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Superintendent, Madras Government Museum ; Correspondant Etranger,

Socie'te'id'Anthropologie de Paris; Socio Corrispondant,

Societa Romana di Anthropologia.



of the Madras Government Museum.






filALLI OR VANNIYAN. Writing concerning
this caste the Census Superintendent, 1871*
records that "a book has been written by a
native to show that the Pallis (Pullies or Vanniar) of the
south are descendants of the fire races (Agnikulas) of
the Kshatriyas, and that the Tamil Pullies were at one
time the shepherd kings of Egypt." At the time of the
census, 1871, a petition was submitted to Government by
representatives of the caste, praying that they might be
classified as Kshatriyas, and twenty years later, in con-
nection with the census, 1891, a book entitled ' Vannikula
Vilakkam : a treatise on the Vanniya caste, ' was compiled
by Mr. T. Aiyakannu Nayakar, in support of the caste
claim to be returned as Kshatriyas, for details concerning
which claim I must refer the reader to the book itself.
In 1907, a book entitled Varuna Darpanam (Mirror of
Castes) was published, in which an attempt is made to
connect the caste with the Pallavas.

Kulasekhara, one of the early Travancore kings, and
one of the most renowned Alwars reverenced by the Sri
Vaishnava community in Southern India, is claimed by
the Pallis as a king of their caste. Even now, at the
Parthasarathi temple in Triplicane (in the city of
Madras), which according to inscriptions is a Pallava



temple, Pallis celebrate his anniversary with great eclat.
The Pallis of Komalesvaranpettah in the city of Madras
have a Kulasekhara Perumal Sabha, which manages the
celebration of the anniversary. The temple has recently
been converted at considerable cost into a temple for the
great Alwar. A similar celebration is held at the
Chintadripettah Adikesava Perumal temple in Madras.
The Pallis have the right to present the most important
camphor offering of the Mylapore Siva temple. They
allege that the temple was originally theirs, but by
degrees they lost their hold over it until this bare right
was left to them. Some years ago, there was a dispute
concerning the exercise of this right, and the case came
before the High Court of Madras, which decided the
point at issue in favour of the Pallis. One of the principal
gopuras (pyramidal towers) of the Ekamranatha temple
at Big Conjeeveram, the ancient capital of the Pallavas,
is known as Palligopuram. The Pallis of that town
claim it as their own, and repair it from time to time.
In like manner, they claim that the founder of the
Chidambaram temple, by name Sweta Varman, subse-
quently known as Hiranya Varman (sixth century A.D.)
was a Pallava king. At Pichavaram, four miles east of
Chidambaram, lives a Palli family, which claims to be
descended from Hiranya Varman. A curious ceremony
is even now celebrated at the Chidambaram temple, on
the steps leading to the central sanctuary. As soon as
the eldest son of this family is married, he and his wife,
accompanied by a local Vellala, repair to the sacred
shrine, and there, amidst crowds of their castemen and
others, a homam (sacrificial fire) is raised, and offerings
are made to it. The couple are then anointed with nine
different kinds of holy water, and the Vellala places the
temple crown on their heads. The Vellala who officiates


at this ceremony, assisted by the temple priests, is said
to belong to the family of a former minister of a descend-
ant of Hiranya Varman. It is said that, as the ceremony
is a costly one, and the expenses have to be paid by the
individual who undergoes it, it often happens that the
eldest son of the family has to remain a bachelor for half
his lifetime. The Pallis who reside at St. Thom in the
city of Madras allege that they became Christians, with
their King Kandappa Raja, who, they say, ruled over
Mylapore during the time of the visit of St. Thomas. In
1907, Mr. T. Varadappa Nayakar, the only High Court
Vakil (pleader) among the Palli community practising in
Madras, brought out a Tamil book on the history of the
connection of the caste with the ancient Pallava kings.

In reply to one of a series of questions promulgated
by the Census Superintendent, it was stated that " the
caste is known by the following names : Agnikulas and
Vanniyas. The etymology of these is the same, being
derived from the Sanskrit Agni or Vahni, meaning fire.
The following, taken from Dr. Oppert's article on the
original inhabitants of Bharatavarsa or India, explains
the name of the caste with its etymology : ' The word
Vanniyan is generally derived from the Sanskrit Vahni,
fire. Agni, the god of fire, is connected with regal
office, as kings hold in their hands the fire-wheel or
Agneya-chakra, and the Vanniyas urge in support of their
name the regal descent they claim.' The existence of
these fire races, Agnikula or Vahnikula (Vanniya), in
North and South India is a remarkable fact. No one can
refuse to a scion of the non-Aryan warrior tribe the title
of Rajputra, but in so doing we establish at once Aryan
and non-Aryan Rajaputras or Rajputs. The Vanniyan
of South India may be accepted as a representative of
the non-Aryan Rajput element"

VI- 1 B


The name Vanniyan is, Mr. H. A. Stuart writes,^
" derived from the Sanskrit vanhi (fire) in consequence
of the following legend. In the olden times, two giants
named Vatapi and Mahi, worshipped Brahma with such
devotion that they obtained from him immunity from
death from every cause save fire, which element they
had carelessly omitted to include in their enumeration.
Protected thus, they harried the country, and Vatapi
went the length of swallowing Vayu, the god of the
winds, while Mahi devoured the sun. The earth was
therefore enveloped in perpetual darkness and stillness,
a condition of affairs which struck terror into the minds
of the devatas, and led them to appeal to Brahma. He,
recollecting the omission made by the giants, directed
his suppliants to desire the rishi Jambava Mahamuni to
perform a yagam, or sacrifice by fire. The order having
been obeyed, armed horse men sprung from the flames,
who undertook twelve expeditions against Vatapi and
Mahi, whom they first destroyed, and afterwards released
Vayu and the sun from their bodies. Their leader then
assumed the government of the country under the name
Rudra Vanniya Maharaja, who had five sons, the
ancestors of the Vanniya caste. These facts are said to
be recorded in the Vaidiswara temple in the Tanjore

The Vaidiswara temple here referred to is the
Vaidiswara kovil near Shiyali. Mr. Stuart adds that
" this tradition alludes to the destruction of the city of
Vapi by Narasimha Varma, king of the Pallis or
Pallavas." Vapi, or Va-api, was the ancient name of
Vatapi or Badami in the Bombay Presidency. It was
the capital of the Chalukyas, who, during the seventh

* Manual of the North Arcot district.


century, were at feud with the Pallavas of the south.
"The son of Mahendra Varman I," writes Rai Bahadur
V. Venkayya, "was Narasimha Varman I, who retrieved
the fortunes of the family by repeatedly defeating the
Cholas, Keralas, Kalabhras, and Pandyas. He also
claims to have written the word victory as on a plate on
Pulikesin's * back, which was caused to be visible (i.e.,
which was turned in flight after defeat) at several battles.
Narasimha Varman carried the war into Chalukyan
territory, and actually captured Vatapi their capital.
This claim of his is established by an inscription found
at Badami, from which it appears that Narasimha Varman
bore the title Mahamalla. In later times, too, this Pallava
king was known as Vatapi Konda Narasingapottaraiyan.
Dr. Fleet assigns the capture of the Chalukya capital to
about A.D. 642. The war of Narasimha Varman with
Pulikesin is mentioned in the Sinhalese chronicle
Mahavamsa. It is also hinted at in the Tamil Periya-
puranam. The well-known saint Siruttonda, who had
his only son cut up and cooked in order to satisfy the
appetite of the god Siva disguised as a devotee, is said
to have reduced to dust the city of Vatapi for his royal
master, who could be no other than the Pallava king
Narasimha Varman."

I gather, from a note by Mr. F. R. Hemingway, that
the Pallis " tell a long story of how they are descendants
of one Vlra Vanniyan, who was created by a sage named
Sambuha when he was destroying the two demons named
Vatapi and Enatapi. This Vlra Vanniyan married a
daughter of the god Indra, and had five sons, named
Rudra, Brahma, Krishna, Sambuha, and Kai, whose
descendants now live respectively in the country north

* Pulikesin II, the Chalukyan King of Badami.


of the Palar in the Cauvery delta, between the Palar and
Pennar. They have written a Puranam and a drama
bearing on this tale. They declare that they are superior
to Brahmans, since, while the latter must be invested
with the sacred thread after birth, they bring their sacred
thread with them at birth itself."

"The Vanniyans," Mr. Nelson states,* "are at the
present time a small and obscure agricultural caste, but
there is reason to believe that they are descendants of
ancestors who, in former times, held a good position
among the tribes of South India. A manuscript,
abstracted at page 90 of the Catalogue raisonn^
(Mackenzie Manuscripts), states that the Vanniyans
belong to the Agnikula, and are descended from the
Muni Sambhu ; and that they gained victories by means
of their skill in archery. And another manuscript,
abstracted at page 427, shows that two of their chiefs
enjoyed considerable power, and refused to pay the
customary tribute to the Rayar, who was for a long
time unable to reduce them to submission. Armies
of Vanniyans are often mentioned in Ceylon annals.
And a Hindu History of Ceylon, translated in the Royal
As. Soc. Journal, Vol. XXIV, states that, in the year
3300 of the Kali Yuga, a Pandya princess went over
to Ceylon, and married its king, and was accompanied
by sixty bands of Vanniyans."

The terms Vanni and Vanniyan are used in Tamil
poems to denote king. Thus, in the classical Tamil
poem Kalladam, which has been attributed to the
time of Tiruvalluvar, the author of the sacred Kural,
Vanni is used in the sense of king. Kamban, the author
of the Tamil Ramayana, uses it in a similar sense. In

* Manual of the Madura district.


an inscription dated 1189 A.D., published by Dr. E.
Hultzsch,* Vanniya Nayan appears among the titles of
the local chief of Tiruchchuram, who made a grant of
land to the Vishnu temple at Manimangalam. Tiruch-
churam is identical with Tiruvidaichuram about four
miles south-east of Chingleput, where there is a ruined
fort, and also a Siva temple celebrated in the hymns
of Tirugnana Sambandhar, the great Saiva saint who
lived in the 9th century. Local tradition, confirmed by
one of the Mackenzie manuscripts,! says that this place
was, during the time of the Vijayanagar King Krishna
Raya(i509 30 A. D.), ruled over by two feudal chiefs of
the Vanniya caste named Kandavarayan and Sendava-
rayan. They, it is said, neglected to pay tribute to their
sovereign lord, who sent an army to exact it. The
brothers proved invincible, but one of their dancing-girls
was guilty of treachery. Acting under instructions, she
poisoned Kandavarayan. His brother Sendavarayan
caught hold of her and her children, and drowned them
in the local tank. The tank and the hillock close by
still go by the name of Kuppichi kulam and Kuppichi
kunru, after Kuppi the dancing-girl. An inscription of
the Vijayanagar king Deva Raya II (1419 44 A.D.)
gives him the title of the lord who took the heads of the
eighteen Vanniyas.J This inscription records a grant
by one Muttayya Nayakan, son of Mukka Nayakan of
Vanniraya gotram. Another inscription, dated 1456
A.D., states that, when one Raja Vallabha ruled at
Conjeeveram, a general, named Vanniya Chinna Pillai,
obtained a piece of land at Sattankad near Madras.

* South Indian Inscriptions, III, 31, page 82.
t In the Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras.

J J. Burgess. Archaeological Survey. Tamil and Sanskrit Inscriptions, No.
11, p. 150.

Ibid. No. 12, p. 152.


Reference is made by Orme* to the assistance which
the Vaniah of Sevagherry gave Muhammad Yusuf in
his reduction of Tinnevelly in 1757. The Vaniah here
referred to is the Zamindar of Sivagiri in the Tinnevelly
district, a Vanniya by caste. Vanniyas are mentioned in
Ceylon archives. Wanni is the name of a district in
Ceylon. It is, Mr. W. Hamilton writes,t "situated
towards Trincomalee in the north-east quarter. At
different periods its Wannies or princes, taking advan-
tage of the wars between the Candian sovereigns and
their European enemies, endeavoured to establish an
authority independent of both, but they finally, after
their country had been much desolated by all parties,
submitted to the Dutch." Further, Sir J. E. Tennent
writes, J that " in modern times, the Wanny was governed
by native princes styled Wannyahs, and occasionally by
females with the title of Wunniches."

The terms Sambhu and Sambhava Rayan are
connected with the Pall is. The story goes that Agni
was the original ancestor of all kings. His son was
Sambhu, whose descendants called themselves Sambhu-
kula, or those of the Sambhu family. Some inscriptions
of the time of the Chola kings Kulottunga III and Raja
Raja III record Sambukula Perumal Sambuvarayan and
Alagiya Pallavan Edirili Sola Sambuvarayan as titles of
local chiefs. A well-known verse of Irattayar in praise
of Conjeeveram Ekamranathaswami refers to the Pallava
king as being of the Sambu race. The later descendants
of the Pallavas apparently took Sambuvarayar and its

* History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan,

t Geographical, statistical, and historical description of Hindostan and
the adjacent countries, 1820.

Ceylon, 1860.

South Indian Inscriptions, I, 86-7, 105, 136, and III, I, 121, 123.






allied forms as their titles, as the Pallis in Tanjore and
South Arcot still do. At Conjeeveram there lives the
family of the Mahanattar of the Vanniyans, which calls
itself " of the family of Vira Sambu."

"The name Vanniyan," Mr. H. A. Stuart writes,*
seems to have been introduced by the Brahmans,
possibly to gratify the desire of the Pallis for genealogical
distinction. Padaiyachi means a soldier, and is also of
late origin. That the Pallis were once an influential
and independent community may be admitted,, and in
their present desire to be classed as Kshatriyas they
are merely giving expression to this belief, but, unless
an entirely new meaning is to be given to the term
Kshatriya, their claim must be dismissed as absurd.
After the fall of the Pallava dynasty, the Pallis became
agricultural servants under the Vellalas, and it is only
since the advent of British rule that they have begun to
assert their claims to a higher position." Further, Mr.
W. Francis writes t that " this caste has been referred
to as being one of those which are claiming for them-
selves a position higher than that which Hindu society
is inclined to accord them. Their ancestors were socially
superior to themselves, but they do not content them-
selves with stating this, but in places are taking to
wearing the sacred thread of the twice-born, and claim
to be Kshatriyas. They have published pamphlets to
prove their descent from that caste, and they returned
themselves in thousands, especially in Godavari, as
Agnikula Kshatriyas or Vannikula Kshatriyas, meaning
Kshatriyas of the fire race." " As a relic," it has been
said,} " of the origin of the Vannikula Kshatriyas from
fire, the fire-pot, which comes in procession on a fixed

* Madras Census Report, 1891. f Madras Census Report, 1901.

J Vannikula Vilakkam.


day during the annual festivities of Draupadi and other
goddesses, is borne on the head of a Vanniya. Also, in
dramatic plays, the king personse (sic) has always been
taken by a Kshatriya, who is generally a Vanniya.
These peculiarities, however, are becoming common now-
a-days, when privileges peculiar to one caste are being
trenched upon by other caste men. In the Tirupporur
temple, the practice of beating the mazhu (red-hot iron)
is done by a dancing-girl serving the Vanniya caste.
The privilege of treading on the fire is also peculiar to
the Vanniyas." It is recorded by Mr. Francis * that, in
the South Arcot district, " Draupadi's temples are very
numerous, and the priest at them is generally a Palli by
caste, and Pallis take the leading part in the ceremonies
at them. Why this should be so is not clear. The
Pallis say it is because both the Pandava brothers and
themselves were born of fire, and are therefore related.
Festivals to Draupadi always involve two points of ritual
the recital or acting of a part of the Mahabharata and
a fire-walking ceremony. The first of these is usually
done by the Pallis, who are very fond of the great epic,
and many of whom know it uncommonly well. [In the
city of Madras there are several Draupadi Amman
temples belonging to the Pallis. The fire-walking
ceremony cannot be observed thereat without the help
of a member of this caste, who is the first to walk over
the hot ashes.]

Kuvvakkam is known for its festival to Aravan (more
correctly Iravan) or Kuttandar, which is one of the most
popular feasts with Sudras in the whole district.
Aravan was the son of Arjuna, one of the five Pandava
brothers. Local tradition says that, when the great war

* Gazetteer of the South Arcot district.


which is described in the Mahabharata was about to
begin, the Kauravas, the opponents of the Pandavas,
sacrificed, to bring them success, a white elephant. The
Pandavas were in despair of being able to find any such
uncommon object with which to propitiate the gods,
until Arjuna suggested that they should offer up his son
Aravan. Aravan agreed to yield his life for the good
of the cause, and, when eventually the Pandavas were
victorious, he was deified for the self-abnegation which
had thus brought his side success. Since he died in his
youth, before he had been married, it is held to please
him if men, even though grown up and already wedded,
come now and offer to espouse him, and men who are
afflicted with serious diseases take a vow to marry him
at his annual festival in the hope of thereby being cured.
The festival occurs in May, and for eighteen nights
the Mahabharata is recited by a Palli, large numbers
of people, especially of that caste, assembling to hear
it read. On the eighteenth night, a wooden image of
Kuttandar is taken to a tope (grove), and seated there.
This is the signal for the sacrifice of an enormous number
of fowls. Every one who comes brings one or two, and
the number killed runs literally into thousands. Such
sacrifices are most uncommon in South Arcot, though
frequent enough in other parts of the Presidency the
Ceded Districts for example and this instance is note-
worthy. While this is going on, all the men who have
taken vows to be married to the deity appear before his
image dressed like women, make obeisance, offer to the
priest (who is a Palli by caste) a few annas, and give
into his hands the talis (marriage badges) which they
have brought with them. These the priest, as represent-
ing the God, ties round their necks. The God is brought
back to his shrine that night, and when in front of the


building he is hidden by a cloth being) held before him.
This symbolises the sacrifice of Aravan, and the men
who have just been married to him set up loud lamenta-
tions at the death of their husband. Similar vows are
taken and ceremonies performed, it is said, at the shrines
to Kuttandar at Kottattai (two miles north-west of Porto
Novo), and Adivarahanattum (five miles north-west of
Chidambaram), and, in recent years, at Tiruvarkkulam
(one mile east of the latter place) ; other cases probably

The Pallis, Mr. Francis writes further, * "as far back
as 1833 tried to procure a decree in Pondicherry,
declaring that they were not a low caste, and of late
years they have, in this (South Arcot) district, been
closely bound together by an organisation managed by
one of their caste, who was a prominent person in these
parts. In South Arcot they take a somewhat higher
social rank than in other places Tanjore, for example
and their esprit de corps is now surprisingly strong.
They are tending gradually to approach the Brahmanical
standard of social conduct, discouraging adult marri-
age, meat-eating, and widow re-marriage, and they also
actively repress open immorality or other social sins,
which might serve to give the community a bad name.
In 1904 a document came before one of the courts, which
showed that, in the year previous, the representatives of
the caste in thirty-four villages in this district had bound
themselves in writing, under penalty of excommunication,
to refrain (except with the consent of all parties) from
the practices formerly in existence of marrying two
wives, and of allowing a woman to marry again during
the lifetime of her first husband. Some of the caste

* Gazetteer of the South Arcot district.


have taken to calling themselves Vannikula Kshatriyas
or Agnikula Kshatriyas, and others even declare that
they are Brahmans. These last always wear the sacred
thread, tie their cloths in the Brahman fashion (though
their women do not follow the Brahman ladies in this
matter), forbid widow remarriage, and are vegetarians."

Some Palli Poligars have very high-sounding names,
such as Agni Kudirai Eriya Raya Ravutha Minda
Nainar, i.e., Nainar who conquered Raya Ravutha and
mounted a fire horse. This name is said to comme-
morate a contest between a Palli and a Ravutha, at which
the former sat on a red-hot metal horse. Further names
are Samidurai Surappa Sozhaganar and Anjada Singam
(fearless lion). Some Pallis have adopted Gupta as
a title.

A few Palli families now maintain a temple of their
own, dedicated to Srinivasa, at the village of Kumalam
in the South Arcot district, live round the temple, and
are largely dependent on it for their livelihood. Most
of them dress exactly like the temple Battars, and a
stranger would certainly take them for Battar Brahmans.
Some of them are well versed in the temple ritual, and
their youths are being taught the Sandyavandhana
(morning prayer) and Vedas by a Brahman priest.
Ordinary Palli girls are taken by them in marriage, but
their own girls are not allowed to marry ordinary Pallis ;
and, as a result of this practice of hypergamy, the
Kumalam men sometimes have to take to themselves
more than one wife, in order that their young women
may be provided with husbands. These Kumalam Pallis
are regarded as priests of the Pallis, and style themselves
Kovilar, or temple people. But, by other castes, they
are nicknamed Kumalam Brahmans. They claim to be
Kshatriyas, and have adopted the title Rayar.


Other titles, " indicating authority, bravery, and
superiority," assumed by Pallis are Nayakar, Varma,
Padaiyachi (head of an army), Kandar, Chera, Chola,
Pandya, Nayanar, Udaiyar, Samburayar, etc.* Still
further titles are Pillai, Reddi, Goundan, and Kavandan.
Some say that they belong to the Chola race, and that,
as such, they should be called Chembians.f Iranya
Varma, the name of one of the early Pallava kings, was
returned as their caste by certain wealthy Pallis, who
also gave themselves the title of Solakanar (descendant
of Chola kings) at the census, 1901.

In reply to a question by the Census Superintendent,
1891, as to the names of the sub-divisions of the caste, it
was stated that "the Vanniyans are either of the solar
and lunar or Agnikula race, or Ruthra Vanniyar, Krishna
Vanniyar, Samboo Vanniyar, Brahma Vanniyar, and
Indra Vanniyar." The most important of the sub-
divisions returned at the census were Agamudaiyan,
Agni, Arasu (Raja), Kshatriya, Nagavadam (cobra's

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