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PEARL FISHING AS SEEN BY MARCO POLO

There had been pearl fishing in the South Eastern Coast and Gulf of Mannar from very early times. Ambassadors like Megesthenis and Historians like Pliny and Sencillus and Travellers like Marcopolo have left detailed notes on Pearl fisheries and pearl fishing in our coast , in their chronicles.

The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British had evinced considerable commercial interest in pearl fishing in our coast.

The pearl fishing in our coast has been a matter that provoked conflicts between Moors and Paravas, between Badagas and Paravas, between the East coast and West coast, between the Jesuits and other priests. Further the rivalry in pearl fishing has been the cause for a massive conversion to Roman Catholic Christianity.

Thus the pearl fishing in the south eastern coast has been an historically important affair.

We in this series of articles attempt to record in verbatim reports of Marcopolo, Martin,and Caesar Frederic who had written about Pearl Fishing.This perhaps would give to our readers verbatim records on Pearl fishing in the ancient times; during the Portuguese period; and the Dutch period.

On the British period we would refer to reports of officers –not perhaps in verbatim– like Hornell.

We in this piece, confine ourselves to what the ancient writers like Megesthenis, Pliny, Sencillus and Marcopolo have said about Pearls and pearl fishing.

1.*Megesthenis* (350 BC—-290 BC), the ambassador of Selucas Nicator refers to a country called PANDAIA and mentions that *it was here that the pearls were procured*.The Pandaia country referred to by Megasthenese is Tinnevely along the coast of which at that time were the chief stations of pearl fishery . (CALDWELL).

2.*Pliny* ( 23 AD —79 AD), the Roman Natural Philosopher as well as Navy Commander of the early Roman empire, quotes Megasthenese and says that the Indian merchants brought their wares to Roman markets ; as to the Greek markets in the past. The article so brought is the Sea Pearl called Margarita.

3. *Syncellus* ( 800 AD ), the Byzantian chronicler says
“Pandian, king of the Indians sends an embassy to AUGUSTUS , desiring to become his friend and ally .’

Bishop CALDWELL commenting on this says ‘ This incident is an interesting proof of the advanced social and political position occupied by the Pandyas, probably in consequence of the foreign trade they carried on at Korkai in connection with the pearl fishery.’

4.*Marco Polo* (1254—1324) describes the pearl fishery coast of MABAR. We are to understand by Mabar mainly the coast from Rameshwaram to Cape Comarin, constituting the eastern coast of the Gulf of Mannar. The port referred to by Marcopolo in his notes probably refers to Kilakkarai or Periya pattinam, near Kilakkarai.

Marco Polo writes
’’ when you leave the island of Sellan (CEYLON) and sail west ward about 60 miles you come to the great province of Mabar which is styled the India the greater; it is the best of all the indices and is on the mainland.——— The province is the finest and the noblest in the world. At the end of the province reigns one of those royal brothers (Marco polo says that there were five royal brothers) who is crowned as a king and his name is SONDAR BONDI DEVAR.( Sunthira Pandi Devar)In his kingdom, they find very fine and great pearls. And I will tell you how they are got.

‘’you must know that the sea here forms a Gulf between the island of Seilon and the Mainland. And all around this Gulf the water has a depth of not more than 10 or 12 fathoms. And in some places not more than 2 fathoms. The pearl fishers take their vessels, great and small and proceed into this Gulf where they stop from beginning of April till the middle of May. They go first to the place called BETTOLOR and go 60 miles into the Gulf. Here they cast anchor and shift from their large vessels into small boats. You must know that many merchants who go divide into various companies and each of these must engage a number of men on wages hiring them for April and half of May. Of all the produce, they have first to pay the king as his royalty the tenth part.

And they must also pay those men who charm the great fishers to prevent them from injurying the divers while engaged in seeking pearls and the water, 1/20th part of all that they take.

These fish charmers are termed Abraiaman (Brahmins); and their charm holds good for that day only; for at that night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will. These Abraiamans knew how to charm bees and birds and every living thing.

When the men have got into the small boats they jump into the water and dive which will be at a depth of 4-5 fathoms and there they remained as long as they are able. And there they find the shells that contain the pearls and these they put into a net and a bag tied around the waist and mount up to the surface with them and then dive anew. When they cannot hold their breadth any longer, they come up again and after a little Down they go once more and so they go all day.

The shells are in fashion like oysters or sea-hoods. And in these shells are found pearls great and small of every kind sticking in the flesh of the shell fish.

In this manner pearls are found in great quantities, for thence in fact come the pearls which are spread all over the world. And I can tell you that the king of the state has a very great receipt and treasure from his dues upon those pearls.

As soon as the middle of May is passed no more of those pearl shells are found there. It is true, however that a long way from the spot some 300 mile distant, they are also found but that is in September and the first half of November.’’

We will write on pearl fishing during Portuguese times next Saturday.

by A.X. Alexander

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