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Regions with significant populations
Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh
Brahmin Tamil
Related ethnic groups
Iyer, Vadagalai Iyengar, Tamil people, Deshastha Brahmin

Vadama (Tamil: வடமா) meaning "Northerners" are a sub-sect of the Iyer community of Tamil Brahmins. While some believe that their name is an indication of the fact that they were the most recent Brahmin migrants to the Tamil country others interpret the usage of the term "Vadama" as a reference to their strict adherence to the Sanskrit language and Vedic rituals which are of northerly origin . It may also be possible that Vadamas may be Brahmins whose origins lie in the Dravida region of northern Tamil Nadu. Like other Iyer communities, they follow the Advaita philosophy propounded by Adi Shankara. A significant proportion of the Vadama community adopted Vaishnavism, and are thus believed to have given rise to the Vadagalai Iyengar community. The oldest historical references to Vadamas date from the first millennium AD. A large number of Vadamas migrated to Kerala during the medieval period, so that Vadamas along with the Brahacharnam form the majority of the Kerala Iyer community. A section of the Vadama community also migrated north to the Telugu country and Maharashtra where they were known as "Dravidas".

Vadamas have a martial tradition unlike most other Iyer communities. They are believed to have been the protectors of Brahmin villages or agraharams and served as administrators and advisors to Tamil and Telugu kings during the medieval and early modern period.

Etymology of the term

The term Vadama may have originated from the Tamil term 'Vadakku' meaning North, indicating the Northern origin of the Vadama Brahmins.[1] This claim is supported by the fact that, unlike other subsects of Iyers, some Vadama pay oblations in their daily Sandhyavandanam to the river Narmada in Central India.[2] However, what is not certain is whether 'North' refers to northern Tamil Nadu/Southern Deccan, or regions farther north. Other scholars are of the opinion that rather than the superficial indication of a northern origin for the people, the term "vadama" would rather refer to proficiency in Sanskrit and Vedic ritual, generally associated with the north prior to the first millennium A. D.[3][4]


Vadamas are further sub-divided into five categories

  • Vadadesa Vadama (Vadamas of the northern country)[5]
  • Choladesa Vadama[6][7](Vadamas of the Chola country)[5]
  • Sabhaiyar(member of the conference (Sabha))[5]
  • Injee[4][5] and
  • Thummagunta Dravida.[5]

Intermarriage with other Iyer sects has been increasing in recent times, while earlier, most marriages were arranged only within the same subsect of Vadama. Such a degree of exclusion has become rather uncommon now. Exceptions did exist, such as the marriage of Kurratalwan's sons(Considered to be Vadama followers of Sri Vaishnavism), which took place outside the Vadama fold.[8]


Some historians hold that all Brahmins who migrated to the far-south during and after the age of the Gupta Emperors, came to be classified as Vadama.[9]

First millennium A.D.

There is a perception that some Kashmir-linked Vadama settled in Tirunelveli between 750 and 800 AD. An interesting fact corroborating this migration may be had from the treatise called Natyashastra written by Bharata Muni, held by some to have been from Kashmir and by others to be from the south, formed the basis of the dance-form Bharatanatyam which is particularly associated with Tamil Nadu.[10] Art Historians such as Vasundhara Filliozat claim that there are inscriptional evidences to prove the continuous migration of teachers from Kashmir to South.[10] Such scholars also state that some other South Indian Saivaite and Tantric traditions were also introduced by teachers from Kashmir.[10]

It appears that the Sabhaiyar group of the Vadama, were present in the Chola Empire in the 9th century, since the grant of the "entire village of Chirri[dai]yarru excluding the kani of Samgappadi-kilan was made to the temple of Mahadeva at Tirumalpperu as a tax-free devadana in the 21st year [892 A.D.] of the reign of Chola Aditya I and the administration of the charity was entrusted to the sabhaiyar of Puduppakkam in Purisanadu".[11]

Second millennium

11th to the 14th century

The Srivaishnava hold that their guru Ramanujacharya, born in the first quarter of the 11th century,[12] was a Vadama by birth.

14th and 15th centuries

Instability prevailed in Peninsular India in the aftermath of the defeat of the Yadavas of Deogiri and Kakatiyas of Warangal in the early 14th century by the Tughlaqs. In response to the Moslem irruptions the Kingdom of Vijayanagar was founded in 1336, and came to be locked in an existential struggle with the Bahmani Sultanate from 1347 to 1490, when the Moslem state broke up. This early period was marked by much strife, especially in the jihads of Taj ud-Din Firuz Shah (1397–1422) and his brother Ahmad Shah I Wali (1422–1435), when thousands of Hindus, especially Brahmins, were enslaved and temples of the northern Deccan desecrated.[12] The oppression was also felt in the eastern peninsula as far as the Gajapati Kingdom where, for instance in 1478, Muhammad Shah III Lashkari (1463–1482) demolished the Great Temple of Kondavidu and was acclaimed as a ghazi, for personally decapitating all the Brahmins.[12] Such excesses induced Brahmins to seek refuge in the realms of Vijayanagar, where many were appointed karnams (bailiffs) in preference to other castes, from the reign of Harihara I (1336–1357) onward.[12]

Early 16th century

After the division of the Bahmani Sultanate in 1490, into the Sultanates of Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmadnagar and Berar, the armies of Vijayanagar were successful in fending of invasions and restricting the Sultanates to Central India, especially in the reign of Krishnadeva Raya (1509–1529), who also began the practice of appointing Brahmins commanders of strategically important forts.[12]

16th and 17th centuries

Relative peace prevailed until the Battle of Talikota, in 1565, when Rama Raya of Vijayanagar was killed and the capital city razed to the ground. The land, in addition to being plundered by the combined armies of the Sultanates, came to be oppressed by renegade polygars and bandits whose rise commenced with the destruction of the central power.[12] The Mogul invasion of Peninsular India and the depredations of the Deccan by the Mahrattas under Shivaji also began early in the 17th century.

A combination of these belligerent powers and the desolation they helped create appears to have made the relative peace offered in the far south of the country under the Hindu kings of Travancore, Madurai, Tanjore and Mysore, far more desirable and induced many Hindus to migrate there. A fact supporting this idea, we have from English chroniclers in the 17th century, who state that their procurement of goods along the Western Concan and Canara coasts, suffered severely after the Mogul invasions and the mass depopulation of the peninsula they caused.[13] Another statement often encountered in their annals is that the economic growth of the factory at Fort St. George, Madras was in a large measure attributable to the fact that many people chose to settle there to escape the chaotic conditions farther north.[13] When we consider, in conjunction with these two facts, Fort St. George's position as a newly established, well-fortified and growing settlement in Aurangzeb's time, and therefore a secure refuge, a mass exodus southwards seems to have occurred in the period in question.

The relatives and family members of C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, a Vadadesa Vadama, believed that they were descended from Brahmins of the Desh region of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh who migrated to Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh from where they migrated to the northern part of Tamil Nadu in the 16th century where they were granted the village of Chetpet by a local chieftain.[14]

17th century to the present

During the 19th century, the Vadamas along with other Tamil Brahmins made ample use of the opportunities provided by British rule to dominate the civil services, legislature and the judiciary in the Madras Presidency. Throughout the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century there was intense political rivalry between the Vadamas and the Brahacharanams for the domination of Brahmin villages called agraharams.[15]

Communities related to the Vadamas

Iyengar communities

The Vaishnavite spiritual leader Ramanuja is generally believed to have been born a Vadama. Under his tutelage, numerous Vadamas adopted Vaishnavism and are believed to have given rise to the Vadakalai Iyengar community.[5][16][17][18][19] The transformation of the Vadama Ramanuja into a Sri Vaishnava, which happened concurrently with his education and increasing philosophic investigation, gave rise to a Tamil proverb - "Vadamam muthi Vaishnavam", i.e. a "Vadama ripens into a Vaishnava".[5] Edgar Thurston recounts at the beginning of the 20th century, the widespread prevalence of inter-marriage between Vaishnavite converts from the Thummagunta Dravida sub-group and Smartha girls from the same sub-sect.[19] Thurston also recounts that Vadamas often observed death pollution in some Vaishnavite families and vice versa.[5][19]

Gurukkal Brahmins

Some of the Gurukkal in temples in Tamil Nadu, are Vadama, though not recognised as such by the community, since they have certain practices that are prohibited for the Vadama.[4]

There is also evidence that some South Indian Brahmins settled in Kashmir. The actual sect of their origin is not known.[20]

Aarama Dravidulu

There is a perception that the ancestors of some Aarama Dravidulu Brahmins of Andhra Pradesh migrated in the 13th and 14th centuries, from Saurashtra to the banks of the River Cauvery in Tamil Nadu, whence some of them migrated to Andhra Pradesh, by all accounts before the 18th century.[21]

Traditional occupation

Vadama Temple Priests in Tamil Nadu

They are held to have been the land-lords and head-men of the Brahmin villages called agraharams.[22] Sociologist Andre Beteille, in his thesis Caste, class, and power: changing patterns of stratification in a Tanjore village, describes them as the biggest mirasidars among the Iyer community. They may also have organised the agraharams' defence in turbulent times[22] for though there were not many who joined the army, they were not specifically forbidden to take to arms.[23] A proverb still prevalent amongst the Iyers indicating the supposed short-temper of Vadama Brahmins, may be indicative of their martial past.[citation needed] They were among the Brahmin nobles and administrators under the Nayaka, Travancore and Vijayanagar rulers. Administrative practices adopted by them were strictly in accordance with those prescribed in the Hindu Dharma-Shastras, as may be observed from the records of the kings themselves.

But, as with other Brahmins, their primary duties were to study the Vedas, teach them and perform the ceremonies they entailed. The vast majority of them, until the 19th century, were household priests with some even being temple-priests, particularly in Travancore.

Many were great scholars and served in the courts of kings. Nilakanta Dikshitar was a minister to Thirumalai Nayak of Madurai.[24]

In the 19th century, as with other Iyers, many of the Vadama joined, the judiciary of British India as lawyers and judges, or served in the Indian Civil and Revenue Services. Many others continued in the service of the kings of the princely states of Travancore, Mysore, Pudukottai, and Ramnad.[25]

Religious practices

The crescent or U-mark applied with the Gopichandanam is mostly used as caste mark by the Vadamas

While the religious rituals of the Vadama are, in almost all respects, identical with those of other Iyers, there are a few minor deviations from them. One of these lies in the practice of some men applying Gopi Chandanam, an yellow pigment of mineral origin similar in appearance to that obtained from sandalwood, on the forehead, instead of Vibhuthi. However, others like Appayya Dikshitar's family applied only Vibhuti, being staunch devotees of Shiva. While it was more common in former times, the use of Gopi Chandanam continues, being replaced by Vibhuthi otherwise. Some Vadamas also sported the Vaishnavite namam. They were known as kutthunamakarar.

The Vadama traditionally claim to be superior to other classes of Iyers.[26] One ritualistic difference from other Iyers, arises in their having to recite the following verse in honour of the River Narmada, and to ward of serpents, as part of their Sandhyavandanam:

Narmadayai namah pratah Narmadayai namo nisi
Namostu Narmade tubhyam pahi mam visa-sarpatah[27]

Also, in some parts of Kerala, as Nambudiri Brahmacharis were not commonly found,[28] a Brahmachari belonging to the Vadadesa Vadama was required to pour water into the hands of a Nambudiri sanyasi as part of the rituals connected with the latter's breakfast.[29]

Vadamas have also significantly contributed towards popularizing and propagating the worship of Lord Shiva and Devi.[30][31]

In popular culture

  • In the television series Krishnadasi, Rudramoorthi Dikshitar (portrayed by Gemini Ganesan), one of the main characters, sports a Gopi chandanam, thereby suggesting that he was a Vadama.
  • In the television series Alaigal, the young Ranga sports a gopi chandanam mark on his forehead.








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