Vellalar is a generic Tamil term used primarily by various castes who traditionally pursued agriculture as a profession in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and northeastern parts of Sri Lanka. Some of the communities that identify themselves as a Vellalar are the numerically strong Arunattu Vellalar, Chozhia Vellalar, Karkarthar Vellalar, Kongu Vellalar, Thuluva Vellalar and Sri Lankan Vellalar.[2][3] Despite being a relatively lowly group, they were dominant communities in Tamil agrarian societies for 600 years until the decline of the Chola empire in the 13th century, with their chieftains able to practise state-level political authority after winning the support and legitimisation of Brahmins and other higher-ranked communities with grants of land and honours.[4]

The word Vellalar may come 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.[5]

The earliest reference to the name is attested in the Tolkāppiyam, which divided the society in four classes Arasar, Andanar, Vanigar and Vellalar.[6]

The Vellalars have a long cultural history that goes back to over two millennia in southern India,[7] where once they were the ruling and land-owning community.[8][9]

The Travancore Government Gazette of 19th September 1911,states: "6. Of the three subdivisions among Vysias, the Vellalas belong to one that is known as Bhoo-Vysias. Agriculture is their chief occupation. But Government service is also largely resorted to by them. Tamil is their mother tongue. The total number of Nanjanad Vellalas is about 20.000 of whom the number of literate males is about 33 per mille, and that of literate females, 18 per mille."[10][11]

The Karmandala Satakam by Ãrai Kiḻãr, dated 1292-1342 C.E,states in verse 52: "The Vellalas of Karmandalam belonged to the Manava Gotra & practiced the rite of upanayana or wearing the sacred thread."[12]

In Verse 31: "The Vellālas of Kārmandalam belonged to the clan of the Gangas: they were both Srotriyas; practitioners of Vedic rites or Southerners or Virāthiyars or people who were followers of either Buddhism or Jainism or Northerners"[13]

In Verse 33: "The Gangas belonged to both Suryavamsa and Somavamsa and they had matrimonial alliances with other kings"[14]

According to the anthropologist Kathleen Gough, "the Vellalars were the dominant secular aristocratic caste under the Chola kings, providing the courtiers, most of the army officers, the lower ranks of the kingdom's bureaucracy, and the upper layer of the peasantry".[9]

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.[15] Following the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the early 18th century, some Vellalar converted to Christianity.[16]

The Vellalars of Sri Lanka have been chronicled in the Yalpana Vaipava Malai and other historical texts of the Jaffna kingdom. They form half of the Sri Lankan Tamil population and are the major husbandmen, involved in tillage and cattle cultivation.[17][2] Local Sri Lankan literature, such as the Kailiyai Malai, an account on Kalinga Magha, narrates the migration of Vellala Nattar chiefs from the Coromandel Coast to Sri Lanka.[18]

Their dominance rose under Dutch rule and they formed one of the colonial political elites of the island.[19][20]