Karaiyar is a caste found in the Tamil Nadu state in India, northern coastal areas in Sri Lanka, and globally among the Tamil diaspora. Traditionally, they were a fishing community, also engaged in seafaring and military activities.
The word "Karaiyar" is derived from the Tamil language words karai ("coast" or "shore") and yar ("people"). According to Robert Caldwell, the Kareoi people mentioned by the 2nd century CE Greco-Egyptian writer Ptolemy refer to people living on the Tamil coast, and their name derives from the same root. V. Kanakasabhai believed that "Kareoi" is simply an incorrect form of the word "Karaiyar".
The Karaiyar, along with Paravar and Mukkuvar, are among the old fishing 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 Purananuru mentions "Karaiyavar", but not as a coastal population; in the later literature, the word came to be identified with coastal people. Accoding 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.
Some ethnohistorical accounts characterize Karaiyars as traditional naval warriors and mercenaries, who were also engaged in boat-building, fishing and trading activities during their leisure time. The Karava (the Sinhalese Karaiyars) have several mythical and legendary accounts connecting them to ancient warriors. According to one such legend, they are descendants of Kuru warriors mentioned in the Mahabharata. According to these legends, the community's name is derived from the word Kaurava. According to another account given in the Mukkara Hatana manuscript, a battalion of 7740 Karava soldiers came from Kurukugal (an area in Coromandel Coast of India), and defeated the Mukkuvars (another fishing community) and Thulukkars (Tamil Muslims). Yalpana Vaipava Malai (translated into English by C. as The History of the Kingdom of Jaffna) states that Parakramabahu VI of Kotte invited Karava battalions to facilitate trade with other countries.
By the 20th century, the Karaiyars were mostly engaged in fishing within 2-3 kilometers from the coast. However, S. K. Sittampalam believes that they were once engaged in international commercial trading. The Karaiyars fought against the Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna kingdom.
Social status and politics
In the 20th century, the Karaiyar were the second largest group of voters among the Sri Lankan Tamils after the Vellalar (traditional agriculturists). The Karaiyars formed around 10% of the population, while the dominant Vellalars constituted about 50% of the population. In the caste hierarchy, the Karaiyars were considered inferior to the Brahmins and the Vellalar. However, the Karaiyars never accepted the secondary status assigned to them by the Vellalars, and considered themselves independent of the Vellala-dominant social structure. In the Jaffna region, they were a dominant caste and were considered as upper-class in the social hierarchy.
The colonial rulers of Sri Lanka, especially the Dutch, strengthened the Vellalar dominance for their own purposes. 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. By the 1930s, the Karaiyars had largely secured emancipation from the Vellalars.
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. The LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and his fellow Karaiyars perceived Vellala-imposed caste restrictions as oppressive as the alleged Sinhala discrimination against the Tamils.
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