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Paravan - by: Edgar Thurston

According to Castes and Tribes of Southern India Vol. 6 of 7

Paravan.—Concerning the origin of the Parava fishing community of the south-east coast, the following legends are current.73 The author of the Historia Ecclesiastica (published in Tamil at Tranquebar in 1735) identifies them with the Parvaim of the Scriptures, and adds that, in the time of Solomon, they were famous among those who made voyages by sea; but it does not appear that there is any solid foundation for this hypothesis. It is the general belief among the Paravas that their original country was Ayodhya, or Oudh; and it appears that, previously to the war of Mahābhārata, they inhabited the territory bordering on the river Yamuna or Jumna. At present they are chiefly found in the seaport towns of the Tinnevelly district in the south of India, and also in some of the provinces on the north-west coast of Ceylon. With regard to their origin, there is a variety as well as discordancy of opinions. Some of the Tantras represent them to be descended from a Brāhman by a Sūdra woman, while the Jātībēdi Nūl (a work of some celebrity among the Tamils) states them to be the offspring of a Kurava (or basket-maker) begotten clandestinely on a female of the Chetty (or merchant) tribe. But the Paravas have among themselves quite a different [142]tradition concerning their origin, which is founded on mythological fable. They relate that their progenitors were of the race Varuna (god of the sea), and on the occasion, when Siva had called Kartikēya (god of arms) into existence, for destroying the overwhelming power of the Asuras (evil spirits), they sprang up with him from the sacred lake Sarawana, and were like him nursed by the constellation Kartika. At the close of the last kalpa, when the whole earth was covered with a deluge, they constructed a dhōni or boat, and by it escaped the general destruction; and, when dry land appeared, they settled on the spot where the dhōni rested; hence it is called Dhōnipura, or the city of the boat. The Paravas were once a very powerful people, and no doubt derived much of their ascendancy over other tribes from their knowledge of navigation. They had a succession of kings among them, distinguished by the title of Adīyarāsen, some of whom seem to have resided at Uttara Kōsamangay, called at that time the city of Mangay, a famous place of Hindu pilgrimage in the neighbourhood of Rāmnād. In the Purāna entitled Valēvīsū Purānam we meet with the following fable. Parvati, the consort of Siva, and her son Kartikēya, having offended the deity by revealing some ineffable mystery, were condemned to quit their celestial mansions, and pass through an infinite number of mortal forms, before they could be re-admitted to the divine presence. On the entreaty of Parvati, however, they were allowed, as a mitigation of the punishment, each to undergo but one transmigration. And, as about this time, Triambaka, King of the Paravas, and Varuna Valli his consort were making tapas (acts of devotion) to obtain issue, Parvati condescended to be incarnated as their daughter under the name of Tīrysēr Madentē. Her son Kartikēya, [143]transforming himself into a fish, was roaming for some time in the north sea. It appears, however, that he left the north, and made his way into the south sea, where, growing to an immense size, he attacked the vessels employed by the Paravas in their fisheries, and threatened to destroy their trade. Whereupon the King Triambaka made a public declaration that whoever would catch the fish should have his daughter to wife. Siva, now assuming the character of a Parava, caught the fish, and became re-united to his consort. In that section of the Mahābhārata entitled Ādiparva it is said that the King of the Paravas, who resided on the banks of the Jumna, having found an infant girl in the belly of a fish, adopted her as his own daughter, giving her the name of Machchakindi, and that, when she grew up, she was employed, as was customary with the females of the Parava tribe, to ferry passengers over the river. On a certain day, the sage Parāsara having chanced to meet her at the ferry, she became with child by him, and was subsequently delivered of a son, the famous Vyāsa who composed the Purānas. Her great personal charms afterwards induced King Santanu of the lunar race to admit her to his royal bed, and by him she became the mother of Vichitravīrya, the grandsire of the Pāndavas and Kauravas, whose contentions for the throne of Hastināpūra form the subject of the Mahābhārata. Hence the Paravas boast of being allied to the lunar race, and call themselves accordingly, besides displaying at their wedding feasts the banners and emblems peculiar to it. In the drama of Alliarasāny, who is supposed to have resided at Kudremallē on the north-west coast of Ceylon, the Paravas act a conspicuous part. We find them employed by the princess in fishing for pearls off the coast, and that under a severe penalty they were [144]obliged to furnish her with ten kalams of pearls every season.

Parava devil-dancer.
It is noted, in the Madras Census Report, 1901, that “there are in reality three castes which answer to the name Paravan, and which speak Tamil, Malayālam, and Canarese respectively. Probably all three are descended from the Tamil Paravans or Paratavans. The Tamil Paravans are fishermen on the sea coast. Their head-quarters is Tuticorin, and their headman is called Talavan. They are mostly Native Christians. They claim to be Kshatriyas of the Pāndyan line of kings, and will eat only in the houses of Brāhmans. The Malayālam Paravans are shell collectors, lime burners and gymnasts, and their women act as midwives. Their titles are Kurup, Vārakurup, and Nūrankurup (nūru, lime). The Canarese Paravas are umbrella-makers and devil-dancers.” It has been suggested that the west coast Paravas are the descendants of those who fled from Tinnevelly, in order to avoid the oppression of the Muhammadans.

In the Census Report, 1871, the Paravas are summed up as being a fishing caste on the Madura and Tinnevelly coast, who “were found by the Portuguese, on their arrival in India, to be groaning under the Muhammadan yoke, and were assisted by the Portuguese on condition of their becoming Christians. This general conversion, for political ends, explains why the fishing population of the present day along the south-east coast is to a considerable extent Roman Catholic.” It is noted by Mr. S. P. Rice74 that the fishermen “who live in the extreme south are devout Catholics, and have preserved the Portuguese names by which their fathers [145]were baptized into the Church, so that, incongruous as it sounds, Josē Fernandez and Maria Santiago are but humble folk, catching fish in a primitive way, with no more clothing on than a small loin cloth and a picture of the Virgin.”

Concerning the Paravas, Baldæus75 writes as follows. “The kingdom of Trevancor borders upon that of Coulang: All along the Sea-shore inhabit the Paruas, who being for the most part Christians, you see the Shore all along as far as Comoryn, and even beyond it to Tutecoryn, full of little Churches, some of Wood, others of Stone. These People owe their Conversion to Franciscus Xaverius, he being the first who planted the Principles of Christianity among them; they being so much taken with the reasonableness of the Ten Commandments, that they receiv’d Baptism in great numbers, tho an accidental Quarrel between a Parua and a Mahometan prov’d a strong Motive to their Conversion.... The Paruas being sorely oppress’d by the Mahometans, one John de Crus, a Native of Malabar, but who had been in Portugal, and honourably treated by John, the then king of Portugal, advised them to seek for Aid at Cochin against the Moors, and to receive Baptism. Accordingly some of the chief Men among them (call’d Patangatays in their Language) were sent upon that Errand to Cochin, where being kindly receiv’d, they (in honour of him who had given His Advice) took upon them the Sirname of Crus, a name still retain’d by most Persons of Note among the Paruas. In short, being deliver’d from the Moorish Yoke, and the Pearl-fishery (which formerly belong’d to them) restor’d to the right Owners, above 20,000 of them receiv’d Baptism.”[146]

“The commencement of the Roman Catholic Mission in Tinnevelly,” Bishop Caldwell writes,76 “dates from 1532, when certain Paravas, representatives of the Paravas or fishing caste, visited Cochin for the purpose of supplicating the aid of the Portuguese against their Muhammadan oppressors, and were baptized there by Michael Vaz, Vicar-General of the Bishop of Goa. The same ecclesiastic, with other priests, accompanied the fleet which sailed for the purpose of chastising the Muhammadans, and, as soon as that object was accomplished, set about baptizing the Paravas all along the coast, in accordance with the agreement into which their representatives had entered. The entire Parava caste adopted the religion of their Portuguese deliverers and most of them received baptism. Some, however, did not receive baptism for some cause till Xavier’s time, ten years afterwards. Xavier, on his arrival in the south, could not speak Tamil, and spent some months in committing to memory Tamil translations of the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria, and Decalogue. He then proceeded to visit all the villages of the coast, bell in hand, to collect the inhabitants, and gave them Christian instruction. The Paravas thus christianised—called generally at that time the Comorin Christians—inhabited thirty villages, and numbered, according to the most credible account, twenty thousand souls. These villages extended all the way along the coast at irregular intervals from Cape Comorin to the island promontory of Rāmēsvaram, if not beyond. It does not appear that any village in the interior joined in the movement.” “It appears,” Mr. Casie Chitty states, “that the Portuguese treated the Paravas with great [147]kindness, permitted intermarriages, and even allowed them to assume their surnames, so that we find among them many Da Limas, Da Cruzs, Da Andrados, Da Canhas, etc. They gave the chief of the Paravas the title of Dom, and allowed him the exclusive right of wearing a gold chain with a cross as a badge of nobility. [The name of a recent hereditary chief or Jāti Talaivan or Talaivamore of the Paravas was Gabriel de Cruz Lazarus Motha Vas.] As soon as the Dutch took possession of Tutocoryn (Tuticorin) and other adjacent towns where the Paravas are found, they employed Dr. Baldæus and a few other ministers of their persuasion to suppress the Roman Catholic faith, and to persuade the Paravas to adopt their own in its stead; but in this they met with a total failure, and were once very nearly bringing on a general revolt. Notwithstanding the intolerance of the Dutch with regard to the Romish Church, the Paravas still remember them with gratitude, as they afforded them the means of extensive livelihood by establishing in their principal town (Tutocoryn) a public manufactory of cloth, and thus maintaining a considerable working capital.”

Concerning the history of the Paravas, and their connection with the pearl-fisheries on the Indian side of the Gulf of Manaar, much information is given by Mr. J. Hornell,77 from whose account the following extracts are taken. “When the Portuguese rounded Cape Comorin, they found the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar in the hands of the Paravas, whom tradition shows to have had control of this industry from time immemorial. Of the origin of these people we know extremely little. We know, however, that in [148]the old days, from 600 B.C. and for 1,500 years or more thereafter, the country now comprehended in the districts of Madura and Tinnevelly formed the great Tamil kingdom of Pāndya. And, in the old Tamil work called the Kalveddu, the position of the pearl-fishing caste to this monarchy is incidentally mentioned in the following extract: ‘Vidanarayanen Cheddi and the Paravu men who fished pearls by paying tribute to Alliyarasani, daughter of Pandya, king of Madura, who went on a voyage, experienced bad weather in the sea, and were driven to the shores of Lanka, where they founded Karainerkai and Kutiraimalai. Vidanarayanen Cheddi had the treasures of his ship stored there by the Paravas, and established pearl fisheries at Kadalihilapam and Kallachihilapam, and introduced the trees which change iron into gold.’ In the Maduraik-kanchi the Paravas are described as being most powerful in the country round Korkai. ‘Well fed on fish and armed with bows, their hordes terrified their enemies by their dashing valour.’ The Maduraik-kanchi describes Korkai as the chief town in the country of Parathavar and the seat of the pearl fishery, with a population consisting chiefly of pearl divers and chank cutters.78 When the Pandyan kingdom was powerful, the Paravas had grants of certain rights from the monarchy, paying tribute from the produce of the fisheries, and receiving protection and immunity from taxation in return. The conditions under which the Paravas lived at the opening of the sixteenth century are graphically set forth in a report, dated 19th December, 1669, written by Van Reede and Laurens Pyh, respectively Commandant of the coast of Malabar and Canara and senior merchant and Chief of [149]the sea-ports of Madura. Under the protection of those Rājas there lived a people, which had come to these parts from other countries79—they are called Paravas—they lived a seafaring life, gaining their bread by fishing and by diving for pearls; they had purchased from the petty Rājas small streaks of the shore, along which they settled and built villages, and they divided themselves as their numbers progressively increased. In these purchased lands they lived under the rule of their own headmen, paying to the Rājas only an annual present, free from all other taxes which bore upon the natives so heavily, looked upon as strangers, exempt from tribute or subjection to the Rājas, having a chief of their own election, whose descendants are still called kings of the Paravas, and who drew a revenue from the whole people, which in process of time has spread itself from Quilon to Bengal. Their importance and power have not been reduced by this dispersion, for they are seen at every pearl fishery (on which occasions the Paravas assemble together) surpassing in distinction, dignity and outward honours all other persons there. The pearl fishery was the principal resource and expedient from which the Paravas obtained a livelihood, but as from their residence so near the sea they had no manner of disposing of their pearls, they made an agreement with the Rājas that a market day should be proclaimed throughout their dominions, when merchants might securely come from all parts of India, and at which the divers and sutlers necessary to furnish provisions for the multitude might also meet; and, as this assemblage would consist of two different races, namely, the Paravas and [150]subjects of the Rājas, as well as strangers and travellers, two kinds of guards and tribunals were to be established to prevent all disputes and quarrels arising during this open market, every man being subject to his own judge, and his case being decided by him; all payments were then also divided among the headmen of the Paravas, who were the owners of that fishery, and who hence became rich and powerful; they had weapons and soldiers of their own, with which they were able to defend themselves against the violence of the Rājas or their subjects. The Moors who had spread themselves over India, and principally along the coasts of Madura, were strengthened by the natives professing Muhammadanism, and by the Arabs, Saracens, and the privateers of the Sammoryn,80 and they began also to take to pearl-diving as an occupation, but being led away by ill-feeling and hope of gain, they often attempted to outreach the Paravas, some of whom even they gained to their party and to their religion, by which means they obtained so much importance, that the Rājas joined themselves to the Moors, anticipating great advantages from the trade which they carried on, and from their power at sea; and thus the Paravas were oppressed, although they frequently rose against their adversaries, but they always got the worst of it, until at last in a pearl fishery at Tutucoryn, having purposely raised a dispute, they fell upon the Moors, and killed some thousands of them, burnt their vessels, and remained masters of the country, though much in fear that the Moors, joined by the pirates of Calicut, would rise against them in revenge. The Portuguese arrived about this time with one ship at Tutucoryn; the Paravas requested them for assistance, [151]and obtained a promise of it, on conditions that they should become Christians; this they generally agreed to, and, having sent Commissioners with some of the Portuguese to Goa, they were received under the protection of that nation, and their Commissioners returned with priests, and a naval force conveying troops, on which all the Paravas of the seven ports were baptized, accepted as subjects of the King of Portugal, and they dwindled thus from having their own chiefs and their own laws into subordination to priests and Portuguese, who however settled the rights and privileges of the Paravas so firmly that the Rājas no longer dared interfere with them, or attempt to impede or abridge their prerogative; on the contrary they were compelled to admit of separate laws for the Paravas from those which bound their own subjects. The Portuguese kept for themselves the command at sea, the pearl fisheries, the sovereignty over the Paravas, their villages and harbours, whilst the Naick of Madura, who was a subject of the King of the Carnatic, made himself master at this time of the lands about Madura, and in a short time afterwards of all the lower countries from Cape Comoryn to Tanjore, expelling and rooting out all the princes and land proprietors, who were living and reigning there; but, on obtaining the sovereignty of all these countries, he wished to subject the Paravas to his authority, in which attempt he was opposed by the Portuguese, who often, not being powerful enough effectually to resist, left the land with the priests and Paravas, and went to the islands of Manaar and Jaffnapatam, from whence they sent coasting vessels along the Madura shores, and caused so much disquiet that the revenue was ruined, trade circumscribed, and almost annihilated, for which reasons the Naick himself was obliged to solicit the Portuguese to come [152]back again. The Political Government of India, perceiving the great benefit of the pearl fishery, appointed in the name of the King of Portugal military chiefs and captains to superintend it, leaving the churches and their administration to the priests. Those captains obtained from the fisheries each time a profit of 6,000 rix-dollars for the king, leaving the remainder of the income from them for the Paravas; but, seeing they could not retain their superiority in that manner over the people, which was becoming rich, luxurious, drunken, with prosperity, and with the help of the priests, who protected them, threatening the captains, which often occasioned great disorders, the latter determined to build a fort for the king at Tutucoryn, which was the chief place of all the villages; but the priests who feared by this to lose much of their consequence as well as of their revenue, insisted that, if such a measure was proceeded with, they would all be ruined, on which account they urged on the people to commit irregularities, and made the Paravas fear that the step was a preliminary one to the making all of them slaves; and they therefore raised such hindrances to the work that it never could be completed.

“The Paravas,” Mr. Hornell continues, “although the original holders of the fishery rights, had begun, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, to feel the competition of the restless Muhammadan settlers on the coast, who, coming, as many must have done, from the coast of the Persian Gulf, knew already all there was to know of pearl-fishing. The descendants of these Arabs and their proselytes, known as Moros to the Portuguese, are the Moormen or Lubbais of to-day. Their chief settlement was Kayal, a town situated near the mouth of the river Tambrapurni, and which in Marco Polo’s time (1290–91) was a great and noble city. It shared [153]with Tuticorin for fully 500 years the honour of being one of the two great pearl markets of the coast—the one being the Moor, the other the Parava, head-quarters.... Menezes, writing in 1622, states that for many years the fisheries had become extinct because of the great poverty into which the Paravas had fallen. Tuticorin, and the sovereignty of the pearl banks and of the Paravas, passed to the Dutch in 1658.

In the report of the pearl fishery, 1708, the following entries occur in the list of free stones according to ancient customs:—
96½ to the Naick of Madura—4 Xtian, 92½ Moorish;
10 to Head Moorman of Cailpatnam—5 Xtian, 5 Moorish.
60 to Theuver—60 Moorish.
185 to the Pattangatyns of this coast—all Xtian stones.

“The 185 stones,” Mr. Hornell writes, “given to the Pattangatyns or headmen of the Paravas was in the nature of remuneration to these men for assistance in inspecting the banks, in guarding any oyster banks discovered, in recruiting divers, and in superintending operations during the course of the fishery.... In 1889, the Madras Government recorded its appreciation of the assistance rendered by the Jati Talaivan, and directed that his privilege of being allowed the take of two boats be continued. Subsequently, in 1891, the Government, while confirming the general principle of privilege remuneration to the Jati Talaivan, adopted the more satisfactory regulation of placing the extent of the remuneration upon the basis of a sliding scale, allowing him but one boat when the Government boats numbered 30 or less, two for 31 to 60 boats, three for 61 to 90 [154]boats employed, and so on in this ratio. The value of the Jati Talaivan’s two privilege boats in the 1890 fishery was Rs. 1,424, in that of 1900 only Rs. 172.” The Jādi Talaivān is said to have been denominated by the Dutch the prince of the seven havens. It is noted in the pearl fishery report, 1900, that “the Paravas are a constant source of trouble, both on the banks and in the kottoo (shed), where they were constantly being caught concealing oysters, which of course were always confiscated. Only one Arab was caught doing this, and his companions abused him for disgracing them.”

According to Mr. Casie Chitty, the Paravas are divided into thirteen classes, viz.:—
Dealers in cloth.
Divers for corals.
Divers for pearl-oysters.
Divers for chanks.
Packers of cloth.
Fishers who catch tortoises (turtles).
Fishers who catch porpoises.
Fishers who catch sharks and other fish.
Palanquin bearers.
Peons, who wait about the person of the Chief.
Fishers, who catch crabs.

It is noted by Canon A. Margoschis that the Parava females are famous for the excessive dilatation of the lobes of the ears, and for wearing therein the heaviest and most expensive gold ear jewels made of sovereigns. Ordinary jewels are said to cost Rs. 200, but heavy jewels are worth Rs. 1,000 and even more. The longer the ears, the more jewels can be used, and this appears to be the rationale of elongated ears.[155]

In a recent account of a Parava wedding in high life, I read81 that “the bride and bridegroom proceeded to the church at the head of an imposing procession, with music and banners. The service, which was fully choral, was conducted by a priest from their own community, after which the newly wedded couple went in procession to the residence of the Jāti Talavamore, being escorted by their distinguished host in person. The Jāti Talavamore, who wore a picturesque, if somewhat antiquated, robe, rode in a gorgeously upholstered palanquin, with banners, trophies, elephants, and other emblems of his high office. The bride, who was resplendent with diamonds, was becomingly attired in a purple Benares sāri with gold floral designs, and wore a superb kincob bodice.”

In a note on the Paravans of Travancore, Mr. N. Subramani Aiyar writes that “they are found in most tāluks of the State. The title sometimes used by them is Kuruppu. The Paravans of Chengannūr and Tiruvella call themselves Chakka, a word supposed by the castemen to be derived from slaghya or praiseworthy, but perhaps more correctly from Chakku, the basket carried by them in their hands. The Paravans are divided into numerous sections. In the south, the Tamil-speaking division follows the makkathāyam, while all the Malayālam-speaking sections follow the marumakathāyam law of inheritance. There is also a difference in the dress and ornaments of the two sections, the former adopting the fashion of the east coast, and the latter that of the west. The Travancore Paravas are really one with the Tamil-speaking Paravas of the east coast. While most of them became converts to [156]Christianity, in Travancore they have tried to preserve their separate existence, as they had already spread into the interior of the country before the proselytism of St. Xavier had made its enduring mark on the sea-coast villages. There is a curious legend about the settlement of the Chakkas in Central Travancore. Formerly, it would appear, they were Sūdras, but, for some social offence committed by them, they were outcasted by the Edappalli chieftain. They were once great devotees of Srī Krishna, the lord of Tiruvaranmulai in the Tiruvella tāluk. The Paravas say further that they are descended from a high-caste woman married to an Izhava. The word Parava is accordingly derived from para, which in Sanskrit means foreign. The Paravas engage in various occupations, of which the most important in Central Travancore are climbing palm trees, catching fish, and washing clothes for Christians, Muhammadans, and depressed classes of Hindus. In South Travancore they make wicker baskets, rattan chairs, and sofas. Women, in all parts of the State, are lime and shell burners. They worship at the Aranmula temple, and pay special worship to Bhadrakāli. Their priest is known as Parakuruppu, who, having to perform four different functions, is also entitled Nālonnukāran. It is his duty to preside at marriage and other rites, to be caste barber, to carry the news of death to the relations, and to perform the priestly functions at funerals. The Paravas perform both the tāli-kettu and sambandham ceremonies.”

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