Castes and Tribes of Southern India/Kōttai Vellāla

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Kōttai Vellāla.— " The Kōttai Vellālas," Mr. J. A. Boyle writes,*[1] have been " shut up within narrow walls,the others between two rivers. The result of insulation has been the same, and they have developed from small families into small, but perfectly distinct, castes. In the centre of the town of Srīvaiguntam, in the Tinnevelly district, is a small fort, composed of a mud enclosure, containing the houses of a number of families known as Kōttai (fort) Vellālas,who are separated from social intercourse and intermarriage with other families of the great Vellāla caste. The Traditional origin of this settlement is dated nearly a thousand years ago, when their ancestors were driven by a political revolution from their home in the valley of the Veigay (the river which flows past Madura). Under the Pāndya dynasty of Madura, these Vellālas were, they allege, the chamberlains or treasurers, to whom belonged the hereditary dignity of crowning the newly-succeeded kings. And this is still commemorated by an annual ceremony, performed in one of the Tinne-velly temples, whither the heads of families still repair, and crown the head of the swami (god). Their women never leave the precincts of the mud enclosure. After seven years of age, no girl is allowed to pass the gates, and therestriction is supported by the tradition of a disobedient little girl, who was murdered for a thoughtless breach of this law. Into the fort no male stranger may enter, though there is no hindrance to women of other castes to enter. After marriage, no woman of the caste may be seen by man's eyes, except those of her husband, father, brothers, and maternal uncles. When the census was taken, they refused to say how many women there were inside the fort, and infanticide is not only possible, but most probable; for there is a suspicious absence of increase in the colony, which suggests some mode of disposing of the ' useless mouths,' unknown to health officers and policemen. Until recent times, housed within the fort, were certain praedial slaves (Kottar, smiths) of inferior social status, who worked for their masters, and lived in the same rigid seclusion as regards their women. They have been turned out, to live beyond the enclosure,but work for their masters."

It is said that, during the days of oppression at the hands of Muhammadan and Poligar rulers, the Kōttai Vellālas had to pay considerable sums of money to secure immunity from molestation. The Kōttai Pillai,or headman of the community, is reported to possess the grants made from time to time by the rulers of the country, guaranteeing them the enjoyment of their customs and privileges. The fort, in which the Kōttai Vellālas live, is kept in good preservation by Government.There are four entrances, of which one is kept closed,because, it is said, on one occasion, a child who went out by it to witness the procession of a god was killed. Brāhmans who are attached to the fort, male members of various castes who work for the inmates thereof, and Pallans may freely enter it. But, if any one wishes to speak to a man living in the fort, the Paraiyan gate-keeper announces the presence of the visitor. Females of all castes may go into the fort, and into the houses within it.

On marriage and other festive occasions, it is customary for the Kōttai Vellālas to give raw rations to those invited, instead of, as among other castes, a dinner. The Kottans eat and drink at the expense of their masters, and dance.

Like the Nangūdi Vellālas (Savalai Pillais), the Kōttai Vellālas have kilais (septs) running in the female line, and they closely follow them in their marriage customs. It is usual for a man to marry his paternal aunt's daughter. The bridegroom goes in state, with his and the bride's relations and their respective Kottans, to the bride's house. Arrived at the marriage pandal (booth), they are welcomed by the bride's party. The hōmam (sacrificial fire) is then raised by the officiating Brāhman priest, who blesses the tāli (marriage badge),and hands it to a Kottan female, who passes it on to the elder sister of the bridegroom, or, if he has no such sister, to a female who takes her place. She takes it inside the house, and ties it on the neck of the bride, who has remained within during the ceremony. The contracting couple are then man and wife. The husband goes to live with his wife, who, after marriage, continues to live in her father's house. On the death of her father, she receives half of a brother's share of the property. If she has no brothers, she inherits the whole property.*[2]

Kōttai Vellāla women wear ordinary jewels up to middle life, when they replace them by a jewel called nāgapadam, which is a gold plate with the representation of a five-headed cobra. This is said to be worn in memory of the occasion when a Pāndyan king, named Thennavarāyan, overlooking the claims of his legitimate son, gave the kingdom to an illegitimate son. The fort Vellālas living at Sezhuvaimānagaram refused to place the crown on the bastard's head. They were consequently persecuted, and had to leave the country. They decided to throw themselves into a fire-pit, and so meet their death in a body. But, just as they were about to do so, they were prevented by a huge five-headed cobra.Hearing of this marvellous occurrence, the Pāndyan king who was ruling in Tinnevelly invited them to settle at Srīvaiguntam. The fort Vellālas claim that one of the Pāndyan kings gave them extensive lands on the bank of the Vaigai river when they lived at Sezhuvaimānagaram. They claim further that the ministers and treasurers of the Pādyan kings were selected from among them.

The dead are usually cremated. The corpses are borne by Kottans, who carry out various details in connection with the death ceremonies. The corpses of women are placed in a bag, which is carefully sewn up.

I am informed that, owing to the scarcity of females, men are at the present day obliged to recruit wives from outside.

The Kōttaipaththu Agamudaiyans believe that they are the same as the Kōttai Vellālas.

  1. * Ind. Ant., III, 1874-
  2. * Cf. Pendukkumekki and Valasu sub-divisions of the Idaiyan caste.