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, Saiva Vellalar, Thuluva Vellalar and Sri Lankan Vellalar. 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.
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.
The Vellalars are one of the tribes claiming ancestry from the aristocratic Velir chieftains.[note 1] The Sangam literature describes the Vellalar tribes as a landed gentry who irrigated the wet lands and the Karalar as the landed gentry in the dry lands. There were two types of Vellalar, being the cultivators called Velkudi Ulavar and the wealthy landowners called Kaniyalar or Kodikkalar. 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".
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. Following the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the early 18th century, some Vellalar converted to Christianity.
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. 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.