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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia.
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras


The Vāniyans are, Mr. Francis writes, “oil-pressers among the Tamils, corresponding to the Telugu Gāndlas, Canarese Gānigas, Malabar Chakkāns, and Oriya Tellis. For some obscure reason, Manu classed oil-pressing as a base occupation, and all followers of the calling are held in small esteem, and, in Tinnevelly, they are not allowed to enter the temples. In consequence, however, of their services in lighting the temples (in token of which all of them, except the Malabar Vāniyans and Chakkāns, wear the sacred thread), they are earning a high position, and some of them use the sonorous title of Jōti Nagarattār (dwellers in the city of light) and Tiru-vilakku Nagarattār (dwellers in the city of holy lamps). They employ Brāhmans as priests, practice infant marriage, and prohibit widow marriage, usually burn their dead, and decline to eat in the houses of any caste below Brāhmans. However, even the washermen decline to eat with them. Like the Gāndlas they have two sub-divisions, Ottai-sekkān and Irattai-sekkān, who use respectively one bullock and two bullocks in their mills. Oddly enough, the former belong to the right-hand faction, and the latter to the left. Their usual title is Chetti. The name Vānuvan has been assumed by Vāniyans, who have left their traditional occupation, and taken to the grain and other trades.”

“The word Vānijyam,” Mr. H. A. Stuart informs us, “signifies trade, and trade in oil, as well as its manufacture, is the usual employment of this caste, who assert that they are Vaisyas, and claim the Vaisya-Apurānam as their holy book. They are said to have assumed the thread only within the last fifty or sixty years, and are reputed to be the result of a yāgam (sacrifice by fire) performed by a saint called Vakkuna Mahārishi. The caste contains four sub-divisions called Kāmākshiamma, Visālākshiamma, Ac’chu-tāli, and Toppa-tāli, the two first referring to the goddesses principally worshipped by each, and the two last to the peculiar kinds of tālis, or marriage tokens, worn by their women.

They have the same customs as the Bēri Chettis, but are not particular in observing the rule which forbids the eating of flesh. A bastard branch of the Vāniyas is called the Pillai Kūttam, which is said to have sprung from the concubine of a Vāniyan, who lived many years ago. The members of this class are never found except where Vāniyans live, and are supposed to have a right to be fed and clothed by them. Should this be refused, they utter the most terrible curse, and, in this manner, eventually intimidate the uncharitable into giving them alms.” In the Census Report, 1891, Mr. Stuart writes further that the Vāniyans “were formerly called Sekkān (oil-mill man), and it is curious that the oil-mongers alone came to be called Vāniyan or trader. They have returned 126 sub-divisions, of which only one, Ilai Vāniyan, is numerically important. One sub-division is Iranderudu, or two bullocks, which refers to the use of two bullocks in working the mill. This separation of those who use two bullocks from those who employ only one is found in nearly every oil-pressing caste in India. The Vāniyans of Malabar resemble the Nāyars in their customs and habits, and neither wear the sacred thread, nor employ Brāhmans as priests.

In North Malabar, Nāyars are polluted by their touch, but in the south, where they are called Vattakādans, they have succeeded in forcing themselves into the ranks of the Nāyar community. A large number of them returned Nāyar as their main caste.” In this connection, Mr. Francis states that followers of the calling of oil-pressers (Chakkāns) are “known as Vattakādans in South Malabar, and as Vāniyans in North Malabar; but the former are the higher in social status, the Nāyars being polluted by the touch of the Vāniyans and Chakkāns but not by that of the Vattakādans. Chakkāns and Vāniyans may not enter Brāhman temples. Their customs and manners are similar to those of the Nāyars, who will not, however, marry their women.”

Of the Vāniyans of Cochin, it is stated in the Cochin Census Report, 1901, that “they are Vaisyas, and wear the sacred thread. In regard to marriage, inheritance, ceremonies, dress, ornaments, etc., there is practically no difference between them and the Konkanis. But, as they do not altogether abstain from meat and spirituous liquors, they are not allowed free access to the houses of Konkanis, nor are they permitted to touch their tanks and wells. They are Saivites. They have their own priests, who are called Panditars. They observe birth and death pollution for ten days, and are like Brāhmans in this respect. They are mostly petty merchants and shop-keepers. Some can read and write Malayālam, but they are very backward in English education.”

The oils expressed by the Vāniyans are said to be “gingelly (Sesamum indicum), cocoanut, iluppei (Bassia longifolia), pinnei (Calophyllum inophyllum), and ground-nut (Arachis hypogæa). According to the sāstras the crushing of gingelly seeds, and the sale of gingelly oil, are sinful acts, and no one, who does not belong to the Vāniyan class, will either express or sell gingelly oil.”

When a Vāniyan dies a bachelor, a post-mortem mock ceremony is performed as by the Gānigas, and the corpse is married to the arka plant (Calotropis gigantea), and decorated with a wreath made of the flowers thereof.

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