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Classification Farmers, Landlords, Chieftain
Religions Saiva Siddhantam, Hinduism
Languages Tamil
Related groups Tamil people
‡ Shared by other groups

Vellalars (also, Velalars, Vellalas) is a Tamil forward caste found mainly in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and in northeastern parts of Sri Lanka.[1] Their traditional occupation is agriculture also serving as landlords.[2] They were major patrons of literature in medieval era.[3] They were a dominant secular aristocratic caste who contributed as courtiers, army officers, lower ranks of the bureaucracy and upper layer of the peasantry.[4]


There are different theories concerning the meaning of the word 'Vellalar'. One theory postulates it is derived from Vellam (meaning flood in Tamil) and alar (ruler or controller), so Vellalar means "Lord of the floods".[5] The Journal of Kerala Studies, Vol 14, says the etymological interpretations connecting Vellalar with Velir are unconvincing.[6][full citation needed] It suggests that the word Vellalar comes from the root Vellam for flood, which gave rise to various rights of land; and it is because of the acquisition of land rights that the Vellalar got their name. Rangaswamy and Araṅkacāmi say the Vellālars are probably the descendants of the Vēlir; but the words Veļļālar, Vēļāņmai, Vēļālar, are derived from their art of irrigation and cultivation rather than from their original chieftainship.[7][full citation needed] As per T. K. Venkatasubramanian the association of vellalar with velir is speculative and there is no historical evidence for such an association.[8]


Vellālars worshipping lingam, snake-stones and Ganēsa from Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909).

The Vellalars have a long cultural history that goes back to over two millennia in southern India.[9] They were the ruling and land owning community of South India.[10][11]

The Vellalar tribes are described as a landed gentry who irrigated the wet lands and the Karalar were the landed gentry in the dry lands.[12][13] Numerous poems in the ancient Sangam literature extol these chieftains' charity and truthfulness. Among the most prominent were those known as the 'seven patrons' (kadaiyezhu vallal); Vel-Pari, Malayaman Thirumudi Kaari, Ori, Adigaman, Began, Nalli and Ay Kandiran.[14]

They had close associations and held high positions of office with the three main Tamil dynasties, Chera, Chola and Pandya.[13] Some of them had marital relations; Ilamcetcenni, the king known for his fleet of warships, married a Velir princess, and his son Karikala Chola also married a Velir princess from Nangur.[15][full citation needed]

Cultivation in South Asia was spread by force, people would move out into virgin land, which was used by hunter gatherer or tribal people for slash and burn agriculture or for hunting and convert into prime agricultural land.[16] This was an honorific title of select few people who would organize such raids and settlements like chiefs who were also called as Vel. Today everybody uses it but once it was restricted to village headman or founding chief's lineage.[16]

The Vellalars who were land owners and tillers of the soil and held offices pertaining to land, were ranked as Sat-Sudra in the 1901 census; with the Government of Madras recognising that the 4-fold division did not describe the South Indian, or Dravidian, society adequately.[17] It was pointed out that land-based communities quite distinct from the Vellala have claimed Vellala status and in course of time have gained acceptance and intermarried with older Vellalar families.[citation needed] In Post-Independent India too, it was noted that families regarded as pure Vellalar caste (Saiva Vellalars) were reluctant to question the bona fides of those pretending to be Vellalar, since the line between them was noted to be very thin indeed; with the former occasionally drawing partners for marriage from the ranks of the latter.[18]

Major divisions

There are numerous subcastes which claim Vellalar roots and identity. Some subdivisions might intermarry, while others will not.

In Kerala and Sri Lanka

The Vellalars of Sri Lanka have been chronicled clearly in the Yalpana Vaipava Malai and other historical texts of Jaffna kingdom. From the 13th century when migration of Vellalar chiefs to Jaffna took place, Tamil Nadu has seen a decline in the traditional power of Vellalars except in Kongu Nadu.[19]

Cultural evolution and assimilation of other castes

Most subcastes of Vellalar in general are believed to be the first of the group of Tamils to be Sanskritised.[citation needed]

Following the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the early 18th century, some Vellalar converted to Christianity.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Holt, John (2011-04-13). The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press. ISBN 0822349825. 
  2. ^ Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2017-09-15). Historical Dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781538106860. 
  3. ^ Sen, Sailendrda Nath. Ancient Indian History and Civilization (2nd ed.). pp. 205, 207. ... the Vellalars were the aristocratic classe and were held in high esteem... 
  4. ^ Gough, Kathleen (2008-01-03). Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521040198. 
  5. ^ Journal of the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society By Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Ceylon Branch, Colombo: "'Vellalar' is also said to be a contract form of 'Vella-Alar', meaning 'the lords of the Vellam', flood..."[1]
  6. ^ The Journal of Kerala Studies, Vol 14, p.6-7: "Also some modern scholars have tried to equate them with the Vellalar caste. However, such etymological interpretations to connect Vellalar with Velir appear unconvincing".
  7. ^ The surnames of the Caṅkam age: literary & tribal, by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy, Mor̲appākkam Appācāmi Turai Araṅkacāmi, p.151-155: "The commentators on Tolkappiyam speak of two kinds of cultivators the Melvaramdars and the Kilvaramdars, relying upon like ‘Kutipurantarunar param ompi’ (Patir 13, line 24), ‘safeguarding the burden of those who protect the cultivators’, - and of some cutrams in Akatinnai Iyal (24, 29, 30) and the Marapiyal (80, 81, 84)...Tolkappiyar is not concerned with the codification of the actual habits and social conditions of the castes as contrasted with the literary tradition. Therefore one is tempted to look upon these as interpolations of a later age. Therefore the attempt at confusing the velir with vellalar and at identifying the Vellalar with the Sudras of the Smritis, is misleading. The word Vellalar comes from the root Vellam, the flood of the water which the Vellālar directed into proper channels; the name Kārālar is an exact equivalent of this word. But this does not mean the Vellālars may not be the descendants of the Vēlir; probably they are; but the words Veļļālar, Vēļāņmai, Vēļālar, are derived from their art of irrigation and cultivation rather than from their original chieftainship.."
  8. ^ T. K. Venkatasubramanian (1993). "Societas to Civitas: evolution of political society in South India : pre-Pallavan Tamil̤akam". History. Kalinga Publications, 1993. p. 64. 
  9. ^ Meluhha and Agastya : Alpha and Omega of the Indus Script By Iravatham Mahadevan pages 16: "The Ventar-Velir-Velalar groups constituted the ruling and land-owning classes in the Tamil country since the beginning of recorded history""Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2011. 
  10. ^ Al-Hind: Early medieval India and the expansion of Islam, 7th-11th centuries By André Wink pages 321: "Not only were the Vellalas the landowning communities of South India,..."[2]
  11. ^ Rural Society in Southeast India By Kathleen Gough pages 29: "The Vellalar were the dominant secular aristocratic caste..."[3]
  12. ^ Tamil studies: essays on the history of the Tamil people, language, religion and literature By Muttusvami Srinivasa Aiyangar pages 63: "No traces of the Tamil kings are to be found at present in this country, and it is highly probable that they should have merged in the pure Vellala caste."[4]
  13. ^ a b Racial Synthesis in Hindu Culture by S.V. Viswanatha page 156: "The Tamil kings (...) in spite of their connexion with the ancient velir or vellala tribes..."
  14. ^ The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago — Page 113 by V. Kanakasabhai — Tamil (Indic people) - 1904 - 240 pages
  15. ^ K.A.N. Sastri, The Colas p 49
  16. ^ a b Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden
  17. ^ Kingship and political practice in colonial India, by Pamela G. Price, p.61: "...when government census officers placed Vellalar in the Sat-Sudra or Good Sudra category in its 1901 census, Vellalar castemen petitioned this designation, protesting this designation..
  18. ^ Encyclopaedia of the Theoretical Sociology (3 Vols. Set), by A.P. Thakur, p.182: "Even families who might be regarded as of 'pure' Vellalar caste are reluctant to question the bona fides of the Vellalar 'pretenders' since the line between them is very thin indeed [5]."
  19. ^ Yalpana Vaipava Malai Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ Etherington, Norman, ed. (2005). Missions and Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19153-106-4. 

Further reading

  • Lucassen, Jan; Lucassen, Leo (2014). Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience. BRILL. ISBN 978-9-00427-136-4.