The Vanniyar are a community or jāti found in Southern India.
Several etymologyies for Vanniyar have been suggested, including the Sanskrit vahni ("fire"), the Dravidian val ("strength"), or the Sanskrit or Pali vana ("forest"). Another theory is that they are named for the vanni tree which they held sacred.
In the 19th century the Vanniyar held a low position in both Lower Burma and in South India.[page needed] For example, Dharma Kumar refers to several early 19th century authors who describe the Palli in South India as being higher than untouchables,[page needed] while Michael Adas says that in Burma the Palli were "socially better off" than the untouchable castes but were "economically equally exploited and deprived".
Researcher Lloyd I. Rudolph notes that as early as 1833, the Palli filed a claim in Pondicherry to prove they were not a low caste, and in preparation for the 1871 Indian census they petitioned to be recognised as being of the Kshatriya (warrior) varna of Hindu society. By 1931, due to their successful politicking, the term Palli was removed from the Madras census, with the term Vanniya Kula Kshatriya appearing instead.
The Vanniyar formed a number of caste organisations, with the Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam appearing in Chennai in 1888.
Traditionally most Vanniyars are agricultural labourers. Increasingly however, they are benefiting from political influence and organization and they now own 50% of the lands of the traditional landowners. The Vanniyars were classified as the Most Backward Caste after successful agitations in the 1980s. Vanniyars are the single largest community in Tamil Nadu.
Many castes today claim descent from Malayaman. Dennis B. McGilvray states "Malayaman is a section of the Udaiyar caste in South Arcot today, but Burton Stein also finds the title in a thirteenth-century inscription identifying Vanniyar subcastes of South Arcot in the left-right caste classification typical of the Chola empire."
Noboru Karashima believes that epigraphic evidence proves that leaders of the Kadava dynasty were Vanniyar by caste. He says "We have three more inscriptions of Kulottungachola Kadavarayan, which are found in Viriddhachalam (SII, vii-150: SA, 1148), Srimushnam (ARE, 1916-232: 1152), and Tirunarunkondai (SITI-74:SA, 1156). In the first two he is described as a Palli". Karashima also refers to other Kadava chiefs, being Kachchiyarayan, Cholakon and Nilagangaraiyan.
Karashima says "From the above it is clear that the Kadava chiefs, who were Pallis (Vanniyars) by jati and had estabilished their power in Gadilam River area."
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