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Vanniyars celebrating Pongal, 1909

The Vanniyar, also spelled Vanniya,[1] formerly known as the Palli, are a Dravidian[2] community or jāti found in the northern part of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The Vanniyars were historically considered a lower caste. They have been trying to gain a higher socio-religious standing since the 19th century, using the Sanskritisation process to promote a myth of origin that they are related to the ancient Agnikula deity, born from the flames of a fire sacrifice.


Several etymologies for Vanniyar have been suggested. Alf Hiltebeitel suggests that the caste name derives from vahni, a Sanskrit word thought to be the root for the Tamil word vanni (fire), which is also a Tamil name for an important tree.[3] The connection to the sage (Jambumuni) leads to further associations with mythological legends.[4]

Other etymologies include derivation from the Dravidian val ("strength"),[5] or the Sanskrit or Pali vana ("forest").[6] The term Palli is widely used to describe them, but is considered to be derogatory.[7]

Historical status

Hiltebeitel, who classifies the Vanniyar as Shudra in the Hindu varna system, notes that South Indian society traditionally recognised neither the Kshatriya (warrior) nor Vaishya (merchant) varnas, being divided instead between Brahmins on the one hand and Shudras and untouchables on the other. Nonetheless, communities in the region frequently sought to prove a historic higher status, based on myth or occasionally probable history. He notes that "traditions of demotion from a once higher rank are a commonplace of South Indian caste mythologies".[8]

Researcher Lloyd I. Rudolph notes that as early as in 1833, the Vanniyar had ceased to accept their "low caste" status,[9] also described as being Shudra by Christophe Jaffrelot and Kathleen Gough.[10][11] Gough, however, documenting her fieldwork of 1951–53, records the Palli and the Vanniyar as separate but similar cultivating castes.[11][a] Regarding Pallis of Pondicherry, J. B. Prashant More noted, "they seem to take pleasure in considering themselves as belonging to higher castes, though they have been classified traditionally among the eighteen lower castes."[13]

Sanskritisation movement

The Pallis tried to get an order in Pondicherry that by descent they were not a low agricultural caste. In preparation for the 1871 Indian census they petitioned to be recognised as being of the Kshatriya varna.[9] They formed a number of caste organisations using their preferred name, with the Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam appearing in Madras in 1888[14] and extending state-wide in 1952.[15][b] By 1931, due to their successful politicking (a process known as Sanskritisation), the term Palli was removed from the Madras census, with the term Vanniya Kula Kshatriya appearing instead.[9] The reinvention of their history through Sanskritisation, and thus the change in their status implicit in being called Vanniyar rather than Palli, was evidenced in the community adopting such practices as vegetarianism and prohibiting the remarriage of widows,[16] and what Rudolph terms a "radically revisionist history" was supported by claims of descent from the ancient Pallava dynasty.[9]

According to Hiltebeitel, whilst the mythological claims of origin from the fire lend credence to their demand for being deemed as Kshatriyas, the claims to military origins and Kshatriya identity did not solely rely on myths. He notes that they had historically adopted various titles and terms that signified a self-image of Kshatriya status, including the Vanniyar name itself, and that

beyond linguistic indicators ... The Vanniyars' Kshatriya claims are rooted in their history. There is, to begin with, no reason to discount the ... traditions that Vanniyars formed an important part of the Pallava soldiery. And after the Pallava period there is increasing evidence of Vanniyars assuming "Kshatriya" roles and activities.[17]

The caste has also been significant in the practices relating to worship of Draupaudi Amman, together with the Konars and Vellalar Mudaliars, and quite possibly were the instigators of it, with the other two communities being later adopters. The Vanniyar practice of polyandry was perhaps related to their adoption of the cult.[18][3]

In addition to domestic slavery, there were a number of agricultural labour relationships. According to Ravi Ahuja, Paraiyar or Vanniyar farmhands sometimes called pannaiyals were collectively bound to their home village soil. Vanniyar mobility was severely restricted but the powers exercised by their masters were also limited – such slaves could not be expelled or transferred to another village, even if the masters left the region themselves. Dharma Kumar argues that the term slavery does not adequately describe the many forms of bondage existing within the traditional agrarian society. Caste involved a number of slavery-like criteria, such as restriction of freedom, forced labour and ownership.[19]

Current status

Rudolph noted that, although "necessarily tentative" because of being based on figures from the 1931 census, the Vanniyars in the 1980s constituted around 10% of the population of Tamil Nadu, being particularly prevalent in the northernmost districts of Chingelput, North Arcot, South Arcot and Salem, where they formed around 25% of the population.[9] Vanniyar/Palli constituted 30% of the population of Pondicherry in the nineteenth century.[20]

Most Vanniyars remain either marginal farmers cultivating small areas of land or landless labourers. However, it was reported in 2003 that they were being hurt significantly by the rising debt crisis engulfing Tamil Nadu agriculture, and many now worked as day labourers in Bengaluru and Chennai.[21]

Due to their population size and concentration, the Vanniyars wield significant political clout in northern Tamil Nadu. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) is a political party formed by S. Ramadoss from the Vanniyar Sangam, a caste association. It has been known on occasion for its violent protests against Dalits and draws its support base from Vanniyars.[22] The Vanniyars, who previously were of the Backward Class category, were re-designated as a Most Backward Caste after successful agitations by them in the 1980s intended to unlock more favourable education and employment entitlements from the state government under its reservation system.[23] In 2020, the PMK launched an agitation to obtain a 20% reservation entitlement for Vanniyars and forced the Tamil Nadu government to institute a caste census.[24]

Notable people



  1. ^ Aside from distinguishing the Palli and Vanniyar, Gough also distinguishes the Padaiyacchi cultivating caste,[11] which other scholars consider to be a synonym for Vanniyar.[12]
  2. ^ The creation of new names such as Agnikula Kshatriya and Vannikula Kshatriya during the period of sanskritisation was an attempt to take ownership of the Agnivanshi fire myth.[9]


  1. ^ Rudolph, Lloyd I.; Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber (1967). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-226-73137-7.
  2. ^ Kashyap, V. K.; Guha, S.; Sitalaximi, T.; Bindu, G. H.; Hasnain, S. E.; Trivedi, R. (2006). "Table 1 Ethnic, linguistic and geographical affiliations of Indian populations included in the study". BMC Genetics. 7. BMC Genomics: 28. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-7-28. PMC 1513393. PMID 16707019.
  3. ^ a b Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 35. ISBN 9788120810006.
  4. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 36. ISBN 9788120810006.
  5. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The Cult of Draupadī: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN 978-81-208-1000-6.
  6. ^ Gopalakrishnan, Subramanian (1988). The Nayaks of Sri Lanka, 1739-1815: Political Relations with the British in South India. New Era Publications. p. 134.
  7. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN 9788120810006.
  8. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 33–34. ISBN 9788120810006.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Rudolph, Lloyd I. (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. pp. 49–52. ISBN 978-0-226-73137-7.
  10. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (4 May 2012). Rise of the Plebeians?: The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies. Routledge. p. 447. ISBN 9781136516610.
  11. ^ a b c Gough, Kathleen (1981). Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University press. pp. 24, 437. ISBN 9780521040198.
  12. ^ Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2017). Historical dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 264. ISBN 978-1-53810-685-3.
  13. ^ More, J. B. P. (1 November 2020). Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and South India under French Rule: From François Martin to Dupleix 1674-1754. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-000-26372-5.
  14. ^ Chockalingam, Joe Arun (2007). Constructing Dalit Identity. Rawat Publications. p. 43. ISBN 978-81-316-0081-8.
  15. ^ Barnett, Marguerite Ross (2015). The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton University Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-40086-718-9.
  16. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. C. Hurst & Co. pp. 183–184. ISBN 978-1-85065-670-8.
  17. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN 9788120810006.
  18. ^ Soni, Sakshi (2015). "Draupadi in Folk Performances and Sculptural Representations" (PDF). Delhi University Journal of Humanities and the Social Sciences. 2: 25–40.
  19. ^ Andrea Major (2012). Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772–1843. Oxford University Press. pp. 33. ISBN 978-1-84631-758-3. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  20. ^ Mathew, K. S.; Stephen, S. Jeyaseela (1999). Indo-French Relations. Pragati Publications. p. 154. ISBN 978-81-7307-061-7.
  21. ^ N., Nakeeran (13 September 2003). "Women's Work, Status and Fertility: Land, Caste and Gender in a South Indian Village". Economic and Political Weekly. 38 (37): 3931–3939.
  22. ^ "Senior Ramadoss arrested". The Telegraph. 1 May 2013. Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  23. ^ Gorringe, Hugo (2012). "Caste and politics in Tamil Nadu". India Seminar.
  24. ^ "PMK agitation in support of reservation for Vanniyars paralyses traffic". The Hindu. 2 December 2020. ISSN 0971-751X.
  25. ^ John L. Varianno, Jean-Luc Racine and Viramma Josianne Racine (1997). Viramma: life of an untouchable. Verso. p. 293. ISBN 978-1859848173.
  26. ^ "Forbes India Magazine - Print".
  27. ^ "Former Union minister Vazhapadi dead". 27 October 2002 – via The Economic Times - The Times of India.
  28. ^ "P.T.LEE Chengalvaraya Naicker College of Engineering and Technology-Kanchipuram". Ptleecncet.org. Archived from the original on 1 February 2015. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  29. ^ I. Rudolph, Lloyd; Susanne Hoeber Rudolph (1969). The Modernity of Tradition: political development in India. University of Chicago. pp. 56. ISBN 0-226-73137-5.
  30. ^ "Why Padayachie is the right choice". TechCentral. 3 November 2010. Retrieved 3 July 2024.
  31. ^ "Anbumani Ramadoss". India.gov.in. 1 September 2017. Archived from the original on 26 December 2017.
  32. ^ "N Rangasamy". www.oneindia.com. 11 March 2016. Retrieved 25 November 2019.
  33. ^ "Veteran broadcaster 'Thenkatchi' Swaminathan passes away". The Times of India. 17 September 2009. Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  34. ^ "Tension in Kaduvetti as Guru's kin attacked". DTNext.in. Archived from the original on 22 November 2021. Retrieved 16 February 2022.
  35. ^ "Caste politics may bail out Veerappan". The Times of India. 6 August 2000. ISSN 0971-8257. Retrieved 23 June 2023. A backward caste Vanniyar, Veerappan's Robin Hood status in the Vanniyar belt of north and west Tamil Nadu could explain why various parties and leaders are anxious to appease him.

Further reading