Vellala - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The relation of the Vellala to other castes as well as Vellala internal ideology must be understood as both influencing all aspects of Vellala economic, political, religious, and kinship activities. The schematic division of Indian society into four hierarchical varnas (castes) — Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra—does not accurately reflect the situation in Tamil Nadu. While the Brahmans rank at the top and the Untouchables or Scheduled Castes at the bottom, between these two extremes are a wide range of castes and subcastes whose exact standing in relation to one another depends on the region and the village. Generally, a distinction is made between "clean" non-Brahmans, who adopt a Sanskritized life-style, and the others. The former are vegetarians, do not drink alcohol, eschew manual labor Including plowing (if they are agriculturalists), and have very conservative attitudes and customs regarding women. The other category of upper non-Brahmans conforms to the Kshatriya ideal, which emphasizes manual strength, a land base, command over labor, political authority, more interaction with other castes, and so on. Although there is a greater emphasis on warriorlike qualities than on ritual status, Concern with women's purity is high, especially in groups that were connected to royal dynasties of the past. In the twofold division of the Vellala, the second category (e.g., Kavundar, Nangudi Vellala, Tuluva Vellala) falls clearly into the Kshatriya model. The first category (e.g., Kondaikatti Vellala, Karkattar, Saiva Pillaimar) combines aspects of the two models: (1) high ritual status expressed through strict rules of interdining and intermarriage (according to a popular proverb, the Vellala are more orthodox than Brahmans), and (2) land base and political visibility (in traditional society). Thus the two Vellala categories occupy different structural positions in the social order.

Political Organization. The Vellala were, in the past, prominent in political networks constituted by the court, temple, and caste councils. They maintained their Dominance through endowments to temples, charity to the poor, and patronage of the labor and service castes. In attempting to convert this prominence to secular political status, they have had mixed success. Often, they have been pushed out by lower castes, whose collective ethnic identity is perhaps stronger. The Vellalas' internal hierarchies and their fixed ideological positions have in part prevented the development of a unified political identity. One occasion when such an identity did develop was in the early twentieth century when the census classified the Vellala as Sudra. The Vellala responded angrily by citing evidence that as agriculturists they rightly belonged to the third varna (i.e., Vaisya). At about the same time, a journal, Vellālan, was also published for some years, focusing on the problems of the community and the need for educational and occupational advancement. Today many Vellala subcastes have their own associations, which are more social than political. The Justice party of Tamil Nadu, formed early in this century, was mainly a reaction to Brahman social and political domination. Considerable early support for the party came from Vellala subcastes. However, later developments based on Tamil linguistic identity (as exemplified by the D.K. and D.M.K. movements), blurred the distinctive Vellala component. In the state as a whole, the Vellala are politically weak, though they are very active in Certain districts.


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