The dominant institution of the societal organization of the people of Jaffna has been, and to a limited extent still is, the system of caste. Even though the caste system in Jaffna exhibits some common features with caste structures of both the Sri Lankan Sinhalese and South Indian Tamils, it has many characteristic features of its own. The Vellalars, namely the agriculturists, who stood at the apex of the social structure of Jaffna, constituted the “key caste”. They were the nainars or feudal lords who had vassals called kudimai and slaves called adimai. Their chieftains bore the title mudali. The kudimai castes, consisting of artisan (e.g. gold smiths) and other professional (e.g. masons and barbers) castes could not be bought or sold but had to render their social and ritual duty at the behest of particular Vellala masters whose vassals they were. Those who belonged to these castes were called kudimakkal, namely “children of the house” implies thereby the close and intimate association with the Vellala family which was naturally dependent on them for their services. The adimai castes consisting of the Pallars who were agrarian laborers, Nalavars who were teddy tappers, Koviyars who were household servants to Vellalars (and Chandars – tree climbers) were laborers and domestic servants owned by the Vellalars. They lived apart from their masters usually in palmyrah groves where they could do gardening on their own for their maintenance.
There is evidence to show that the Vellalars played an important role in the administration of the Tamil Kings of Jaffna.
Knowing very well that the powerful Vellala Mudalivars, Adigars and Vidans could become focal points of disaffection and revolt, the Portuguese did not abolish their roles entirely.
Under the Dutch, the position of Vellalars became strengthened by the legal status of “slaves” conferred on the Untouchable castes, and the rights in land that these “slaves” traditionally held were done away with. Besides, thousands of slaves were imported from South India making the landless Untouchables increase in number.
According to Philippus Baldeus, a seventeenth century Dutch missionary and historian who described the various occupations of the castes in Jaffna, Vellalars were rich cultivators who possessed fields, cattle and servants. They looked down with utmost contempt upon the Untouchables who tilled the fields, watered plants and performed the most disagreeable labor, and demanded from them that they show extraordinary respect for their “lords”. According to the same authority, Vellalars respected the Brahmins who were sober, intelligent, clean, friendly and vegetarian.
Thomas Van Rhee, a Dutch governor (1697) lists forty-one castes in Jaffna.
The British abolished all forms of slavery in 1844. This meant that the slave-castes were free person before the law. But age-old habits and customs, deeply entrenched, as they are in the hearts and minds of a tradition-oriented people, die-hard. Casie Chetty, the author of The Castes, Customs and Manners of the Tamils, divides the castes into two sections and arranges thirty-two castes hierarchically.
Vellalars captialised on the educational, economic and political resources created by the British colonial rulers and invested their newly acquired riches both in land and in pompous domestic ceremonies to underline their prestigious identity. The artisan castes profited, too, by seeking occupation in towns and rural market places establishing thereby their independence from the Vellalars.
Although the concept of adimai-kudimai disappeared,6 the notion that the Untouchables were unclean was not eradicated. In addition, the former “vassals” and “slaves” did not have the means to purchase their own land because the latter was sold at exorbitant prices.