Vanniar or Vannia (alt. sp. Vanniyar) (Tamil: வன்னியர்) is a title of a feudal chief in medieval Sri Lanka who ruled the Vannimai regions as tribute payers to the Jaffna kingdom. They were intermittently subdued by other powers before being recovered. Vanniar is recorded as that of a name of a caste amongst Sri Lankan Tamils in the Vanni District of northern Sri Lanka during the early 1900s. It is no longer used as a name of a caste or as chiefs in Sri Lanka. There are number of origin theories for the feudal chiefs - connected to the Koneswaram shrine, as the Vanniyar caste coming from modern Tamil Nadu state or as an indigenous formation. The most famous of the Vanni chieftains was Pandara Vannian, known for his resistance against the British colonial power.
Medieval Tamil chronicles such as the 18th century Yalpana Vaipava Malai and stone inscriptions like Konesar Kalvettu recount that the Chola royal Kankan, a descendant of the legendary King Manu Needhi Cholan of Thiruvarur, Chola Nadu, restored the Koneswaram temple at Trincomalee and the Kantalai tank after finding them in ruins. He visited the Munneswaram temple on the west coast, before settling ancient Vanniars in the east of the island. According to the chronicles, he extensively renovated and expanded the shrine, lavishing much wealth on it; he was crowned with the ephitet Kulakottan meaning Builder of tank and temple. Further to the reconstruction, Kulakottan paid attention to agriculture cultivation and economic development in the area, inviting the Vanniar chief Tanniuna Popalen and families to a new founded town in the area including Thampalakamam to maintain the Kantalai tank and the temple itself. The effects of this saw the Vanni region flourish. The Vanniar claim descent from this chief. Modern historians and anthropologists agree as historically factual the connection of the Vanniars with the Konesar temple, and some cite epigraphical evidence to date Kullakottan's renovations to 432-440 CE. Others cite poetic and inscriptional evidence to date his renovations to 1589 BCE. Following the re-rise of the Tamil kingdom in the medieval period and demise of the classical Sinhalese kingdom period post twelfth century AD, many petty chiefs took power in the buffer lands between the northern based Jaffna Kingdom and other Kingdoms based on the Southwest of the Island namely Kotte Kingdom and the Kandyan Kingdom. These petty chiefs paid tribute to the Jaffna Kingdom. Sometimes they were independent of any central control or subdued by the southern kingdoms during the European colonial era for strategical purposes. The ruling class was composed of multi ethnic and multi caste origins. Some according primary sources such as Yalpana Vaipava Malai were descended from Vanniar caste immigrants from modern Tamil Nadu whereas others were clearly of Mukkuva origins. There were also number of Vannia chiefs of Sinhalese ancestry. Many kings and chiefs with titles such as Vannian or Vannia had ruled in northern areas of modern Sri Lanka termed as Vannimai during the Jaffna Kingdom era.
As a caste
As a caste it is no longer registered amongst northern Sri Lankan Tamils but in the 1900s it was present singly in the North and North Central provinces. During the subsequent period it assimilated as part of the local Vellalar, Govigama and other similar positioned castes.
The Tamil primary sources derive the name from the similarly named and militarily important Vanniar caste of modern South India whereas some Sri Lankan historians derive these titles independent of Indian based Vanniar caste amongst both Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese from the Tamil and Sinhalese for forest, namely Vanna and a Vannia or Wannia as a person from the forest and Vannimais were large tracks of forest lands. (see Wanniyala-Aetto)
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