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]

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.[10] Following the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the early 18th century, some Vellalar converted to Christianity.[11]

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.[12][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.[13]

Their dominance rose under Dutch rule and they formed one of the colonial political elites of the island.[14][15]