|Classification||Chieftain, Seamanship, Fishermen|
|Related groups||Tamil people, Karava|
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. 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.
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 Thulukkars (Tamil Muslims). The Yalpana Vaipava Malai states that Parakramabahu VI of Kotte invited Karaiyar battalions to facilitate trade with other countries.
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 'cheiftain of the Karaiyars to be surrendered, as they had come to his request. The Karaiyar troops aligned with the Thanjavur Nayak troops, and fought against the Portuguese in the conquest of the Jaffna kingdom.
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.
The Karaiyars in Northern Sri Lanka are classified into two groups: the Meelongi and the Keelongi. The Melongi Karaiyars were known as Thevar Karaiyar, and are identified with the founding ancestors, Periyanadutevan and Verimanikatevan, who were reputedly commanders of an invading Chola army. The Keelongi Karaiyars were said to be descendent of the army's soldiers and workers.
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 Vellalar-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.
- 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. Serials Publications. 94 (1-2): 31–48.
- A. Jeyaratnam Wilson (2000). Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism. UBC Press. pp. 19–24. ISBN 9780774807593.
- Robert Caldwell (1913). A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Or South-Indian Family of Languages. Asian Educational Services. p. 97. ISBN 978-81-206-0117-8.
- Navaratnam, C. S. (1964). A Short History of Hinduism in Ceylon: And Three Essays on the Tamils. Sri Sammuganatha Press.
- 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. ISBN 9780754601869.
- Vriddhagirisan, V. (1995-01-01). Nayaks of Tanjore. Asian Educational Services. ISBN 9788120609969.
- David, Kenneth (1973). "Spatial Organization and Normative Schemes in Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka". Modern Ceylon Studies. University of Ceylon. 4: 1 & 2.
- 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.
- Caste, Class and Prabhakaran’s struggle - Ravana (The Island) Accessed 1 March 2016
- Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5.
- Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5.