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Rameswaram and its significance in Paravar History

From Vembar to Kanyakumari many of the coastal villages / towns have been touched upon in www.globalparavar.org. Recently I travelled along Rameswaram covering Ramanathapuram, Mandapam, Pamban, Thangachimadam etc. and I would like to provide information on the Paravar settlements in these areas.

Brief on Rameswaram

Rameswaram is one of the holiest places for Hindus in India similar to Varanasi in UP (Uttar Pradesh). Rameswaram Island including Dhanuskodi is associated with the epic Ramayana. The place name Rameswaram is a combination of two words Rama and Iswaram. A significant place for the Hindus, Rameswaram also inherited Buddhism, Jainism & Islam. Christianity entered during 16th century when Portuguese entered Tamilnadu specifically in the coastal areas.

Christianity in Rameswaram

St. Francis Xavier came till Mookaiyur (a village 20kms away from Vembar) but did not go till Rameswaram. Christianity spread around Rameswaram after St. Francis Xavier’s departure when Paravar fishermen who were already converted to Catholics came from nearby villages for fishing. The fishermen bought many Catholic faiths with them which they usually carry when they go for fishing. Catholic faith flourished when Fr. Antonie Criminalie came here around 1546. Fr. Antonie Criminalie was a Jesuit priest who was appointed to go to Vedhalai (village en route to Rameswaram) by St. Francis Xavier.

Around 1644 Thirumalai Nayak while ruling Rameswaram gave Portuguese the permission to build churches in the area. Madurai Nayak and Portuguese had a naval treaty wherein Portuguese helped Nayaks in their battles. St. James Church was built by the Portuguese at Verkadu near Thangachimadam.

Fr. ANTONIE CRIMINALIE (1520 – 1549)

Fr. Antonie Criminalie came to Rameswaram region from Italy in 1546 A.D. as a Jesuit missionary. His preaching was intense around the coastal regions and he rendered his services to the people in this area. In his letters to Rome, St. Francis Xavier regards Fr. Antonie Criminalie very much.

On St. Francis Xavier’s instructions Fr. Criminalie settled down at Vedhalai and started serving people around this area. The Nayaks who ruled Madurai at that time were not happy with Fr. Criminalie and Portuguese who were involved in spreading Christianity. They waged a war against the Portuguese and during this time Fr. Criminalie was killed by a spear which hit his chest. You can note that nearly after a century Nayaks befriended Portuguese to get their naval support.

There is a small church at Vedhalai which has become very famous just before Rameswaram and is dedicated to Fr. Antonie Criminalie. You can read more about Fr. Criminalie in an earlier article in www.globalparavar.org titled “THE BATTLES OF VEDHALAI – Fr . ANTHONY CRIMINALI S.J. —THE PARAVA CONNECTION” (dated May 26, 2013).

JOHN DE BRITTO (1647 – 1693)

Whilst talking about Christianity around Rameswaram & Ramanathapuram, yet another important Jesuit priest cannot be ignored. St. John De Britto, a Portuguese Jesuit priest is a very famous missionary who came to Madurai in 1673 and started spreading Christianity. He renamed himself as Arul Anandar (அருளானந்தர்) in Tamil. He learnt Tamil, started dressing in yellow cotton and lived like a Thuravi (sage), abstaining from animal food and wine. St. John de Britto taught the Catholic faith in concepts that would make sense to the local people.

John De Britto was responsible for spreading Catholicism around Madurai, Sivagangai, Ramnad & parts of Thanjavur. During this time king Sethupathi of Ramnad was not happy with what John De Britto was doing and ordered his arrest. The king ordered John De Britto’s execution and was taken to Oriyur (around 50 kms from Ramnad). Oriyur village never had a name at that time, it was “Oru Oor” (A village) in Tamil which gave its name Oriyur. John De Britto was tortured and beheaded at Oriyur. The sands of the place where his head fell turned into red colour due to his blood. Till today the church in Oriyur has this red sand dedicated to this great saint.

Paravar settlement around Rameswaram

Rameswaram is not included under the list of “Muthukulithurai” villages but it became a settlement for Paravars slowly. Though Paravars frequented Rameswaran for fishing there was no proper settlement here. Paravar settlement might have happened in Thangachimadam some 100 years back. Sea trade brought Paravars from coastal villages such as Vembar, Mukkur, Punnaikayal etc. into Thangachimadam.

The above mentioned facts shows us that Paravars used the coast of Rameswaram to expand their fishing and pearl business. In fact this was the major route to do business with Sri Lanka and Paravars had definitely used this. We cannot forget how Paravars flourished by expanding their trade with Lanka. Today Muthupettai in Ramnad, Pamban and Thangachimadam in Rameswaram hold a significant Paravar population.

  • Rameswaram which has a rich natural reserve in the seas has been undergoing several turbulences for the past several years. Paravars are having a tough time managing their livelihood in this area.
  • Fishing which was the primary occupation of Paravars is being sidelined. This profession has been taken over by many others and Paravars have been left languishing.
  • Takeover of Katchatheevu by Sri Lanka in 1974 has had a great impact on our fishermen. Once with India, Katchatheevu acted as an important island for fishing by Paravars.
  • The major problem comes from Sri Lankan Navy targeting our fishermen. Fear of attacks by Sri Lanksn Navy has put this profession at stake in Rameswaram.
  • Boats of our fishermen are seized by Sri Lankan Navy and they are never returned back. The fishing boat is a major investment of our fishermen. Many take loans to procure boats and once seized they come under tremendous pressure to pay back the debt.
  • Fear of SL Navy in the coast of Rameswaram has prompted many Paravars to go for fishing in places such as Mangalore, Goa & Vishakapatnam. It is a shame that we are not able to continue our profession in which we are so skilled within our state.

Anton Niresh Vaz

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