Indian Pearls in History

Indian pearls as recorded by Kunz and Stevenson and published in 1908...so keep in mind that this information is not about the current pearls from India, but is historical information.



Blister pearl
Blister Pearl from India

This photo is a large natural blister pearl, weighing 48.18 carats that was recently found in India.

Notwithstanding the great fame of the pearl fisheries of India, those prosecuted within the limits of British India proper are of small extent. The only pearl resources within the empire are the rarely productive reefs on the Madras coast in the vicinity of Tuticorin, the relatively modern fisheries of Mergui Archipelago, and some small reefs of only local importance on the Malabar coast and in the Bombay presidency.

Bombay on the Malabar Coast Belonging to the East India Company of England, 1754
Bombay on the Malabar Coast Belonging to the East India Company of England, 1754

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The celebrity of India in connection with the pearl fisheries has never rested on the extent of those within the territorial limits or under the control of this government. It originated in the fact that it is largely Indian capital which finances the Indian pearls fisheries of Ceylon and of the Persian Gulf; nearly all of the divers and others employed in Ceylon for collecting Indian pearls are from the coast of this empire, and most of the pearls are purchased by merchants of Bombay, Madura, Trichinopoli, and other large towns. Thus, from an economic and industrial point of view, the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, and to a less extent those of the Persian Gulf, have contributed to the fame and to the wealth of the Empire of India.

Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai (Bombay), India
Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai (Bombay), India

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The pearl fisheries off Tuticorin in the Madras presidency have been referred to incidentally in the account of the fisheries of Ceylon. They are separated by only a few miles of water, and are prosecuted by the same Indian pearls fishermen and in precisely the same manner. Consequently, it is difficult to discuss them separately, especially in their early history and during the time that this part of the world was under the rule of the Portuguese and later of the Dutch.

The Indian pearls fisheries of Madras coast compete in antiquity with those of Ceylon. Indeed, from the time of Ptolemy to the seventeenth century, the industry seems to have been prosecuted largely from the Madras side of the gulf, centering at Chayl or Coil on the sandy promontory of Ramnad. During the last three hundred years, the Ceylon side has been the scene of the greatest pearling operations; and from the Madras coast, the fisheries have not been prosecuted except at long intervals, averaging once in fifteen or twenty years.

Chepank Palace, Chennai (Madras), India
Chepank Palace, Chennai (Madras), India

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Owing to the scarcity of oysters and to other causes, the fishery was prosecuted on the Madras coast in only eight years of the whole period from 1768 to 1907, and even then the yield was relatively small. The largest was 15,874,500 oysters in 1860, from which the Madras government derived a revenue of Rs.250,276: and about half as many oysters were obtained in 1861 with a revenue of Rs.129,003. Numerous and prolonged experiments in conserving the reefs and in cultivating the oysters have been made without success. The reason usually given for the greater wealth of oysters on the Ceylon side is, that it is more sheltered from the strong currents which sweep down the Bay of Bengal into the Gulf of Manaar and impinge directly on the coast of the mainland.

The headquarters of the Indian pearls fishery are at Tuticorin, near to Madura, the Benares of the south, the holy "City of Sweetness" which the gods have delighted to honor from time immemorial. But the Indian pearls camp is commonly erected of palmyra and bamboo on the barren shore several miles distant form Tuticorin. The 1890 fishery was at Salapatturai, and that of 1900 at a place which received the mouth-filling name of Veerapandianpatanam.

Interior of the Palace, Madura, Plate XV from "Oriental Scenery," Published 1798
Interior of the Palace, Madura, Plate XV from "Oriental Scenery," Published 1798

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The preparations for pearling at Tuticorin are similar to those on the Ceylon coast. In the autumn the reefs are examined by government inspectors, and if the conditions seem to warrant a fishery in the following spring, arrangements are made therefore and the proper notification issued.

On the long sweep of desolate shore at a place convenient to the reefs, a temporary camp is erected, just as is done on the Ceylon coast. However, this Indian pearls camp is not nearly so large, only about one fourth or one fifth the size of that on the eastern side of the gulf. It resembles the bungalows for the officials, the hospital, the sale and washing enclosures, etc.: in addition to these is the temporary Roman Catholic chapel.

The Indian pearls divers are mainly of the Parawa caste from Tuticorin, Pinnacoil, Pamban, etc. on the Madras coast. Although influenced by many Hindu superstitions they are nominally Roman Catholics, as evidenced by thw scapulars suspended form the neck, their ancestors having been converted and baptized through the zealous work of that prince of missionaries, St. Francis Xavier, in the sixteenth century.

Portrait of St. Francis Xavier
Portrait of St. Francis Xavier

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Even yet a chapel at Pinnacoil is held in special reverence by these people as a place where the saintly father preached. Professor Hornell writes that the present hereditary head of the caste is Don Gabriel de Croos Lazarus Motha Vax, known officially as the Jati Talaiva More, or Jati Talaivan. He resides at Tuticorin, and is largely the intermediary between the government and the Parawa fishermen.

In the details of the prosecution, the Madras fishery differs in no important particular from that of Ceylon. The boats are manned and operated in precisely the same way; they fish in the morning only, taking advantage of the prevailing favorable winds; the divers carry the oysters into the government enclosure, and divide them into three equal lots, of which they receive one; the share of the government is auctioned daily, the divers disposing of theirs as they choose; and the oysters are rotted and washed in the same manner as in Ceylon.

In addition to the fishery for pearl-oysters at Tuticorin, two other species of pearl-producing mollusks are collected in the Madras presidency; one of these is a species of mussel (Mytilus smaragdinus, according to Dr. Degar Thurston of the Madras Museum), which is collected from the estuary of the Sonnapore River near Berhampore; and the other is the Placuna placenta, found in many places in this presidency, and especially in Pulicat Lake and in the vicinity of Tuticorin.

The Sonnapore mussels, which are small and bright green in color, are found adhering to the masses of edible oysters in depths of ten or twelve feet of water. They are caught in a novel manner, as described in a letter from the acting collector of customs at Ganjam. Thrusting a long bamboo pole deep into the bottom of the reef, the fisherman dives down, and holding on to this bamboo, breaks off as large a mass of the oysters as he can bring to the surface in one hand, helping himself up the bamboo pole with the other. Removing the mussels from the mass, he opens them with a suitable knife and by running his thumbs and fingers over the flesh tissures, detects the pearls therin. These pearls are of very inferior quality and of little ornamental value. They are sold mostly for chunam and for placing in the mouth of deceased Hindus.

Find out where more natural pearls are found besides Indian pearls.
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