According to epigraphic records, Pillai is an ancient title that was used as a suffix that goes back to the Sangam Era and was given to junior members of the royal family. Originally a title meaning "royal child", it came to be given to administrators of temples; often holding large estates on behalf of the latter.
Early English records also address these hereditary ruling chiefs as the princes of Kerala ranking below the monarch. The most well known are the Pillais of the Eight Noble Houses, the Ettuveettil Pillamar of Travancore.[page needed]
Tamil inscriptions define the direct meaning of Pillai as "Child of King" (prince), denoting nobility. The title occur both as a single name or as a suffix to the name. This title has been in traditional use by the communities such as the Nairs and the Vellalars.
Notable people with this surname or its variants include:
- Ashan Pillai (born in Sri Lanka, 1969), British violist and academic
- A. R. Pillai (1879–1938), Indian freedom fighter
- Anton Sebastianpillai (1944/5–2020), author and consultant geriatrician
- Ananda Ranga Pillai (1709–1761), dubash in the service of French East India Company
- Ariranga Pillay (born 1945), former Chief Justice and briefly Acting President of Mauritius
- Arumuka Navalar, born as Kandarpillai Arumugapillai, a Sri Lankan Hindu reformer
- Bastiampillai Anthonipillai Thomas (1886–1964), Sri Lankan Tamil priest and founder of Rosarians Order
- Bastiampillai Deogupillai (1917–2003), Sri Lankan Tamil Roman Catholic bishop
- B. Ravi Pillai (born 1953), Indian entrepreneur
- C. W. Thamotharampillai (1832–1901), publisher of ancient Tamil texts
- Candice Pillay (born 1981), singer and songwriter
- Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, Malayalam poet
- Chempakaraman Pillai (1891–1934), freedom fighter from Travancore of Tamil descent
- Chinna Migapillai, 17th century feudal lord and rebel leader from the Jaffna Kingdom
- Devasahayam Pillai (1712–1752), Indian court official, controversial convert to Christianity
- Dhanraj Pillay (born 1968), Indian hockey player
- G. P. Pillai (1864–1903), barrister, established the first English newspaper in South India
- G. Parameswaran Pillai (1890–1963), Dewan of Travancore
- Gooty Kesava Pillai (1860–1933), Indian journalist and freedom-fighter. Delegate from Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh at the first session of the Indian National Congress.
- K. C. Pillai (1900–1970), Bishop-at-large of the Indian Orthodox Church, Antiochean Succession, Chennai (Madras), India
- K. Appavu Pillai (1911–1973), Indian politician
- K. C. Sreedharan Pillai (1920–1985), Indian mathematician
- K. Perumal Pillai, Indian politician
- K. Thamboosamy Pillay (1850–1902), a prominent member of the Tamil community in British Malaya
- Kavimani Desigavinayagam Pillai (1876–1954), Indian freedom fighter, poet
- L. D. Swamikannu Pillai (1865–1925), Indian astronomer, Speaker of Tamil Nadu Assembly
- M. M. Pareed Pillay, former Chief Justice of Kerala
- M. P. Narayana Pillai (1939–1998), Malayalam writer
- M. K. Mackar Pillay (1880–1966), Indian industrialist and politician
- Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai (1855–1897), eminent writer in Tamil literature; his poem "Niraarum Kadal Udutha" is the official Tamil Anthem
- Maraimalai Adigal (Nagai Vedachalam Pillai, 1876–1950), eminent Tamil orator and writer, started Pure Tamil movement Tanittamil Iyakkam
- Marimutthu Pillai (1712–1787), musician
- Maruthanayagam Pillai (1725–1764), Indian soldier and administrator also known as Muhammed Yusuf Khan
- Murali Pillai, Singaporean politician of Indian descent
- Nadakkal Parameswaran Pillai (born 1931), leader of Indian Coffee House movement
- Naraina Pillai, social entrepreneur and businessman
- Navanethem Pillay (born 1941), South African judge, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
- Nisha Pillai, Indian-born journalist and BBC news anchor
- P. Govinda Pillai (1926–2012), Communist Party of India leader
- P. K. Narayana Pillai, scholar of Sanskrit and Malayalam literature
- Palani Subramaniam Pillai (1908–1962), Carnatic music percussionist
- Paravoor T. K. Narayana Pillai (1890–1971), Indian freedom fighter
- Pattom A. Thanu Pillai (1885–1970), Second Chief Minister of unified Kerala, Communist leader
- Periyapillai, 16th century king of the Jaffna Kingdom
- Pradani Muthirulappa Pillai, 18th-century minister of Ramnad during the reign of Muthuramalinga Sethupathy
- Prem Nath Pillai (born 1982), Malaysia-based filmmaker and editor
- R. Balakrishna Pillai (1935–2021), State minister in Kerala
- Rajmohan Pillai (born 1964), Indian businessman
- Rhea Pillai, Indian model
- Simone Ashwini Pillai, British Actress of Tamil native
- Sreekanteswaram Padmanabha Pillai (1864–1946), lexicographer
- Subbayya Sivasankaranarayana Pillai (1901–1950), Indian mathematician
- Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai (1878–1916), journalist and political activist. Translated Karl Marx's biography into Malayalam
- T. S. Ramasamy Pillai (1918–2006), Freedom-fighter, politician and former Member of the Legislative Assembly (India)
- Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912–1999), Malayalam author
- Trevin Callistus Bastiampillai (born 1985), Sri Lankan Canadian cricketer
- Vella Pillay (1923-2004), South African economist and political activist
- V. N. Rajasekharan Pillai (born 1949), current Vice Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)
- V. O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872–1936), Indian freedom fighter, popularly known as V.O.C. and as Kappalottiya Tamilan
- Venkatarama Ramalingam Pillai (Namakkal Kavignar Ramalingam Pillai, 1888–1972), poet and freedom fighter
- See inscription at Kannankara temple, Trivandrum District. Quoted as Inscription 9/60 in P. Sundaram Pillai's Some Early Sovereigns of Travancore. Page 40-41 He makes the observation that they were in his opinion not men in the royal service.
- Mark de Lannoy,Kulasekhara Perumals of Travancore, Page 202
- More, Lena (2003). English East India Company and the local rulers in Kerala. ISBN 8188432040.
- Sircar, Dineschandra (1966). Indian Epigraphical Dictionary. p. 166. ISBN 9788120805620.
- Pandian, Jacob (1987). Caste, Nationalism and Ethnicity: An Interpretation of Tamil Cultural History and Social Order. Popular Prakashan. p. 110. ISBN 9780861321360.
- University, Vijaya Ramaswamy, Jawaharlal Nehru (2017-08-25). Historical Dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 268. ISBN 9781538106860.
- Pfister, Raymond (1995). Soixante ans de pentecôtisme en Alsace (1930-1990): une approche socio-historique. P. Lang. p. 166. ISBN 9783631486207.