Vellalar of Sri Lanka
Vellalar amongst Sri Lankan Tamils are a dominant group of formerly agricultural landlord related caste from Sri Lanka that is found amongst all walks of life and around the world as part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.
What is certain is that the Sri Lankan Tamil Vellalar identity rose amongst those who migrated from neighbouring Tamil Nadu state in India since the 13th century. According to Yalpana Vaipava Malai, a native chronicle, written in the 18th century, which narrates the history of the establishment and the fall of the Jaffna kingdom in Sri Lanka, from its establishment in the 13th century to its fall in the early 17th century, many Vellalar chiefs from Tamil Nadu were responsible for organizing settlement groups from India into the Jaffna peninsula. Most of these pioneering families had titles associated with clan chiefs such as "Rayan", Thevan", "Mudali", "Mappanan" and "Malavan".(for Tamil language version see here)
Yalpana Vaipava Malai explains in details the names and places of origin of some of these Vellala lineage founders. One was of ethnic Tuluva origin whereas others were of mercantile Chetty caste. Some had independent wealth from India, yet others were known for the fighting abilities. In total it explains a settlement pattern of pioneering people from South India under influence of an independent Jaffna kingdom who although mostly of Vellala origin but also had other origins.
Rise to dominance
During the Jaffna kingdom period and the following colonial period since the 16th century, Vellala chiefs were in constant struggle for supremacy with another now-extinct caste called Madapalli. The kings belonging to the Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty would appoint leaders from both the factions to maintain peace in the kingdom.
According Bryan Pfaffenberger, an American anthropologist who has studied the community in detail, the rise to complete dominance by the Vellala elites began with the capture of Portuguese holdings in Sri Lanka by the Dutch. The Dutch interpreted the local laws, later codified as Thesavalamai, as allowing Vellala chiefs to own slaves. Thus empowered, many tobacco plantations were created by the Vellala chiefs with the help of imported Indian workers from the Pallar caste who were held as slaves. This new-found wealth enabled the Vellalas in general to morph into a dominant landowning elite with ritual and political control. Eventually their portion of the total Tamil population of the densely populated Jaffna peninsula rose from a mere 8% to over 50%. Upwardly mobile families of people belonging to other castes also eventually associated them with the Velllala identity according to the principles of Sanskritisation. This period also saw the dispersal of Vellala lineages across the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.
During the British colonial period in Sri Lanka which began with the capture of the entire island nation and its unification by Great Britain in 1815, Vellalas began to look for education as the new opportunity to upgrade their livelihoods. Various Christian missionaries had made the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula as the best location in all of Asia for English education in the 19th century. Many Vellala families used this opportunity to educate their children, and they provided the bulk of the British colonial civil servants in Sri Lanka and in British-held Malaysia and Singapore. Slavery was also abolished in 1855 by the British colonial authorities, thus making agriculture less profitable.
Post 1983 society
A wide range of communities claim Vellala ancestry today. Many of them unrelated to the earlier migrants. But they rely on the early history and migration to create an aura of aristocracy. But what is obviously still visible is the traditional and conservative nature of the religion, Saivite Hinduism, practiced among Jaffna Tamils. They follow a conservative brand of Saiva Siddhanta which follow Agamic and Sanksritic features. In this they are similar to Saiva Vellalars of India who also consider themselves the custodians of Saiva Adheenams and Saivite culture.
Vellala political and ritual dominance has been severely restricted due to the effects of the post-1983 Sri Lankan civil war and domination of the main rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by members of the Karaiyar caste. LTTE's policies of anti-castism and empowerment of formerly low castes as part of the political struggle between the majority Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and itself has enabled members belonging to all castes and walks of life to effectively challenge their dominance.
- Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1985). "Vellalar domination". Man 20 (1): 158. JSTOR 2802228.
- Pulavar, Mylvakana (1999), Yalpana Vaipava Malai, Asian Educational Services, ISBN 81-206-1362-7
- Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1991). Sri Lankan Tamils.
- Mudaliar, Rasanayagam, History of ancient Jaffna
- Bryan, Pfaffenberger (1987). "Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka".
- Marschall, Wolfgang (2003). "Social Change Among Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Switzerland".
- Sharma, S. L. (1999). Nations and National identity.