THE pearls and chanks (large spiral shells) obtained from the Gulf of Mannar along the Indian and Sri Lankan coasts were some of the region’s premium exports. Accounts of their popularity feature in the journals of travellers like Megasthenes (third century BC), the anonymous author of The Periplus of Erythraean Sea (60 AD), Sangam-era literature (third century BC to fourth century AD), and archaeological excavations conducted at the ancient port town of Tamil Nadu.
The first reference to South Indian pearl diving methods comes from Chau Ju-Kua, the author of Chu Fan Chi (1225 AD), who wrote about the trade between Arabia and China and the pearl fishery of South India during the rule of the Cholas. Others, including Marco Polo (1260–1300 AD), a Venetian merchant called Caesar Frederic (1563–1581 AD) and Father Martin, a Jesuit missionary in the early 18th century, have similarly documented the region’s diving methods. The 600 years’ worth of records between the 13th and 19th centuries all offer very similar details regarding pearl and chank diving techniques.
A COMMUNITY OF DIVERS
The literary text Agananuru, from the Sangam era, talks of a community named Parathavar. While the major occupation of this community was fishing, they were also pearl and chank divers, and continued diving even during the later Chola and Pandiya periods. The Muslims from the Persian Gulf were also a part of the diving industry in the Gulf of Mannar, beginning from as early as the 11th century.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
The start of each dive always created great interest and excitement. If there was moonlight, thousands of people assembled on the beach to watch and give their good wishes. At about 10pm, the tindals (steersmen) would get into position, ready to hoist the sails. At midnight, the adappanar (lead diver) would hoist a light at the masthead and set off. Within a few minutes, hundreds of boats would follow suit, amid much cheering from crew members and spectators. The white sails following the signal light of the adappanar’s boat could be distinguished for miles out at sea.
In the early hours of the morning, the divers would get ready to begin. Ropes tying the divers to stones that acted as weights would be released, while each diver would take a deep breath and descend rapidly. As soon as they reached the seafloor, they would gather as many oysters as possible and put them into their baskets. Meanwhile, the stones would be lifted up by their assistants. Each diver would signal the completion of his job after about a minute by shaking the rope tied to him. He would then be hauled up. After a few minutes of rest, the process would be repeated. This would carry on until noon, with each diver making about 50 dives, before the boats returned to shore in the evening. Generally, a diver would cover an area of about two-and-a-half square metres at a depth of about 11 metres in a single dive.