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Nattars were an administrative body in the Tamil kingdoms of Chola, Pandya and Pallava, who had the right to sell and purchase land, and make them tax-free whenever such a request was made. Nattar generally meant an official of an area called nadu.
The institution of the nattar was well-defined. It was in charge of all matters pertaining to a village, including water-management. It was noted that: "If ruling class is taken to mean those with the power and authority to manage community resources, then the nattar was this class in Tamil country".
Dr R Kalaikkovan and Dr M Nalini studied eighty three inscriptions from various parts of the temple complex of Saptarishisvara at Thiruthavathurai (Lalgudi, Trichy District). A seventeenth regnal year inscription of Jatavarman Sundarapandiya records that the nattar of Pandikulasani valanadu and Vadakarai Rajaraja valanadu exempted taxes on certain lands which were given to the temple for lamps, offerings and festivals. Another inscription presents the name of a nattar accountant as Muththaiyil Udaiyan. It was noted that despite the role of the nattars as an administrative body, their modus operandi was not clear.
The book Feudalism and Non-European Societies by TJ Byres and Harbans Mukhia, speaks of Tamil peasant militias in the Chola kingdom domains as stratified peasant groups with dominance exercised by one group identified with the nadu locality as a nattar. From the nattars, one lineage provided chiefs called araiyar of the locality. Settlements within the nadu included centres of commerce called nagaram (resided in by nagarathars) and settlements supporting brahmanical functions called brahmadeya (resided in by brahmins). The nattars were the highest of the peasant groups with entitlement (called kani) to the major share (called melvaram) of the agrarian production. While ordinary peasant families were suggested to have received minor entitlement (called kudivaram), the field labourers had no fixed share. All these groups were ranked and had endogamous groupings, the highest of which claimed a status of purity and learning as sat shudra, with the lowest being regarded as polluting to the touch.
Ceremonial establishments of brahmin villages in the nadus to pursue dharmic ends were important in effecting links beyond the nadu. The brahmadeyas of different nadus created a network of ritual specialists and in doing so fortified the standing of the nattar upon whose patronage this depended. As per Arun Majumder in Structural Evolution of Indian Economy, whenever the Chola overlords failed to reward its rural base of clients, that is, the nattars, the system began to corrode from within. That was because, apart from various administrative functions, the jobs of temple construction and giving landgrants to brahmins depended on the nattar.
Shanti Jayewardene-Pillai notes in her work Imperial Conversations (page 30):
“The local counterparts of the new British elite were the nattars whose economic interests included agriculture, trade and production. Nattars were influential city patrons...” Their social life was captured in the work, Sarva Deva Vilasa, a eulogy to the city life of merchant princes, written around 1800. “Nattars were cultured high caste vellalars or brahmins with reputations gained from local social status and service to indigenous regimes. They played an important role as representative of multi-skilled jathis, collective bargaining / kinship bodies, at the higher councils or the nadus”.
“Nattars were of orthodox religion, supported temples and patronised Sanskrit learning and the arts. Although they maintained homes in Madras and FSG (a privilege only accorded to influentital Indians), their village links were never severed. Individuals like Manali Mudaliya were owners of extensive tracts of land in the city, but most seemed to prefer smaller suburban gardens in the older temple centres or villages outside the city wall. In the city, Pachaiyappa Mudaliar and his friends lived in the leafy exclusive residential suburb of Komaleswaram Kovil on the banks of Cooum River. Nattars travelled regularly to their country homes to fulfil their traditional duties, kaniyatchi associated with dominion over land.
The Tamil identity, high social status and intimate knowledge of diplomacy and local social and political networks made the nattars indispensable to the Company as its administrative role expanded. Some Telugu and Maratha Brahmins, with kaniyatchi status, served as agents in the revenue administration of the Carnatic and offered their skills to the British. Members of such establishment families served on the Madras Council that governed the city.”
Niels Brimnes wrote in Constructing the Colonial Encounter (page 157):
In the early days of the 19th century the offices of the nattar and desayi appear as important institutions of leadership within the right hand division. The nattars were village headmen and came from agricultural communities, such as the Vellalas. The desayi constituted a kind of petty chief in some areas and the office was closely associated with the Telugu community of Balijas. Transformed into the urban context of Madras, these offices seem to have been primarily concerned with questions of caste. In early 19th century Madras, the office of nattar was held by the Vellala Arnachellum Mudali. Apparently the co-existence of these two offices did not give rise to any problems. Instead, the established positions of leadership were challenged from outside.
Nattar as a title was used by several castes, groups and communities.
The book, Castes and Tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thurston and K Rangachari, states that 12,000 individuals returned themselves as Nattan in the census of 1901. They called it a "vague term meaning people of the country, reported by some to be a main caste and by others to be a sub-caste of Vellala". Nearly all of them who returned the name were cultivators from Salem possessing the title of Servai, which usually denotes an Agamudaiyan.
Thurston and Rangachari noted that the term was also used as a title of the Sembadavan and Pattanavan fishing castes,
In the old times, the Mudali community was engaged in village administration, the Pillai community in village accounting, the Maravar community in policing villages, the Brahmin community in education and the Chetty community in trading. Individuals from these communities were said to have been designated as a Nattar or Saandror, as a terminology or designation for an "eminent personality".
Kanakalatha Mukund in his book The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant, noted the presence of a caste / class called Mahanattar in Pondicherry.
Usage in later times
The book The New Cambridge History of India (by Gordon Johnson, Christopher Alan Bayly, JF Richards, pg.78), noted of work by Karashima where they wrote of local chiefs known as Vanniyars who ruled in the middle parts of the river basin of the Vellar valley. In the 15th century, they were independent as an authority and in addition to their ancient title of Nattar, they added the more fashionable Tamil equivalent of a Nayaka as Nayanar.
In the 18th century, the Vallambars of Karaikudi, helped the Maruthu brothers fight many wars against the British. The Vallambars were subsequently declared rulers of Karaikudi and 15 other villages, or one pallayam (also see: Poligars), by the Shivagangai King. Vallambars were then given the surname Amballam and came to be known as Pallaya Nattars or the citizens of Pallaya Nadu.
According to the Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India by Burton Stein (page 110), during the 19th century, Kallars were divided into 10 endogamous divisions by territory (nadu). And during the same century, within each Kallar locality, one Kallar sub-division was accorded the title of Nattar and assumed a dominant place in the society.
In the Madras Presidency, the East India Company employed Nattars to collect land revenue. Like other land-owners in South India (known as Mirasidars), the Nattars employed padiyals and pannaiyals (workers), and claimed on their behalf the right to a share of the harvest. Before the grain on the threshing floor was divided between the state share (melvaram) and the cultivator’s share (kutivaram), several deductions were made, including one for the paraiyar, padiyals and pannaiyals. This share was known as tuṇạu (remnant) or kalavāsam (Tamil “kal ̣avācam”).
- Ancient Tamil country
- Kallar (caste)
- "Political history of Thirutthavatthurai and it's neighbourhood".
- Ecole pratique des hautes études. Contributions to Indian Sociology.
- Irfan Habib, Tapan Raychaudhuri, Dharma Kumar, Meghnad Jagdishchandra Desai. The Cambridge Economic History of India.
- TJ Byres and Harbans Mukhia. Feudalism and Non-European Societies.
- Cadambi Minakshi (1938). Administration and social life under the Pallavas.
- B. Sheikh Ali and H. V. Sreenivasa Murthy (1990). Essays on Indian History and Culture.