Thursday, November 27, 2014

Kadal-Katti – Shark Charmers of Ancient South India as Observed by Marco Polo

Shark Charmers
Image credit:1990 Painting by Kozyndan
Shark Charmers – Main feature of Fisheries

Till 1885, the main feature of fisheries in Asia was the services of the shark charmers or binders of sharks and their presences were considered essential by the superstition of Indian divers. The fishermen relied on the supernatural powers of these imposters and would refrain from diving without their supervision. It is not known which period influenced this idea but in 1294 when Marco Polo paid a visit, they were in full bloom of their authority and received one twentieth of the total catch of oyster amounting to a very considerable sum of money.

Being a very alert observer, Marco Polo had related some interesting details with regards to Tamil customs of his contemporary times. It seems that he was in South India on two occasions and the second time was during his journey to Persia on the way back to Venice. He mentioned about the charming of sharks by the use of mantras. He states`and they must also pay those men who charm the great fishes, to prevent them from injuring the divers, whilst engaged in seeking pearls under water, one twentieth part all that they take. Their charm hold good for that day only, for at night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will’.

Sharks – Dangers to Divers 

These shark charmers existed till about fifty years ago and were known as `kadal-katti. Sharks were the main occupational dangers to divers and being superstitious the divers would consult the shark charmers before starting their expedition underwater.

Marco Polo
The divers would not venture out at sea till they would receive an assurance from the shark charmers that the mouth of the sharks remains close at their command.At every fishery, there were at least two or three shark charmers in attendance where one would go out at sea with the fleet while the other would recite mantras, performing some rituals on the shore.

The shark charmer would lock himself in a closed room and would sit before a brass basin which would be filled with magic water obtained from a secret well in which were silver replicas of male and female sharks. With this the shark charmer would get to know if there would be shark attack on a diver for one shark in the basin would bite the other.

By midday a signal would be made to stop work and the boats would head for the coast lining up close to the shore in front of a huge enclosure which was called as the kottu or oyster store.

Pearl harvesting
Three Equal Heaps – Division of Ancient Origin

This comprised of nine open huts which were divided into compartments where the divers carried their catch into them depositing them in the compartment in three equal heaps which was a division of ancient origin.

Two heaps were chosen by the British official as the Government’s share while the third was left for the diver. While the divers took their oysters to sell or open, the Government’s share was counted and auctioned to the merchants.

Thereafter the oysters were placed in small pits along the sea and allowed to decompose where the final remains were rinsed and the pearls were picked out and graded, The haul of the pearls which were of great value for their golden hue made their way to Bombay where they were perforated and tied into ropes and later on sent to dealers and brokers all across the globe.

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