Vellalar of Sri Lanka
Vellalar amongst Sri Lankan Tamils are a dominant group of formerly agriculturally landed people from Sri Lanka that are found amongst all walks of life and around the world; they form part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.
The Sri Lankan Tamil Vellalar identity arose from those who migrated from the neighbouring Tamil Nadu state in India in the 13th century with a high social standing, with many today being hereditary nobility derived from the aristocracy of the ancient Tamil order. The earliest reference to the Vellala is attested in the Tolkāppiyam.
According to Yalpana Vaipava Malai, a native chronicle, written in the 18th century, which narrates the history of the establishment and the fall of the Jaffna kingdom in Sri Lanka, from its rise in the 13th century to its fall in the early 17th century, many Vellalar chiefs from Tamil Nadu were responsible for organizing settlement groups from India into the Jaffna peninsula. Most of these pioneering families had titles associated with clan chiefs such as "Rayan", Thevan", "Mudali", "Mappanan" and "Malavan".
'Yalpana Vaipava Malai' explains in detail, the names and places of origin, of some of these Vellala founders' lineages. One was of the ethnic Tuluva origin whereas others were of mercantile Chetty caste. Some had independent wealth and fortune brought from their origin in India, yet others were known for their fighting ability and warlike disposition. To conclude, it explains a settlement pattern of pioneering people from South India under influence of an independent Jaffna kingdom who although were mostly of Vellala origin but also had other origins.
Rise to dominance
During the Jaffna kingdom period and the following colonial period since the 16th century, Vellala chiefs were in constant struggle for supremacy with another now-extinct caste called Madapalli. The Kings belonging to the Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty would appoint leaders from both the factions to maintain peace in the kingdom.
During the Chola period several guilds, communities and castes emerged. The guild was one of the most significant institutions of south India and merchants organised themselves into guilds. The best known of these were the Manigramam and Ayyavole guilds though other guilds such as Anjuvannam and Valanjiyar were also in existence. The farmers occupied one of the highest positions in society. These were the Vellalar community who formed the nobility or the landed aristocracy of the country and who were economically a powerful group. The Vellalar community was the dominant secular aristocratic caste under the Chola rulers, providing the courtiers, most of the army officers, the lower ranks of the bureaucracy and the upper layer of the peasantry. The Vellalar were also sent to northern Sri Lanka by the Chola rulers as settlers. The Ulavar community were working in the field associated with agriculture and the peasants were known as Kalamar.
According to Bryan Pfaffenberger, an American anthropologist who has studied the community in detail, the rise to complete dominance by the Vellala elites began with the capture of Portuguese holdings in Sri Lanka by the Dutch. The Dutch interpreted the local laws, later codified as Thesavalamai, as allowing Vellala chiefs to own slaves. Thus empowered, many tobacco plantations were created by the Vellala chiefs with the help of imported Indian workers from the Pallar caste who were held as slaves. This new-found wealth enabled the Vellalas in general to morph into a dominant landowning elite with ritual and political control. Eventually their portion of the total Tamil population of the densely populated Jaffna peninsula rose from a mere 8% to over 50%. Upwardly mobile families of people belonging to other castes also eventually associated them with the Vellala identity according to the principles of Sanskritisation. This period also saw the dispersal of Vellala lineages across the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.
During the British colonial period in Sri Lanka which began with the capture of the entire island nation and its unification by Great Britain in 1815, Vellalas began to look for education as the new opportunity to upgrade their livelihoods. Various Christian missionaries had made the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula as the best location in all of Asia for English education in the 19th century. Many Vellala families used this opportunity to educate their children, and they provided the bulk of the British colonial civil servants in Sri Lanka and in British-held Malaysia and Singapore. Slavery was also abolished in 1855 by the British colonial authorities, thus making agriculture less profitable.
Modern social standing
A wide range of communities claim Vellalar ancestry today, with many pretenders from other castes, yet the greatest proportion of Vellalars in Sri Lanka are claimed to have derived from ancient South Indian aristocracy. But what is obviously still visible is the traditional and conservative nature of the religion, Saivite Hinduism, practiced among Jaffna Tamils. They follow a conservative brand of Saiva Siddhanta which follow Agamic and Sanksritic features. In this they are similar to Saiva Vellalars of India who also consider themselves the custodians of Saiva Adheenams and Saivite culture.
Vellala political and ritual dominance was severely restricted due to the post-1983 Sri Lankan civil war domination of Tamil politics by the main rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam whose leaders were of the Karaiyar caste. They sought to weaken Velllar power and to reject views of Karaiyar as an inferior to Vellalar. LTTE's policies of anti-castism and empowerment of formerly "low" castes were presented by them as a part of the political struggle between the majority Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and itself which claimed an "exclusive" Tamil identity and homeland.
However, this was not universally applied in practice. Many who were "lower" in caste to the leadership were treated poorly, and some "low castes" were suspected of being government informers and done away by hanging them from lamp posts. The rift between the LTTE leader and Karuna Amman, the leader of the Eastern province, is believed to have a caste dimension as well, since the Northerners always held that they were superior to those in the East The "Vellarar" civilians who collaborated with the LTTE were accepted and continued to hold high positions in temples and churches. In fact, according observations by Ahilan Kadirgamar and Rajasingham Narendran regarding the "depressed classes" (i.e., those traditionally labeled as the "lower" castes) in the post-LTTE era, "there is no organized movement to improve their educational, lifestyle and cultural status", and old prejudices are coming back. The dominance of the Vellalar caste is entrenched into the socio-economic fabric due to their strong historical upper-class position, land-owner composition of the Tamil National Alliance, as well as the occupations they hold. Furthermore, they continue to retain their composition of traditional Hindus, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
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