|Classification||Feudal lords, Landlords, Scholars, Farmers|
|Religions||Saiva Siddhantam, Hinduism, Christianity|
|Related groups||Tamil people|
|‡ Shared by other groups|
Vellalars (also, Velalars, Vellalas) were, originally an elite caste of Tamil agricultural landlords in Tamil Nadu, Kerala states in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka; they were the aristocracy of the ancient Tamil order (Chera/Chola/Pandya/Sangam era) and had close relations with the different royal dynasties. The Vellalar were during ancient and medieval period landlords and part of the elite caste who were major patrons of literature. During the Chola period the Vellalar community was the dominant secular aristocratic caste, providing the courtiers, most of the army officers, the lower ranks of the bureaucracy and the upper layer of the peasantry.
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". The Journal of Indian History, Vol VII, explains that Vellalars, the controllers of the flood, irrigated their fields when the rivers were in flood, and raised the rice-crop on damp rice-fields; while the Karalars were controllers of the rain, who looked up to the sky for watering their fields and stored rain water in tanks. The Journal of Kerala Studies, Vol 14, says the etymological interpretations connecting Vellalar with Velir are unconvincing. 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.
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. 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.
They had close associations and held high positions of office with the three main Tamil dynasties, Chera, Chola and Pandya. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
There are numerous subcastes which claim Vellalar roots and identity. Some subdivisions might intermarry, while others will not.
Vellalas are concerned, they have broadly three layers. The first layer consists of Saiva Vellalars (Saiva Mudaliars and Pillais). They are vegetarian, literate and sophisticated like Brahmins except priestly duties but also were major landowners, feudal lords and powerful like Rajputs or Thakurs of Northern India and were village administrators like Kayasthas of Central and Eastern India. There are a number of sub-castes/clans among them like Thondaimandala Vellalar, Karkatha Vellalar, Tirunelveli Saiva Vellalar, Yazhpana Saiva Vellalar etc., and most of them intermarry these days. Some of them are Samana Vellalars, who follow Jainism in Tamil Nadu.
The second layer consists of a number of unique castes, which do not intermarry at all, during medieval era they were different castes but changed their names and customs of that of Saiva Vellalar for social upward mobility. The castes like Kongu Vellalar, (Western Tamilnadu) Pandia Vellalar,(Madurai) Chozhia Vellalar, (Trichy & Thanjavur) Tuluva Vellalar (North Tamilnadu), Arcot Mudaliar (North Tamilnadu), Nanjil Vellalar (Kanya Kumari), Vellalars (Jaffna) are concentrated in specific parts of Tamilnadu and are similar to Reddies, Kammas, Vokkaligas and Lingayats.
The third layer consists of certain other castes who have started using the title of vellalar like Isai vellalar (Temple musicians and dancers), Devendrakula Vellalars (Pallars, agricultural labourers), etc., but not related to Vellalar in origin.
In Kerala and Sri Lanka
The Vellalars of Jaffna have been chronicled clearly in the Yalpana Vaipava Malai and other historical texts of Jaffna kingdom. These Vellalar chiefs claim descent from traditional minor-kings and chiefs of Tamil Nadu. They have been commanders of Chola and Pandya armies as well as respected ministers and administrators. 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.
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.
- 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...
- The New Cambridge History of India: Vijayanagara by Burton Stein p.134
- The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant: Evolution of Merchant Capitalism in the Coromandel by Kanakalatha Mukund p.166
- Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India and the making of the Indo-Islamic World by André Wink p.321
- Rural Society in Southeast India by Kathleen Gough p.29 Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-23889-2
- 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..."
- Journal of Indian History, Vol VII, 1928 states: "To proceed from Mullai to Marudam ; in the lowermost reaches of the rivers lived the farmers, of whom there were two classes, (1) the Vellalar, the controllers of the flood, who irrigated their fields when the rivers were in flood, and raised the rice-crop on damp rice-fields with the extraordinary patience and industry which only the Indian peasant is capable of; (2) the Karalar, controllers of the rain, who looked up to the sky for watering their fields, who stored the rain water in tanks and ponds and dug wells and lifted the water by means of water-lifts of different kinds.."
- 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".
- 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.."
- Madras journal of literature and science, Volume 13 By Madras Literary Society and Auxiliary of the Royal Asiatic Society, p.41
- 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"
- 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,..."
- Rural Society in Southeast India By Kathleen Gough pages 29: "The Vellalar were the dominant secular aristocratic caste..."
- 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."
- 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..."
- The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago — Page 113 by V. Kanakasabhai — Tamil (Indic people) - 1904 - 240 pages
- K.A.N. Sastri, The Colas p 49
- Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden
- 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..
- 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 ."
- Yalpana Vaipava Malai
- Etherington, Norman, ed. (2005). Missions and Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19153-106-4.
- Lucassen, Jan; Lucassen, Leo (2014). Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience. BRILL. ISBN 978-9-00427-136-4.