Tamil Brahmin

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Tamil Brahmin
Total population

(2015: 2,359,000

2.75% of population of Tamil nadu[1][2])
Regions with significant populations
Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh
Related ethnic groups
Pancha-Dravida Brahmins, Tamil people

Tamil Brahmins are Tamil-speaking Brahmins primarily living in Tamil Nadu , although a few of them have settled in other states like, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. They can be broadly divided into three religious groups, Gurukkals who follow Saivism, Iyers who follow the Srauta and Smarthas tradition and Iyengars who follow Sri Vaishnavism.[3] Today Brahmins form 2.75% of Tamil Nadu's population.[4]


Brahmins have had a continuous presence in Tamil Nadu from the Sangam period (600 BCE-300 CE).[5] The 2nd century CE literary work Paṭṭiṉappālai written by the Brahmin poet Uruttirangannanar (Kannan, son of Rudra) records the presence of Brahmins and Vedic rites in Karikala Chola's kingdom. Similarly, other literary works of the Sangam period like the Silappatikaram, Manimekalai and Kuṟuntokai also allude to the presence of Brahmins in the Tamil country.

During the early medieval period, when Ramanuja founded Vaishnavism many Iyers adopted the new philosophical affiliation and were called Iyengars.[6] According to Hindu legend, the sage Agastya is believed to be the first Vishnu worshipping Brahmin to settle in South India.[7] Agastya is believed to have set up his abode on Podhigai hill near Nagercoil, thereby becoming Tamil Brahmin.[7]

Though, Tamil Brahmins have been classified as a left-hand caste in ancient times,[8] Schoebel, in his book History of the Origin and Development of Indian Castes published in 1884, spoke of Tamil Brahmins as "Mahajanam" and regarded them, along with foreign migrants, as outside the dual left and right-hand caste divisions of Tamil Nadu.[8]


A Tamil Brahmin marriage ceremony

Tamil Brahmins are divided into three groups -- Iyers, Iyengars and Gurukkal. Iyers form the majority of the Tamil Brahmin population and are Smarthas, while Iyengars are Vaishnavas and Gurukkals are Saivas.


Iyers are Srauta-Smartha Brahmins, most of whom follow the Advaita philosophy propounded by Adi Shankara. Advaita Vedanta has been in existence from way before Adi Sankara. In fact, Vedanta refers to itself as Anadi, meaning without beginning][9][10][11][12][13][14] and are concentrated mainly along the Cauvery Delta districts of Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur [15][16] and Tiruchirapalli where they form almost 10% of the total population. However the largest population reside in Nagercoil, making up to 13% of the Cities population[17][18][19] They are also found in significant numbers in Chennai,[20][21] Coimbatore, Madurai, Tirunelveli, Ambasamudram, Palakkad and Trivandrum.


Iyengars follow the Visishtadvaita philosophy propounded by Sri Vikanasa or Sri Ramanujacharya.[11] They are divided into two sub-sects 'Vadakalai' (Northern branch) and Thenkalai (Southern branch).


The sect of Sivāchārya or Gurukkal (Tamil: குருக்கள்்்) form the hereditary priesthood or in the Siva and Sakthi temples in Tamil Nadu. They are Saivites and adhere to the philosophy of Shaiva Siddhanta. They are well versed in Vedas,Agama Sasthras and follow the Agamic rituals of these temples. Because of these cultural differences, intermarriages with other Tamil Brahmanas are rare even to this date. Gurukkals are sub-divided into Tiruvalangad, Conjeevaram and Thirukkazhukunram.

Traditional occupation[edit]

As per the Hindu law books and religious scriptures, Brahmins were expected to lead a spiritual life and devote their lives either to the study and propagation of Vedas and Hindu scriptures or function as temple or household priests. However, we have evidence that Tamil Brahmins were involved in other occupations even during the Sangam period. The Silappatikaram records the presence of Brahmin minstrels and musicians, known to be the Nasuvar of the sub-group of the Pandithar. The inscriptions of the Later Chola period record that a significant proportion of the Brahmin community of the village of Ennayiram was involved in trade. Brahmins fought in large numbers in the Later Chola army and there were a number of Brahmin civil servants in the Chola administration. Some of them rose to become Senapathis or army generals.


  1. ^ Accurate statistics on the population of Iyers are unavailable. This is due to the fact that the practice of conducting caste-based population census have been stopped since independence. The statistics given here are mainly based on estimates from unofficial sources
  2. ^ "Tamil Nadu brahmin population"
  3. ^ "Brahmins seek reservation in education and employment"]
  4. ^ "Brahmins seek representation in Legislative Council". The Hindu. October 26, 2010. 
  5. ^ http://books.google.co.in/books?id=2jMg8K5dPZUC&pg=PA43
  6. ^ "Sripada Ramanujacharya". New Zealand Hare Krishna Spiritual Resource Network. Archived from the original on 12 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  7. ^ a b P. K. V. Kaimal (2000). We lived together Volume 3 of Monograph series. Pragati Publications. p. 18. ISBN 978-81-7307-062-4. 
  8. ^ a b G. S. Ghurye, p 360
  9. ^ "Iyer". Uttarakhand Information Centre. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  10. ^ The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume XVI. London: Clarendon Press. 1908. , Pg 267
  11. ^ a b An Universal History, Pg 109
  12. ^ An Universal History, Pg 110
  13. ^ Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Pg 269
  14. ^ Folk Songs of Southern India, Pg 3
  15. ^ The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume XVI. London: Clarendon Press. 1908. p. 260. 
  16. ^ The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume XVI. London: Clarendon Press. 1908. p. 20. 
  17. ^ "Brahmins seek reservation in education and employment"
  18. ^ G. S. Ghurye, Pg 393
  19. ^ Migration and Urbanization among Tamil Brahmans, Pg 5
  20. ^ The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume XVI. London: Clarendon Press. 1908. p. 272. 
  21. ^ Migration and Urbanization among Tamil Brahmans, Pg 15