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Religions Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, Islam
Languages Tamil, Malayalam, English, Sinhalese, other Indian languages
Related groups Fishermen, Tamil people

Parava or Paravar, also known as Parathavar, Paradavar, Bharathar, Bharathakula Pandyar[1][2] or Bharathakula Kshathriyar[3][4] is a caste in southern India that in ancient times were coastal fishermen and subordinate rulers to Pandyas,[5][6] as well as according to at least one modern writer, described as "ferocious soldiers".[7] There are many theories as to their origins but they have since ancient times been recorded in the area of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

In modern India, Paravars are concentrated along the coastal belt extending around the Gulf of Mannar, from Kilakarai through to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) and then on almost as far as Trivandrum. and their 60 or so villages are solely occupied by caste members and are interspersed with villages occupied by Muslims. There are also Paravar settlements on the outskirts of inland villages, and there has been a significant number among the population of Tuticorin, a major town, since the 1580s.[8]


  • Origins 1
  • History 2
    • Pandyan dynasty 2.1
    • Influx of Arabs 2.2
    • Arrival of the Portuguese and Christianity 2.3
    • Dutch control 2.4
    • British control 2.5
    • Post-independence 2.6
  • Occupations 3
  • Family names 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Notes 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • External links 9


Theorised origins include that they are descendants of:

  • the Dravidian origins, ancient inhabitants of the coastal areas.[9]
  • the Naga fishermen who settled in the coastal areas prior to its invasion by the Tamils. This proposition, quoted by Edgar Thurston, was advanced by James Hornell in his 1905 work, Report on the Indian pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar.[10]
  • the Indus Valley people.[11]

Also number of theories have been proposed regarding the origins of the Paravas. Writing in 1909, Thurston named examples given by Simon Casie Chitty in volume 4 of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of 1837.[12] These included them being:

  • related to the Parvaims, people who traded gold with Israel during the Solomonic era.[13] Thurston attributes this theory as arising from the Tamil language Historia Ecclesiastica published in 1735 and discounts it as having no solid foundation.[14] He does not make more clear as to which of the many works titled as such he is referring.
  • from the country of Oudh, near to the river of Yamuna. This is explained, but not elaborated upon, by Thurston as being the general belief of the Paravars.[14]
  • descendants of Varuna, the god of the sea, which is dismissed by Thurston as a myth.[15]


Pandyan dynasty

Commentators have explained that much of the early history of southern India cannot be substantiated as it is derived from myth,[16] often passed on by word-of-mouth by ancient bards. As an example, Iyengar refers to the Tamil belief that three supposedly royal lines — the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas — ruled the area from the very beginning of the world and were descended from the Sun and the Moon when, in fact, academic studies prove that these were merely tribal names.[1] Iyengar also casts doubt on the validity of detail contained in the Sangam literature, pointing out that the bards would pander to the egos of their clients and that those clients were invariably, and inevitably, the wealthy rulers of the areas.[17] The historical reliability is in doubt.[18] Works in the Sangam literature which refer to the lives of the Paravars include Ettuthokai, Pathupattu, Ahananuru, Maduraikkanci and Pattinappaalai.

From the earliest recorded times the Paravars were fishers and seamen, specialising in seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chank, both of which were significant exports from southern India by the first century AD.[19][20][21] (The pearl diving season usually lasted 20 – 30 days, around March).[22] The community was also involved in sea salt production,[23] which was a relatively easy task on the Indian coast as the hot temperatures evaporated the water without the need for firewood.[24] Diving for pearls and chank, as well as fishing, were thought of as being "low and ritually polluting occupations."[19]

The Pandyan emperors allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their already ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of how to tend the oysterbeds and also knowledge of their location. The emperors exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the produce extracted.[8][20] Cave engravings from the third century BC, found in 2003, reinforce this view as they suggest that the Paravars were the chieftains of the coastal region during this period, ruling as subordinates of the Pandyas.[5] Previously, in the 1920s, Iyengar had noted that the caste name was used in ancient scripts to mean both boatmen and chiefs of the Madurai country.[1] A report written in 1669 made it clear that in so far as they were kings, they were only kings of their own people and not of any wider constituency; furthermore, that these "kings" were referred to as such only by the Paravars.[10][25]

The 1901 Madras Census noted that the Tamil-speaking Paravars "claim" to be kshatriyas (warriors) serving under the Pandyan kings, the word used suggesting some official doubt regarding the issue.[26]

Little is known about the Paravas during the middle ages. Indeed, Donkin has argued that with one exception, "there are no native literary works with a developed sense of chronology, or indeed much sense of place, before the thirteenth century", and that any historical observations have to be made using Arab, European and Chinese accounts.[27] Southern India came under the control of the Cholas in the ninth century but reverted to Pandyan control around the mid-1200s following a series of battles. They maintained control, despite several challenges, until the 16th century.[28]

Influx of Arabs

Regardless of any doubt regarding their claims to be warriors under the liege of Pandyan emperors, the Paravars certainly did have armies at a later time, these being created to protect the fisheries and their people from attack.[29][30]

The Arab Muslim invasion began in 712 at the Sindh Valley and by around 1300 they had taken over the entire of northern India. However, even prior to the invasion there were Arabs in southern areas such as Calicut, Quilon and Malabar, chiefly traders interested in the spices, pearls, precious stones and cottons which were available there. Another advantage of the location was that it was on a major sea trade route running through south-east Asia and on to China.[31] Some of these Arabs were also pearl divers, having gained their experience in the waters of the Persian Gulf.[28][32]

The descendants of these Muslim people became known as the Lebbais and their main settlement was the town of Kayal, a presence which was noted by Vasco da Gama and Duarte Barbosa by the early sixteenth century.[32][33][34] There is some ambiguity regarding this town: there was a harbour on the Tamraparani River in Pandyan times which was known as Korkai and when the river at this point became too silted to use (it is situated approximately 8 km inland nowadays), it was replaced by a port called Kayal, thought to be situated variously either at the mouth of the river or at the village of Palayakayal which was 4 km downstream of Korkai but is itself nowadays about 3 km inland. Marco Polo described Kayal as a bustling port and the centre of the pearl trade in 1292 but by the mid-16th century this too had probably ceased to operate and was replaced by another port, Punnaikayal (new Kayal) under the influence of the Portuguese colonists. Punnaikayal was again at the mouth of the river, which as part of an estuary was under constant change, around 4 km from Palayakayal. It is difficult to determine with any consistency which of these locations is being referred to at various times by various authors but what does appear to be a common factor is that this was until modern times a major port for the pearl trade.[21] Kayal is the Tamil word for a backwater.[35]

The 1901 Madras Census noted three groups who called themselves Paravars. It speculated that their common root were the mostly Christian Tamil-speaking Paravars, The other groups were the Canarese-speaking Paravars, who were umbrella makers and devil-dancers and the Malayalam-speaking Paravars, who were lime burners, gymnasts, midwives and shell collectors. It has been further speculated that the splitting of the latter two groups from the first may have been as a consequence of a desire to move away from the ancient tribal area when faced with the arrival of Muslims.[26]

Arrival of the Portuguese and Christianity

Conversion of the Paravas by Francis Xavier, in a 19th-century coloured lithograph

There are differences of opinion regarding events up to the early 1500s. Donkin and Ray believe that the Muslims gained influence over the Paravars to the point that the latter became at best hired labour and at worst enslaved,[28][36] and Neill has claimed that there was a belief among Paravars that the Muslims sought completely to exterminate them following various squabbles.[33] However, Mannar and Chandrasekaran have said that up to the 16th century the Paravars had held almost a monopoly of the rights to exploit the pearl fisheries, having negotiated with successive kings to achieve this.[37]

By this time, Maynard has claimed, the south Indian coastal areas around Kanyakumari were "the greatest pearl fishery in the world", and that the Hindu people who fished for oysters there " ... were known as the Paravas, a caste sufficiently low, although not of the very lowest." He says that the Hindus were essentially peaceful in nature and temperamentally unsuited to counter physical threat,[38] although Frykenberg has described them as a "... proud and venturesome seafaring folk engaged in fishing, pearl diving, trading, and piracy."[39] Hastings has pointed out that the piracy (and some smuggling) was only an occasional activity and that their more normal occupations demanded courage, strength and stamina, which made them "hardened adventurers".[40]

From 1527 the Paravars were being threatened by Arab fleets offshore, headed by the Muslim supporting Zamorin of Calicut,[40] and also by an onshore campaign of the Rajah of Madura to wrest control of Tirunelveli and the Fishery Coast from the hands of the Rajah of Travancore.[39][41] This continuing situation, and the desire to be relieved of the rivalry from Lebbai divers, caused the Paravars to seek the protection of Portuguese explorers who had moved into the area. A delegation led by Vikirama Aditha Pandya visited Goa to seek talks to this end in 1532.[Notes 1] The protection was granted on the condition that the leaders were immediately baptised as Christians and that they would encourage their people also to convert to Christianity; the Portuguese would also gain a strategic foothold and control of the pearl fisheries. The deal was agreed and some months later 20,000 Paravars were baptised en masse, and became subjects of Portugal, during the visit of Pedro Gonsalves, Vicar of Cochin. By the end of 1537 the entire community had declared itself to be Christian, according to Hastings, and the Portuguese proceeded to destroy the Arab fleet when they met fortuitously at Vedalai on 27 June 1538.[38][39][40] From that point the Paravar people as a whole enjoyed renewed prosperity. Their declaration of acceptance of the Christian faith did not prevent them from continuing to worship in the manner which they had done previously because there were no translators to spread the Christian message and also because the conversion was seen by the Paravar people as being merely a convenient arrangement to obtain protection, not a statement of belief.[38][39] Bayly describes the situation as being "... really a declaration of tactical alliance rather than religious conversions as the term is usually understood."[42]

Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, had been working in Goa prior to his journey to Kanyakumari, where he arrived in October 1542. He took with him some interpreters with the intention of spreading the Gospel and bringing about further religious conversions among what Frykenberg has called "the lowest, most polluting segments of Tamil society".[43] Maynard claims that a further 10,000 Paravars were baptised during the first month of his mission, and 30,000 in total by its end; and that "His conversion of the Paravas, as is pointed out by Père Lhande, is the only instance of an entire caste being brought into the Church."[44] More modest figures have been proposed, such as 15,000 people including re-baptisms.[42] Xavier also brought about the conversion of members of other castes living in the area, for example Kadaiyars and Paraiyars.[39] His methods of conversion were sometimes forceful; for example, it is recorded that he burned down a hut which had been used to house non-Christian religious symbols.[45]

Xavier appointed catechists in the Paravar villages up and down the 100 miles (160 km) of coastline to spread and reinforce his teachings, the method for much of which was to recite repetitively (and in poorly translated Tamil)[8] rhythmic phrases of the Creed, Pater Noster and other standard Catholic teachings regardless of whether the content was actually understood.[40][42][46] These appointments necessitated that he obtained funds with which to pay them, the primary source being money granted to him by the Queen of Portugal.[45]

Violence had not been completely removed from Paravar society, despite the Portuguese intervention. There were a series of bloody skirmishes involving the Badage tribe, raiding from the neighbouring area of Madura in the ongoing struggle between the rajahs. Some of the Portuguese protectors themselves were involved in duplicitous dealings with such tribes, or simply took advantage of the mayhem to make personal gains. There were also instances of the protectors raping Paravar women. Xavier intervened on several occasions in an attempt to right these wrongs and in March 1544 wrote a letter stating that the behaviour of the Portuguese was in fact the biggest hurdle he faced in promoting the Christian message. In 1545 he wrote that "I have never ceased wondering at the number of new inflexions they have added to the conjugation of the verb to rob." He left India some time in the late 1540s or early 1550s but the precise year is disputed.[47] There is at least one source who believes that he briefly visited again in 1548, when he was paraded through Tuticorin by the Paravars.[40] It has been suggested that his status among the Paravars was one of "cult worship".[48] There is a shrine to him, in a cave, which is still venerated today as the place they believe to have been his principal residence during his time among them.[49]

Vikirama Aditha Pandya was rewarded by the Portuguese for his actions of 1532, when as part of the arrangement for protection he had offered to manage the pearl diving on behalf of the Portuguese. He became known as Senhor dos Senhores ("first among notables") Dom João da Cruz (but see Note 1) and was recognised as headman and official intermediary by the Portuguese from 1543 until 1553. (1543 was the year that the Portuguese first settled in Tuticorin, and the point from which that port began to expand until it eventually became the hub of the pearl fishery).[21] His title of jati thalavan (head of the caste) was passed down through 21 other members of his family. Caste elders in the various villages were also among the early beneficiaries of Portuguese recognition, perhaps because they were the first to be converted. The consequence was that a formal system of hierarchical control, based on religious authority and economic standing and extending from the jati thalavan through to the elders and then to the villagers, became established in the eyes of Paravars and non-Paravars alike. It remained in existence until the 1920s, with the elders extracting payments from villagers which were then passed on to the jati thalavan, and the latter in return managing affairs (including the fishery operations)[50] and adjudicating in both internal and external disputes involving the community. Kaufmann has commented that these "highly organised caste institutions" including hereditary headmen and councils of elders holding sway, was a rare thing in the agrarian economy of southern India and both lasted longer and was more elaborate than most equivalent Hindu systems of the area.[8] Another writer has said that " ... by the beginning of the eighteenth century the Tamil Paravas had emerged as one of south India's most highly organised specialist caste groups",[19] and adds that the hierarchical system had its origins in times prior to the Portuguese intervention.[30]

Their conversion may have enabled them to participate more significantly in religious ceremonies than was the case when they were Hindus, this being because their "unclean" occupations (that is, the taking of life) would have prevented any central contribution in Hindu religious ritual.[51] This was certainly the outcome following Pope Clement XIV's dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773, which resulted in a dearth of Catholic misisonaries and priests in the area, enabling the jati thalavan and his fellow caste notables to assume the role of solemniser for rituals such as marriage.[52]

Paravar Christianity, with its own identity based on a mixture of Christian religious belief and Hindu caste culture, remains a defining part of the Paravar life today, the early work of missionaries and in the 1540s having been reinforced by others who succeeded them and by the jati thalavan, the latter also being known as the "little king".[30][40] Kaufmann explains this Christianity as being "in effect a 'caste lifestyle' for the Paravas",[8] whilst Zupanov gives an example of how the missionaries modified Catholic teaching to suit the Paravars by citing the example of Henrique Henriques, who told them that "in the beginning there were no Muslims, only Jews and Tamils".[53]

Dutch control

Pearl Fishery at Tuticorin camp, 1662, by Johan Nieuhof.

A report written in 1622 stated that the fisheries had been moribund for many years due to the poverty of the Paravars; it is uncertain as to what period this refers or the cause of the poverty.[50] Xavier had recorded that the oyster beds seemed to have an uneven cyclical pattern, with a few good years of production alternating with a rather longer period of poor production.[54] Similarly, around 1490 Ahmad ibn Mājid wrote that the fisheries "flourish in some years, but appear dead in others." One contemporary explanation for these changes was that the beds became covered by the shifting sea sands.[55] A study of the period 1666–1916 showed that while the good harvests did tend to alternate between the Indian and the Sri Lankan sides of the Gulf, the latter side was more than twice as productive.[31]

Control of the fisheries passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch from 1658, along with sovereignty over the Paravars. The new rulers, who were Protestant, tried unsuccessfully to convert the Paravars to their own faith. One example of this attempt was the banning of the feast of Our Lady of Snows as a consequence of the Dutch taking over all the Catholic churches, many of which were turned into warehouses. This event had originated when a wood statuette of the Virgin Mary was moved by the Portuguese to the church of Our Lady of Mercy at Tuticorin in 1582, its installation being celebrated with a nine-day feast which was subsequently repeated annually and much enjoyed by the Paravars. The feast halted with the Dutch takeover but was reinstated from 1709, and three years later permission was granted for the building of a new church.[47] It was the right of the jati thalavan always to make the first tug of the rope which was attached to a chariot containing the statuette and which marked the start of the festival.[51] The veneration of the statuette has been called a "cult" and continues into modern times, although few outside the caste have such regard for it.[56]

During the period of Catholic repression the Dutch East India Company also expelled all Catholic priests and outlawed Catholic baptisms and other rituals. Indeed, there are no surviving records to suggest that there was any evangelism at all, although they did build Tuticorin's first Protestant church in 1750.[47]

During their period of control the Dutch also established a cloth factory in Tuticorin and this was a much appreciated venture — at some point the Paravars had also become traders in cloth.[57][58]

British control

The British took over control in 1796,[21] after a period of gradual usurpation of Dutch authority along the coast and elsewhere by the

  • Our lady of Snows Basilica
  • About Alanthalai
  • "A Navarrese in Yamaguchi". Archived from the original on 1 October 2006. 
  • St. Francis Xavier

External links

  • Bayly, Susan (2004). Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian society, 1700 – 1900 (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Subrahmanian, N. (1980). Śaṅgam polity: the administration and social life of the Śaṅgam Tamils (Revised ed.). Ennes. 


  1. ^ There are discrepancies regarding the identity of Vikirama Aditha Pandya. Bayly believes him "apparently" to have been a headman or senior caste elder (p. 326), as does Kaufmann (p. 208); however, Neill is very specific in saying that he was "a Cheti of the merchant caste resident in Calicut, who in 1513 had been sent to Portugal as an emissary of the zamorin, and while there had been baptised and taken a Portuguese name [João da Cruz]." Neill is also of the opinion that the agreement with the Portuguese arose in 1535 rather than 1532. (p. 142) Hastings broadly agrees with Neill regarding the identity (p. 167).


  1. ^ a b c Iyengar p. 139
  2. ^ Reddy, Krishna (2006). Indian History (3rd ed.). Tata McGraw-Hill. pp. A–242, A–247.  
  3. ^ Census of India, 1971: A general report 1. Office of the Registrar General. 
  4. ^ Subrahmanian p. 151
  5. ^ a b "Arittapatti inscription throws light on Jainism". The Hindu. 15 September 2003. 
  6. ^ Sarat, Chandra Roy. Caste, race and religion in India. p. 269. 
  7. ^ Subrahmanian p. 159
  8. ^ a b c d e f Kaufmann, S. B. (1981). "A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious Leadership and Social Conflict among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu". Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) 15 (2): 203–234.  
  9. ^ Iyengar p. 36
  10. ^ a b Thurston p. 148
  11. ^ Heras, Henry (1953). Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean culture 1. Indian Historical Research Institute. 
  12. ^ a b c Chitty, Simon Casie (1837). "Remarks on the origin and history of the Paravars". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 4: 130–134. 
  13. ^ "Passage results: 2 Chronicles 3–4 (New International Version)". Biblegateway. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  14. ^ a b Thurston p. 140
  15. ^ Thurston p. 142
  16. ^ Thurston pp. 141–142
  17. ^ Iyengar pp. 71–72
  18. ^ Sadasivan, S. N. (2000). A social history of India. APH Publishing. p. 309.  
  19. ^ a b c d Bayly p. 322
  20. ^ a b c Thurston p. 147
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Mcgrail, Sean; Blue, Lucy; Kentley, Eric; Palmer, Colin (2002). Boats of South Asia. Routledge. pp. 187–190.  
  22. ^ Neill p. 141
  23. ^ a b c Iyengar p. 12
  24. ^ Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2003). The archaeology of seafaring in ancient south Asia. Cambridge University Press. p. 36.  
  25. ^  
  26. ^ a b Thurston p. 143
  27. ^ Donkin p. 152
  28. ^ a b c Donkin p. 160
  29. ^ Thurston p.149
  30. ^ a b c Bayly p. 326
  31. ^ a b Donkin pp. 129–130
  32. ^ a b Thurston p. 151
  33. ^ a b Neill p. 142
  34. ^ More, J B P (1997). Political Evolution of Muslims in Tamilnadu and Madras 1930–1947. Orient Black Swan. pp. 14–15.  
  35. ^ Donkin p. 158
  36. ^ Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2003). The archaeology of seafaring in ancient south Asia. Cambridge University Press. p. 54.  
  37. ^ a b Rajendran, Isaac; Chandrasekaran, Freda (1976). "History of the Indian pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar". Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India 18 (3): 549–550. 
  38. ^ a b c Maynard pp. 111–112
  39. ^ a b c d e Frykenberg, Robert Eric (2008). Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 137–138.  
  40. ^ a b c d e f Hastings, Adrian (2000). A World History of Christianity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 166–168.  
  41. ^ Maynard pp. 138–142
  42. ^ a b c Bayly p. 328
  43. ^ Frykenberg, Robert Eric (2008). Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 139.  
  44. ^ Maynard pp. 119
  45. ^ a b Maynard p. 133
  46. ^ Maynard p. 131
  47. ^ a b c Daughrity, Dyron B. "A Brief History of Missions in Tirunelveli1 (Part One): From the Beginnings to its Creation as a Diocese in 1896" (PDF). Mission Studies. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  48. ^ Bayly p. 329
  49. ^ Bayly p. 331
  50. ^ a b c Thurston p. 152
  51. ^ a b c Bayly p. 346
  52. ^ a b Bayly p. 351
  53. ^ Zupanov, Ines G. (2005). Missionary tropics: the Catholic frontier in India (16th–17th centuries). University of Michigan Press. pp. 27, 90.  
  54. ^ Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2003). The archaeology of seafaring in ancient south Asia. Cambridge University Press. pp. 53–54.  
  55. ^ Donkin p. 162
  56. ^ Bayly p. 367
  57. ^ a b Thurston p. 146
  58. ^ Bayly p. 357
  59. ^ Bayly p. 356
  60. ^ a b Daughrity, Dyron B. "A Brief History of Missions in Tirunelveli1 (Part One): From the Beginnings to its Creation as a Diocese in 1896" (PDF). Mission Studies. pp. 6, 9. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  61. ^ Bayly p. 321
  62. ^ Jayakumar, Samuel (1999). Dalit consciousness and Christian conversion: historical resources for a contemporary debate : mission theology in an Asian context. Regnum International. p. 93.  
  63. ^ Robinson, Rowena (2003). Christians of India. SAGE. p. 108.  
  64. ^ Bayly pp. 356–357
  65. ^ Bayly pp. 361–362
  66. ^ Bayly pp. 361–365
  67. ^ Bayly p. 369
  68. ^ Bayly p. 370
  69. ^ a b Bayly pp. 372–374
  70. ^ Bayly pp. 350–351
  71. ^ Bayly pp. 349
  72. ^ Bayly p. 377
  73. ^ Bayly p. 378
  74. ^ "List of Backward Classes approved by the Government of Tamil Nadu". Government of Tamil Nadu. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  75. ^ "Abstract" (PDF). Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes & Minorities Welfare Department. 5 November 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2011. 
  76. ^ "Government Orders of Interest to Citizens". Government of Tamil Nadu. Retrieved 31 March 2011. 
  77. ^ Ballou, Maturin M. (1895). The Pearl of India (2nd ed.). Houghton, Mifflin. pp. 15–17. 
  78. ^  
  79. ^ Iyengar p. 72
  80. ^ Robinson, Rowena (2003). Christians of India. SAGE. pp. 108–109.  


See also

There are four family names of non-Christian origin still in common use, these being Kalingarayan, Villavarayan, Poobalarayan and Rayan. These names are thought possibly to have their origin in arayan, which was used by Tamil fishing groups as a caste title. Arayan is claimed by some modern descendants of the Paravars to be itself derived from rayya (rajah, king).[51]

The Paravars were probably a primarily endogamous society[79] until the arrival of the Portuguese, marrying only within their own caste and so keeping the tribal ties strong. Subsequently they became exogamous and from this came the use of names based on Portuguese origin. Family names such as Fernando, Costa, da Cruz and Roche are a direct consequence of these marriages, and familiar names, such as Susai (a Tamil translation of Joseph), reflect both the marriages and the general Portuguese influence.[8][57] Robinson offers a different thesis, claiming that they remained endogamous even after conversion, that these family ties strengthened their ability to ascend socially and that the use of Christian family names was in fact a privilege granted to them by the Portuguese and deemed to be a sign of their superiority over other castes such as the Mukkavars.[80]

Family names

Chitty grouped the Paravar occupations in 1837 into thirteen categories, these being:[12]

The Paravars also used boats similar to catamarans and, indeed, that word comes from the Tamil katturmaran (tied tree). It would seem that the design was developed independently of those used in Polynesia. An 1895 traveller describes them as a hollowed-out tree trunk up to 20 feet (6.1 m) long which is connected to a smaller trunk acting as an outrigger using lashes and two arched lengths of bamboo.[77] The voyager and explorer William Dampier had described seeing them in 1699.[78]

There is uncertainty regarding whether or not the present boats called vallam are similar to the ones described 500 years ago. Hornell's report of 1920 described the single-masted vallam in use around that time at being about 9 metres (30 ft) long and with a cargo capacity of around 2 tons. In 1914 he had described a larger three-masted boat, called the dhoni, which was used for pearl fishing and ferrying between anchored ships and Tuticorin harbour, as well as coastal journeys. The dhoni may owe its origin to Arab designs but could equally be indigenous.[21] Simon Casie Chitty also referred to the dhoni in 1837.[12]

It is known that during the visit of Francis Xavier the Paravars were using two different types of boat for net fishing, which he called the vallam and the toni. The latter was also used for trips to other coastal settlements and for trading journeys as far away as the Maldives. They were both large, open vessels with masts as well as oars; the sails were made with cotton, stiffened by boiling with roots and cow dung, and the fishing nets were made from coconut fibre.[21] However, Iyengar believes that the toni was a hide-covered wicker basket similar to a coracle.[23]

Historically, the Paravars were involved in sea-related activities such as pearl diving, fishing, navigation, boatbuilding and the making of salt.[19][20][21][23]


In 2009 the government of Tamil Nadu issued an order designating Christian Paravars within its jurisdiction as being of the Most Backward Classes (MBC), a designation regarding their socio-economic status which entitles them to various assistance measures, primarily in the form of positive discrimination, if they should require it. Prior to that decision, some Paravars in the jurisdiction had been in the Scheduled caste group, although others were already MBC. These designations are flexible and subject to change at various times, according to determined need.[75][76]

Paravars are classified as a Most backward caste in most of Tamil Nadu and as a Scheduled caste in Kanniyakumari District and Shenkottai taluk of Tirunelveli District by Government of Tamil Nadu.[74]

In 1947, the fisheries became a monopoly of the new independent Indian government.[37]


[73] became more and more impossible and was eventually abandoned, the last occupant of the post having been installed in 1926. The introduction of new technologies in the post-jati thalavan As the caste hierarchy disintegrated, becoming a range of groups each seeking to assert their position, the role of the

However, the combination of Jesuit pressure and then also that of the Goan Padroados, who came to agree that the ritual role of the jati was detrimental to belief, caused the gradual erosion of the jati's powers of patronage and organisation. This situation was assisted by the growing number of people aspiring to be members of the elite and those who disputed the validity of the succession as a consequence of the female lineage. The ceremonial role of the jati in religious observance and ceremony was gradually reduced, including the removal of status symbols such as the special seat that he occupied for Mass, and with these actions went much of his influence over the caste. By 1900 there were strikes taking place among the pearl and chank divers, often for frivolous reasons; the jati was unable to impose the discipline upon them which once had been a primary role.[72]

there are occasions when the Christian community would become out-casted. The issues were complex. If the new converts could convince the entire caste to convert, the social status of the group could actually increase. Individuals who converted were often forced to abandon their community and move in order to find Christian support. The often difficult situations regarding conversion and caste exist to this day."[60]

In the late nineteenth century the Paravar elite tried to reconcile with the Muslim seafarers in their area, seeking to claim kinship. This went as far as the then jati thalivan declaring that the elite among these Marakkar Muslims, from towns such as Kilakarai, were in fact related to him by blood as they shared common antecedents. There was a tactical purpose to these decisions as by these actions he wanted to assert that he had authority over them. Furthermore, it was in the economic interests of the Paravars to foster these relationships because under British rule it was often the Marakkar who were granted the licences to operate the fisheries. Simultaneously, the Paravars were attempting to dissociate themselves from other Christian castes, whom they thought to be of a lower standing than themselves, such as the Nadars.[70] Although they regarded the Nadar Christians as their equal in the past.[71]The Nadars had been enthusiastic in their conversion to Christianity but did so much later than the Paravars, with surges of conversion — both to Catholicism and Protestantism — taking place in 1802–1803, the 1840s and the late 1870s/early 1880s. Dyron Daughrity has said that the conversions were "largely because of the increase in social status that could be effected" but adds that

The Jesuits were not helped in their aim by the British government, who in 1891 renegotiated the arrangements for sharing the fishery catches with the new, non-Jesuit appointed jati thalavan. This deal, in which it was agreed that the jati should receive the output of one boat for that of every thirty which went to the government, once again confirmed the support of the ruling power for the caste hierarchy.[50] The new jati was himself controversial among the Paravars: his appointment to the role, being the son of the previous headman's daughter, was thought by some to be invalid because the succession had passed through the female line.[69]

The death of the jati thalavan in 1889 without a male heir gave rise to a power vacuum and so presented a new opportunity for the Jesuits. Combined with this was another boom in maritime trading, this time involving the plantations of Ceylon, which served to swell the ranks of those aspiring for recognition as members of the elite. The Jesuits employed various measures intended to drive a wedge between the two groups and to limit the subservience displayed towards the jati and other senior caste members which, the Jesuits believed, infringed on the true worship of God because offerings of money and goods were made to those people as part of Paravan church rituals. They went so far as to attempt to install an alternative jati and the battle for control continued for several years.[69]

The Jesuits had gone so far as to establish an alternative cathedral, the Sacred Heart, in the hope of drawing worshippers from Our Lady of Snows. That, too, failed in its purpose.[67] There were also several instances where the disputes — often relating to rights in regard to religious buildings and their precincts — were taken through the court system, and also more occasions when riots between the factions occurred.[68]

The Jesuits decided in 1841 to attempt to re-assert their authority over the elite by supporting the aspirations of a rising group of lesser Paravars who had also managed to gain from the boom and had hopes of validating their success with an appropriate rank in the hierarchy. These people were traders, often spending long periods of time away from home in such places as Goa and Sri Lanka. Even lower down the ranks, the rise in ship and cargo movements, the continued development of Tuticorin harbour and town, and similar consequences of the boom (including the requirement for food by those who had moved away from working directly in fishing or on the land) was providing increasingly profitable work. The Paravar elite continued their traditional role, organising this labour as they had done for the pearl fisheries. They also absorbed into their ranks those members of the caste who had profited from independent trading, this being achieved by requiring the newcomers to pay a fee and swear allegiance to the jati thalivan. However, there were people who had been cast aside from the elite as a consequence of falling out with the jati, and others who wanted recognition more quickly than the system allowed. These disaffected people were the target of the Jesuit actions, which consisted primarily of providing them with status symbols such as the offer of additional Te Deums and bells at marriage ceremonies. The end result of this attempt to foment a new hierarchy, however, was a riot and a successful move by the jati to replace the Jesuits with Goan Padroados as ministers to his people and officiators at the church of Our Lady of Snows. The Jesuits continued trying to split the caste for a further thirty years but rarely had more than temporary successes: the ranks of the disaffected were swollen by new arrivals but also diminished by those who left as a consequence of having obtained satisfaction from the elite.[66]

When the Jesuit missionaries returned in the 1830s, following the revival of their Society, they were shocked at the lapse in formal religious observance and in general Christian morality, as well as the opulent lifestyle being led by the Paravar elite which contrasted with the dilapidated state of the churches.[64] Around that time the elite, along with some other groups such as Nadar traders, were making significant amounts of money from a surge in export demand for processed cotton, using their existing wealth from the pearl fisheries as a means to expand their interests into this booming sector. By 1845 Tuticorin was the location of the main cotton export activities in southern India and by the end of the century it was the fifth largest port in the entire of India.[65]

Far more prosperous than the Mukkuvar, their access to wealth, and then to education, after conversion ensured that they could attempt to spread out, urbanize, acquire new skills and enter different professions. All these aided in the process of upward social mobility."[63]

Bayly has examined why it was that some among the low-ranking Paravars were able to rise to work in occupations that were both more prestigious and more financially rewarding than had been the case before the conversion to Christianity, She points out that the Paravars held much the same rank as the Mukkavars, who were also a maritime caste of the area and were converted but did not demonstrate the same subsequent socio-economic mobility.[61] (It has, however, been argued that the Mukkavars were "a sub-class of the Parava[r] community" and formed the largest group of those converted to Christianity during Xavier's time).[62] Robinson has said


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