Gulf of Mannar Pearl Fisheries

Pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar, ca. 1926 <I>Wiki</I>

Pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar, ca. 1926 Wiki

Remembering Gulf of Mannar pearl fisheries...

The divers were predominantly Tamils or Arabs. Some plunged headfirst from springboards; some descended in an upright position, carried down rapidly by a stone or lead weight. They worked in pairs; one diver remained on the surface, along with an assistant or munduck who watched over the ropes attached to the weight and the basket in which the oysters were collected. When ready to descend, the Tamil diver pinched his nostrils shut, while the Arab diver used a horn clip.

Of the world?s great pearl fisheries, none can compare with the fishery of the Gulf of Mannar. Over 3000 years ago, pearls were one of the principal sources of revenue of the Tamil kings. In ancient Rome, the author and philosopher Pliny referred to this fishery as the world?s most productive. The Greeks, Venetians and Genoese all sought the beautiful specimens harvested in these waters. The Pearl Banks (paars) stretch from the island of Mannar, off the northwestern tip of modern-day Sri Lanka, south to Chilaw, at depths ranging from five to 15 fathoms. The shallow undersea plateau on which the banks are located varies from 32 kilometres wide in the north to six km in the south. Traditionally, each of the 50 or so banks bore a unique name, the most productive being the Cheval and the Moderagam.

Pearl fishing was such an important industry that it was a government monopoly from the earliest times. There were two distinct fisheries ? one on the South Indian coast, the other on the Sri Lankan coast, in Mannar. However, the fishery off Mannar was considered the most important. Megasthenes, the Grecian ambassador to the court of Chandra Gupta in the third century BC, asserted that this fishery produced larger, better quality pearls.

In colonial times, divers did their work from 15-ton dhows from the Persian Gulf, which carried a crew of 14, along with ten divers. The fleet, often numbering 400 boats, left for the Pearl Banks in the early hours of the morning. ?The boatpeople are raised from their slumbers by the noise of horns and tom-toms, and the firing of a field-piece,? remarks one James Cordiner in A Description of Ceylon (1807). After going through what Cordiner describes as ?various ablutions and incantations?, the pearl divers set sail for the Pearl Banks, guided by pilot boats. By sunrise, the fleet was anchored in position around a barque carrying a government ?inspector? of the Pearl Banks. An hour after sunrise a gun was fired, which gave the signal for diving to commence.

On reaching the bottom, the diver slipped the noose of the basket over his head, and swam over the bank collecting the oysters. After about a minute, the diver below gave a tug on the basket rope. Instantly, two munducks hauled up the rope, along with the diver. Upon being brought into the boat, the divers would discharge water ? and, sometimes, blood ? from their mouth, ears and nostrils. After a few minutes of rest and the diver was ready to descend again, and would only let his comrade take his place when he had completed eight descents. In this manner, a single diver could gather 3000 oysters in a single day.

Sharks represented the main danger to the divers. Being superstitious, they always consulted ?shark-charmers? or ?shark-binders? before commencing work. Indeed, the divers would not venture into the sea until they had received assurance that ?the mouths of the sharks would close at their command?. As the shark-charmers belonged to a certain family, they were able to monopolise the business, and there were at least two or three shark-charmers in attendance at every fishery. One would go to sea in the head pilot?s boat, while the others would perform rites on the shore. One such required the shark-charmer to strip naked and shut himself in a closed room. There, he would sit before a brass basin full of water obtained from a secret well on a distant island, in which were placed silver replicas of a male and female shark. If a shark attack was going to take place, it was believed, one shark in the basin would bite the other. Sometimes the charmers indulged in toddy until they could no longer stand. Nevertheless, they were considered so indispensable to the success of the fishery that they were paid by the government in addition to receiving a daily tithe of oysters from each boat.

After a midday signal, work was ceased and the boats headed for Silavatturai, in northwest Sri Lanka. There, the divers carried their catch into the kottu, or oyster store, and deposited it in three equal heaps inside a compartment. The colonial superintendent then chose two of the heaps as the government?s share, leaving the remaining one for the diver. (The government shares were put up to auction.) The oysters were then placed in pits by the sea, where they were allowed to decompose for ten days, after which the remains were rinsed and the pearls picked out and graded, and finally drilled. The bulk of Ceylon pearls, which were valued for their golden hue, found their way to Bombay. There, most were strung onto ropes and thereafter sent to brokers and dealers, especially in London and Paris.

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