They are numerous in the northern parts of Tamil Nadu and in the intersect between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra. The Palli of Andhra and Karnataka speak Telugu and Kannadam. They don't consider Tamil as their mother tongue.
During the British rule, many communities in the Madras Presidency used the opportunity to rebrand itself. Even today, we can see some of them doing it.
Since 1833, the Palli community campaigned to change their name from Palli to Agnikula Kshatriya or Vannikula which later became Vanniyar. Even in the census of 1891, a big majority of 89% still identified themselves as Palli and not as Vannikula.
Only in 1931 was the word Palli dropped and replaced with Agnikula or Vannikula. It was a campaign which took almost 100 years to succeed.
Unlike what many people assumed, Vanni or Vanniyar is not the name of a community. It has several meanings. Although it is assumed that it comes from Agni (Fire), the actual word for Agni is Vahni and not Vanni.
How Vahni and Vanni are related needs to be established by linguistic experts. However, there is a tree called Vannimaram which the Pallis worship as a sacred tree.
The word Vanni can also be used to refer to forest dwellers, region of forest or even as a title synonymous with the word king. So the word Vanni has been misunderstood as a caste identity.
There is a region in Sri Lanka known as Vanni. As per records such as in Culavamsa, there have been migration of people from India into this region during the Chola period. However, the word Vanniyar is not confined to the Pallis alone.
Although some may assume this to be true considering that the title Padayatchi exists in the Vanni region and the Palli community of northern Tamil Nadu use it, one has to understand that the Padayatchi title is also used by members of the Paravar community who live in coastal regions of neighboring Tamil Nadu. There is a subsect known as Arumboli Paravars who are also known as Padayatchi.
There were also migration of Paravar people into Sri Lanka as they lived closer to the island compared with the Pallis of the north. Possibilities of a mixed Padayatchi presence in Vanni should not be over looked.
Furthermore, anyone from Vanni region irrespective of caste is also called Vanniyar. The chieftains from the Karayar and Mukkuvar caste are also called Vanniyar. The local Veddah tribe is called Vanniyalaeto meaning forest dwellers or even Vanniminisu.
In the Vanni region's social hierarchy, those of upper class are called MahaVanni and those below them are called SiriVanni. This shows that the word Vanniyar was also a regional identity and not just mere caste identity.
Among the Kallars of Thanjavur, there exist families which use the word Vanniyar as titles. They live in villages and streets bearing the name Vanniyan Theru. According to their history, the title was given to them by the Chola kings for their military service in Vanni, Sri Lanka.
Among the Maravars caste, there are subdivisions known as Vannitha Maravar, Vanniya Maravar, Vannikutti Maravar and Vanni Kottu Maravar. There were also many Maravar feudal lords who used Vannian as titles. Some even had Vanni as name.
One example is the nephew of the Sethupathi of Ramnad, Sadaikka Thevar (1636 AD - 1645 AD) . His name was Vanni Thevar and he was nicknamed Vannian. Vanni Thevar served as the commander of his uncle's army.
Some spread false information in the internet that the Sivagiri Palayakarars were Palli because of the word Vanniya Maravar. This is not true. The Sivagiri Palayakarars are Maravars and one of the descendant happened to be a friend of mine.
|Caste certificate of Sivagiri Zamin's descendant shows that they are Maravar.|
There could be some inscriptions referring to chieftains as Vannian, however, that does not mean every inscription with Vanni or Vannian is referring to people of the same caste.
The fact that the Palli community changed their caste name to Vanniyar in the early 20th century creates confusion among present day Tamils as many wrongly think that inscriptions of the past is referring to Pallis.
As students of history, we must remind ourselves that the word Vanni, Vannian or Vanniyar found in the various Tamil inscriptions or literature may not necessarily refer to one community.
I hope this explanation helps to clear the ongoing doubt.
"The taluk contains 268 villages, of which 222 are Government, 17 Inam, and 29 Kattuguttakai or rented. The population numbers 180,219 souls, of whom 160,607 are Hindus, 18,966 Mahomedans, and 650 Christians. The castes most numerously represented are Vellalars or Pillais, 33,975; Vannians or Maravars, 47,945; Shanars, 13,313; Shephers, 12,956; and Brahmins, 10,791. The Pariahs amount to 11,148."
A Manual of The Tinnevelly District in The Presidency of Madras by A.J Stuart (1879)