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Religions Christianity, Hinduism
Languages Tamil
  • Meelongi Karaiyar
  • Keelongi Karaiyar
Related groups Tamil people, Karava

Karaiyar (Tamil: கரையார், lit. 'Karaiyār' and Tamil: குருகுலம், lit. 'Kurukulam') is a caste found mainly on the northern and eastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka and the Coromandel coast of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and globally among the Tamil diaspora.[1] Traditionally, they were a seafaring and warrior caste, today involved in fishing.[2][3]

Historically, they have also been referred to as Kurukulam and Karaiyalar.[4] Sharing similar origins and status are the Sinhalese Karava.[5]


The word "Karaiyar" is derived from the Tamil language words karai ("coast" or "shore") and yar ("people").[4] The British Dravidologist, Robert Caldwell, mention that the term Kareoi mentioned by the 2nd century writer Ptolemy, refers to the Karaiyar.[6]


The Karaiyar, along with Paravar, Mukkuvar, Thimilar and Sembadavar are among the old coastal communities of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. The ancient Tamil literature mentions several coastal populations, but does not contain any direct references to the Karaiyars. The earliest reference to them could be the 1st century BCE Tamil Householders Terrace, Pali inscription in Anuradhapura referring to several Tamil chiefs including one named "Dameda navika Karava", translated as "Tamil Karava sailor".[7][8] The Purananuru mentions "Karaiyavar", but not as a coastal population; in the later literature, the word came to be identified with coastal people. According to historian S. K. Sittampalam (1993), the term "Paratavar kulathavar" in the ancient epic Kannaki Valakkurai Kaatai (a regional variant of Silappatikaram) refers to the Karaiyars. Vaiya Padal (14th century) mentions the Karaiyars as one of the castes living in the Jaffna kingdom.[4]

The Makara flag

According to another account given in the Mukkara Hatana manuscript, a battalion of 7740 Karaiyar soldiers came from Kurumandalam in Southern India, and defeated the Mukkuvars (another fishing community) and Sonakars (Tamil Muslims).[9] The Yalpana Vaipava Malai states that Parakramabahu VI of Kotte invited Karaiyar battalions to facilitate trade with other countries.[4]

The Karaiyars were assigned the Western section and the harbors and ports of the Jaffna Kingdom, who also manned and officered the navy of the Aryacakravarti dynasty.[10][11] They used the Makara as emblem, the mount of their clan deity, the sea god Varuna, which was also seen on their flags.[12]

Under the rule of Cankili II, king of Jaffna kingdom, the king requested Karaiyars and soldiers from the Thanjavur Nayak kingdom in regaining back his kingdom. The Colonial Portuguese ordered Cankili II to surrender the Thanjavur Nayak soldiers and the chieftain of the Karaiyars to be surrendered. Cankili II declared that he would not let the Thanjavur Nayak soldiers nor the 'chieftain of the Karaiyars to be surrendered, as they had come to his request.[13] The Karaiyar troops under chieftainship of Karaiyar chief Migapulle Arachchi, aligned with the Thanjavur Nayak troops and fought against the Portuguese in the conquest of the Jaffna kingdom.[14][15] Significant numbers of Karaiyars along with the Nair and Karava were appointed as Lascarins under Portuguese rule, and were converted to Catholicism.[16]

By the 20th century, the Karaiyars were mostly engaged in fishing within 2-3 kilometres of the coast. However, S. K. Sittampalam believes that they were once engaged in international commercial trading.[4]

Traditional status[edit]

The Karaiyars in Northern Sri Lanka are classified into two groups: the Meelongi and the Keelongi.[17][a] The Melongi Karaiyars are some areas known as Thevar Karaiyar and Kurukula Karaiyar, who were descendent of commanders, while Keelongi Karaiyars were descendent of the army's soldiers and workers.[18]

The chieftains and village headmen of the Karaiyars held several titles such as Pattankattiyar, meaning "One who is crowned" in Tamil.[19][20][21] Other titles they used were Adappanar, Kurukulattan and Varunakulattan.[22][23]

Social status and politics[edit]

In the 20th century, the Karaiyar were the second largest group of voters among the Sri Lankan Tamils after the Vellalar (traditional agriculturists).[24] The Karaiyars formed around 10% of the population, while the dominant Vellalars constituted about 50% of the population.[3][25] The Karaiyars never accepted the secondary status assigned to them by the Vellalars, and considered themselves independent of the Vellalar-dominant social structure.[3] In the Jaffna region, they were a dominant caste and were considered as upper-class in the social hierarchy.[4]

The colonial rulers of Sri Lanka, especially the Dutch, strengthened the Vellalar dominance for their own purposes.[26] Nevertheless, the Karaiyars gradually raised their social status over a period of time. During the Portuguese rule, conversion to Christianity allowed them to grow closer to those who held the power.[27] By the 1930s, the Karaiyars had largely secured emancipation from the Vellalars.[24]

Karaiyars formed the leadership of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that fought the Sri Lankan Civil War to form a Tamil sovereign state, intending to secede from the Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka.[3] The LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and his fellow Karaiyars perceived Vellala-imposed caste restrictions as oppressive as the alleged Sinhala discrimination against the Tamils.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Excerpt about the Karaiyar subcastes, from Merchants, markets and the state in early modern India: The karaiyar had a less sharp distinction between melongi (i.e. those who aim high) and kilongi (those who aim low).


  1. ^ Raj, Selva J. (2016-04-01). South Asian Christian Diaspora: Invisible Diaspora in Europe and North America. Routledge. ISBN 9781317052296. 
  2. ^ Das, Sonia N. (2016). Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts. Oxford University Press. p. 236. ISBN 9780190461782. 
  3. ^ a b c d A. Jeyaratnam Wilson (2000). Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism. UBC Press. pp. 19–24. ISBN 9780774807593. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Shanmugarajah, Srikanthan. "Ethnohistory Through Intracultural Perspectives: A Study of Embedded History of Karaiyar of Jaffna Peninsula (Sri Lanka) and Coromandel Coast (India)" (PDF). Man In India. Department of Anthropology, Puducherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture. 94 (1-2): 31–48. 
  5. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (1982-09-02). Caste Ideology and Interaction. Cambridge University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780521241458. 
  6. ^ Caldwell, Robert (1913). A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Or South-Indian Family of Languages. Asian Educational Services. p. 97. ISBN 9788120601178. 
  7. ^ Raghavan, M. D. (1971). Tamil culture in Ceylon: a general introduction. Kalai Nilayam. p. 138. 
  8. ^ Seneviratna, Anuradha (1994). Ancient Anuradhapura: The Monastic City. Archaeological Survey Department, Government of Sri Lanka. p. 288. ISBN 9789559159025. 
  9. ^ Navaratnam, C. S. (1964). A Short History of Hinduism in Ceylon: And Three Essays on the Tamils. Sri Sammuganatha Press. 
  10. ^ Raghavan, M. D. (1964). India in Ceylonese History: Society, and Culture. Asia Publishing House. p. 143. 
  11. ^ Rasanayagam, C.; Rasanayagam, Mudaliyar C. (1993). Ancient Jaffna: Being a Research Into the History of Jaffna from Very Early Times to the Portuguese Period. Asian Educational Services. pp. 211–212. ISBN 9788120602106. 
  12. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. 1993. p. 137. 
  13. ^ Silva, Chandra Richard De (2009-01-01). Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives: Translated Texts from the Age of Discoveries. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 137. ISBN 9780754601869. 
  14. ^ Vriddhagirisan, V. (1995). Nayaks of Tanjore. Asian Educational Services. p. 91. ISBN 9788120609969. 
  15. ^ Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar (2007). Von Jaffna nach Kilinocchi: Wandel des politischen Bewusstseins der Tamilen in Sri Lanka (in German). Ergon. pp. 104, 134. ISBN 9783899135442. 
  16. ^ Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006). Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Indentities. University of Hawaii Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780824830168. 
  17. ^ Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1990). Merchants, markets and the state in early modern India. Oxford University Press. p. 198. 
  18. ^ David, Kenneth (1973). "Spatial Organization and Normative Schemes in Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka". Modern Ceylon Studies. University of Ceylon. 4: 1 & 2. 
  19. ^ "பட்டங்கட்டி | அகராதி | Tamil Dictionary". agarathi.com. University of Madras Lexicon. Retrieved 2017-08-13. 
  20. ^ Modern Ceylon Studies. University of Ceylon. 1975. 
  21. ^ Nān̲kāvatu An̲aittulakat Tamil̲ārāycci Makānāṭṭu nikal̲ccikaḷ, Yāl̲ppāṇam, Can̲avari, 1974. An̲aittulakat Tamil̲ārāycci Man̲r̲a Ilaṅkaik Kiḷai. 1980. 
  22. ^ K, Arunthavarajah (March 2014). "The Administration of Jaffna Kingdom- A Historical View" (PDF). International Journal of Business and Administration Research Review. University of Jaffna. Volume 2, Issue 3.: 32. 
  23. ^ Cambridge South Asian Studies. University of Cambridge: Cambridge South Asian Studies. 1965. p. 27. ISBN 9780521232104. 
  24. ^ a b S. H. Hasbullah; Barrie M. Morrison (2004). Sri Lankan Society in an Era of Globalization. SAGE. pp. 106–107. ISBN 978-0-7619-3221-5. 
  25. ^ a b Caste, Class and Prabhakaran’s struggle - Ravana (The Island) Accessed 1 March 2016
  26. ^ Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5. 
  27. ^ Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5.