Karaiyar, also known as Karayar, Karaiar or Kurukulam, is traditionally both a seafaring and warrior caste found in the Tamil Nadu state of India, coastal areas of Sri Lanka, and globally among the Tamil diaspora.
The Karaiyar, along with Parvatharajakulam, Paravar and Mukkuvar, are one of the oldest groups of the coastal region of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. They are predominantly found in the area known as Coromandel Coast. These three seafaring related social groups are regionally distributed, with each group dominating a certain coastal belt. Seafaring activities include trading, coastal fishing, and naval activities. They are mentioned by Ptolemy as Kareoi – the tribe inhabiting the eastern coast that once extended south of Cape Comari in ancient Tamilakam. In Tamil, Karaiyar means "coast men".
Karaiyar culture in Ceylon has historically extolled Corsican virtues of refined far-sighted justice along with martial courage and defiance against foreign impositions. Karaiyar are also found north of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu and well into the Andhra Pradesh coastal areas. Moreover, there has been significant intermarriage among the Karaiyar,Paravar and Marawar castes, other warrior castes of Tamil Nadu. The ancient coinage and flags of the Pandyan dynasties had as their most significant symbol that of the Carp, in reference to their maritime origins and whose seafaring led to trade with the Greeks and the Romans. They had an expansive and powerful empire, holding sway and dominating South India and Ceylon, and at one point in time, one of the Pandyan dynasties was in power continuously for six centuries. Some of their descendants, reside in the Karaiyar Caste, quite unaware of their bloodline, history, and descent, unfortunately through the ravages of time and internecine wars, but evident through its not so infrequent atavisms.
A significant part of this community came to consist of the traditional warrior and naval community of Sri Lanka, which were disempowered after the fall of the northern and southern kingdoms to Europeans. For more information about the corresponding martial caste of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, see Karava.
Karaiyars have traditionally been naval warriors, but engaged in activities related to boat building, overseas trading, and fishing during peacetime. They have also provided mercenary forces and considered most valorous by local kings in India and Sri Lanka. A great many of them after foreign impositions by Europeans (18th century CE) led lives as coastal fishermen and a significant minority became petty and wealthy chiefs and merchants in both countries.
Along with South Indian groups such as the Pandyans, who historically claim a lineage of the Pandavas according to tradition, it appears Kurukulam comes from the Kurus in Mahabharata and Kshatriya origin. The concept of Sanskritisation has been widely discredited, as phylogenetically and culturally, members of the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan groups have been mixing and similarly the lexicons and myths, since 200 BCE at the very latest.
Position in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, where Tamils form over 10% of the country's total population. Nevertheless, Catholicized Karaiyar have made up a significant portion of the police force and navy, proportionally of any caste during British rule. Amongst the Sinhalese, Karaiyar's are known as the Karave. The British rule promoted the more numerous, commercial, and obedient caste, namely the Vellalars (farming and agricultural caste), to positions of civil power(see Caste in Sri Lanka), at the expense of the Karaiyar's. Analysis of family names and traditions of Karave in Sri Lanka indicates that it has accepted within its fold many indigenous and migrant peoples from India and abroad.
Karaiyar and their politics
The Karaiyar amongst Sri Lankan Tamils form a large part of the Tamil rebel group LTTE who took up arms following introduction of legislation that targeted the Tamils of Ceylon soon after the country gained its independence from Britain. Karave are also very vocal about their Sinhala Buddhist identity and are involved in nationalistic political parties such as the SLFP and JVP.
- [Franklin C. Southworth] (1979). "Lexical evidence for early contacts between Indo-Aryans and Dravidans". Aryan and non-Aryan in India (ed. M. Deshpande & P. Hook).
- RAGHAVAN, M. D., The Karava of Ceylon - Society and Culture, K. V. G. de Silva, 1961.
- Karaiyar in the service of Jaffna Kingdom
- Tamil militarism of Karaiyar due to Maravar mixing in Jaffna by late journalist Taraki Sivaram