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கரையார், குருகுலம்
Classification Chieftain, Seamanship, Fishermen
Religions Christianity, Hinduism
Languages Tamil
  • Meelongi Karaiyar
  • Keelongi Karaiyar
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.[1][2][3]

Historically, they have also been referred to as Kurukulam and Karaiyalar.[1] Karaiyars are the Tamil equivalent of the Sinhalese Karava.[4]


The word "Karaiyar" is derived from the Tamil language words karai ("coast" or "shore") and yar ("people").[1] 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.[5] V. Kanakasabhai believed that "Kareoi" is simply an incorrect form of the word "Karaiyar".[1]

The word Kurukulam stems from two words, Kuru and kulam (Tamil word meaning clan). The word Kuru refers to the Kuru Kingdom, where some claim their origin from.[6] Thus the word is literally translated as "Kuru Clan".


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.[1]

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 Karaiyar soldiers came from Kurumandalam in Southern India, and defeated the Mukkuvars (another fishing community) and Thulukkars (Tamil Muslims).[7] The Yalpana Vaipava Malai states that Parakramabahu VI of Kotte invited Karaiyar battalions to facilitate trade with other countries.[1]

Under the rule of Cankili II, the king requested Karaiyars and Badagars in regaining back his kingdom. The Colonial Portuguese ordered Cankili II to surrender the Badagars and The king of Karaiyar (Carea) to be surrendered. Cankili II declared that he would not let the Badagars nor the King of Karaiyars to be surrendered, as they had come to his request.[8] The Karaiyar troops aligned with the Thanjavur Nayak troops, and fought against the Portuguese in the conquest of the Jaffna kingdom.[2] The Badagars could refer to the Vaduge, or the Nayak troops, and the King of Karaiyars, probably refer to an high ranked Karaiyar chieftain.

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.[1]


The Karaiyars in Northern Sri Lanka are classified into two groups; Meelongi and Keelongi Karaiyars. The Meelongi Karaiyars were engaged in seafearing and were socially advanced, having enjoyed the benefits of higher education and employment in government and the private sector. The Keelongi Karaiyars were and still practice coastal and deep-sea fishing.[9] The terms "Meelongi" and "Keelongi" stems from the Tamil words mēlē which means over, and kīlē which means under. The terms are easily explicable as ‘Those who are over’ and ‘Those who are under’, reflecting a rather deep bifurcation of society based upon socio-economic status.[10]

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.[11]

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).[12] The Karaiyars formed around 10% of the population, while the dominant Vellalars constituted about 50% of the population.[3][13] In the caste hierarchy, the Karaiyars were considered inferior to the Brahmins and the Vellalar.[13] However, the Karaiyars never accepted the secondary status assigned to them by the Vellalars, and considered themselves independent of the Vellala-dominant social structure.[3] In the Jaffna region, they were a dominant caste and were considered as upper-class in the social hierarchy.[1][14]

The colonial rulers of Sri Lanka, especially the Dutch, strengthened the Vellalar dominance for their own purposes.[15] 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.[16] By the 1930s, the Karaiyars had largely secured emancipation from the Vellalars.[12]

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.[13][14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h 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. 
  2. ^ a b Vriddhagirisan, V (2007). Nayaks of Tanjore. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. pp. V, 15, 34, 80–1 & 91. ISBN 978-8120609969. 
  3. ^ a b c d A. Jeyaratnam Wilson (2000). Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism. UBC Press. pp. 19–24. ISBN 9780774807593. 
  4. ^ C. M. S. J. Madduma Bandara (2002). Lionsong: Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict. Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara. p. 437. ISBN 978-955-97966-0-2. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Hussein, Asiff. "Caste in Sri Lanka; From Ancient Times to the Present Day" (PDF). Asiff Hussein. Neptune Publications. ISBN 978-955-0028-35-1. 
  7. ^ Navaratnam, C. S. (1964-01-01). A Short History of Hinduism in Ceylon: And Three Essays on the Tamils. Sri Sammuganatha Press. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Visvanathan, Ramalingam (2013-01-01). The Tamils in India, Ceylon and Malaya. R. Visvanathan P.J.K. ISBN 9789671162200. 
  10. ^ Hussein, Asiff. "Caste in Sri Lanka; From Ancient Times to the Present Day" (PDF). Asiff Hussein. Neptune Publications. ISBN 978-955-0028-35-1. 
  11. ^ David, Kenneth (1973). "Spatial Organization and Normative Schemes in Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka". Modern Ceylon Studies. University of Ceylon. 4: 1 & 2. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ a b c Caste, Class and Prabhakaran’s struggle - Ravana (The Island) Accessed 1 March 2016
  14. ^ a b Prabhakaran, Veluppillai and the father-son relationship - DBS Jeyara Accessed 25 November 2016
  15. ^ Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5. 
  16. ^ Eva Gerharz (2014). The Politics of Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka. Routledge. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-317-69280-5.