Nadars – The Rise And Rise Of Nadar Community


On most topics I speak my mind without trying to be diplomatic, however caste is an extremely sensitive topic in India, so I will try and toe a fine line of diplomacy.

Disclaimer: I am not a Nadar.

Most leaders of oppressed communities advocate retaliation. Even the community members assume that retaliation is the only way to overcome oppression. The fact however is retaliation will never uplift a community, instead will take it down a notch. There is not a single instance of violence and hatred uplifting a community over a long run. So what is the right way? A study of the progress of Nadar community highlights the right way to all oppressed communities.

Some 200 years back, the oppression against Nadars was even worse than the oppression against dalits. Robert Caldwell who came to India as a Christian missionary targeted this community. It is one of the strategies of Christian missionaries to target an isolated community or to isolate a community and then target it. Nadars at that point of time were isolated socially, economically and geographically. Missionaries furthered the divide and successfully targeted a good chunk of nadar community. The degradation of the living standard of women in nadar community became another key claim in legitimizing missionary activity.

In the collection of his articles “Lectures on the Tinnevelly Mission” Caldwell says that Nadars (Shaanars) lived in an extremely hot and dry land that is not suitable for agriculture. He adds that Nadars were not permitted inside temples and courts (they have to stay outside the court premises during court proceeding or while filing a case). Nadar women were not permitted to wear blouses or cover their upper body. They were not allowed to get water from public wells. They were not permitted to use dhobis. Though the focus of Caldwell was to completely convert Nadars, there was truth to what was said about the living standards of Nadars, especially those who lived in Kerala (Back then it was not called as Kerala). Nadars were supposed to stand 36 ft away from a Namboodri and should stay 12 ft away from  Nairs while talking to them. In the Kerala region they were not allowed to carry umbrellas, use footwear and gold jewelry, they were not permitted to milk cows. There were so many other restrictions too. The missionaries used this as a great leverage to convert Nadars.

When the Nadars protested by asking the women folk to cover their upper body, the Nairs attacked the nadar women folk and tore away their blouses in Nagercoil and in few other areas of Kerala. After the clashes the Nadars took the issue to court, but seeing this as a great opportunity for conversion, the court gave a verdict that the Nadar women who convert to Christianity can cover their upper body, while Hindu Nadars should not. This was the root cause of Nadars converting to Christianity. However even after that verdict only a small section of the Nadars converted to Christianity. According to legends they are Kshatriya kings and are the offsprings of the deity BadraKali and they did not want to forget their roots. Yet they were so determined to overcome the oppression and achieve against all the odds. They refused to budge and continue to wear upper garments without converting. Following a mass revolt of Nadars in 1858, the British authorities passed the law in 1859 that all women can cover their upper body.

During those days palm trees, palm sugar and toddy (palm wine) are the only things they relied on for the sustenance of the community. Lack of respect from others, poor economic conditions, and times when they even had to revolt to get the basic right of women to wear blouses. The community as a whole understood that retaliating and using violence will not do any good to the community and they decided to rather focus on economic progress of the community. There was a burning fire in the belly of every Nadar to progress as a community. They realized that without economic progress there won’t be any social progress. They quit the toddy business and moved on to trading. They moved and settled down as a community in areas like Virudhunagar, Aruppukkotai, Kamudhi, Sathangudi and Sivakasi and started establishing trading business.

They built big and solid bullock carts and moved commodities like palm sugar, karuvadu (dried salted fishes), cotton and spices to smaller villages and sold them there. There were raising tensions in those villages, as the non brahmin upper castes (I will refrain from naming them), did not like Nadars getting in to trading, so they attacked the carts and ransacked the goods. Even then Nadars did not resort to violence, in fact they did not have the time to retaliate. Their sole focus was on expansion and growth of their business, so they collected money from the community (even the poorest of the community contributed to that). Using that money they bought tracts of land outside every village and named it as ‘pettai’. They fenced that area and protected their goods and bullock carts. Even after a century we still have functioning Pettais in Tamil Nadu, the Dakshina Maara Nadar Sangam’s Karuvaatupettai in Sivakasi is one example.

After some time they realized that they needed money to manage the ‘Pettai’. That is when the real revolution happened, they set up a financial institute named ‘Nadar Magamai Fund’ (In fact this is a prototype of the current sales tax in Tamil Nadu).

Every trader and store owner in a Pettai paid a small percentage of their revenue to the Magamai Fund. Every bullock cart that used the Pettai’s facility paid a fee to the fund. This fund helped to keep the Pettai safe and in developing better facilities. However, the fund grew in to a monstrous amount even beyond their imagination. Once a month the community came together in every Pettai and discussed about better utilization of the Funds. Those people might not have realized, that every paisa they contributed that day would influence the lives of lakhs of Nadars even after a century (either through direct or indirect means).

After experiencing the economic upliftment, the community realized that only education can take the community to the next level. Using the money from the Magamai Fund, they built schools in all the places where they settled down. Kshatriya Vidhya Sala (KVS school), in Virudhunagar, built in 1885 was the first of its kind, this school is one of the most popular schools in Tamil Nadu till date. This school is continuously churning out brilliant minds and top notch achievers in several fields.

Using the fund they then built hospitals and temples. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if I say that they ran a parallel government at that point of time, taking care of all the needs of the community effectively. The charity wing took care of extremely poor and weak people, while jobs were given to every physically fit person. They never relied on government help for any of their needs. The community took care of itself. Even till date Nadar students pursuing higher studies don’t depend on government scholarships. In 1910 they formed Nadar Magajana Sangam, and financed thousands of promising students with interest free unsecured educational loans.

The then CM of Tamil Nadu, Rajaji, took a leaf out of the success of this Magamai Fund and the finance management of Nadars and established Sales tax in the state, which proved to be truly successful.

The dominant communities denied them several of the basic human needs. But nothing prevented them from progress, if they were denied access to a public well, they dug one for themselves, they were denied access to schools, they built huge schools. They were denied access to health care, so they build hospitals. They were denied access to temples, so they built huge temples for themselves. They never compromised or lost their identity in doing so.

[box type=”info” align=”” class=”” width=””]இன்னா செய்தாரை ஒறுத்தல் அவர் நாண

நன்னயம் செய்து விடல் – Tirukural

Translation: If others harm you, do good unto them, so that they are shamed into realizing their mistakes.[/box]

Despite the oppression they experienced under the dominant communities, they did not isolate other communities. They even funded those schools and temple administrations which once refused them entry. Today they employ and give opportunities in their establishments to those dominant communities which once oppressed them. Today no temple in Tamil Nadu will have an event organized without the participation and contribution of Nadars.

Today we see communities fighting to get reservations and want to list their community as SC or ST. However, pre-independence Nadars were classified under scheduled castes, but the community voiced against that and got themselves classified under Backward castes.

Nadars never formed a political party for their community, as that would isolate them. Instead they became powerful leaders of all top political parties. Kamarajar was a Nadar, but he was never a Nadar leader, instead is the most popular CM (More about Kamarajar) of Tamil Nadu. Over the past decade Tamil Nadu BJP is headed by nadars, the only central minister from Tamil Nadu is a Nadar. Ex-Congress chiefs were nadars.

Not only in politics in every field Nadars are/were industry leaders

  • Shiv Nadar – Founder of HCL
  • A D Jayaveerapandian Nadar – Business Magnate
  • Ayya Nadar – Business Man of Sivakasi
  • Athithanar & His Sons – Media baron and founder of the number one Tamil Daily – Dinathandi
  • P Raja Gopal Nadar – Founder of Hotel Saravana Bhavan Chain of Restrurants, who popularized the South Indian cuisine around the world
  • Mr.Selvaraj – Saravana Stores, The inspiration behind Kishore Biyani’s future group
  • Kiran Nadar, National Bridge Champion
  • Mr. Vijay Amirtha Raj – Famous Tennis player
  • Mr. Mr.Rajarathnam – Captain of Indian Kabadi Team Which Won Asiad Gold.
  • Mr.Sushil Kumar – Chief of Indian Navy Rtd.
  • Dr.Muthunayagom – Chief : ISRO (Atomic Energy. Tumba Rocket Stn).

There are thousands of other nadar business men and achievers. Any community can take inspiration from the way Nadars developed, and focus on progress rather than on retaliation.