Last updated

The Vanniyar, also spelled Vanniya, [1] who were once known as the Palli, are a community or jāti found in Southern India.



Several etymologies for Vanniyar have been suggested, including the Sanskrit vahni ("fire"), [2] [3] the Dravidian val ("strength"), [4] or the Sanskrit or Pali vana ("forest"). [5] The term Palli is widely used to describe them but is considered to be derogatory. [6]

Alf Hiltebeitel notes that the Vanniyars derive their caste name from Vahni. Vahni itself is thought to yield the Tamil word Vanni (fire), which is also a Tamil name for an important tree. [3] The connection to the sage leads to further associations with mythological legends. [7]

Historical status

Hiltebeitel, who classifies the Vanniyar as Shudra in the Hindu varna system, notes that South Indian society traditionally recognised neither the Kshatriya (warrior) nor Vaishya (provider) varnas, being divided instead between Brahmins on the one hand and Shudras and untouchables on the other. Nonetheless, communities in the region frequently sought to prove a historic higher status, based on myth or occasionally probable history. He notes that "traditions of demotion from a once higher rank are a commonplace of South Indian caste mythologies". [8] Researcher Lloyd I. Rudolph notes that as early as in 1833, the Vanniyar, who were then known as Pallis, had ceased to accept their "low caste" status, [9] also described as being Shudra by Christophe Jaffrelot and Kathleen Gough. [10] [11] Gough, however, documenting her fieldwork of 1951-53, records the Palli and the Vanniyar as separate but similar cultivating castes. [11] [lower-alpha 1]

The Pallis tried to get an order in Pondicherry that by descent they were not a low agricultural caste. In preparation for the 1871 Indian census they petitioned to be recognised as being of the Kshatriya varna. [9] They formed a number of caste organisations using their preferred name, with the Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam appearing in Madras in 1888 [13] and extending state-wide in 1952. [14] [lower-alpha 2] By 1931, due to their successful politicking (a process known as sanskritisation), the term Palli was removed from the Madras census, with the term Vanniya Kula Kshatriya appearing instead. [9] The reinvention of their history through sanskritisation, and thus the change in their status to Vanniyar rather than Palli, was evidenced in the community adopting such practices as vegetarianism and prohibiting the remarriage of widows, [15] and what Rudolph terms a "radically revisionist history" was supported by claims of descent from the ancient Pallava dynasty. [9]

According to Hiltebeitel, whilst the mythological claims of origin from the fire lend credence to their demand for being deemed as Khatriyas, the claims to military origins and Kshatriya identity did not solely rely on myths. He notes that they had historically adopted various titles and terms that signified a self-image of Kshatriya status, including the Vanniyar name itself, and that

beyond linguistic indicators ... The Vanniyars' Kshatriya claims are rooted in their history. There is, to begin with, no reason to discount the ... traditions that Vanniyars formed an important part of the Pallava soldiery. And after the Pallava period there is increasing evidence of Vanniyars assuming "Kshatriya" roles and activities. [16]

The caste has also been significant in the practices of the Draupaudi cult, together with the Konars and Vellalar Mudaliars, and quite possibly were the instigators of it, with the other two communities being later adopters. [3]

In addition to domestic slavery there were number of agricultural labor relationships. According to Ravi Ahuja, Paraiyar or Palli farmhands sometimes called pannaiyals were collectively bound to their home village soil. Pallis mobility was severely restricted but the powers exercised by their masters were also limited such slaves cannot be expelled or transferred to another village, even if the masters left the region themselves. As Dharma Kumar, argues the term slavery does not adequately describe the many forms of bondage existing with in the traditional agrarian society. Caste involved a number of criteria slavery like criteria like restriction of freedom, forced labor and ownership. [17]


Rudolph noted that, although "necessarily tentative" because of being based on figures from the 1931 census, the Vanniyars in the 1980s constituted around 10 per cent of the population of Tamil Nadu, being particularly prevalent in the northernmost districts of Chingelput, North Arcot, South Arcot and Salem, where they formed around 25 per cent of the population. [9] Traditionally, most Vanniyars are agricultural labourers but they are increasingly benefiting from political influence and organisation and they now own 50 per cent of the lands of the traditional landowners. The Vanniyars who previously were of the Backward Class category, were now designated as a Most Backward Caste after successful agitations by them in the 1980s. The reason for the agitation and subsequent re-classification was to avail more government benefits for the community. [18]

The Pattali Makkal Katchi political party was formed from the Vanniyar Sangam, a caste association. It has been known on occasion for its violent protests against Dalit people. [19]

Notable people

See also

Related Research Articles

Kshatriya is one of the four varna of Hindu society, associated with warriorhood. The Sanskrit term kṣatriyaḥ is used in the context of Vedic society wherein members were organised into four classes: brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra.

Shudra or Shoodra is one of the lowest of the four varnas of the Hindu social order in India. Various sources translate it into English as a caste, or alternatively as a social class. It is the lowest rank of the four varnas.

Draupadi main female character in the Indian epic Mahabharata

Draupadi, also referred as Panchalī, is one of the most important females in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. She was the daughter of King Drupada of Panchal, and wife of the Pandavas who fought their cousins, the Kauravas in the great Kurukshetra War. She had five sons who were collectively addressed as the Upapandavas.

Varṇa, a Sanskrit word with several meanings including type, order, colour or class, was used to refer to social classes in Hindu texts like the Manusmriti. These and other Hindu texts classified the society in principle into four varnas:

Sanskritisation or Sanskritization is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which caste or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. It is a process similar to passing in sociological terms. This term was made popular by Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s. According to Christophe Jaffrelot a similar heuristic is described in Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development by B. R. Ambedkar. Jaffrelot goes on to say, "While the term was coined by Srinivas, the process itself had been described by colonial administrators such as E. T. Atkinson in his Himalayan Gazetteer and Alfred Lyall, in whose works Ambedkar might well have encountered it."

Gingee Fort fort

Gingee Fort or Senji Fort ( Marathi: जिंजी किल्ला ) in Tamil Nadu, India is one of the surviving forts in Tamil Nadu, India. It lies in Villupuram District, 160 kilometres (99 mi) from the state capital, Chennai, and is close to the Union Territory of Puducherry. The fort is so fortified, that Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha king, ranked it as the "most impregnable fortress in India" and it was called the "Troy of the East" by the British. The nearest town with a railway station is Tindivanam and the nearest airport is Chennai (Madras), located 150 kilometres (93 mi) away.

In Indian culture, the Agnivanshi are people who claim descent from Agni, the Vedic god of fire. The Agnivanshi lineage is one of the three lineages into which the Rajput clans are divided, the others being the Suryavanshi and the Chandravanshi. According to medieval legends, there are four Agnivanshi clans: Chauhans (Chahamanas), Parihars (Pratiharas), Parmars (Paramaras) and Solankis (Chaulukyas).

The Akananuru, sometimes called Netuntokai, is a classical Tamil poetic work and one of the Eight Anthologies (Ettuthokai) in the Sangam literature. It is a collection of 400 love poems with invocatory poem dedicated to Shiva. The collected poems were composed by 144 poets, except 3 poems which are by anonymous author(s). The poems range between 13 and 31 lines, and are long enough to include more details of the subject, episode and its context. According to Kamil Zvelebil – a Tamil literature and history scholar, they are "one of the most valuable collections" from ancient Tamil history perspective.

Iravan minor character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata

Iravan / Aravan, also known as Iravat and Iravant, is a minor character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The son of Pandava prince Arjuna and the Naga princess Ulupi, Iravan is the central deity of the cult of Kuttantavar which is also the name commonly given to him in that cult—and plays a major role in the cult of Draupadi. Both these cults are of Tamil origin, from a region of the country where he is worshipped as a village deity and is known as Aravan. He is also a patron god of well-known transgender communities called ThiruNangai.

Draupati Amman

Draupati Amman is a goddess from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, namely Draupadi, primarily worshipped by the Tamil people of India, Sri Lanka and other countries. Draupati was the wife of the five Pandava brothers in the Mahābhārata epic. She is also greatly believed to be the incarnation of Hindu goddess Mariamman.

Kōnār is an ethnic group from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They were traditionally held to be a pastoral community involved in cattle cultivation, who are otherwise also known as Ayar and Idaiyar, and who appear in the ancient Sangam literature as occupants of the Mullai .. However, historically they have held positions such as kings and chieftains.


Terukkuttu is a Tamil street theatre form practised in Tamil Nadu state of India and Tamil-speaking regions of Sri Lanka. Terukuttu is a form of entertainment, a ritual, and a medium of social instruction. The terukkuttu plays various themes. One theme is from the Tamil language versions of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, focusing on the character Draupadi. The terms Terukkuttu and Kattaikkuttu are often used interchangeably in the modern times; however, historically the two terms appear to have distinguished, at least in certain villages, between two different kinds of performance: while Terukkuttu referred to mobile performances in a procession, Kattaikkuttu denotes overnight, narrative performances at a fixed performance space.

Vanniar or Vanniyar was a title borne by chiefs in medieval Sri Lanka who ruled in the Chiefdom of Vanni regions as tribute payers to the Jaffna vassal state. There are a number of origin theories for the feudal chiefs, coming from an indigenous formation. The most famous of the Vanni chieftains was Pandara Vannian, known for his resistance against the British colonial power.

Yadav Indo-Aryan people

Yadav refers to a grouping of traditionally mainly non-elite, peasant-pastoral communities or castes in India that since the 19th and 20th centuries have claimed descent from the mythological king Yadu as a part of a movement of social and political resurgence.

Aasaan Guru or Acharyan

Aasaan or Asan is a Malayalam/Tamil word meaning teacher or guide.

Iconography of Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu is governed by the Shaiva Agamas (IAST:Āgama) that revere the ultimate reality as the Hindu deity, Shiva. Āgama in the Hindu religious context means a traditional doctrine or system which commands faith. Temple worship according to Āgamic rules can be said to have started during the Pallava dynasty in South India, but they were fully under establishment during the Chola dynasty The temples during the Chola period expanded to Sri Lanka and islands in South East Asia. The temple complex was expanding with niches for various deities on the stipulated sides of the sanctum. Lingam was universalised and prakarams (precincts) with subsequent deities came up. The temple parivara(deities related to primary deity) expanded considerably during the Chola period. The niches of following Āgamic rules for building Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state continues even in the modern era. Some of the prime images like that of lingam, Vinayagar and Parvati are present in all the Shiva temples. Almost all the temples follow the same custom during festivals and worship methods with minor exceptions. Most of the Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are built in Dravidian architecture.

Three Crowned Kings triumvirate of Chola, Chera and Pandya who dominated the politics of the ancient Tamil country, Tamilakam in southern India

The Three Crowned rulers, or the Three Glorified by Heaven, or World of the Three, primarily known as Moovendhar, refers to the triumvirate of Chera, Chola and Pandya who dominated the politics of the ancient Tamil country, Tamilakam, from their three Nadu (countries) of Chola Nadu, Pandya Nadu and Chera Nadu in southern India. They signalled a time of integration and political identity for the Tamil people. They would frequently wage war against one another under a period of instability until the Imperial period of Rajaraja I who united Tamilakam under one leadership.

Alfred John Hiltebeitel is Columbian Professor of Religion, History, and Human Sciences at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA. His academic specialism is in ancient Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, together with Indian religious tradition and folklore.

Chenjiamman or Senjiamman (kamalakaniamman) is the guardian deity of Gingee. Her shrine sits atop the Rajagiri hillock in the Gingee Fort.

Senji Singavaram Ranganatha Temple

The Senji Singavaram Ranganatha Temple is a cave-temple in India dedicated to God Ranganatha and Goddess Ranganayaki Thayar. The temple is a Pallava period structure, and was patronized by subsequent rulers.



  1. Aside from distinguishing the Palli and Vanniyar, Gough also distinguishes the Padaiyacchi cultivating caste, [11] which other scholars consider to be a synonym for Vanniyar. [12]
  2. The creation of new names such as Agnikula Kshatriya and Vannikula Kshatriya during the period of sanskritisation was an attempt to take ownership of the Agnivanshi fire myth. [9]


  1. Rudolph, Lloyd I.; Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber (1967). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. p. 49. ISBN   978-0-226-73137-7.
  2. Dewaraja, Lorna Srimathie (1972). A study of the political, administrative, and social structure of the Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1760. Lake House Investments. p. 189.
  3. 1 2 3 Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 35. ISBN   9788120810006.
  4. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The Cult of Draupadī: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN   978-81-208-1000-6.
  5. Gopalakrishnan, Subramanian (1988). The Nayaks of Sri Lanka, 1739-1815: Political Relations with the British in South India. New Era Publications. p. 134.
  6. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN   9788120810006.
  7. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 36. ISBN   9788120810006.
  8. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 33–34. ISBN   9788120810006.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Rudolph, Lloyd I. (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. pp. 49–52. ISBN   978-0-226-73137-7.
  10. Jaffrelot, Christophe (4 May 2012). Rise of the Plebeians?: The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies. p. 447. ISBN   9781136516610.
  11. 1 2 3 Gough, Kathleen (1981). Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University press. pp. 24, 437. ISBN   9780521040198.
  12. Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2017). Historical dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 264. ISBN   978-1-53810-685-3.
  13. Chockalingam, Joe Arun (2007). Constructing Dalit Identity. Rawat Publications. p. 43. ISBN   978-81-316-0081-8.
  14. Barnett, Marguerite Ross (2015). The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton University Press. p. 85. ISBN   978-1-40086-718-9.
  15. Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. C. Hurst & Co. pp. 183–184. ISBN   978-1-85065-670-8.
  16. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN   9788120810006.
  17. Andrea Major (2012). Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843 . History. Oxford University Press. pp.  33. palli slaves.
  18. Gorringe, Hugo (2012). "Caste and politics in Tamil Nadu". India Seminar.
  19. "Senior Ramadoss arrested". The Telegraph. 1 May 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2018.

Further reading