years.

The last pearl fishery held by the British was in 1906. It was presided over by Leonard Woolf, the Government Agent in Jaffna kachcheri (secretariat). It is recorded that it was a failure lasting only 11 days only with a poor crowd in attendance.

Attempts to culture pearls in oysters didn't succeed. This was the time in Japan, when Mikimoto had already successfully cultured 'Mabe' pearls.
Famous pearls

Talking of famous pearls, in acient times, it is probable that Queen Sheba would have been proudly wearing her pearls, gifts from King Solomon and that they would have been from the Gulf of Mannar. Likewise, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, would have dazzled Caesar and Marc Antony with her pearls. There is a story told by Pliny the elder that Cleopatra, the last of the Egyptian Queens owned two large pearls of all times, left to her by oriental kings. Cleopatra, being the interesting character she was, once had a wager with Antony while dining. The story says, that Antony asked what more could be added to a such sumptuous meal. Cleopatra, with her usual arrogance mentioned an exorbitant amount, that she could use in a meal. Antony who didn't quite believe her took the wager. The next day, she set a magnificent meal and when dining, Antony laughingly asked for the reckoning. She replied that this was a preliminary meal and assured him that she would consume half a million dollar worth meal herself. Then she ordered the dessert and as instructed, a dish was set before her. This dish contained vinegar, so strong that it could dissolve pearls into slush. At that time, she was wearing her remarkable, unique pearl earrings. She took one pearl earrings while a bemused Antony looked on. She plunged it into the vinegar. When it dissolved she swallowed the exotic dessert and won the wager. Lucius Plancus witnessed the wager.

One of the oldest known pearl is the Jomon pearl and it dates back 5500 years. It is named after a period in Japanese history the Jomon era (10,000 to 300 BC). In Britain, Mary, Queen of Scots married three times and because of her multiple marriages amassed a large amount of jewelry including pearls. Her numerous dresses and mantles were studded with pearls and other jewels. However, none of these helped her when later, she was tried for treason and executed. Mary, Queen of Scots had a 6 stranded pearl necklace containing more than 600 pearls.

Her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, bought this valuable necklace. Pearl tiaras were worn at weddings, mostly by royalty. It was Princess Diana who carried her pearl tiara well and indeed looked the proverbial enchanting princess. Mughal paintings of their princes show them wearing strands of pearls. Emperors Akbar's (1556 -1605) and Jehangir's (1605-1627) courts displayed all the usual trappings of oriental luxury, in particular, prodigious stocks of jewels of which pearls were the most numerous and most highly regarded.
Drama, song and verse

Turning to music, George Bizet's first opera, 'the Pearl Fishers,' centered on a love triangle. This opera originally set in Mexico, was switched to Ceylon, featuring Leila, a Hindu priestess, the village headman and a pearl diver. In paintings, pearls are depicted in the well known paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Delft, 1665, 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring' and 'Woman with the Pearl Necklace' which are highly valued works of art. In poetry, Mathew Arnold , poet, (1822 - 1888) says thus:

"Searching the wave I won therefrom a pearl Moonlike and glorius, such as Kings might buy emptying their treasury."

Cosmetics and curatives

Pearls have been used in cosmetics. Finely ground powder of pearls, similar in texture to flour began to be used cosmetically by ladies of France and believed greatly to improve the texture and lustre of the skin. The cosmetic industry adds pearls to face powders and creams. It is also used as a curative. The reject pearls from pearl fisheries and farms are processed and provide the pharmaceuticals industry as a valuable source of calcium.

Myths and legends

The pearl, cherished both by men and women for many thousands of years became steeped in legends. Some believed that the pearls were the end product of dew. Arabian writers of antiquity have added to this myth, saying, in April the oysters rise from the sea bed and open their shells to receive the rain which falls at that time. The raindrops thus gathered become pearls. Chinese mystics say that dragons are rainmakers and that when they spit, that some of their spittle is of pearls and so, rain and pearls fall when dragons are fighting in the heavens.

Hindu folklore tells that pearls are found in the stomach and forehead of an elephant. These are avidly sought as powerful talismans against all kinds of dangers. Hindu astrological terms present a pearl as associated with the moon and consider pearls are representative of lovers. That is why the Hindu love potions are full of finely powdered pearl. Such is the story of pearls with its beauty and it's worth. Therefore, it is disconcerting that there has been no pearling activities in the Gulf of Mannar for so long. On the Indian side of the Gulf, considerable success has been achieved in culturing pearls with Japanese technical assistance.

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka this could not be done due to lengthy terrorist activities. Now after the restoration of peace to the island nation, it is hoped that necessary incentives and encouragement will be provided to private companies to invest in the lucrative pearl culturing industry in collaboration with the Japanese and the Chinese. Then, Sri Lanka's fame as a pearl producing centre for far and wide will spread once more and why not?

It is known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

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