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For other uses, see Vanniar (Chieftain).

The Vanniyar, who were once known as the Palli, are a community or jāti found in Southern India.


Several etymologyies for Vanniyar have been suggested, including the Sanskrit vahni ("fire"),[1] the Dravidian val ("strength"),[2] or the Sanskrit or Pali vana ("forest").[3]

Historical status

Researcher Lloyd I. Rudolph notes that as early as in 1833, the Vanniyar, who were then known as Pallis, had ceased to accept their "low caste" status, more specifically described as that of shudra by Christophe Jaffrelot and Kathleen Gough.[4][5] They 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 (warrior) varna of Hindu society. 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.[6]

The Pallis formed a number of caste organisations using their preferred name, with the Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam appearing in Madras in 1888.[7]


Traditionally most Vanniyars are agricultural labourers. Increasingly however, they are benefiting from political influence and organisation and they now own 50 per cent of the lands of the traditional landowners. The Vanniyars who previously were of the Backward Class category, were now designated as a Most Backward Caste after successful agitations by them in the 1980s. The reason for the agitation and subsequent re-classification was to avail more government benefits for the community.[8]

Vanniyars are the largest single community in Tamil Nadu[9] and are by far the most numerous among followers of the Draupadi cult in South India.[10]


The Vannimai chieftains in what is now Sri Lanka arose from a multi-ethnic and multi-caste background. A primary source, the Yalpana Vaipava Malai, states that some were descended from Vanniyar caste immigrants from modern Tamil Nadu[11][need quotation to verify][12][13][need quotation to verify][14][need quotation to verify] Some Sri Lankan historians derive the title Vannimai from the Tamil word vanam, meaning "forest", with Vannia or Wannia meaning "person from the forest", and Vannimais being large tracts of forested land.[14]


Many castes today claim descent from Malayaman. Dennis B. McGilvray states "Malayaman is a section of the Udaiyar caste in South Arcot today, but Burton Stein also finds the title in a thirteenth-century inscription identifying Vanniyar subcastes of South Arcot in the left-right caste classification typical of the Chola empire."[15]



  1. ^ Dewaraja, Lorna Srimathie (1972). A study of the political, administrative, and social structure of the Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1760. Lake House Investments. p. 189. 
  2. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The Cult of Draupadī: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN 978-81-208-1000-6. 
  3. ^ Gopalakrishnan, Subramanian (1988). The Nayaks of Sri Lanka, 1739-1815: Political Relations with the British in South India. New Era Publications. p. 134. 
  4. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe. Rise of the Plebeians?: The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies. p. 447. 
  5. ^ Gough, Kathleen. Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University press. p. 24. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Chockalingam, Joe Arun (2007). Constructing Dalit Identity. Rawat Publications. p. 43. ISBN 978-81-316-0081-8. 
  8. ^ Gorringe, Hugo (2012). "Caste and politics in Tamil Nadu". India Seminar. 
  9. ^ Gorringe, Hugo. Untouchable Citizens: Dalit Movements and Democratization in Tamil Nadu. p. 60. 
  10. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The Cult of Draupadī: Mythologies: from Gingee to Kurukserta 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 33. ISBN 978-8-12081-000-6. 
  11. ^ Indrapala, K. (1970). "The Origin of the Tamil Vanni Chieftancies of the Ceylon". Ceylon Journal of the Humanities (University of Sri Lanka) 1: 111–140. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  12. ^ Sivaratnam, C. (1968). "Tamils in early Ceylon". OCLC 248358279. As for cultivators he got down fifty one tribes of Vanniyars, a caste of agriculture experts from the Pandyan coasts ... on the invitation of Kulakoddan in c 493 for the noble purpose of cultivating the land at Tambalakamam. 
  13. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (1982). Mukkuvar Vannimai: Tamil Caste and Matriclan Ideology in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. pp. 34–97. 
  14. ^ a b Karthigesu (1995). Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics. pp. 7–9. ISBN 81-234-0395-X. 
  15. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (2008). Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Duke University Press. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-8223-8918-7. Retrieved 10 July 2013. 

Further reading