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 Brahmins of Tamil origin 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 Smarthas tradition and Iyengars who follow Sri Vaishnavism.[3] Today Brahmins form 2.75% of Tamil Nadus population.[4]


Brahmins have had a continuous presence in Tamil Nadu from the Sangam period (600 BC-300 AD).[5] The 2nd century AD 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 Bragmin 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 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.

Popular depictions[edit]

Positive portrayals[edit]

In literature and print media[edit]

There have been references to Brahmins even in the earliest period of Tamil literature. A sage named Gautama who served in the court of Senguttuvan's predecessor is praised in the Tamil work Silappatikaram.[22] The Tolkāppiyam, which belongs to an earlier era, speaks of "the victorious Brahmin".[22] One of the poems in the Puṟanāṉūṟu written by one Mulam Kilar of Avur praises the learning and character of a Brahmin Kauniyan Vinnam Tayan of Cholanadu. The poem praises his efforts and those of his ancestors in combating the penetration of Buddhism in the Tamil land.[23] Kauniyan Vinnam Tayan is also praised for the faithful performance of sacrifices.[24]

The Tamil novel had its beginnings in Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai's Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram which appeared in 1879. The second Tamil novel was Kamalambal Charitram written by B. R. Rajam Iyer in 1893 and the third was Padmavathi Charitram written by A. Madhaviah in 1898. Both these novels portray the lives of Brahmins in rural parts of Madras Presidency.

In R. K. Narayan's famous book Swami and Friends he depicts the vagaries in the school-life of a young Iyer boy, Swaminathan, and how he and his family, especially his father, W. S. Srinivasan, deal with them. The book provides an interesting insight into father-son relations in traditional Iyer households in the early twentieth century, besides providing details of day-to-day life. Along with the text of the tale, the sketches to accompany it, by R. K. Laxman, in early editions, provide a wealth of information about the latter.

In films[edit]

Iyers have been positively portrayed in Hindi films as Tere Mere Sapne. Malayalam films such as Iyer the Great[25] and the Sethurama Iyer series and the Tamil movie Iyer IPS[26] have fictitious Iyer characters in the lead.

There have always been movies in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi portraying Iyer society and traditional values in a positive manner. The black-and-white era saw Tamil films as Thyagabhoomi and Vietnam Veedu.

Recently, movies by S. Shankar, such as Gentleman and Anniyan, and Ajith's film Aalwar has a Brahmin play a protagonist character, where they use religion as one of the motivations, to get rid of corruption and other bad elements in society.

Negative portrayals[edit]

In literature and print media[edit]

According to J. H. Hutton, there was opposition to Brahmins from Tamils as early as the 13th century AD[8]

During the Raj, anti-Brahminism was actively propagated by both British administrators as well as writers.[27] J. H. Nelson, a popular administrator and writer, spoke of non-Brahmins as superior and degraded Tamil Iyers and Iyengars.[28] Charles E. Gover's The Folk Tales of South India is replete with anti-Brahmin rhetoric. He remarks:

Bishop Robert Caldwell, regarded as one of the motivators of the Dravidian Movement was vociferous in his attacks on Tamil Brahmins. V. Kanakasabhai Pillai, in his 1904 book, The Tamils 1800 years ago, holds Brahmins responsible for making a conscious attempt to "foist their system on the Tamils".[28] Hindu savant Maraimalai Adigal who founded the Pure Tamil Movement, in a book called Vellalar Nagareegam or The Civilization of the Vellalars published in 1923, said that the classification of Vellalars as Sudras were a part of an Aryan-Brahmin conspiracy and launched a veiled attack on Brahmin historians and intellectuals.[30]

From 1930 onwards, with the rise of Periyar and the Justice Party, anti-Brahminism intensified to larger proportions. The periodicals and newspapers of the Justice Party such as Viduthalai and Justice[31][32][33][34] launched scathing attacks on Brahmins.[35] The works of Periyar as well as C. N. Annadurai's Aryamayai ridicules the rituals and practices of Brahmins and accuses them of propagating casteism and superstitions. Periyar's pattern of anti-Brahmin rhetoric was absorbed by his followers and the Dravidar Kazhagam, the cultural organization that he established continues to indulge in vehement anti-Brahmin rhetoric in its magazines and periodicals, though popular support and enthusiasm for their anti-Brahmin tirade has died down with the passage of time.[36]

There have also been novels criticizing the patriarchal nature of Tamil Brahmin society and critically portraying the plight of Brahmin women[37] A. Madhaviah, one of the earliest Tamil novelists, launched a sharp criticism of the sexual exploitation of young girls by older men in the 19th century upper caste society.[38] His English novel Clarinda tells the story of a Brahmin woman who is saved from sati by a British soldier.[38] She falls in love with the soldier and converts to Christianity on the death of her lover.[38] In his Tamil novel Muthumeenakshi penned in 1903, he describes the plight of a Brahmin child widow.[38] The story ends on a happy note with the remarriage of the widow as per her wishes.[38] Ameen Merchant's The Silent Raga depicts the life of women in an agraharam as a gruesome endeavour.[39]

In recent times, apart from sporadic outbursts of anti-Brahmin sentiment in newspapers and television, anti-Brahminism has largely subsided.[36] Anti-Brahmin sentiment reached intense proportions on the occasion of the arrest of the Kanchi Shankaracharya[40][41] and when Periyar's statue in Srirangam was defaced by activists of the Hindu Munnani a party based on Ambedakar's principal's which were against Periyar's ideology.[42][43]

Currently, within Facebook, there is also a meme page meant to ridicule/humiliate (but in a slightly positive way as well) Tamil Brahmins, also known as the "Smart Iyer Boy".

In films[edit]

There have been an extensively large number of Indian movies in which Brahminical practices and customs have been ridiculed or broadly stereotyped and played for laughs. Some of the early Tamil films ridiculing the Brahminical orthodoxy as Nandanar (1935) and Seva Sadanam (1938) were by the Tamil Brahmin director K. Subrahmanyam. Nandanar was based on the tale of a rich Brahmin landlord called Vedhiyar who illtreated his farm-workers.[44] The movie ends with Vedhiyar falling on the feet of a farmhand Nandan who worked in his fields on realizing that the latter was blessed by Lord Nataraja.[44] This scene generated a huge controversy as orthodox Brahmins objected to Vedhiyar falling on the feet of Nandan as Vedhiyar was incidentally played by Viswanatha Iyer who was a Brahmin in real life and Nandan was played by K. B. Sundarambal who belonged to a lower caste.[44] In Subrahmnayam's Seva Sadanam, one of the actors Natesa Iyer drew flak from the Brahmin orthodoxy for acting in a controversial scene wherein he throws away his sacred thread.[45]

When C. N. Annadurai and a few top leaders of the Dravidar Kazhagam left the organization and formed a new political party called Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and decided to contest elections,[46] they viewed mass media as the most important tool to carry the ideology and principles of their new party to the masses.[47] As a result, a number of films were made condemning what they regarded as "Brahmin oppression" and advocating social reform and atheism. The first important film attacking the Brahmin orthodoxy was Parasakthi which was a resounding hit and launched the career of Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan. The film featured a controversial scene wherein a temple priest tries to rape a woman and was considered for a ban.[48] However, the film became popular with the masses and triggered an era wherein many more films supporting the Dravidian ideology were made. Vedham Pudhidhu[49] by Bharathiraja was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s. The story revolved around a non-Brahmin boy who learns music from a respected Brahmin . In the process, he falls in love with the priest's daughter and the duo prepare to elope when confronted by opposition from the society. In recent times, Iyers have been portrayed as conservative and narrow-minded in films as Avvai Shanmugi, Panchathanthiram, Dasavatharam and Seval.

Kerala Iyers too have been portrayed in Tamil films as naive people in films such as Michael Madana Kama Rajan and Nala Damayanthi.[50]

There have also been a few non-Tamil films in which Iyers have been portrayed in a negative way. The Hindi TV serial, Taarak Mehta stereotypes an Iyer family as highly educated and sophisticated with the husband being a prominent scientist and wife being like a model. In the Hindi movie Dhamaal, within one of the scenes, the character portraying a car driver leading Adi and Manav to Goa has an immensely long Iyer name meant to be ridiculed. That character's name is "Prabhakarna Sripalawardhana Attapattu...Venugopal Iyer".

External links[edit]


  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. 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 c 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
  22. ^ a b Krishnaswami Aiyangar, Pg 47
  23. ^ Krishnaswami Aiyangar, Pg 51
  24. ^ Krishnaswami Aiyangar, Pg 52
  25. ^ Characters in Malayalam movie 'Iyer the Great' from IMDB
  26. ^ 'Iyer IPS' Move Review from indiaglitz.com
  27. ^ Encyclpopaedia of Indian Literature. Sahitya akademi. 1992. p. 3899. ISBN 978-81-260-1221-3. 
  28. ^ a b Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature,Pg 257
  29. ^ Folk Tales of Southern India, Pg 14
  30. ^ Sachi Sri Kantha (1992). "Part 8: The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism". Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki). Retrieved 2008-09-03. [dead link]
  31. ^ Revolt, Pg 10
  32. ^ Revolt, Pg 11
  33. ^ Revolt, Pg 12
  34. ^ Revolt, Pg 13
  35. ^ Periyar Speeches and Writings
  36. ^ a b Subramanian Swami (2003). "Is the Dravidian movement dying?". Frontline 20 (12). [dead link]
  37. ^ Sivaraman, Mythily (2006). Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive. Zubaan. ISBN 81-89013-11-4. 
  38. ^ a b c d e Viswanathan, S. (2005). "Portrait of a novelist as a social reformer". Frontline 22 (17). [dead link]
  39. ^ Merchant, Ameen (2007). The Silent Raga. Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 978-1-55365-309-7. 
  40. ^ Siddharth, Gautam. "Crisis before Brahminism". The Pioneer. Retrieved 2008-09-03. [dead link]
  41. ^ Ravishankar, Ra (November 16, 2004). "The Brahmanic citadel shaken". Counter Currents. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  42. ^ Chanda, Arup (December 8, 2006). "Stir in Tamil Nadu over Periyar’s statue". The Tribune. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  43. ^ Marx, Rajan (December 12, 2006). "Idol-breaking as politics". India Interacts. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  44. ^ a b c Guy, Randor (February 8, 2008). "Nandanar - 1935". The Hindu: Cinema Plus/ Columns (Chennai, India). Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  45. ^ Guy, Randor (February 1, 2008). "Seva Sadanam - 1938". The Hindu: Cinema Plus/ Columns (Chennai, India). Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  46. ^ Srinivas, M N (1995). Social Change in Modern India. Orient Longman. ISBN 978-81-250-0422-6. 
  47. ^ Özbudun, Ergun; Myron Weiner (1987). Competitive Elections in Developing Countries. Duke University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-8223-0766-9. 
  48. ^ A. Srivathsan (2006-06-12). "Films and the politics of convenience". Chennai, India: idlebrain.com. Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  49. ^ Vedham Pudhidhu
  50. ^ Kerala Iyer characters in Tamil films