22 April, 2021

Chettiars, Big And Small, Of Tamil Nadu

An example from the south of the varna-jati conundrum, which explains the Vaishya vacuum

Photograph by Alamy
Chettiars, Big And Small, Of Tamil Nadu

The divide between North and South India with regard to the role and influence of Vaishyas or traditional merchant castes or business communities and castes is striking. The sheer magnitude of maritime trade points to the importance of merchant castes in early and medieval South India. However, their influence waned thereafter. For colonial administrators, who came to see them as ‘banias’, the Chettiars denoted both an occupation and a caste.

The confusion was confounded by the multiplicity of sub-divisions within the Chettiars across the southern region. In modern times, the most prominent of merchant castes to emerge in the region were the Nattukottai Chettiars. Central to any discourse on the commercial history of southern India, were the Nattukottai Chettiars really comparable to the merchant castes of the North with respect to the entrepreneurial response and the economic hegemony over the region? The ans­wer is clearly in the negative. Unlike their counterparts in the North, for various reasons described below, they were unable to exercise effective...

More from Raman Mahadevan

Latest Magazine

April 26, 2021

other articles from the issue

articles from the previous issue

Other magazine section