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ETHNONYMS: Mudaliar, Pandaram, Pillaimar (Pillai), Velalar (Velalan)


Identification. The Vellala are a major agricultural caste who live in Tamil Nadu, a state of southern India. They speak Tamil and are Hindu. The Velama and Ballai castes of the neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, respectively, are believed to be historically related to the Vellala, but at present the three groups are separate and distinct. The Vellala are divided on a territorial basis and subdivided further into endogamous jatis or subcastes. As an integral part of an intercaste network, both ideologically and in daily life, Vellala culture is not an independent entity. It can be understood only in relation to other castes. The Vellala are a large heterogeneous category into which several upwardly mobile subcastes have successfully assimilated, at various points in time. They have done so by imitating a Vellala life-style. A popular saying throughout Tamil Nadu is: "Kallar, Maravar, Ahamudayar [three castes that rank lower than Vellala] gradually become Vellalar." Hence identity is a matter of great concern to "true" Vellala subcastes who take enormous pains to keep their purity intact through strict endogamy, extreme caution when forming marriage alliances, restrictions on women, and so forth. Broadly, the numerous Vellala subcastes constitute two major categories ranked Hierarchically. Usually a subcaste's name has a prefix denoting a place, a .further prefix, and an honorific suffix used in a particular Region, together forming a term such as "Tondaimandalam Kondaikatti Vellala Mudaliar."

Location. The Vellala live throughout Tamil Nadu. Different subcastes are localized in different regions. For example, Mudaliar subcastes are prominent in Tondaimandalam (with a concentration in Chinglepet), Choliya Pilli and Karkattar in Cholamandalam (concentrated in Thanjavur), Kongu Vellala or Kavundar in Kongumandalam (concentrated in Coimbatore), and Saiva Pillaimar, Karkattar, and Nangudi Vellala in Pandimandalam (concentrated in Madurai and Tirunelveli). In general, the first category of Vellala (who often call themselves vegetarian Vellala) predominate in the paddy-growing river-valley regions.

Demography. Since the Vellala are heterogeneous and live in multicaste environments, an estimate of the population is difficult. Current censuses do not provide statistics by caste. In some of the British period census reports, caste figures were given for some districts, and the Vellala constituted about 10 percent of the population. However, the criteria for defining Vellala seems to vary and there is no clear basis for interdistrict comparison.

Linguistic Affiliation. Among the living Dravidian Languages, Tamil has the oldest recorded history and classical literary tradition. It is closely related to Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, which are spoken in the neighboring states. (Dravidian languages are also spoken in small pockets in Central and eastern India, and in Pakistan.) The contemporary Tamil script is derived from the Brahmi script, which is also the source for the scripts of the Indo-Aryan Language Group. The Vellala speak a dialect that is common among high-caste non-Brahmans in Tamil Nadu. It is different from the highly Sanskritized language of the Brahmans and also from the Language of the lowest castes. The Vellala of different districts flavor their speech with the local dialects.

History and Cultural Relations

Most Vellala subcastes share broadly similar origin myths that stress their links with the soil as agriculturists (as contrasted with artisans), their origin in the Ganga (Gangetic Valley) and migration from northern to southern India during the distant past, and their close relationship with the three ancient Tamil dynastiesChera, Chola, and Pandyain spite of the Vellalas' ineligibility for kingship. There is fairly strong literary and archeological evidence linking core Vellala subcastes with a group of chieftains called velir; the earliest references are found in the Sangam literature (first to third century a.d.). Until about the fourteenth century a.d., the velir were prominent in the Tamil polity, economy, and society, and they have been linked with virtually all the major ruling dynasties. They were autonomous and collectively wielded significant political influence. Although ineligible to be crowned as kings, they were bride givers to the three "crowned" kings. They were active militarily but also had a strong base as landholders of fertile, paddy-growing tracts. They were celebrated for their large and lavish charities and for their patronage of literature and poetry. In the post-Sangam period, velir autonomy decreased, although they continued as feudatories, with key civic and military positions. Their position as a landed elite with military and administrative power continued through the subsequent periodsthe Nayak, the Nawab of Arcot, and the British. The Vellala served as revenue officers, temple trustees and managers, magistrates, administrative agents, rentiers, village chiefs, and village accountants. The literary sources on the Vellala make a distinction between those "who eat by plowing the land" and those "who eat by getting the land plowed (through others)." Even now, this distinction serves as an index of internal hierarchical differentiation.


The Vellala live in all the districts of the state and in both urban and rural areas. In the latter, the settlement pattern is typically multicaste villages. Depending on the region, the Vellala may be the dominant caste, may share dominance with another caste, or may be a minority. In villages along the river basins, where wet rice cultivation is prominent, the dominant caste is often Vellala (of either category). Within a Village, each Vellala subcaste, as indeed every subcaste, tends to live in a separate street. In larger villages and towns, this pattern gets blurred. There is no one distinct style of Vellala housing because house style is a function of wealth and location (rural or urban).


Most Vellala are engaged in agriculture full-time or as a side occupation. In areas of wet paddy cultivation, traditional techniques continue to be popular, both among small Peasants and among noncultivating landholders who lease out to tenants. However, use of high-yielding varieties of seeds and chemical fertilizers is quite widespread. Tenancy is less favored now, because of the difficulties of getting the land back from tenants, but the traditional norm of having men and women of Untouchable castes perform the major labor is still intact. Some mechanization has been introduced by large landowners who have stopped tenanting out and started Directly overseeing farming. Landholding Vellala had, in the past, an elaborate and complex patron-client relationship with subcastes who worked for themboth agricultural subcastes as well as artisan and service subcastes like priests, potters, barbers, etc. The relationship, in which economic and ritual dimensions are fused, approximates the jajmani Relations that have been documented for other regions in India. Elements of jajmani continue to the present day. In areas where the Vellala of the second category predominate, cash crops, peasant proprietorship, and commercial agriculture are more common and there is greater mechanization. Women from the first category do not work in the fields. In the Second, involvement with one's own family land is not unCommon, though working on another's field is considered undesirable and resorted to only in cases of extreme poverty. For various reasons, chief among which is the government's land reform policy, a sizable section of Vellala of the first category have taken to higher education and urban professional employment; however, they are less likely to enter entrepreneurial activities today than in the past.


Kin Groups and Descent. The predominant Hindu pattern of patrilineal, patrivirilocal kinship in descent, Inheritance, succession, and residence is the norm among the Vellala. Exceptions are the Nangudi Vellala and Kottai Pillaimar, who have matrilineal descent, patri-matrilineal Inheritance, and uxorilocal residence. Exogamous units called gotram, membership in which is traced from a common ancestor or place, are found in some subcastes of the first category. In other subcastes, the unit is called kilai. Members may be scattered over several villages. The local branch of the exogamous unit acts as a corporate entity for certain Economic and ceremonial functions.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow the Dravidian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygynous marriages were permitted and prevalent in the past, most marriages today are Monogamous. With a few urban exceptions, marriage is usually arranged by elders, although some expression of disapproval may be available to the youth. The Dravidian pattern of preferential cross-cousin (both matrilateral and patrilateral) and maternal uncle-niece marriage is strongly adhered to. A breach of this norm often leads to an acrimonious dispute Between families. Even traditionally, prepuberty or child Marriage was not prevalent. Widow remarriage is not approved of, although it is now legal. Traditionally, divorce was not permitted. Despite modifications in Hindu law, divorce is still infrequent.

Domestic Unit. Various degrees of complexity of the extended patrilocal household are found both across Vellala subcastes and within any single Vellala subcaste. The neolocal or nuclear household is not uncommon, but it is embedded within the matrix of patrilineal kinship. It is thus different in character from the Western ideal type of nuclearity. Although patrilineal kinship places women in a weak structural position, there are aspects of the kinship system that leaven this situation. Upon marrying, a woman may join a family already related and known to her, she often lives in her natal village, and her natal and affinal relatives are continually interacting; all of these factors support her position in the family.

Inheritance. This follows the general principle of classical Hindu law, where land and immovables are inherited by sons. Daughters are given a dowry at marriage. Sometimes women are given small gifts of land (manjal-kani ) but these are not treated as shares. One of the reasons for their strict endogamy and high rate of consanguineous marriage, say the Vellala, is their strong need to keep land in the family.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The relation of the Vellala to other castes as well as Vellala internal ideology must be understood as both influencing all aspects of Vellala economic, political, religious, and kinship activities. The schematic division of Indian society into four hierarchical varnas (castes) Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudradoes not accurately reflect the situation in Tamil Nadu. While the Brahmans rank at the top and the Untouchables or Scheduled Castes at the bottom, between these two extremes are a wide range of castes and subcastes whose exact standing in relation to one another depends on the region and the village. Generally, a distinction is made between "clean" non-Brahmans, who adopt a Sanskritized life-style, and the others. The former are vegetarians, do not drink alcohol, eschew manual labor Including plowing (if they are agriculturalists), and have very conservative attitudes and customs regarding women. The other category of upper non-Brahmans conforms to the Kshatriya ideal, which emphasizes manual strength, a land base, command over labor, political authority, more interaction with other castes, and so on. Although there is a greater emphasis on warriorlike qualities than on ritual status, Concern with women's purity is high, especially in groups that were connected to royal dynasties of the past. In the twofold division of the Vellala, the second category (e.g., Kavundar, Nangudi Vellala, Tuluva Vellala) falls clearly into the Kshatriya model. The first category (e.g., Kondaikatti Vellala, Karkattar, Saiva Pillaimar) combines aspects of the two models: (1) high ritual status expressed through strict rules of interdining and intermarriage (according to a popular proverb, the Vellala are more orthodox than Brahmans), and (2) land base and political visibility (in traditional society). Thus the two Vellala categories occupy different structural positions in the social order.

Political Organization. The Vellala were, in the past, prominent in political networks constituted by the court, temple, and caste councils. They maintained their Dominance through endowments to temples, charity to the poor, and patronage of the labor and service castes. In attempting to convert this prominence to secular political status, they have had mixed success. Often, they have been pushed out by lower castes, whose collective ethnic identity is perhaps stronger. The Vellalas' internal hierarchies and their fixed ideological positions have in part prevented the development of a unified political identity. One occasion when such an identity did develop was in the early twentieth century when the census classified the Vellala as Sudra. The Vellala responded angrily by citing evidence that as agriculturists they rightly belonged to the third varna (i.e., Vaisya). At about the same time, a journal, Vellālan, was also published for some years, focusing on the problems of the community and the need for educational and occupational advancement. Today many Vellala subcastes have their own associations, which are more social than political. The Justice party of Tamil Nadu, formed early in this century, was mainly a reaction to Brahman social and political domination. Considerable early support for the party came from Vellala subcastes. However, later developments based on Tamil linguistic identity (as exemplified by the D.K. and D.M.K. movements), blurred the distinctive Vellala component. In the state as a whole, the Vellala are politically weak, though they are very active in Certain districts.


Religious Beliefs. A small minority of Vellala are Christians, via individual conversion rather than mass conversion of an entire subcaste. The majority are Hindu, and the operative principles of Hinduism pervade all spheres of life and activity. Although there is a division between Shaivites (followers of Shiva) and Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu) there is no bar on intermarriage. While squarely within the orthodox Hindu tradition, the Vellala look to Tamil/indigenous forms in devotion, metaphysics, and philosophy. Thus Shaiva Siddhanta, a respected religious and philosophic system with Vellala as main figures, ultimately stresses Brahmanic values. However, the sources and metaphors are drawn from a Tamil cultural base. At one point in its history, Shaiva Siddhanta was used as a political weapon against Brahman domination. The Vellala owe allegiance to different mathams (apex religious organizations) that are wealthy, landed, and influential. The Vellala also maintain traditional links to the classical (Sanskritic) temples as trustees, donors, and receivers of Temple honors.

Ceremonies. The Vellala cycle of worship and festivals includes forms of worship of deities and other folk goddesses/non-Sanskritic deities associated with lower castes. Vellalas' involvement is structured in such a way that their ritual status is not compromised, while the demands of powerful Indigenous traditions are satisfied. Either a Brahman priest or a Vellala priest called a gurukkal can officiate. Life-cycle Ceremonies are generally as prescribed for upper castes. The rules of purity and pollution for birth, menstruation, and death are elaborate. The grammar of these rules indicates the rank of Vellala as being immediately below that of Brahmans. The mantra (incantations in Sanskrit) component is relatively abbreviated, but the public display of status during Ceremoniesespecially puberty, wedding, and funeral ritualsis very important and includes large-scale feeding of relatives, service and labor castes, and the poor.

See also Tamil; Tamil of Sri Lanka


Arokiaswami, M. (1954). The Early History of the Vellar Basin. Madras: Amudha Nilayam.

Arunachalam, M. (1975). "A Study of the Culture and History of the Karkattar." Bulletin of the Institute of Traditional Cultures January-June: 1-72.

Barnett, Stephen A. (1970). "The Structural Position of a South Indian CasteKontaikkatti Velalars in Tamilnadu." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Beck, Brenda E. F. (1972). Peasant Society in Konku: A Study of Right and Left Subcastes in South India. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Ponnambalam, M., ed. (1932-1933). Velālan (Tuticorin) [Tamil journal].

Thurston, Edgar, and Kadamki Rangachari (1909). "Vellala." In Castes and Tribes of Southern India, edited by Edgar Thurston and Kadamki Rangachari. Vol. 7, 361-389. Madras: Government Press. Reprint. 1975. New Delhi: Cosmos Publications.