The Vanniyar, also spelled Vanniya,[1] who were once known as the Palli, are a community or jāti found in Southern India.


Several etymologies for Vanniyar have been suggested, including the Sanskrit vahni ("fire"),[2][3] the Dravidian val ("strength"),[4] or the Sanskrit or Pali vana ("forest").[5] The term Palli is widely used to describe them but is considered to be derogatory.[6]

Alf Hiltebeitel notes that the Vanniyars derive their caste name from Vahni. Vahni itself is thought to yield the Tamil word Vanni (fire), which is also a Tamil name for an important tree.[3] The connection to the sage leads to further associations with mythological legends.[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 (provider) 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, who were then known as Pallis, 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][lower-alpha 1]

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[13] and extending state-wide in 1952.[14][lower-alpha 2] 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 to Vanniyar rather than Palli, was evidenced in the community adopting such practices as vegetarianism and prohibiting the remarriage of widows,[15] 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 Khatriyas, 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.[16]

The caste has also been significant in the practices of the Draupaudi cult, together with the Konars and Vellalar Mudaliars, and quite possibly were the instigators of it, with the other two communities being later adopters.[3]

In addition to domestic slavery there were number of agricultural labor relationships. According to Ravi Ahuja, Paraiyar or Palli farmhands sometimes called pannaiyals were collectively bound to their home village soil. Pallis mobility was severely restricted but the powers exercised by their masters were also limited such slaves cannot be expelled or transferred to another village, even if the masters left the region themselves. As Dharma Kumar, argues the term slavery does not adequately describe the many forms of bondage existing with in the traditional agrarian society. Caste involved a number of criteria slavery like criteria like restriction of freedom, forced labor and ownership.[17]


Rudolph noted that, although "necessarily tentative" because of being based on figures from the 1931 census, the Vanniyars in the 1980s constituted around 10 per cent 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 per cent of the population.[9] Traditionally, most Vanniyars are agricultural labourers but they are increasingly 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.[18]

The Pattali Makkal Katchi political party was formed from the Vanniyar Sangam, a caste association. It has been known on occasion for its violent protests against Dalit people.[19]


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[20][21][22][23] 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.[23]


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."[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. Barnett, Marguerite Ross (2015). The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton University Press. p. 61. ISBN 978-1-40086-718-9.
  2. 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.
  3. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 35.
  4. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The Cult of Draupadī: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38. ISBN 978-81-208-1000-6.
  5. Gopalakrishnan, Subramanian (1988). The Nayaks of Sri Lanka, 1739-1815: Political Relations with the British in South India. New Era Publications. p. 134.
  6. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38.
  7. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 36. ISBN 9788120810006.
  8. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 33–34.
  9. 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. Rise of the Plebeians?: The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies. p. 447.
  11. Gough, Kathleen (1981). Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University press. pp. 24, 437.
  12. Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2017). Historical dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 264. ISBN 978-1-53810-685-3.
  13. Chockalingam, Joe Arun (2007). Constructing Dalit Identity. Rawat Publications. p. 43. ISBN 978-81-316-0081-8.
  14. Barnett, Marguerite Ross (2015). The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton University Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-40086-718-9.
  15. 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.
  16. Hiltebeitel, Alf (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies : from Gingee to Kurukserta. 1. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 38.
  17. Andrea Major, (2012). "Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843". History. Oxford University Press. p. 33.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  18. Gorringe, Hugo (2012). "Caste and politics in Tamil Nadu". India Seminar.
  19. "Senior Ramadoss arrested". The Telegraph. 1 May 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  20. 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.
  21. 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. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. McGilvray, Dennis B. (1982). Mukkuvar Vannimai: Tamil Caste and Matriclan Ideology in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. pp. 34–97.
  23. Karthigesu (1995). Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics. pp. 7–9. ISBN 81-234-0395-X.
  24. 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

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