Identification. The Vellala are a major agricultural caste who live in Tamil Nadu, a state of southern India. They speak Tamil and are Hindu. The Velama and Ballai castes of the neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, respectively, are believed to be historically related to the Vellala, but at present the three groups are separate and distinct. The Vellala are divided on a territorial basis and subdivided further into endogamous jatis or subcastes. As an integral part of an intercaste network, both ideologically and in daily life, Vellala culture is not an independent entity. It can be understood only in relation to other castes. The Vellala are a large heterogeneous category into which several upwardly mobile subcastes have successfully assimilated, at various points in time. They have done so by imitating a Vellala life-style. A popular saying throughout Tamil Nadu is: "Kallar, Maravar, Ahamudayar [three castes that rank lower than Vellala] gradually become Vellalar." Hence identity is a matter of great concern to "true" Vellala subcastes who take enormous pains to keep their purity intact through strict endogamy, extreme caution when forming marriage alliances, restrictions on women, and so forth. Broadly, the numerous Vellala subcastes constitute two major categories ranked Hierarchically. Usually a subcaste's name has a prefix denoting a place, a .further prefix, and an honorific suffix used in a particular Region, together forming a term such as "Tondaimandalam Kondaikatti Vellala Mudaliar."
Location. The Vellala live throughout Tamil Nadu. Different subcastes are localized in different regions. For example, Mudaliar subcastes are prominent in Tondaimandalam (with a concentration in Chinglepet), Choliya Pilli and Karkattar in Cholamandalam (concentrated in Thanjavur), Kongu Vellala or Kavundar in Kongumandalam (concentrated in Coimbatore), and Saiva Pillaimar, Karkattar, and Nangudi Vellala in Pandimandalam (concentrated in Madurai and Tirunelveli). In general, the first category of Vellala (who often call themselves vegetarian Vellala) predominate in the paddy-growing river-valley regions.
Demography. Since the Vellala are heterogeneous and live in multicaste environments, an estimate of the population is difficult. Current censuses do not provide statistics by caste. In some of the British period census reports, caste figures were given for some districts, and the Vellala constituted about 10 percent of the population. However, the criteria for defining Vellala seems to vary and there is no clear basis for interdistrict comparison.
Linguistic Affiliation. Among the living Dravidian Languages, Tamil has the oldest recorded history and classical literary tradition. It is closely related to Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, which are spoken in the neighboring states. (Dravidian languages are also spoken in small pockets in Central and eastern India, and in Pakistan.) The contemporary Tamil script is derived from the Brahmi script, which is also the source for the scripts of the Indo-Aryan Language Group. The Vellala speak a dialect that is common among high-caste non-Brahmans in Tamil Nadu. It is different from the highly Sanskritized language of the Brahmans and also from the Language of the lowest castes. The Vellala of different districts flavor their speech with the local dialects.