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A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious Leadership and Social Conflict among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu

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english
पत्रिका:
Modern Asian Studies
DOI:
10.1017/s0026749x00007058
Date:
April, 1981
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आप पुस्तक समीक्षा लिख सकते हैं और अपना अनुभव साझा कर सकते हैं. पढ़ूी हुई पुस्तकों के बारे में आपकी राय जानने में अन्य पाठकों को दिलचस्पी होगी. भले ही आपको किताब पसंद हो या न हो, अगर आप इसके बारे में ईमानदारी से और विस्तार से बताएँगे, तो लोग अपने लिए नई रुचिकर पुस्तकें खोज पाएँगे.
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A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious
Leadership and Social Conict among the
Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu
S. B. Kaufmann
Modern Asian Studies / Volume 15 / Issue 02 / April 1981, pp 203 - 234
DOI: 10.1017/S0026749X00007058, Published online: 28 November 2008

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How to cite this article:
S. B. Kaufmann (1981). A Christian Caste in Hindu Society: Religious
Leadership and Social Conict among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu.
Modern Asian Studies, 15, pp 203-234 doi:10.1017/S0026749X00007058
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Modern Asian Studies, 15, 2 (1981), pp. 203-234. Printed in Great Britain.

A Christian Caste in Hindu Society:
Religious Leadership and Social Conflict
among the Paravas of Southern Tamilnadu
S. B. KAUFMANN
Clare Hall, Cambridge

Introduction
Since the nineteenth century scholars have depicted Indian castes as
timeless, fixed communities whose customs, rituals, and occupational
specialities evolved at an unidentifiable point in the distant past. It has
now been shown, however, that many jatis are of relatively recent origin,
and historians have been able to trace the economic, political, and
religious changes which acted to form individual caste groups during the
colonial period.1 Several recent works on south India have argued that
the agglomerations of artisans and cultivators described as castes in
British ethnographies and Census reports had no real cohesion and were
often no more than unstable political alliances or 'administrative fictions'. In this view it was the misconceived European notion of castes as
rigid, competing corporations which stimulated the formation of many
south Indian castes ; after 1880.2
The Paravas of southern Tamilnadu who form the subject of this
paper were not an artificial constituency born out of political opportunism, but an endogamous, cohesive jati with uniform rites and domestic customs and strong internal leadership. Their consolidation began
Abbreviations: BOR, Board of Revenue; JT, Jati Thalavan (Parava caste headman);
MMA, Madura Mission Archives (Archives of the Jesuit missions in southern Tamilnadu, located at Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur, Madura District); PCD, Parava
Caste Documents collection, Tuticorin; TCR, Tirunelveli Collectorate Records; TNA,
Tamil Nadu Archives, Madras.
I am grateful to the Managers of the Smuts Memorial Fund, the Worts Travelling
Scholars Fund, the Cambridge Historical Society, and to New Hall, Cambridge whose
generous grants enabled me to carry out research in India during 1976 and 1977.
1
See, for example, Frank F. Conlon, A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur
Saraswat Brahmans, 1700-1935 (Berkeley, 1977).
2
David Washbrook, 'The Development of Caste Organisation in South India 1880 to
1925', in C. J. Baker and D. A. Washbrook (eds), South India: Political Institutions and
Political Change 1880-1940 (Delhi, 1975), pp. 150-203.
0026-749X/81/0404-0301S02.00

© 1981 Cambridge University Press
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S. B. KAUFMANN

well before the colonial period, and they possessed highly organized
caste institutions by the sixteenth century A.D. The paradox here is that
the Paravas are all Roman Catholics rather than Hindus. They were
converted to Christianity in the 1530s and 1540s by missionaries under
the jurisdiction of the Portuguese ecclesiastical hierarchy (the 'Padroadd') based in Goa. 3 Under these evangelists the Paravas' Roman
Catholic rites and doctrines came to reinforce their Hindu caste structure. It is rare in south Indian agrarian society for jatis to be organized
on a regional basis, with hereditary caste headmen and assemblies of
elders holding power over the group as a whole. The Paravas belong to a
category of artisans, traders, and other specialized castes with relatively
strong corporate organization.4 The group is all the more striking, then,
in that while unanimously Christian, their cohesion as ajati and their
system of caste leadership were more elaborate and longer-lived than
those of most Hindu groups in south India.
This paper will ask how the Paravas' tight caste structure was maintained during the colonial period, and how the group's social organization was influenced by its role as a client community under European
powers. This bond between colonial patrons and Parava caste leaders
developed within the special conditions of the economy of coastal Tamilnadu. From ancient times the group operated the famous pearling
industry centred in the Gulf of Manaar between southeastern Tamilnadu and Ceylon. 5 Pearl diving demanded sophisticated maritime skills
and a command of specialized information about the location and
tending of the pearl oyster beds in the region. Each colonial power
recognized that it could cream off the profits of the pearl trade most
effectively by building up the authority of Parava caste headmen and
village elders. These notables would then possess the power and prestige
required to recruit and discipline divers and oversee the official diving
sessions or 'fisheries'. Therefore one aim of this paper is to trace the
relationship between secular political power and religious leadership
within the south Indian caste system.
There is a wider aim here as well. In addition to the pearl industry this
3
On the Padroado Real (royal patronage), which gave Portugal the right to control
Roman Catholic churches overseas, see C. R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire
1413-1825 (London, 1969), pp. 228-33.
4
Wash brook, 'The Development of Caste Organisation', pp. 150-75; Edgar
Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Madras, 1909), VI, pp. 333-4.
s
James Steuart, An Account of the Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon (Colombo, 1843); James
Hornell, The Indian Pearl Fisheries of the Gulf of Manaar and Palk Bay. Madras Fisheries
Bureau, Bulletin xvi (Madras, 1922); S. Arunachalam, The History of the Pearl Fishery of
the Tamil Coast (Annamalainagar, 1952).

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

2O5

region was enriched by long-standing networks of overseas trade in
textiles and other commodities. During the colonial period the Paravas
were important brokers and entrepreneurs in this maritime trading
system. Therefore a study of the Paravas sheds light on the relationship
between south Indian caste institutions and changes within the regional
economy. The emphasis on agrarian society in recent studies of the south
has produced a widespread assumption that the south Indian economy
was universally poor, parochial, and sharply stratified in the colonial
period, except in small tracts of irrigated cash cropping. 6 This study is
set within an entirely different economy. The maritime zone's fishing
and thriving overseas commerce helped to shape social relationships
which differed greatly from those found in the agricultural regions of the
south.
Finally it will be argued that the Paravas developed exceptionally
strong caste institutions because—like many other Christian groups—
they operated according to the same notions of caste rank and ceremonial precedence which prevailed among most Hindus in the south. In
particular the Paravas were influenced by the widely shared idea that
ritual status in Indian society is negotiable, that the standing of groups
and families in local schemes of rank and precedence is open to constant
challenge and readjustment. This meant that groups regularly sought to
improve their position in local caste hierarchies by recruiting prestigious
religious specialists, by supporting shrines, and by force majeure. The
Paravas understood caste rank in much the same way as the Tamil
Hindus around them. By allocating ritual privileges or 'honours' (Tarn.
mariyatai) in their churches and religious festivals the Paravas confirmed
and redefined relationships of precedence and ritual subordination very
much as Hindus did through temple festivals (utsavams) and other
corporate Hindu rites.7

Caste Formation and Ritual Leadership
The Paravas, then, are a body of fishermen, pearl divers, fish dealers,
and seaborne traders settled in sixty or more hamlets and villages along
the Tamil coast from Kilakarai in Ramnad district to Kaniyakumari,
6

D . A. Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency i8yo-iQ20

(Cambridge, 1976), pp. 64-100.
7
The treatment of'honours systems' in this paper is based on Arjun Appadurai and
Carol Appadurai Breckenridge, 'The south Indian temple: authority, honour and
redistribution', Contributions to Indian Sociology, 10:2 (n.s.) (1976), 187-209.

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2O6

S. B. KAUFMANN

and then up the Keralan coast almost as far as Trivandrum (see map). 8
Most of these settlements are clustered along the shore at the fringes of
more densely settled agricultural areas. Inhabited only by Paravas,
these villages are interspersed with separate Muslim fishing and trading
settlements. Numerous Hindu and Christian Nadar (Shanar) cultivators live in separate inland villages nearby, and there are Parayan cheris
(untouchable hamlets) located at the outskirts of most of these centres.
There has also been a large population of Paravas in the major commercial and industrial town of Tuticorin since the 1580s. The total Parava
population was roughly 30,000 in i860 and 50,000 in 1915.9
The evidence suggests that the Paravas' distinctive identity and
strong caste institutions began to emerge well before the colonial period.
Like the Europeans, the early Pandya rulers of the Tamil country
required the collaboration of specialized fishing groups to operate the
pearling industry for them. The Pandyas and their tributary chiefs
apparently treated the Paravas as a distinct community, receiving
periodic levies from Parava caste notables who managed the fisheries
and received set shares of pearling revenues.10 The Paravas' conversion
to Christianity took place at the climax of a savage maritime war
(1527-39) between the Portuguese and Muslim naval forces allied with
the Zamorin of Calicut. In 1532 a delegation of seventy Paravas
appealed to the Portuguese authorities at Cochin for protection against
their long-standing rivals, the Lebbai Muslim divers patronized by local
Hindu and Muslim chieftains. The Portuguese immediately recognized
the value of a client community allied to their interests in the struggle to
control the Tirunelveli pearl revenues. A party ofPadroado clerics sailed
to the southeast coast, and within months 20,000 baptisms were
reported among Paravas in thirty maritime villages.11
8

Small groups of Paravas had also settled in inland market centres such as Alvartirunageri and Pettai by the 1650s. [Fr. A. Caussanel, S.J.] 'Historical Notes—Tinnevelly
District' MS, n.d. [1925?], pp. 21-37, MMA.
9
Figures compiled from H. R. Pate, Tinnevelly, vol. 1, Madras District Gazetteers
(Madras, 1917), p. 121; Madras Catholic Directory for 1875, 1890, 1896; Fr. L. Verdier,
SJ. 'Memoire sur la caste des Paravers', report dated Palamcottah, i860 (typescript
copy) in Lettres de la nouvelle mission du Madure (bound vols) I, pp. 83-110, MMA.
10
Stephen C. Motha, A Short History of the Jathithalaimai or the Chieftainship of the
Bharathars (Tuticorin, n.d. [1926?]). Bharatha[r] is a common English variant of
Parava.
" C . R. De Silva, 'The Portuguese and Pearl Fishing offSouth India and Sri Lanka',
South Asia I:i (n.s.) (1978), 14-28; Pate, Tinnevelly, pp. 230-1; Daniello Bartoli,
Dell'istoria della Compagnia di Gesd: L'Asia. 3 vols (Milano, 1831), I, p. 49. On the Paravas'
conversion, see Georg Schurhammer, Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, vol. II, India
1541-1545 (trans. M. J. Costelloe) (Rome, 1977), pp. 260-6; R. Caldwell, A Political and
General History of the District of Tinnevelly (Madras, 1881), p. 68; Simon Casie Chitty,

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

Nazareth

207

yKayalpatanam
Virapandiyanpatanam
Tiruccentur
landalei

Kulasekarapatanam
Manapad

Kaniyakumari
(C. Comorin)

TIRUNELVELI
DISTRICT

10 miles

20 miles

Scale

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S. B. KAUFMANN

The original Parava delegation was led by a notable known as
Vikirama Aditha Pandya. His precise function within the caste is not
clear, but the implication of the Pandya title is that he was seen as a
senior elder or caste headman (Tarn, jati thalavan) claiming authority
from early Pandya rulers, and holding authority equivalent to that of a
'little king' or chieftain.12 In the course of the Paravas' mass conversion
to Christianity Vikirama Pandya pledged to organize pearl diving on
behalf of the Portuguese. He was then baptized and endowed with an
imposing string of aristocratic Portuguese titles. As Senhor Senhor Dom
Joao da Cruz, this first Christian jati thalavan held his post from 1543 to
1553 as the Paravas' chief caste notable and recognized intermediary
with the Portuguese. This headman was succeeded by a total of twentyone Parava caste headmen, all known to the Paravas as jati thalavan—
head of the caste—and all descended from the family of the original
Dom Joao da Cruz. 13 The Portuguese also converted a large body of
subordinate caste elders based in each of the Parava settlements. From
his official seat in Tuticorin, the jati thalavan presided over this elaborate caste hierarchy until the 1920s. All the main Parava villages contained one or more subordinate notables: adapans in villages from Kilakarai to the major centre of Manapad; pattangattis on the coast south of
Manapad; and moupans in inland Parava settlements. 14 In addition the
group possessed their own dependent service communities of barbers
and washermen.
A remarkable series of written communications between the jati
thalavan and his village notables has survived in the keeping of the last
headman's family in Tuticorin. Dating from about 1750 to 1935, these
documents vividly illustrate the blend of religious authority and control
over economic concerns within the community which these notables
held during the colonial period. They show that throughout the nineteenth century the elders reported regularly to the jati thalavan on
economic, social, and ritual matters in their localities. The caste headman frequently adjudicated in disputes over matters of ceremony and
'Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas', Journal ofthe Royal Asiatic Society, IV
(1837), p. 132.
12 Milestones in Bharatha Progress: A Brief History of the Conference Movement. Published
on the Occasion of the Ninth Bharatha Conference held on the 7, 8 and 9 January 1938
(Colombo, 1938), p. 3.
13
'Senhor Senhor' is an abbreviated form of Senhor dos Senhores, 'principal among the
notables'. A complete listing of Parava jati thalavans with their dates of office is given in
Motha, Jathilhalaimai.
14
Some other Tamil groups use these terms. For derivations see M. D. Raghavan,
The Karava of Ceylon: Society and Culture (Colombo, 1961), p. 31; Parathan (Parava caste
association journal), Colombo, 1936, p. 2.

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

2OO,

commercial practice, and the notables applied for his official sanction in
marriages and the appointment of new office-holders. With the help of
lesser office-holders (sitatis), the village elders collected kanikkai (fees or
taxes) from each Parava household and forwarded these sums to the jati
thalavan. The Parava caste documents also contain valuable evidence
about internal religious disputes which broke out among the Paravas
after 1839, and much of the discussion which follows is based on this
material. 15
The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-52; canonized 1621)
reached the Tirunelveli coast in 1542, ten years after the Paravas'
tactical profession of Christianity. Directed to consolidate the new
converts' attachment to the Portuguese and to instruct them in
Christian doctrine, he built a number of chapels and baptized or
re-baptized several thousand Paravas. 16 It is remarkable that Xavier'smission left such a lasting mark on the group's traditions and observances: he spent less than two years in the Parava centres, and his
religious instruction consisted mainly in teaching the inhabitants of each
village to recite the Creed, the Ave, and the Pater Noster, which he had
memorized syllable by syllable in highly inaccurate Tamil. 17 Nonetheless Xavier's Padroado successors established such a successful bond
between the group's Christian ritual organization and their existing
traditions and economic concerns that they retained their Christian
affiliation for the next 400 years. Christianity became in effect a 'caste
lifestyle' for the Paravas. Francis Xavier himself became a focus for the
group's sense of community and shared ritual life, much like a caste deity
or sanctified spiritual preceptor among Hindus. 18
15
This collection of some 500 Tamil, Dutch, French, and English manuscripts is
designated here PCD. They include reports on the operation of the pearl fisheries as well
as letters to and from the jati thalavan on social, religious, and financial matters. Most
are dated between 1850 and 1935, but there are also pearling records and sanads
confirming the succession of caste notables dating from c. 1750. The Paravas' Christian
barbers and Hindu washermen performed functions analagous to those of Hindu service
communities, carrying caste insignia in processions and playing an important part in
marriage, birth, puberty, and death rituals. In the nineteenth century the Paravas also
had at least two regional assemblies (nattus) which met at regular intervals to deal with
religious and commercial matters affecting specified groups of Parava villages.
16
Schurhammer, Francis Xavier, II, pp. 300-10; H. J. Coleridge (ed.), The Life and
Letters of St. Francis Xavier, 2 vols (London, 1881), I, pp. 151-87.
17
Ibid., pp. 151-3; Schurhammer, Francis Xavier, II, pp. 308-9. The Paravas' distinctive Portuguese names date from this period. They still use Christian forenames roughly
translated into Tamil (Susai for Joseph, Suroni for Jerome, Xaverimuthu for Xavier,
etc.) Their Portuguese surnames (Fernando, Roche, Miranda, deRose, Costa, etc.)
mark offexogamous descent groups within the jati.
18
Throughout the colonial period families of Parava caste notables claimed an

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2IO

S. B. KAUFMANN

The rituals and church festivals created for the Paravas by the
Portuguese specifically confirmed and underlined the authority of the
caste headman and lesser notables. They emphasized the jati thalavan's
role as 'little king' and head of the caste, giving him a role in the Paravas'
religious life which was analagous to the function of Hindu chiefs and
rulers as protectors and chief donors [jajamanas] in Hindu shrines.
Parava caste histories stress the royal 'Pandya' origins of the jati thalavan, 1 9 and in the nineteenth century disapproving Jesuit missionaries
regularly referred to the conventions of kingship which centred on the
jati thalavan. One of them remarked in 1841:
A l'exemple des autres Indiens, ils aiment a se considerer comme une caste; dont
ils se portent bien haut l'honneur et les interets;... ils ne sont pas faches de jouer
a la royaute, et de voir dans leur chef de caste une ombre de roi... Ce fantome
de roi nomme, et par consequent tient dans sa main, les chefs des divers villages
et forme ainsi une organisation generale qui lui donne une grande puissance sur
ce pauvre peuple.20
The jati thalavan's standing was displayed above all through his
leading position in the cult of the Paravas' special patroness, an apparition of the Virgin known as Our Lady of Snows. The group's most sacred
ritual object has long been a wooden statue of the Virgin in this
incarnation. The figure was placed in the main Parava church at
Tuticorin in 1582, when the town became the Portuguese commercial
headquarters in the south. This church of Our Lady of Snows is known
colloquially as the Periyakovil (Tarn, 'great church') or Madakovil
('Mother' or 'Virgin Mary church'). The Virgin-patroness took on even
greater importance for the Paravas than the figure of St Francis, and her
position can be compared with that of a Hindu tutelary goddess.21
ancestral connection with St Francis. For example, one important lineage still believe
that they are descendants of a Goan catechist who accompanied St Francis to Tirunelveli, while their detractor's insist that this figure was really only the saint's cook and body
servant. Many of the Paravas' St Francis legends originated as Hindu folk traditions.
Near Manapad there is a shrine in a cave said to have been inhabited by the saint, but
local Hindus had long venerated the cave as the birthplace of a deified hero (virulu). The
ease with which Roman Catholic beliefs fused with existing folk traditions was one of the
Padroado's great strengths in building up Christian identity among south Indian converts. See J. M. Villavarayan, The Diocese of Kottar. A Review of ils Growth (Nagercoil,
'95 6 )>PP- l 6 - ' 7 19
E.g. Swarnam Edward (ed.), Pandiya Vamsa Parambarai (Tamil) (Madurai, 1911);
Directory of the Diocese of Tuticorin. Golden Jubilee Souvenir (1923-1973) (Tamil) (Tuticorin,
1973). PP- I 0 - ' 8 20
J . Bertrand, Leltres edifiantes el curieuses de la nouvelle mission du Madure', 2 vols (Paris,
1865), II, p. 24.
2
' The name derives from the original church of Our Lady of Snows, a fourth-century
Roman basilica built on the site of a miraculous mid-summer fall of snow. The August

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

211

Documents stored in the Periyakovil contained elaborate lists of the marks
of ceremonial precedence held by the jati thalavan in the cult of Our
Lady of Snows. By the 1620s, for example, it was established that during
mass, the jati thalavan would occupy a special seat in church directly
below the statue, and he alone held the right to have the statue unveiled
and adorned with jewels during his installation and during marriages in
his family.22
Most importantly, the great celebrations known as Golden Car festivals which were dedicated to the patroness and staged near her shrine in
Tuticorin were arranged to give special prominence to the group's caste
notables. Accounts of the feast dating from the early colonial period up
to the 1930s show how closely the Paravas followed Hindu models in
constructing a system of graded privileges or 'honours' to express relationships of primacy and rank within the community. These symbolic
rights clearly resembled those which featured in disputes over ceremonial precedence among Hindus throughout the colonial period. 23
Among the Paravas the Golden Car festivals became a major proving
ground in comparable battles over ceremonial privileges in the nineteenth century, as the next sections will show. The festival took its
modern form in 1720 when a group of Parava magnates including the
jati thalavan's family used the wealth derived from trade with Ceylon to
sponsor a lavish ten-day celebration in honour of Our Lady of Snows.
After ten days of processions and masses the devotees staged a final
public rite which featured the dragging of a huge wheeled ter (wheeled
ceremonial chariot or 'car') bearing the statue through the streets
surrounding the Periyakovil. At intervals the celebrants would stop the ter
for hymns, prayers, and the distribution of flowers from the statue's
garlands. 24
This is still the basic pattern of events which can be observed at the
Golden Car festival today. 25 With the approval of the Padroado the
festival of Our Lady of Snows commemorates this event. J. M. Ladislaus Gomez, Pictorial
Souvenir of the Golden Car of Our Lady of Snows Tuticorin (Tuticorin, 1969), p p . 7—11.
22
1Q47 Our Lady of Snows Festival Souvenir Volume (Tuticorin, 1947).
23
Appadurai and Breckenridge, ' T h e south Indian temple', p. 197; J . S. F. Mackenzie, 'Caste Insignia', The Indian Antiquary, I V : xlviii (1875), 344~6; Marie-Louise
Reiniche, Les dieux el les hommes. Elude des cultes d'un village du Tirunelveli Inde du sud (Paris,
1979), p. 96; Andre Beteille, 'Social Organization of Temples in a Tanjore Village',
History ofReligions, 5:1 (1965), 9 0 - 1 ; Brenda E. F. Beck, Peasant Society in Konku. A Study of
Right and Left Subcastes in South India (Vancouver, 1972), p. 79.
24
Gomez, Pictorial Souvenir, p. 83.
25
T h e vast 75-foot ter or Golden C a r in use today was built in 1806 with funds
provided by the jati thalavan and other wealthy Paravas. S. M. Diaz, 1977 Golden Car
Festival Souvenir (Tuticorin, 1977). At present the drawing of the ter takes place every 13

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2 12

S.

B.

KAUFMANN

trappings and organization of the festival were specifically patterned on
the Hindu utsavams staged at the great Sri Subramanyasami temple at
Tiruccentur, 24 miles from Tuticorin. The handing out of flowers to
devotees resembles the distribution ofprasatam during Hindu rites, and
the use of ters and capparams (platforms carrying sacred emblems) are
features of south Indian Hindu festivals appropriated by Roman Catholic converts throughout Tamilnadu. 26 In the last century caste historians claimed that the group held important corporate privileges at
Tiruccentur before they became Christians, and that thejati thalavan
had once held the right to give the first symbolic pull to the ter on which
the processional image of the deity (the utsavavigraham) was mounted
during the main annual feast.27 Actually it is unlikely that Parava
notables ever held such a prestigious 'honour' at Tiruccentur. Instead
they were probably allowed only a peripheral share at major Hindu
shrines. It follows, then, that Christianity actually offered the group a
central role in their own Hindu-style festival rites which they would not
have held before their conversion.
One of the jati thalavan's most jealously guarded privileges in the
Golden Car festival was the right to give the first pull to the rope
drawing the ter,28 and he and the circle of rich traders and caste notables
years during the August feast of Our Lady of Snows. The festival attracts crowds of over
50,000. Church functionaries adorn the chariot with imported gold leaf, garlands, and
statues of saints, with the figure of the Virgin enthroned at the top. At the climax of the
celebration, ecstatic devotees seize cables attached to the ter and drag it for hours
through the streets of the town (Observed during a visit to the festival in August, 1977.)
26
On Hindu festival rites see F. Clothey, 'Skanda-Sasti: A Festival in Tamil India',
History of Religions 8:3 (1969), 246-7; Reiniche, Les dieux el les hommes, pp. 100-11;
Appadurai and Breckenridge, 'The south Indian temple', pp. 194-5. The Jesuit
missionary Robert de Nobili (1577—1656) pioneered the technique of adapting Hindu
vocabulary, symbols, and observances for use by south Indian converts. See S.
Rajamanickam, The First Oriental Scholar (Tirunelveli, 1972); Bror Tiliander, Christian
and Hindu Terminology: A Study of their Mutual Relations with Special Reference to the Tamil Area

(Uppsala, 1974), pp. 27-9, 57, 107, 183, 216-24, 283-6.
27
ig$j Our Lady of Snows Festival Souvenir Volume. The tradition of Parava honours at
Tiruccentur is also cited in an edition of the Tamil folk epic Shenbagaraamam Pallu
(composed c. 1630-85) published by a Parava caste historian in 1947. See M. J.
Kaalingaraayar (ed.), Shenbagaraamam Pallu (Tamil) 2nd edn (Nagercoil), pp. 4, 30-1.
The famous goddess shrine at Kaniyakumari is another reference point for the group.
Even today the only obviously non-Christian names still used by the Paravas are
Villavarayan, Poobalarayan and Rayan (derived from arayan, a caste name for several
Hindu fishing groups). The three titles are said to designate the descendants of families
who held prestigious 'honours' at Kaniyakumari before the Paravas' conversion to
Christianity. Interviews, Kaniyakumari, September 1977.
28
This 'kingly' honour was typically held by warrior-chiefs such as the Tamil
poligars. In the nineteenth century a descendant of one of the poligar lineages, the raja of
Ettiapuram, gave the first pull to the ter at the Kalugumalai temple in his zamindari in
eastern Tirunelveli. Interviews, Tirunelveli, August 1977.

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close to him held all the prestigious roles as patrons and donors in the
event. A set of twenty-one distinctive painted banners resembling Hindu
procession flags were kept in the jati thalavan's house: these were
formally handed over to Parava caste barbers who acted as banner
carriers during the festival. The Golden Car processions were also
required to stop for special prayers at apantal erected in front of the caste
headman's house. These interludes were similar to the tirukkans (ritual
halts) staged during Hindu utsavam processions at the houses of prominent festival donors. 29

Parava Caste Leadership and the Tirunelveli Trade Booms
This essentially Hindu system of honours and precedence was
strengthened and expanded during the period of commercial expansion
which began when the Dutch seized Tuticorin from the Portuguese in
1658. Large numbers of Paravas profited from the increase in textile
exports from Tuticorin and other Parava centres which the Dutch used
as factories and commercial entrepots. 30 The rise in cargo traffic in these
ports led to a new demand for dock hands and skilled pilots and
lightermen. These were needs which the Paravas were well qualified to
fill. The group had a long tradition of mobility, migrating regularly
from Tirunelveli to the Ceylon pearl fisheries, and moving between
different maritime occupations—fishing, pearling, chank (conch shell)
diving, and crewing in coastal trading craft. Therefore many Paravas
were able to use the opportunities provided by the commercial boom,
and moved from employment as dock labourers into maritime trade.
Some worked as tindals (masters) of coastal boats, and the most enterprising began to trade in their own right, investing in small cargoes of
textiles in the port-to-port trade which opened up between Tirunelveli
and Ceylon. Parava caste notables had an important advantage in these
ventures because their fees for ritual services and payments for overseeing the pearl fisheries provided them with a small but valuable capital
base. At the same time the jati thalavan and his notables continued to
29
Appadurai and Breckenridge, ' T h e south Indian temple', p p . 194-5. T h e Paravas'
banners and ceremonial regalia, including a sunshade, bronze shield, and silk umbrella,
can still be seen in the home of the jati thalavan's descendants, the Mothas of Tuticorin. I
am extremely grateful to them for access to the regalia and P a r a v a caste documents.
30
Tuticorin (estimated population 3,000 in 1664) became the principal Dutch
entrepot on the southeast coast. J o h n Nieuhoff, Voyages and Travels into Brazil and the East
Indies, in A. a n d j . Churchill (eds),A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1704), II,
p. 293; Pate, Tinnevelly, pp. 442-4.

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provide the expertise required to run the pearling industry, and the
Dutch endorsed their powers and prestige as the Portuguese had
done. 31
As these commercial connections with Ceylon became the most profitable activity open to the Paravas, participation in overseas trade in
itself became a reference point in the Paravas' status system. Caste
notables predominated in the group's trade to Ceylon, and so the
distinction between trading families and the mass of fishermen and
labourers emerged as the most important division within the community. By the early eighteenth century ritual and social pre-eminence
among the Paravas came to be defined in terms of commercial activity.
A new title, mejaikarar, became the usual designation for the dominant
Tuticorin lineages connected with the jati thalavan's family. This status
category rapidly became an endogamous subdivision within the jati:
only recognized mejaikarar could marry with the headman's lineage, and
the mass of dependent, ritually inferior Paravas belonged to a separate
subdivision known as kamarakkarar.32
The Dutch ceded Tuticorin to the English East India Company in
1825. After a period of decline in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in the 1830s British officials reported a dramatic
upsurge in shipping and commerce in Tuticorin and many other
Tirunelveli ports. This expansion was based on the nineteenth-century
cotton boom which made Tuticorin the chief cotton port in south India
by 1845, and the second largest port in the Madras Presidency by the
end of the century. 33 The town was an important regional mart for
jaggery (palm sugar), fish, and other Tirunelveli commodities, but it
functioned principally as an export centre for cotton produced in the
31
T C R vol. 7968/110/30 August 1839/TNA; Nieuhoff, Voyages and Travels, I I , p. 295;
J a m e s Hornell, The Sacred Chank of India. Madras Fisheries Bureau, Bulletin No. 7
( M a d r a s , 1914), p p . 8 - 1 2 . An M S sanadm Dutch, dated 9 J u n e 1799 and signed by the
Dutch governor of Ceylon, confirms the succession of the jati thalavan: P C D . O n the
endorsement of P a r a v a village notables by the Dutch, see M o t h a , Jathithalaimai, p p . 8-9.
32
Mejaikarar (from Tarn, mejai: table) suggests persons entitled to dine at the headman's table, hence those of the same ritual standing as the jati thalavan. Verdier's
' M e m o i r e ' states: 'Les nobles [mejaikarar] seuls ont le droit d'asseoir a la table ou le chef
[jati t h a l a v a n ] prend son festin.' See Chitty, 'History of the Parawas', p p . 133-4; P a t e >
Tinnevelly, p. 123. T h e terms are used primarily in Tuticorin, but all Parava settlements
observed the same distinction between ritually inferior fishermen and superior trading
families (from w h o m village adapans, sitatis, and pattangattis were d r a w n ) .
33
T r a d e in Tuticorin increased ten-fold in sixty years. T h e town's population was
about 4,300 in 1839; 10,500 in 1871; 16,300 in 1881; 25,100 in 1891; 28,000 in 1901; and
40,200 in 1911. TCR vol. 7968/158/19 December 1839/TNA; Census of India 1911, vol.
XII,-pt ii, pp. 8-14; T C R vol. 7976/85/11 April 1848/TNA; TCR vol. 7973/244/5
November 1845/TNA; Pate, Tinnevelly, pp. 20, 447-8.

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

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southern districts and shipped from Tuticorin to Ceylon for re-export to
Europe and other overseas markets. 34
The Parava commercial families' involvement in pearling and smallscale textile trade provided a spring-board into this important new
traffic, and large numbers of mejaikarar began to take part in the Ceylon
cotton trade. By the late 1830s many of these Parava traders spent
several months of the year in Ceylon, and some were connected with
commercial concerns in Madras and Madura. Large numbers of these
Parava traders were from Tuticorin, but men from Manapad and other
localities also established themselves in Ceylon before 1850, always
maintaining contact with their home villages in Tirunelveli. 35 The
Paravas' mobility and commercial diversity were described in 1839:
De riches negocians se sont empares depuis bien des annees du commerce du
coton, unique branche d'industrie qui pourrait faire vivre [the Paravas].
Quelques-uns de ceux-ci, pour soutenir leur existance, vont chaque jour a la
peche des coquillages [chanks] genre du travail fort penible, et qui fournit tout
ou plus la nourriture quotidienne. Les autres vont chaque annee a Colombo, a
Madras, a Goa, ou ailleurs pour y faire le trafic des toiles, ou le metier de
gagne-petit. Us reviennent ensuite manger au sein de leurs families le produit de
leurs longues courses.36
In addition to their role as shippers and dealers, Paravas were much
in demand as pilots, lightermen, and cargo handlers as trade continued
to expand in Tuticorin and other centres. 37 Parava labourers flocked to
Tuticorin to take advantage of these opportunities, and in most cases
they moved into areas of employment controlled by mejaikarar magnates.
They shipped on country craft owned by mejai traders; they worked in
construction projects under Parava contractors; and they joined lighter
crews and stevedore gangs recruited by the jati thalavan and other
mejaikarar under agreements to supply labourers to the harbour authorities and shipping concerns. This contrasted sharply with the trend in
rural areas where town migration and the availability of cash wages
generally eroded the authority of caste leaders and other 'traditional'
elites in the nineteenth century. Among the Paravas the increased
demand for labour actually confirmed the position of the dominant
34

Pate, Tinnevelly, p. 447.
T C R vol. 7968/158/19 December 1839/TNA; T C R vol. 4717/Extr. Proceedings
Madras B O R / 1 3 April 1835/TNA; T C R vol. 7958/728/13 September 1839/TNA; T C R
vol. 7979/130/23 J u l y 1852/TNA.
36
Lettres des nouvelles missions du Madure, 1 vols (Lyons, 1839-40), I, p. 195.
37
Pate, Tinnemlly, p. 449; J a m e s Hornell, ' R e p o r t on the Feasibility of O p e r a t i n g
Deep-Sea Fishing Boats on the Coasts of the M a d r a s Presidency . . .', Madras Fishery
Investigations igo8 (Madras, 1910), p. 50.
35

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S. B. KAUFMANN

mejaikarar over the kamarakkarar majority. This meant that the caste
notables took on a new function in recruiting and channelling labour
which reinforced their ritual and social superiority.38 At the same time
the British still required the caste hierarchy's services in the pearl trade.
The Madras government ratified each successor to the headmanship as
the Dutch had done, and conferred administrative privileges and
powers on the jati thalavan such as the responsibility for collecting
moturpha (head taxes) from Tuticorin Paravas. 39
Although the established mejaikarar families made the greatest gains in
this period, the nineteenth-century trade boom was so extensive that
many ritually inferior fishing and labouring families managed to move
into trade between 1830 and 1900. In 1839 about ten per cent of
Tuticorin's Parava population belonged to the mejai subdivision, but
this was not a rigidly closed class. 40 Instead, the group's status system
was flexible enough to accommodate a considerable shift in the distribution of wealth within the caste. By 1850 the Paravas evolved a formal
procedure which allowed new kamarakkarar traders to gain public recognition as mejaikarar in return for a cash fee and a demonstration of
deference to thejati thalavan:
II faut que le bourgeois [Jesuit name for non-mejai traders] qui desire monter
gagne les bonnes graces du Sadi Talavane [jati thalavan] et lui paie au moins
de 90 a 100 Rupees. Moyennant cela une service a cette table lui sera concedee
et il sera ennoblit.41
It follows, then, that the Paravas' ritually and economically privileged
subdivision would almost certainly have assimilated these newly prosperous kamarakkarar throughout the nineteenth century. The unrest and
violence which erupted over the next fifty years might never have
occurred had it not been for thejesuits' efforts to unseat thejati thalavan
by smashing the caste notables' control of churches and religious activities. The next section will explore these developments.
38

Ibid.

39

T C R vol. 7968/62/15 May 1839/TNA; TCR vol. 3595/122-3/12 March
1818/TNA; TCR vol. 7958/31/15 April 1840/ TNA; TCR vol. 7967/52/13 April
1837/TNA; M. A. T h o m a s , A Report on the Pearl Fisheries and Chank Fisheries, 1884

(Madras, 1884); Steuart, The Pearl Fisheries ojCeylon, pp. 10, 90. The Madras authorities
were so scrupulous in preserving the Paravas' customary institutions that they continued
the practice of paying a daily wage to the group's hereditary shark charmers, whose
incantations were deemed to be essential to the divers' safety. Ibid., pp. 14, 95. There are
English sanads dated 1808, 1856, 1889, and 1926 confirming the succession of new jati
thalavans: PCD.
40
Calculated from figures in TCR vol. 7968/158/19 December 1839/TNA.
41
Verdier, 'Memoire'.

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217

Status Conflict and the Attack on the Jati Thalavan
The Vatican suppressed the Society ofJesus in 1774, and this move left
the Paravas without European missionaries until 1838, when a party of
five French and Belgian priests attached to the Jesuit 'new' Madura
Mission arrived in Tirunelveli. 42 After this sixty-year period without
formal church discipline, the Parava caste notables had come to
dominate the group's churches and rituals more thoroughly than ever
before. The newly arrived missionaries were horrified to find that the jati
thalavan appointed sacristans and other church servants, and played a
key role in validating marriages, baptisms, and other rites which the
missionaries understood as the sole province of ordained priests. 43
Within a year of setting up operations in Tirunelveli, the Madura
Mission plunged into a campaign to uproot everything that appeared
'pagan' or un-Catholic in the Paravas' rituals and domestic practices. In
the Jesuits' view orthodox faith and practice could only be rooted in the
undisputed authority of the priest. Thus the mission's Superior found it
positively blasphemous that his priests were regularly forced to suspend
church rites and defer to caste notables who would then debate some
contested point of ritual precedence among their parishioners. 44
Throughout the nineteenth century the mission's policy in trying to
end this clash of authority was not to obliterate the principles of caste
rank and ceremonial precedence on which the jati thalavan's power
rested, but to turn the system to their own advantage. By 1841 the
Madura Mission organized the first of several attempts to construct a
rival caste hierarchy loyal to Jesuit authority and opposed to the jati
thalavan and his circle. This was a feasible tactic because in fact the
mere presence of new missionaries tended to unsettle the group's status
system. Like Tamil Hindus, Parava lineages customarily tried to make
gains in the local pecking order by claiming entitlement to new and
more prestigious 'honours', and it was one of the jati thalavan's functions to mediate in these disputes. Among the Paravas the ceremonial
privileges which represented this enhanced standing were honours such
as the ringing of extra bells at marriages, and the use of prestigious
42
See Denis Guchen, Cinquante arts au Madure: 1837-1887. Re'cits el souvenirs, 2 vols
(Trichinopoly, 1887-9); A. J e a n , Le Madure', I'ancienne et la nouvelle mission, 2 vols (Lille,
•894)43
Verdier, 'Memoire'; J T to Bp. Mylapore (fragment)/23-6-igo3/PCD; Motha,
Jathithalaimai; Bertrand, Lettres, I, p p . 60, 164.
44
Lettres des nouvelles missions du Madure, I, p p . 200-5; H> PP- 26~7> Verdier,

'Memoire'.

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S. B. KAUFMANN

honorifics when banns were read. When the Jesuits were new to Tirunelvili it was easy for ritually inferior families to exploit the missionaries'
ignorance by inducing them to grant new honours more rapidly than
the established system would allow. 45
By 1841 the mission had grasped the principles of the Parava status
system well enough to challenge the caste headman's function as the sole
arbiter of precedence within the group. Since the Paravas did not have
their own priests until 1894,46 they were dependent upon either European or Goan priests to perform the sacraments for them. This was an
important tactical advantage for the Jesuits. The scheme of caste
honours could only operate fully in conjunction with ritualists willing to
provide the sacraments: the allocation of ceremonial privileges was
organized around marriage, festival masses, and the other sacraments. 47
Therefore the missionaries soon developed the tactic of collecting partisans by offering them ceremonial privileges which the caste elite had not
yet sanctioned. As recognized ritual specialists the missionaries automatically possessed the authority to endorse their supporters' claims to
higher caste rank. Several families at the fringe of the mejai status group
attached themselves to the Jesuits, and one of the caste headman's
brothers offered himself as a counter-jati thalavan under Jesuit
patronage. This challege might have succeeded except that the brother
died a few months later, and the mission's faction split apart in squabbling over a successor.48
The Jesuits soon lost their valuable monopoly of the sacraments,
because at this point the Portuguese ecclesiastical hierarchy in Goa
initiated a campaign to seize control of the Parava churches from the
Madura Mission. The conflict sprang from a dispute between the
Papacy and the Portuguese Crown over the right of missionary
'patronage' in India. But this obscure international debate had important ramifications for Christians in Tamilnadu because it provided the
Paravas and many other convert groups with two rival church authorities, both backed by European prestige and resources, and both compet45

Verdier, 'Memoire'.
On Fr. L. X. Fernandes, the first ordained Parava, see J. E. A. Pereira, Rev. Fr.
L. X. Fernandes: An Appreciation (Madras, 1936).
47
Even though priests performed these necessary services, their parishioners did not
hesitate to defy and even assault their Goan and European missionaries in the course of
local disputes. Priests were often treated as retainers whose importance derived from
their role in sustaining the communicant's ritual status. This view of the priest as a
functionary was closer to the Hindu conception of the pujan than to the orthodox
Catholic view of the priest as a figure of absolute spiritual authority.
48
Verdier, 'Memoire'.
46

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

2IO,

ing for their allegiance.49 In August 1841 the jati thalavan and a large
group of families allied with him broke formally with the Jesuits and
declared their attachment to the Goan Padroado hierarchy. A local
sub-magistrate then confirmed the alliance after a riot near the Periyakovil which he blamed on the Jesuits' partisans. He declared the jati
thalavan sole authority over the Periyakovil, and ruled that only Goan
priests approved by the jati thalavan, and not the Jesuits, had the right
to officiate in the church of Our Lady of Snows. 50
Although the Jesuits were debarred by this from the Paravas' richest
and most sacred shrine, they continued the battle to undercut the jati
thalavan, and the conflict with the Goan hierarchy was subsumed and
assimilated into this struggle. Attacks on the position of the caste elite in
Tuticorin had remarkably quick repercussions in the localities, and the
resulting unrest in Parava centres throughout Tirunelveli clearly illustrates the tight integration of the group's social and economic networks.
During the 1840s and 1850s there were continual outbreaks in Manapad, Periyatalei, Virapandiyanpatanam, and most of the other villages. 5 ' Local quarrels over ritual precedence as well as 'practical' issues
such as fishing rights and house boundaries were regularly transformed
into contests between the Jesuits and the alliance of Goan priests and
caste notables. In all these villages dissident factions accepted patronage
from one of the two jurisdictions. The next step was usually a violent
street battle as the dissidents rushed to seize parish churches in the name
of the Jesuits or the Padroado.52
It is striking that the sign of victory in these clashes was a demonstration of control over churches and their adjacent streets and compounds. During the 1870s the Jesuits made much more extensive use of
the Paravas' system of'honours' and status in attacking the jati thalavan. In particular they devised tactics aimed at loosening the caste
headman's authority over shrines in Tuticorin, as they realized that his
powers in the ritual sphere hinged on the special connection between
caste rank and control over churches and procession routes. The disputes which followed provide vivid evidence of the parallels between the
beliefs and religious practices of Tamil Christians and Hindus with
49
The battle between Padroado and Jesuit authorities is traced in the Madras Catholic
Expositor, May 1846, April-September 1847, April-June 1849.
50
Verdier, 'Memoire'.
51
Fr Francis Xavier Costa (Goan priest based in Periyatalei) to Collector, copy of

petition dated 24 J u n e 1847, P C D ; Lettres de la nouvelle mission du Madure, vol. 1.
52
Ibid.; Guchen, Cinquante ans, I, p p . 199-215; Alexis Canoz, 'Memoire s u r l'etat
actuel de la mission d u Madure—1850: origine de la mission—obstacles suscites par le
schisme' (n.d.) Typescript copy of original report, M M A .

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S. B. KAUFMANN

regard to the social significance of shrines and church or temple
precincts.
Appadurai and Breckenridge have argued that the deity honoured in
Hindu utsavams is best understood as the divine representation of a
human king, and that during these festivals the god's processions
through the temple (his 'court') and among worshippers (his 'courtiers')
in the streets outside serve to demonstrate the deity's sovereignty over
the moral and physical world which constitutes his sacred kingdom. 53
The term 'sacred space' has been coined to describe the special sanctity
which Hindus attach to the shrines and procession routes which comprise the ruler-deity's 'realm'. 54 It is proposed here that for the Paravas
as well as many other south Indian Christians, churches and the nearby
streets used for marriages, funerals, and festival processions fulfilled
similar functions. In both Hindu and Christian localities, the right to
enter or to control holy precincts has long represented an essential mark
of caste rank and precedence.
By the 1870s the Madura Mission had begun to employ tactics which
greatly resembled manoeuvres used by Hindu groups in temple entry
clashes and conflicts over 'sacred space' all over south India. The first
clear case of this borrowing from Tamil status systems occurred in 1872
when the Jesuits backed another family of would-be caste notables in an
attempt to break the jati thalavan's control over Tuticorin churches.
With the support of the Mission Superior this client family petitioned
the Collector for recognition as sole controlling authority over two
eighteenth-century chapels in Tuticorin. In 1873 district officials disregarded the caste headman's protests and approved the petitioners'
proposal to build three-foot walls around both chapels, a move in clear
defiance of the jati thalavan's authority over church properties in the
town. 55 But this success only paved the way for a move to gain rights
within the Periyakovil itself. In April 1875 a § r o u P of the Jesuits' kamarakkarar supporters filed a suit demanding the right to take marriage and
funeral processions through the four streets which formed the boundary
of the Periyakovil compound. The right to stage family processions along
this route had long been one of the chief signs of mejaikarar status, and
was conferred on rising kamarakkarar families at the discretion of the jati
53

' T h e south Indian temple', p p . 191-4.
Brenda E. F. Beck, ' T h e symbolic merger of body, space, and cosmos in Hindu
Tamil N a d u ' , Contributions to Indian Sociology, 10:2 (n.s.) 1976, pp. 219-26, 237-40.
55
J T to Head Asst. Collector, Tuticorin ( M S draft), 1873 (date incomplete)/PCD;
and Extract Proceedings of the Tuticorin Municipal Commissioner, 5 April 1873, copy
in P C D .
54

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thalavan. Therefore the demand represented the most serious attack yet
on the primacy of the caste headman. 56
The petitioners lost this second suit, but it still set the pattern for joint
Jesuh-kamarakkarar action for the next forty years. 57 This clash also
reveals that by the 1870s the Jesuits themselves were operating according to the same principles of ritual 'honour' which influenced their
Parava opponents as well as large numbers of Tamil Hindus. The
kamarakkarar never stopped using the Periyakovil as the main reference
point in any attempt to gain new 'honours' under the mission's auspices,
even though the Jesuits had built a new separate church (known as the
Cinnakovii. 'lesser church') for their affiliates.58 The mission itself tacitly
accepted the primacy of the group's existing shrines and caste symbols,
as the inducements it offered to Jesuit supporters always focused on
access to Periyakovil precincts or other established signs of rank and
honour.

The 'Little King' on the Defensive, 1885-1905
The next upsurge in tension should be seen in the context of a final
period of expansion in many Parava centres in the 1880s and 1890s. This
commercial boom was stimulated by the dramatic growth of the Ceylon
plantation economy in the late nineteenth century. 59 Many established
trading families in Tuticorin and other localities simply increased their
profits from shipping and cargo broking in this boom period. But many
new families in centres like Manapad entered the Ceylon trade networks
for the first time, making large fortunes as suppliers of foodstuffs, liquor,
and textiles to the greatly enlarged population of Tamil plantation
workers in Ceylon. 60 This was also a period of rapid diversification for
56
Recounted by the 'Special Committee of Padroado Christians' (M. J. Carvalho,
J. A. D. Victoria, et al.) in a printed memorial to the Bp. Mylapore, 7 October 1928,
p. 4/PCD.
57
After the failure of the suit the jati thalavan and Padroado authorities built their own
wall around the Periyakovil. The Jesuits' proteges lost a High Court appeal demanding
that the wall be torn down. In May 1877 the same group of proteges staged a religious
procession along a route provocatively close to the Periyakovil, and fierce rioting broke
out when the celebrants tried to force their way into the church compound. Madras
High Court Suit 574/1876, quoted in MS draft letter from 'Parava Padroado Christians,
Tuticorin' to Bp. Mylapore, 1 June 1894 (?)/PCD; Lettres de la nouvelle mission du Madure,
vol. I.
58
Gomez, Pictorial Souvenir, p. v; Guchen, Cinquante ans, I, p. 49.
59
K. M. de Silva, History of Ceylon (Peradeniya, 1973), vol. I l l , pp. 89-118.
60
One leading adapan lineage from Manapad, the Mirandas, entered the Ceylon
commercial system in the lifetime of J. M. S. Miranda (1855-1911) who had been a

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many mejaikarar. Many boat-owning families, especially those previously involved in recruiting workers for the Tuticorin harbour works,
made important gains as contractors in the Colombo harbour projects
during the 1880s: Tuticorin's best-known magnate family, the RocheVictorias, began their rise as harbour contractors in Ceylon in about
1885. 61
Because of this boom many more kamarakkarar than ever before sought
to make new displays of ceremonial prestige. This is not to say that rapid
economic change in itself overturned relationships of precedence and
authority within the group. While many more families became prosperous enough to sponsor prestigious festival rites after 1880, the crisis of
leadership which overtook the Paravas still derived from a combination
of ritual, social, and economic factors. Furthermore this crisis was set in
motion only when the Jesuits renewed their attack on the group's caste
notables in 1891: the 1880s had been a comparatively untroubled time
for the headman and mejaikarar. Thejati thalavan Dom Gabriel de Cruz
Vaiz Paldano died without a male heir in 1889. The group had never
needed to devise a system for passing on the headmanship in default of a
male heir, and as a result dissident kamarakkarar families were able to
delay the installation of a successor (Vaiz Paldano's daughter's son)
until September 1891. 62
This internal clash gave the Jesuits an ideal opportunity to intensify
the insecure status of the new caste headman. Only weeks after his
installation they threw their support to a number of kamarakkarar families who had taken the unprecedented step of constructing their own
ceremonial caste emblems. 63 The point of this move was to assert higher
ritual standing since control of caste regalia was a well-known mark of
precedence within the group. But it was also a tactic in clear defiance of
the jati thalavan's monopoly of caste rites and regalia. Paravas in
Tuticorin and the villages had traditionally applied for the banners,
torches, and other insignia in the caste headman's keeping when they
small-scale dealer hawking piece-goods around the coastal villages. He then married
into the family of S. S. Fernando, a Manapad Parava who had just started a commercial
venture in Ceylon. By 1900 their textile importing concern was one of the most successful
Parava businesses. They and other prosperous Manapad grocers, liquor importers, and
piece-goods dealers returned from Ceylon to build the showy European-style houses for
which Manapad is famous in Tirunelveli. Interviews, Manapad and Tuticorin, AugustSeptember 1977.
61
Interviews with the Roche-Victoria family, Tuticorin, August 1977.
62
J T to Collector, Tuticorin, 24 July 1889/PCD; 'The Bharathars of Tuticorin, 24
July 1889/PCD; 'The Bharathars of Tuticorin' tojesuit authorities, printed memorial,
29 September 1891/PCD.
63
Ibid.

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wished to stage marriage and funeral processions. In this new move a
body of Parava barbers attached themselves to the Jesuits' dissident
families and declared their willingness to carry the new unauthorized
regalia in their patrons' processions. The Jesuits then reopened the issue
of access to the Periyakovil by petitioning the municipality to open the
Periyakovil's procession streets to their kamarakkarar affiliates.64 Thus the
Jesuits could now offer their supporters the hope of taking marriage and
funeral processions, complete with caste banners and regalia, into the
precincts of the Church of Our Lady of Snows itself. These were
privileges which they had never held before.
Again this campaign had rapid repercussions in the villages. News of
the proceedings against the caste headman in Tuticorin spread rapidly,
and villagers disciplined for local offences took the opportunity to defy
punishments imposed by the adapans and sitatis, claiming that the headman's status was in doubt and that his representatives in the localities
had forfeited their authority. 65 The Jesuits then backed these rebels by
forbidding all their affiliates to make use of the jati thalavan's caste
insignia. They also banned the Paravas' customary gestures of respect to
caste notables such as offerings of betel nut before marriages and other
family rites. 66 By 1893 these sanctions had alarmed the jati thalavan so
deeply that he wrote to the Papal Legate imploring him 'not to countenance my enemies who are cherished by them [the Madura Mission]
and in short to allow my banners and torches to be used by their mission
Christians as heretofore without subjecting them to any restriction or
inconvenience.'67
Shortly after this, however, the Jesuits found an even more subtle way
to adapt caste symbolism for their own purposes. In order to undercut
the jati thalavan's pre-eminence in the Paravas' most important corporate rite, the Jesuits inaugurated a new festival never celebrated in
Tuticorin before. This was the feast of St Fidelis, to be held in May 1894.
It was designed specifically to imitate and supplant the Golden Car
festival, and the mission chose its chief sponsors from among kamarak64

J T to Bp. Mylapore (MS draft), 1 J u n e 1894/PCD.
For example, 13 families in K a d a l a d a i defied an order from the jati thalavan
forbidding them to market their fish and refused to pay their kanikkai dues, declaring
'those who wish to honour the jati thalavan in such a way might do so, but others need
not—it is no longer compulsory.' T h o m m a i Antony Fernando to J T , Kadaladai, 1891
(date unclear)/PCD.
66
J T to Papal Legate, Msgr. Zaleski, 23 October 1893/PCD; Michael Antony,
kattalaikaran (Jesuit-nominated lay office-holder) of Alandalei, t o J T , 3 J u l y 1891/PCD.
67
J T to Zaleski, 23 October i 8 g 3 / P C D . In fact the Jesuits had been refusing to
perform marriages and funerals for Paravas who used the jati thalavan's regalia. Ibid.
65

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karar traders who had already sought to spend their new wealth on rites
and 'honours' reserved for ritually superior Paravas. 68 These donors
arranged for the construction of a massive glass-sided ter patterned on
the one used in the feast of Our Lady of Snows. In it was placed a
certified relic of St Fidelis, specially obtained from Rome. With musicians and barbers carrying flags, caste emblems, and capparams, the
celebrants planned to take the procession along the whole length of the
Periyakovil procession route, in direct defiance of the jati thalavan. 69
The result was one of the worst riots in the community's history. As the
dissident kamarakkarar tried to force their way into the Periyakovil with
their ter and regalia, they were attacked by hundreds of the jati thalavan's supporters. The crowd stoned the capparams with their crosses and
saints' images, and shattered the glass-panelled ter and relic. 70
Despite the violence and the expensive court cases which followed the
riot, in the next months the mission continued to encourage their
proteges to defy the headman and press for the right to carry their own
emblems into the Periyakovil precincts. 71 Disorder and opposition to the
caste hierarchy spread to many outlying villages. In Sippikulam unruly
local families flouted adapans who had tried to punish them for misdemeanours by forbidding them to use caste regalia in marriage
celebrations. 72 In another centre dissident Paravas defied a similar
order banning marriage processions by borrowing ceremonial banners
and insignia from the Jesuits' Parava partisans in nearby Moorkaiyur
and Sippikulam. 73 In 1895 the Jesuits stepped up the pressure by
prohibiting their affiliates from contributing to the regional collections
of kanikkai levied by the mel nattu (assembly of southwestern Parava
villages) in the name of the caste headman. 74 Many village notables
became convinced that the jati thalavan could only shore up his threat68

Guchen, Cinquante ans, I, p. 49; J T to Bp. Mylapore (fragment), Tuticorin, 15 May
1894/PCD.
69
J T to Bp. Mylapore, ibid.jPCD.
70
Ibid.
7
' Less than a month after the riot, another outbreak occurred when a kamarakkarar
family's marriage party tried to take the rival insignia into the Periyakovil compound. J T
to Bp. Mylapore, 1 J u n e 1894/PCD. The jati thalavan appealed to the local magistrate
to prevent a similar clash in 1895.JT to Joint Magistrate (MS draft), Tuticorin, 24 July
1895/PCD; 'Tuticorin people' t o J T , n.d./PCD.
72
Adapan of Sippikulam t o J T , 10 May 1895/PCD.
73
Fragment of MS letter t o J T (village name obliterated) 11 October 1895/PCD.
Similar challenges to the caste notables are described by 'Villagers of Manapad' to J T ,
13 October 1894/PCD; Francisco Ignaci Leo, adapan of Manapad, to J T , 5 August
1894/PCD; 'Villagers' of Periyatalei t o J T (date obliterated)/PCD.
74
Susai Kitherian, pallangallt ofKutapuzhi, t o J T , 17 August 1895/PCD.

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

225

ened authority by insisting more rigorously than ever before on customary tribute and gestures of respect from members of the caste, as
indicated by this appeal from the Kutapuzhi pattangatti:
Your Highness must pass strict orders as regards the offerings to your kind self
from every village. The amount should be definitely noted . . . For auspicious
functions such as marriages and funerals, betel should be distributed in the
name of Your Highness and then only according to the village custom. Unless
people of our community heed to your conditions you need not work for their
welfare and save them from riots and calamities done to them by other
communities.75

By 1896 even Padroado priests previously allied to the jati thalavan
began to imitate the Jesuits by repudiating the caste elders' authority
over churches and festival rites. The priest in charge of Manapad's
Padroado church of the Holy Ghost was one of the first to reject the old
alliance with the jati thalavan in the hope of gaining sole power over
church fees, festivals, and property in villages containing Padroado
affiliates. He declared to his parishioners:
The Metropolitan Bishop [of Mylapore] has conferred on me triple powers over
the caste, village, and church. For using community emblems, using musicians,
torches, distributing betel, and other such rites ensuring marriages and
funerals, permission must be obtained from me. No-one should regard the jati
thalavan as head of the jati. 76
Ignoring the jati thalavan's protests, Goan authorities in Tuticorin
also began a campaign to wrest control of churches and caste symbols
from the caste notables. In 1901 the PeriyakoviPs head priest actually
tried to overturn the jati thalavan's oldest marks of status, including his
right to sit in the special seat nearest the Sanctuary during mass. 77 These
setbacks in the ritual sphere also undermined the jati thalavan's authority over the group's economic activities. A pearling official reported in
1900 that the caste headman's loss of prestige had damaged his control
over Parava divers so that they had become undisciplined and prone to
strike work on frivolous pretexts. 78
The last formally designated jati thalavan assumed office in 1926 after
several years of controversy and attempts by the group's numerous
competing 'caste associations' to usurp or redefine the role of the head75

Ibid.
M a n a p a d caste notable (signature obliterated) to J T , 11 J u l y 1896/PCD.
77
J T to Bp. Mylapore ( M S draft), Tuticorin, J u l y 1901/PCD.
78
Report included in M a d r a s B O R Proceedings 2081/12 October 1900; and B O R
Proceedings 534/22 August 1890/copies in PCD.
76

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S. B. KAUFMANN

man. 7 9 During this time kamarakkarar magnates affiliated to the Jesuits
struggled inconclusively for supremacy within the group's status system,
which still hinged on access to the Periyakovil and the allocation of caste
'honours'. 80 The authority of the jati thalavan finally disintegrated in
the decades after the Second World War. From the mid-1940s the
distinction between elite traders and the mass of poorer fishermen at last
became obsolete because the introduction of refrigeration, nylon nets,
and motor-powered boats made fishing itself increasingly lucrative.
Once the mejai-kamarakkarar division lost its economic basis, the jati
thalavan could no longer retain what remained of his function as a
source of endorsement for upwardly mobile kamarakkarar. And in recent
years the forced repatriation of many Tamil traders from Sri Lanka has
destroyed the all-important trading connection which enriched and
sustained the old Parava elite.
Today the group no longer operates as a tightly integrated economic
and social unit. Even so, the festival of Our Lady of Snows still takes
place at regular intervals, and still provides an important ceremonial
focus for the group. Since the last war however the most prosperous
kamarakkarar, particularly families involved in processing and exporting
frozen prawns, have usurped the signs of ritual pre-eminence once held
by the jati thalavan. Today it is the head of the richest of these Tuticorin
kamarakkarar lineages who gives the first symbolic pull to the Golden Car
at the start of the festival, and this magnate now acts as chief donor in the
rites accompanying the festival of Our Lady of Snows. 81

Church, Caste, and Commerce: An Overview
While it is true that the jati thalavan suffered severe reverses after 1872,
it must not be assumed that he was nothing but a figurehead by 1900.
What happened, rather, is that he moved from a position of unassailable
authority to a new defensiveness and vulnerability. The fact that large
numbers of Paravas could challenge his caste standing represented a
dramatic departure from his earlier pre-eminence. But the caste
notables all remained remarkably influential through the whole period
of dissent.and violence in the Parava localities. Even the Jesuits were
79

On the Paravas' unsuccessful attempts to form a single caste association (with a
coherent policy toward traditional caste institutions) from their many localized caste
sangams and sabhas, see Milestones in Bharatha Progress.
80
'Special Emergency Committee of Padroado Christians' to J T (printed memorial),
Colombo, 7 October 1928/PCD.
81
Information from interviews, Tuticorin, August 1977.

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

227

required to form their policies in reference to the jati thalavan and the
existing honours system, and were never able to build up separate rituals
and church discipline in their own right. And a survey of the surviving
nineteenth-century caste documents shows how resilient the group's
caste institutions were at a time when the movement of labour to towns
and plantations and the expansion of the cash economy tended to
undermine customary authority within agrarian society in the south.
Parava caste notables managed to command considerable respect
even at the height of the community's riots and disputes. Their survival
can be explained both by the long tradition of deference to the jati
thalavan and village elders, and by the caste elite's skill in adapting to
commercial expansion after 1880. For example, the caste headman
managed to play the role of'little king' with remarkable conviction until
well into the 1920s. Parava supplicants and village notables continued
to use traditional salutations stressing the jati thalavan's 'royal' status:
'To the jati thalavan, King of the Bharatha Dynasty: his glory hides the
sun; his palanquin is drawn by lions.' 82 'We are always at your beck and
call . . . with the hope of getting all comfort and protection from Your
Honour.' 83 'We have no other father, mother, or master than Your
Highness.' 84 The jati thalavan used this language of sovereignty as well,
referring to Parava villagers as 'Our subjects' 85 and calling his residence
in Tuticorin Pandiyapathy Palace. 86 And in 1928 he formulated a
history of his family based loosely on the discoveries of the Indus Valley
civilizations: 'I am a lineal descendant of the noble Bharathar Kings.
India is called after my forefathers the land of the Bharathars. The pearl
fisheries far famed in history belonged to them.' 87
If we turn to the day-to-day operations of the caste notables rather
than their behaviour in crisis, it becomes clear that the Parava village
notables continued to carry out their customary duties in the midst of
the community's conflicts. The caste documents contain hundreds of
routine reports from village elders to the jati thalavan, notifying him of
marriages, property disputes, clashes over fishing rights, and tallies of
the village levies which they collected (often in defiance of the Jesuits'
ban on forwardingkanikkai to the caste headman). This material vividly
illustrates the jati thalavan's specialized knowledge of the Parava
localities and their resources, and it was this which made him an
82

(Name obliterated) to J T , Pollikarai village, 30 November 1890/PCD.
Alandalei 'labourers' t o J T , 19 J a n u a r y 1896/PCD.
84
Periatalei 'villagers' t o J T , n.d. ( i 8 g 4 ? ) / P C D .
85
J T to Zaleski (MS draft), Tuticorin, 23 October 1893/PCD.
86
J T to Portuguese Ambassador (printed address), 4 February 1930/PCD.
87
Quoted in ig^y Our Lady of Snows Festival Souvenir Volume, p. 57.
83

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S. B. KAUFMANN

invaluable collaborator in the colonial pearling and trading systems.
Even in the troubled 1890s the bulk of these letters to the jati thalavan
deal with routine issues such as cases of disputed inheritance; 88 clashes
over house and field boundaries;89 and appeals to him to punish defaulting debtors. 90
Many of these reports to the jati thalavan describe sanctions against
adulterers and other offenders accused of defaming thejati and threatening its ritual and moral 'substance'. It is striking that these communications stress protection of the collective 'blood purity' of the caste, and
that they use much the same language employed in describing the
'moral community' of Hindu castes in the south. 91 In a typical case,
caste notables from Kollam Sinnakadai appealed to thejati thalavan to
support them in a decision against two illegitimate children born to a
Parava woman and her non-Parava lover. 92 The children had been
denied standing as authentic Paravas and were accordingly barred from
caste feasts and church rites, but the village notables were under pressure from dissidents allied to the Jesuits to extend caste rights to the
family. The village notables described the proposed recognition as a
grave threat to the 'blood' and moral status of the group as a whole. The
growing mobility of labourers and traders made this problem of purity
increasingly troubling, as in the case of a labourer from Punnayakayal
who had seduced a local girl and then evaded the priest's order to marry
her by leaving the village to find work in Tuticorin. 93
The flouting of local discipline cited earlier involved an erosion of the
caste notables' control, but not a complete collapse of the system.
Throughout this period, elders in most Parava centres imposed fines and
public penances on Paravas for offenses such as fornication, brawling,
and drunkenness. 94 As to the drastic step of outcasting, in Hindu society
88

A typical letter sets out details of a dispute over an inheritance of Rs 107 plus a small
land-holding. Alandalei village notable to J T , 31 August 1891/PCD; and see similar
reports from Alandalei (8 December 1893); and Moorkaiyur (29 November
i8gi)/PCD.
89
Joseph Fernando to J T , 8 November 1891/PCD.
90
Suroni Pedar Poobalarayan to J T , 19 August 1894/PCD.
91
McKim Marriott and Ronald Inden, 'Caste Systems' in The New Encyclopaedia
Britannica, III (1974), pp. 983-4.
92
Kollam Sinnakadai notables toJT, 1895 (date incomplete)/PCD.
93
Punnayakayal kattalaikaran to J T , 4 June 1894/PCD. In another case a Manapad
woman bore an illegitimate daughter and then rejoined her trader husband in Colombo.
The Manapad adapan appealed for a ruling on whether the daughter should be acknowledged as a member of the caste and whether she should receive the usual rites for Parava
girls at puberty. Thomas Ignaci Leo toJT, Colombo, 27 December 1891/PCD.
94
Sippikulam sitalis t o J T , 23-9-1891/PCD. Offenders were made to parade through
the village wearing a crown of thorns or make their way around the village church on

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A CHRISTIAN CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY

229

this sanction was usually imposed at the initiative of local elders. Among
the Paravas, however, ritual and economic ties were not confined to
individual localities. Cases of expulsion and readmission to caste were
invariably referred to the jati thalavan, and the same economic changes
which tended to break down the authority of regional caste assemblies
and headmen among Hindus actually strengthened many of the powers
of the Parava notables. 95 The Paravas' trading connections and regular
migration to the diving sites meant that the institutions of caste had to
operate over a wide geographical area. Therefore it became increasingly
important for the group to take collective steps in cases of outcasting and
the jati thalavan and the regional nattu assemblies were often called upon
to publicize sanctions against outcast Paravas. 96
The mobility of Parava labourers and traders also enhanced the
importance of the caste notables' role in safeguarding 'pure' and correct
marriage alliances within the group. The further they moved from their
home localities, the more frequently commercial men and labourers had
to secure guarantees of legitimate caste standing. 97 Only thejati thalavan and village elders could provide these certifications. The caste
documents contain numerous appeals from migrants based in Madura,
Colombo, and other centres calling on the caste headman to certify their
caste standing so that they could make suitable marriages back in
Tirunelveli. 98
In the economic as well as the ritual and social sphere, the Parava
caste notables were exceptionally influential. In agrarian society it was
the minority of dominant land-holders rather than caste leaders as such
who controlled labour, credit, and marketing in their localities.99 But
like Hindu trading groups, the Paravas had their own sources of credit,
and they used caste connections to organize these credit dealings. 100
From an early period, for example, thejati thalavan and other notables
their knees. Reports to J T from Vaippar, 6 October 1891; Sippikulam, 23 September
1891/PCD.
95
Pallam village 'elder' t o J T (damaged: 1891?), P C D .
96
After the outcasting of a fisherman from Pallam, t h e j a t i thalavan ordered one of
the nattu assemblies to stop the marriage of the offender's d a u g h t e r with a man from Alur.
97
Reports to thejati thalavan dated 31 May 1896; 27 M a y 1896/PCD.
98
A labourer who had migrated to Tuticorin appealed for a testimonial certifying his
respectability and caste purity: his son's marriage to a girl from Uvari had been delayed
by rumours that he was 'of an indecent and very low family'. Petition to J T , Tuticorin, 6
May 1895/PCD. And a M a n a p a d trader based in Ceylon applied to thejati thalavan for
a formal certification of his standing as a 'decent member of the Parava community' so
that his son could marry. 13 February 1895/PCD.
99
Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics, pp. 6 8 - 8 5 .
100
See Washbrook's treatment of the Komatis, 'Development of Caste Organisation', p. 152.

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S. B. KAUFMANN

provided financial backing to Paravas engaged in commercial ventures
in Ceylon. 101 In addition, it was noted above that the caste elite
increased its control over employment and labour relations in the
nineteenth century. 102 As most cultivators in the 'dry south' depended
on local magnates for marketing facilities, the Paravas enjoyed another
advantage over the agrarian population in that the various nattu assemblies owned and operated important fish markets in centres such as
Pillaitopu, Putenturai, and Singikulam. 103 The pattangattis collected
mahimai levies from hawkers and traders in these markets, and their
income went toward a general fund used for festivals and corporate legal
expenses. 104
The jati thalavan's authority over fish trading included control over
prices, the location of market sites, and even the right to veto commercial contact between specified localities.105 Caste notables also determined standards of fair 'craft' practice, banning the use of certain fishing
nets which endangered oyster stocks, for example. 106 In addition, the
jati thalavan dispensed charity to the families of disabled fishermen and
other indigents by granting them koodai panku ('basket share')—i.e. the
right to market one free basket of fish daily from the overall village
catch. 107 Thus the routine of fishing and trading helped to maintain the
jati thalavan's role as patron and protector of the group.
This wide range of powers and resources helps to explain why the
Jesuits failed to crush the Parava caste notables by 1900. In fact the
mission never sought to obliterate the system of caste honours and
ceremonial precedence on which the jati thalavan's authority rested,
although they intended to usurp control over caste symbols and church
101
For example, the sacristan of the Periyakovil acted as an intermediary for a
Kutapuzhi man seeking a loan from the jati thalavan for a business enterprise in Ceylon.
Sacristan t o J T , 13 November 1894/PCD.
102
For example, the jati thalavan could press tindals and contractors to deny work to
Parava migrants in Tuticorin who had violated caste discipline in their home villages.
Periatalei caste notables to J T , 12 April 1891/PCD. Village notables also maintained
their power to intervene in relations between boat owners and fishing crews. Adapans
imposed caste sanctions on labourers who broke ties of service to boat owners, and could
bar crewmen from serving owners or tindals who had committed offenses. Moorkaiyur
sitali to J T , 5 July 1896/PCD; 'Manapad villagers' t o J T , 5 August 1894/PCD.
103
Villavarayan Moduthome t o J T , Kaniyakumari, March 1892/PCD.
104
Ibid. Some other specialized groups including Hindu Shanars or Nadars (toddy
tappers) and Kaikkilaiyar weavers operated similar mahimai levies. Pate, Tinnevelly, p.

104.
105
Representatives of western nattu to J T , July 1892 (date incomplete)/PCD; Punnaiyaur munsif to J T , 17 August 1893/PCD.
106
Punnayakayal gramam munsif to J T , 19 August 1893/PCD.
107
Manuel Packiam Fernando t o J T (village, date obliterated 1896?) PCD.

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23 I

affairs. In trying to build up a rival headman's lineage under the
mission's jurisdiction, and in creating rival festivals and ceremonial
regalia, the Jesuits were forced implicitly to acknowledge the preeminence of the Periyakovil and the festival of Our Lady of Snows—still
basically the preserves of the mejai elite at the end of the century.
Throughout this period the mission's tactics were determined by the
principles of the existing and basically Hindu system of status which
prevailed in Parava localities, and even in the 1900s the Jesuits could
not ignore the jati thalavan's prestige and authority in forming their
strategy.
At the same time the British continued to endorse and remunerate the
jati thalavan and his adapans and pattangattis in return for their services in
the pearl industry. This recognition bolstered their prestige, and the fees
which they received for overseeing the pearl fisheries helped to maintain
the financial margin between ordinary fishermen and the caste elite.
This extra prosperity helped the kamarakkarar and the village adapantrading group to move into seaborne commerce, first in the midnineteenth-century trade boom, and then during the Ceylon export
boom in the 1880s.
How did the Paravas compare with other maritime groups in the
south? Like the Christian fishing population, the Hindu Pattanavans (or
Karaiyars), Arayanattu Chettis, and Sembadavans situated on the
Tamil coast north of Ramnad had highly organized caste institutions. 108 But in 1902 a survey found that the majority of these Hindu
fishermen were poor, 'backward', and tied in a state of perpetual debt
bondage to Muslim fish merchants. These dealers had a monopoly of
their dependent fishermen's catches, and settled accounts with small
cash advances only once or twice a year at rates fixed far below the
market. 109 The Paravas were in an entirely different position, able to
sell their catches daily for cash on their own terms, and rarely bound to
outside dealer-creditors. 110 Their toughness and independence were
proverbial: if buyers tried to combine to force down fish prices, the
Paravas 'decline to sell at such rates and rush off to the market to sell
direct to the public.' 111
108 Thurston, Castes and Tribes, V I , p p . 333-4; V I I , p p . 259, 286-7; V. G o v i n d a n ,
Fishery Statistics and Information, West and East Coasts, Madras Presidency. M a d r a s Fisheries
Bureau Bulletin No. 9 (Madras, 1916), p. 133.
109
Govindan, ibid., p p . 136-8.
110
Ibid., p. 139; James Hornell, A Statistical Analysis of the Fishing Industry of Tuticorin
(South India), Madras Fisheries Bureau, Bulletin No. 11. Rept. No. 3 (Madras, 1918), pp.
86-7.
U1
Ibid.

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This independence derived partly from economic factors such as their
control over labour, credit, and marketing. Unlike cultivators, Parava
fishermen were not dependent on a single occupation. Their alternatives
included work on lighters and cargo craft, chank diving, and inland and
overseas trading, 112 but it was pearling that provided the crucial advantage over fishing groups situated outside the Manaar region. Each
Ceylon fishery attracted 200 to 400 boatloads of divers and oarsmen
from Tirunelveli and Ramnad—up to 3,000 Paravas and Lebbai Muslims. British officials noted that during a good pearling session the most
expert divers could earn as much as 500 or 1,000 rupees. These sums
backed a number of successful kamarakkarar in the move into trade. 1 1 3
The Paravas, then, had a long tradition of mobility, and from ancient
times they had learned to adapt their maritime skills to changing
economic circumstances. This flexibility bore fruit in their later response
to commercial opportunities in Ceylon, and much of their success as
traders and contractors in the colonial period was due to their skill in
exploiting the resources of the coastal region, and to the usefulness of
their maritime occupations to the European powers.

Conclusions
What then does this study of the Paravas demonstrate about the operation of caste and Christian identity in colonial south India, and about
the relationship between institutions of economic and ritual authority?
The Paravas' specialized occupations helped to promote some degree of
corporate identity within the group even before the advent of the
Portuguese. Their close internal organization was then fostered by the
European powers who all required a tightly knit client group to organize
pearling in the Gulf of Manaar. But these economic and political factors
did not in themselves give rise to the Paravas' resilient social structure.
The real explanation lies in the interplay of material and ritual elements
in the group's development: the Paravas' tight caste structure was
strengthened by their religious traditions, and this communal organiza112

Because Hindus regarded fish-handling as an unclean occupation like selling
toddy (palm liquor), Paravas were drawn almost automatically into marketing their
catches. It was then an obvious next step to other forms of small-scale commerce: by 1845
Paravas comprised a substantial portion of the petty cloth and grain dealers and
headload hawkers of south Tirunelveli. TCR vol. 7973/258/22 November 1845/TNA.
113
W. C. Twynam, Report on the Pearl Fishery of 1880; ibid., 1881; 1887; (Colombo,
1880-7), ' n E. L. Pawsey Papers, Box I, Archive Collection, Centre of South Asian
Studies, Cambridge.

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233

tion then gave them a special advantage in managing markets and
moving into overseas commerce in the colonial period.
Indeed the crucial element in the Paravas' cohesiveness was their
conversion to Christianity. Instead of withdrawing from Hindu society,
the group developed a remarkable fusion of Roman Catholic ritual with
Hindu concepts of authority and ceremonial precedence. Christianity
became a kind of caste lifestyle for the Paravas. Just as Hindus took part
in many seemingly incompatible 'sanskritic' and 'non-Vedic' styles of
worship, 114 so, too, converts managed to reconcile a systematic attachment to Hindu modes of belief and practice with a strong and lasting
Roman Catholic affiliation. And paradoxically the assumption of Christian identity left the Paravas with stronger institutions of leadership and
caste identity than those possessed by most south Indian Hindus.
In fact there is no real contradiction here. One of the great strengths of
the Catholic missions in south India was the availability of considerable
common ground between Roman Catholic doctrines and observances
and the beliefs and practices of popular Hinduism. 115 Thus as Christians the Paravas continued to perceive the caste headman's authority in
a form which closely resembled Hindu notions of kingship. Like the ideal
Hindu king, thejati thalavan served as the group's chief arbiter in ritual,
social, and economic matters. For over 350 years hereditary headmen
held a place in church rites which was analogous to the role of south
Indian rulers as patrons and protectors of Hindu temples.
The Jesuits' attack on the jati thalavan was the essential catalyst
leading to the Paravas' crisis of authority in the nineteenth century. The
riots and disputes which resulted from the Jesuits' campaigns closely
resembled Hindu clashes over 'sacred space' and ceremonial precedence. The details of these conflicts show how effectively popular Catholic and Hindu religious styles could merge in south India. And despite
these outbreaks the social system produced by the Paravas' amalgamation of Hindu and Christian traditions was highly flexible. Rapid economic change in the nineteenth century need not have unsettled the
114
Hindus rarely abandon one set of rituals and beliefs in favour of'higher' rites and
doctrines, even on occasions when a lineage or caste group seeks to elevate its social
standing by emulating the rites and customs of a higher ranking group. Instead they may
recruit Brahmins to perform orthodox Vedic domestic rites for them, but the same group
will still continue to worship blood-drinking local goddesses and malignant spirits (peys).
See Lawrence A. Babb, The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York,
'975). PP- '77,212-14,240-3.
"* This point is covered more fully in my Ph.D. dissertation 'Popular Christianity,
Caste, and Hindu Society in south India, 1800-1915: A Study of Travancore and
Tirunelveli' (University of Cambridge, 1979).

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234

S. B. KAUFMANN

control of the dominant Tuticorin and village lineages. As shown above,
by mid-century the group had devised a means by which new traders
could assume mejaikarar status without threatening the supremacy of the
jati thalavan. Thus it was the combination of economic change and the
Jesuits' attack on the primacy of the caste elite which eventually disrupted the group's leadership. Even so, the battles of the nineteenth
century still left the Paravas with stronger corporate institutions and
caste identity than those of almost every other jati in south India.
The aim of this paper has been to set changes affecting a Christianja/z
against the background of beliefs and traditions in the wider society. It
seems clear that the beliefs, observances and religious conflicts of south
Indian Christians are only wholly intelligible in terms of Hindu principles of beliefs and behaviour. Converts rarely abandoned Hindu
notions of caste identity and ritual purity when they assumed Protestant
or Roman Catholic affiliation. Many studies of Christianity in India
have noted that Hindu customs regularly survived among converts, but
these are usually seen as piecemeal 'hangovers' from Hinduism. There
have been few systematic attempts to relate the process of conversion
and the social institutions of converts to a wider Hindu background.
More work is needed in this area, as studies of other Christian groups
besides the Paravas can illuminate changes within south Indian society
as a whole, and not just within narrow communal boundaries.

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