The Pamban Channel at Rameswaram

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 The Portuguese at Pamban and connections to Malabar

Some years ago, I mentioned the Pamban bridge, while writing about the Ceylon boat mail, a bridge that was an engineering marvel when it was constructed in 1914, over 108 years ago. The Pamban bridge was planned as the first phase of the linkage between India and Ceylon. However, the second part of the link, connecting Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar, i.e., the Palk straits, never reached fruition and what we still see, are the remnants of the ancient Adam’s bridge, the Rama Setu bridge constructed by Hanuman and his troops. Now comes the clincher. Did you know that the original Pamban channel was man-made, and that too not so long ago? In fact, the isthmus at Pamban which had been breached in a violent storm in 1480, was dug up and converted into a channel by workers, under Portuguese direction in 1549!

The purpose and the effects of this work in the vicinity of the holy town of Rameswaram had a number of violent consequences involving even the powers in Malabar, and their connections interestingly continued during the Pamban bridge construction in 1904 and more recently in 1964!

Ancient past

The Pamban island is a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus as Lord Rama with the help of Hanuman, his monkeys, and others, in its ancient past, built the Rama Setu (Adam’s bridge) to cross the 20 miles to Lanka and rescue Sita, kidnapped by the Lanka king Ravana. The temple on the island owes its consecration back to this period, when Rama and Lakshmana together with Sita installed the Siva Linga. The Chola Kings were the temple patrons initially after which it fell to the Lankan Jaffna dynasty. Malik Kafur came along and ransacked and pillaged (this is still debated, and not an established fact) the temple and town, while the Pandya Kings were its patrons in the 15th century. In the 16th century, it came under the Vijayanagar kings. Regional tussles for power brought on the Arcot Nawabs and finally the British. A 19th-century archeological report with inputs from a Mr Fergusson mentions however that the smaller vimana can be dated back to the 11th or 12th century, and that the great temple came into being much later in the 17th century. R Sewell records that the Mahamandapam was built in 1598 while the Kotiteertham is dated to 1608.

The Paravas

The advent of the Portuguese to the area is connected with Francis Xavier and his 1536 mass conversion of the Parava fishermen in the region (catalyzed by a one-time Zamorin emissary who converted i.e., Joao Da Cruz), an event I had covered in the past. The Parava community extended from the cape, all the way to Kilkarai in the NE, passing through the region which we are covering today. Preceding the many decades before this conversion, and for many decades thereafter, the local Muslims (Labbais, Rawthers, and Marakkars) and the converted Paravas were at loggerheads with each other resulting in frequent skirmishes and armed intervention by the navally stronger Portuguese. The Portuguese after the Parava epoch, obtained full control over the pearl industry, salt pans as well as inroads into Ceylon and were the muscle for the Parava community in the region.

The battle of Vedalai, off the Ramnad coast, which occurred in 1537/1538 between Malabar’s admiral Pate Marakkar and the Portuguese fleet, was of incredible importance. Not only did it wrest away the control of those waters from the Marakkars after Pate’s loss, but it also gave the Portuguese full control of the gulf as well as the pearl fisheries in the area. It broke the Marakkar naval might, as well as their plan to team up with the Ottoman fleet and threaten the Portuguese.  With this singular event, the supremacy on the Arabian Sea passed to the Portuguese, who then settled down to profit from their overtures.

Correia’s trench at Pamban

The local Portuguese chief was F Correia. An unscrupulous and opportunistic Portuguese trader, privateer, adventurer, and soldier, Correia had connections in high places and frequently went against the wishes of Goa, enriching himself and his patrons. He considered himself the chief of all coromandel and took his own decisions. It was thus that in 1547/1549, Correa with his forty soldiers started to levy a pilgrim tax on all the road users to Rameswaram and furthermore allowed them access to the temple, only during the day.

Now we come across the interventions of Viswanatha Raya of Vijayanagar, through his valiant general Vitthala Raya and his Badaga army as well as VItthala’s reign over the region for the next 12 years, i.e., until 1558. Rev Heras mentions that during his time, Vitthala launched several attacks against the Portuguese and their proteges the Paravas, on the Coromandel Coast. He explains - The Portuguese possessions on the Coromandel Coast extended as far as Rameswaram; and between one and two leagues away from this famous town, in the village of Vedalai on the frontier of the kingdom of Marava, they built a mud fort in which there was always a small garrison under a captain. In the year 1549, there was at Vedalai a garrison of forty soldiers under the command of one Joao Fernandes Correa whose rapacity provoked an attack from the Badagas. He dug a trench close to his fort barring the path of the numerous Hindu pilgrims to the temple at Rameswaram, perhaps the most celebrated in the whole of southern India. Thus, the pilgrims had to pay toll to the Portuguese; in consequence of which the alms received by the Brahmans of the temple at Rameswaram went on dwindling day by day. Accordingly, the Brahmans, who were as covetous as the Portuguese captain, appealed to Madura, probably through the Setupati of Ramnad who was in charge of the causeway leading to Rameswaram; and the result was the Badaga invasion.

We have no knowledge as to whether Vitthala came over again to attack this fort; but we do know that six thousand soldiers appeared suddenly before Vadalai, among whom were some Muhammadans who easily made alliance with the Telugus against their former slaves. The Portuguese captain, seeing that it would be impossible to resist so large a force with such ammunition as he had, retreated towards the sea and with his garrison sought refuge in the islands of the coast.

So now we know that Joao Fernandes Correia was responsible for the digging of a trench, which triggered a furious reaction. Barros explains the reasoning – At the island - is built a sumptuous heathen temple, Ramanacor (Ramankovil-Rameswaram) by name; and so narrow is the land from this sea outside to that inside the gulf, where stands Beadala, that Joao Fernandez Correa, the former captain of the fishery of seed-pearl, which is fished in that latitude, was about to cut through that land. And the advantage of this breach was, that passage from there to Canhameira is full of many islets, sandbanks, and shoals; and in windy weather, it is very perilous for navigation. And passing through this breach that he intended to make, vessels would enter the great gulf, and with the mainland that lay at the upper part they would be more sheltered, and it would be better sailing, and moreover, it would be advantageous to the captains of the fishery who were stationed there.

Fergusson adds - The foregoing passage is of great interest in connection with the history of the Pamban channel. According to Hunter's Imp. Gaz. xi. 22, " the ancient records preserved in the temple of Rameswaram relate that in the year 1480 a violent storm breached the isthmus, and that, despite efforts to restore the connection, subsequent storms rendered the breach permanent." I cannot find that the pioneering work of the Portuguese in the cutting of the channel has been noticed by writers on the subject. According to the anonymous writer of Primor e Honra (i. 24) the actual cutting of the channel was carried out by Joao Fernandes Correa in 1549, when the Jesuit father Antonio Criminali was murdered by the natives.

Some accounts add that the Portuguese soldiers abused and insulted the Brahmin priests, and this led to the complaint to Madurai. Fr. Antonio Criminali, an Italian Jesuit, who went to protect his new converts met his death during the attack, and his martyrdom is often talked about. It appears that many Paravas died too and the chapel, as well as the fort, were destroyed, while the trench dug by the captain was filled up. Two years later, violence flared up, yet again when the Badaga soldiers captured a young Portuguese Jesuit Father named Paolo de Valle; but he was rescued by the Paravas, and this provoked yet another incursion of the Badagas.

The Marakkars from Calicut

Vitthala was not concerned that the Portuguese were still the lords of the pearl fisheries and the nearby

region. During his previous forays, he had noted that the Portuguese escaped by sea, so with the support of the Zamorin of Calicut, he made an alliance with a Muhammadan pirate named Irapali (Ali). The army composed of some 1,500 soldiers aboard some galleons and forty sloops, met the Portuguese led by Manuel Rodriguez Coutinho at Punney Kayal and later was defeated and imprisoned by Irapali. Gil Fernandez de Carvalho with 170 soldiers was then sent out from Cochin to rescue Coutinho and his soldiers, and as Heras states - As soon as the Muhammadans, who were anchored between the sandbank and the shore saw this, they surrounded the boat and a great fight ensued. This lasted the whole day, the Portuguese being determined not to surrender to the enemy; by evening all of them had been slaughtered, and many of the Muhammadans had likewise perished, among them Irapali himself.

But the Rayas remained in control of the region and It was probably after this expedition that the whole of the fishery Coast agreed to pay the small tribute of a day’s catch to the Nayak of Madura; and since then, the region was left in peace.

The Portuguese channel digging

It appears that before the storm of 1484, a wooden bridge existed between the mainland and the temple. Every year thousands crossed the channel to pray at the temple. After the storm, pilgrims used boats to cross over to the temple. This was the opportunity misused by Correia, when he dug the channel up or broadened it and the Vitthala invasion resulted. Anyway, Correia continued as the Portuguese captain of the region for many more years, such was his influence in Lisbon. He lived to profit and made sure he got his share even from the Paravas, whom the Portuguese had liberated.

Calicut & Marakkar connections to the region

The Zamorin’s connections to the area were mainly through the Marakkars and their interests in the region. The Marakkars brought in rice and other items for consumption or reexport, to Calicut and Cochin, but they were also rivals to the Paravas when it came to pearl fishing, and ended up fighting with the Paravas over rights. This snowballed into massive confrontations and conversions, with the Portuguese taking advantage of the situation. The Portuguese then remained to control the straits, channels, and the seas much to the consternation of the Marakkars, and we see their involvement and tie-up with Vitthala. The identity of the Irapali in 1553 as the zamorin’s man, is not quite clear. This was during the Kunjali 2/3 period, so could have been one of the brothers. I must, however, add here that there are some doubts about the nativity of Irap Ali as some historians (Ibrahim Kunju) feel he was a Rumi (Turkish). The Marakkayars continued to prosper in the Kilakkarai region, and many families still live there. If you recall, I had mentioned their potential involvement (Tamil bell article) in the voyages to far away New Zealand even!

Ramappaiya Iyer and the Pamban causeway – circa 1640 AD

Ramapayya’s (a general of Madurai’s Thirumala Nayak) fight to wrest control of the temple town from the Setupati and the story of the re-building of the causeway is quite interesting. Quoting V Rangachari - Ramappaiya's return to the Pamban was a sign of extraordinary activity in that quarter. Undaunted by any obstacle and undeterred, even by nature, he embraced the "mad" idea of rebuilding, like his divine namesake, the Setu, and marching his gigantic army across it to attack. Opposition only strengthened his activity, and when many refused, he showed that he was true to any work by carrying the stone for the dam himself. Everybody was then surprised and ashamed, and the Naik and the Marava, the Telugu and the Tamil, the Canarese and the Malayali, combined together to build the dam. Each contributed, like the old monkeys, his share, and with the growth of the causeway their enthusiasm grew. The progress of the dam in consequence was startlingly rapid, and Ramappaiya was able to carry his men across and lay siege to the island.

The Setupati was now in serious danger and was indefatigable in his endeavors to save the island at all costs. Râmappaiya at this stage is said to have had some negotiations with the Parangis of Singala, Colombo, Manaar and Cochin, whom the Seupati had alienated by his collection of extravagant tributes.

L Bes continues - Soon, Dalavay was defeated, imprisoned in Madurai, and replaced with his rival Tambi (Peddanna Nayaka Tevar). The new, low-born Setupati proved an incapable ruler, however, who was opposed by his courtiers and subjects alike, making Madurai’s Tirumalai Nayaka soon reinstall Dalavay.

Other literary texts, mostly deriving from Madurai, state that the Nayaka’s removal of the Setupati was caused by the latter’s refusal to pay tribute and his discourteous behavior towards his overlord’s representatives. But when Ramnad subsequently fell into disorder, and pilgrims to Rameswaram island complained about the lack of safety and demanded the Setupati’s return, Tirumalai Nayaka reappointed Dalavay.

The Maravas, and Sethupathi

Ramand was the home of the Maravars, a race of people noted for their martial traditions. Muthu Krishnappa Nayaka (1601-1609) of Madurai effected the settlement of the Marava country. He made Sadike Deva Udayan Selhupathi, the Viceroy of the Marava country. Thus, the Sethupathi was made the ruler of the Marava country, with delegated authority. By 1662, the Portuguese had managed to take over and settle down in the temple island of Rameswaram. It appears that a poet-saint Thayumanavar realized the danger of allowing the foreigners to hold Rameswaram. He came to Ramnad in December 1662. He persuaded a number of chiefs to rally around Ragunatha Sethupathi, and a formidable force of 30,000 maravas marched towards Rameswaram. The saint went in advance and asked the Portuguese to withdraw. The Portuguese captain was adamant. But soon the appearance of a Dutch fleet off Rameswaram convinced the captain to vacate. The Sethupathi was declared the protector of the Island.

We also note - Their ancient title of Setupati is connected directly with this honorable distinction, for in its meaning of “Lord of the Setu - the Causeway” it connotes the guardianship of the sea between Ceylon and India, and of Adam's Bridge, the line of islets and sandbanks connecting the islands of Rameswaram and Maanar. The Setupatis, in virtue of this guardianship, held possession also of the narrow channel, known as Pamban Pass, between Rameswaram Island and the mainland and levied dues on vessels passing through. The Setupati’s were also the hereditary head or Thevar of the Maravars.

The Setupati’s subsequent control of the channel and his closing of it when threatened, resulted in many more fights and wars. Like the Portuguese, the VOC also levied tolls at Pamban. Later interactions between them and the Dutch regarding the Pamban Channel is a topic we can get into; later, so also the subject of the Portuguese relations with the Travancore kings.

The British expansion of the channel

This channel was further enlarged in the nineteenth century by blasting. BR Branfill & JT Walker writing in the Journal of the Asiatic Society (vol47, Pt2) mention - Dr. Burnell tells me, he has a reliable Portuguese MS. of 1685, by a Captain J. Ribeiro, stating that there was then "no passage, except two narrow canals, one by Ramanacor and the other by Manar"; and that a small 'sumaca' only can pass by either at high water." At the present time, there is a single channel at Mannar answering this description, and none elsewhere, except the new passage at Pamban, which has been cut artificially through the rocky reef at a place where in quite recent times, the old built-stone causeway had been breached by storm waves (in 1484 and since) which also destroyed the adjacent town on the spit of land west of Pamban between Toni-turai and Vettilai Mandapam. The trade of Mannar was ruined by the cyclone of 1814 which made a breach in the Pamban reef; the breach was subsequently enlarged by the Indian Government to become the Pamban Channel.

Other trivia

Interestingly the modern Pamban bridge, was built using Moplah labor from Malabar, and that was damaged during the deadly cyclone in 1964, but was restored in just 46 days by a team led the Malayali engineer E Sreedharan, the ‘Metro Man’, the very person behind the Konkan rail, Kochi and Delhi Metro (and many others). India’s president the late APJ Abdul Kalam, a marakkar, was born & brought up in Rameswaram, and Kamalhasan the versatile actor was born in Ramnad.

The latest news is that efforts were being made to take up dredging of the Pamban channel to enable the movement of small vessels. The present minister explained that the aim was to deepen the channel by a further 10 meters, to facilitate the passage of small and medium vessels.

Sometime soon, I will cover the structure known variously as "The Adam’s bridge", the "Nala Sethu" or more commonly the 'Rama Sethu' link to Ceylon and a narrate a bit of history surrounding it.


The Nayakas of Madura – Rev Heras
Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
Maritime Asia: Profit Maximization, Ethics and Trade Structure -edited by Karl Anton Sprengard, Roderich Ptak
Studies on Portuguese Asia, 1495-1689 - George Davison Winius
Indian Pearl fisheries – James Hornell
Madras Journal of Literature and Science - Volume 6
Indian antiquary vol 45- The history of the Naik kingdom of Madura – V Rangachari
The heirs of Vijayanagara – Lennart Bes
Tamil Nadu District Gazetteers: Ramanathapuram

The Torn Earlobe and the Horsetrader 

Ottoman Calicut Links 

The Tamil bell mystery 

The Ceylon boat mail