What they do
Prior to the northward migration, the bulk of the Shanar
population was concentrated in the arid sandy regions or "Teris" of Tiruchendur
in Tirunelveli district. The Shanar economy centered on the palmyra palm, then
the only commercially viable crop in the region. The men climbed the palmyra to
tap its sap, some of which was fermented to make an alcoholic beverage called
toddy. This association with alcohol was one of the primary reasons for the low
status that was meted out to the Nadars by other castes of the region. But as
toddy's shelf life was short most of the sap was not fermented but boiled down
into a raw sugar product called "jaggery". The palmyra also yielded other
useful products: mats and baskets were woven from its fronds, and the tree
trunks were used a poles and roof beams for houses.
During During the hottest part of the year from March to September, the principal occupation of the men was to collect the sap and the women folk boiled the sap into the sugar product. This was their main source of income, their livelihood. This was all they had at this time. Among the Shanars were traders who distributed the palmyra products . The palmyra is still an important crop in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts. However most of the Nadars have shifted to other means of occupation that nowadays laborers have to be brought from Kerala during the tapping season of the palmyra.
Some wealthy landlords had no manual labor instead they collected revenue from
the isolated settlements. They were called as " Nadans" a title which
translates as " Lords of the Lands". The Nadans served as representatives of
the Nayaks and later the Muslims rulers of Madurai and Tiruchi area to whom
they paid a part of the revenue they collected.
With the coming of the British rule to the southern districts, roads were
improved and better security emerged. The Shanar populace then began to utilize
this opportunity and began to move northwards to sell their palmyra- products
as well as dried fish and salt. Along their trade routes they established
"pettais" or fortified compounds, to protect themselves against bandits and
also for them to take some rest.
The community also took advantage of Western education as they realised the
benefits accruing from it. Ability to recognize new opportunities and
adaptability to new contexts marked their advancement. With foresight, the
Nadar elite established a network of institutions such as colleges, hostels and
even a bank, the Tamilnadu Mercantile bank. Conversion to Christianity was
another platform that helped the Nadars move up.
Traditionally denied education, they now found access to education in mission
schools and colleges. The educational efforts of the missionaries were used by
converts for their own social and economic benefit. The opening up of coffee
and tea plantations in South India, Ceylon and Malaya in the 19th century
provided employment as clerks and field workers for English-educated Nadar
Christians. Some of them on their return developed interests in plantations. A
few like P P Joseph, P D Devasahayam and A V Thomas became extraordinarily
During the second half of the 19th century, a large number of Nadar Christians
migrated to Ceylon, Burma and Malaya to find employment as soldiers, railway
clerks and petty government officials. Among the succeeding generations of
Nadar Christians, an appreciable number became distinguished and affluent
landowners, entrepreneurs, lawyers, judges, physicians, engineers, architects,
journalists, and top government officials and bureaucrats.
Today Nadars may be classified as;
• Merchants and Business people
&bull Professionals and Semi -professionals (occupations requiring high and
relatively high educational levels and professional training).
&bull Agriculturists, agricultural laborers ,non- agricultural laborers.
The most commonly chosen professions among the Nadars are medicine, law,
teaching, engineering and Government services. Semi professionals include low
ranking government professionals, whitecollar workers, and some teachers. The
Nadars irrespective of their caste or religion are noted for their hard work.
They have also become much more refined than they were previously.
Scattered throughout the world, the community has produced a diverse array of
prominent men in different walks of life: K Kamaraj, the Congress ''King
Maker'', V S Azariah, the first Indian Bishop consecrated by the Church of
England, S P Adityan, who founded one of India's most successful newspaper
empires, Shiv Nadar, a technocrat who heads a multinational IT giant, David
Davidar, prominent publisher and writer, Manuel Aron, India's first
International Chess Master and the first chess player to be honoured with the
Arjuna Award, Ranjan Roy Daniel, Physicist conferred Padma Bhushan and Sam
Rajappa, distinguished journalist. While the paths of advancement followed by
the Hindu and Christian Nadars are as different as their faiths, both of them
identify themselves first and foremost as Nadars.