Parava or Paravar, also known as Parathavar, Paradavar, Bharathar, Bharathakula Pandyaror Bharathakula Kshathriyar is a caste in southern India that in ancient times were coastal inhabitants, seafarers, maritime traders and subordinate rulers to Pandyas,as well as according to at least one modern writer, described as “ferocious soldiers”. There are many theories as to their origins but they have since ancient times been recorded in the area of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In modern India, Paravars are concentrated along the coastal belt extending around the Gulf of Mannar, from Kilakarai through to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) and then on almost as far as Trivandrum. and their 60 or so villages are solely occupied by caste members and are interspersed with villages occupied by Muslims. There are also Paravar settlements on the outskirts of inland villages, and there has been a significant number among the population of Tuticorin, a major town, since the 1580s.
Paravar (known as Bharathas in Sri Lanka) are also found in significant numbers in Sri Lanka, especially in Negombo and also in and around the capital Colombo. They are an official gazette-notified separate ethnic community in Sri Lanka. In the present day, Bharathas are a socially and economically active, prosperous trading community in Sri Lanka
From the earliest recorded times the Paravars were fishers,seamen and maritime traders specialising in seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chank, both of which were significant exports from southern India by the first century AD. (The pearl diving season usually lasted 20 – 30 days, around March). The community was also involved in sea salt production, which was a relatively easy task on the Indian coast as the hot temperatures evaporated the water without the need for firewood. Diving for pearls and chank, as well as fishing, were thought of as being “low and ritually polluting occupations.”
The Pandyan emperors allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their already ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of how to tend the oysterbeds and also knowledge of their location. The emperors exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the produce extracted. Cave engravings from the third century BC, found in 2003, reinforce this view as they suggest that the Paravars were the chieftains of the coastal region during this period, ruling as subordinates of the Pandyas. Previously, in the 1920s, Iyengar had noted that the caste name was used in ancient scripts to mean both boatmen and chiefs of the Madurai country. A report written in 1669 made it clear that in so far as they were kings, they were only kings of their own people and not of any wider constituency; furthermore, that these “kings” were referred to as such only by the Paravars.
The 1901 Madras Census noted that the Tamil-speaking Paravars “claim” to be kshatriyas (warriors) serving under the Pandyan kings, the word used suggesting some official doubt regarding the issue.
Little is known about the Paravas during the middle ages. Indeed, Donkin has argued that with one exception, “there are no native literary works with a developed sense of chronology, or indeed much sense of place, before the thirteenth century”, and that any historical observations have to be made using Arab, European and Chinese accounts. Southern India came under the control of the Cholas in the ninth century but reverted to Pandyan control around the mid-1200s following a series of battles. They maintained control, despite several challenges, until the 16th century.
Influx of Arabs
Regardless of any doubt regarding their claims to be warriors under the liege of Pandyan emperors, the Paravars certainly did have armies at a later time, these being created to protect the fisheries and their people from attack.
The Arab Muslim invasion began in 712 at the Sindh Valley and by around 1300 they had taken over the entire of northern India. However, even prior to the invasion there were Arabs in southern areas such as Calicut, Quilon and Malabar, chiefly traders interested in the spices, pearls, precious stones and cottons which were available there. Another advantage of the location was that it was on a major sea trade route running through south-east Asia and on to China. Some of these Arabs were also pearl divers, having gained their experience in the waters of the Persian Gulf.
The descendants of these Muslim people became known as the Lebbais and their main settlement was the town of Kayal, a presence which was noted by Vasco da Gama and Duarte Barbosa by the early sixteenth century. There is some ambiguity regarding this town: there was a harbour on the Tamraparani River in Pandyan times which was known as Korkai and when the river at this point became too silted to use (it is situated approximately 8 km inland nowadays), it was replaced by a port called Kayal, thought to be situated variously either at the mouth of the river or at the village of Palayakayal which was 4 km downstream of Korkai but is itself nowadays about 3 km inland. Marco Polo described Kayal as a bustling port and the centre of the pearl trade in 1292 but by the mid-16th century this too had probably ceased to operate and was replaced by another port, Punnaikayal (new Kayal) under the influence of the Portuguese colonists. Punnaikayal was again at the mouth of the river, which as part of an estuary was under constant change, around 4 km from Palayakayal. It is difficult to determine with any consistency which of these locations is being referred to at various times by various authors but what does appear to be a common factor is that this was until modern times a major port for the pearl trade. Kayal is the Tamil word for a backwater.
The 1901 Madras Census noted three groups who called themselves Paravars. It speculated that their common root were the mostly Christian Tamil-speaking Paravars, The other groups were the Canarese-speaking Paravars, who were umbrella makers and devil-dancers and the Malayalam-speaking Paravars, who were lime burners, gymnasts, midwives and shell collectors. It has been further speculated that the splitting of the latter two groups from the first may have been as a consequence of a desire to move away from the ancient tribal area when faced with the arrival of Muslims.
The Paravar belief of being the Paravaims of the biblical scriptures and the lost tribes of Israel added to the differences with the Arabs,which is acknowledged by Fr.Henrique Henriques by his claim of kinship.