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Pillai, Pillay, Pulle or Pilli is a popular title of Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking people of India and others living in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Fiji, mostly from Vellalar and Nair communities. Though it started as a Hindu title, today Pillai is also found amongst Christians both as a surname and a given name. South African Tamils use Pillay, whereas some Sri Lankan castes may also use Pulle or Pilli. Amongst some Tamil communities the name is also used now a days as a caste name or signifier, though without any real historical basis.

The use of a similar surname in Kerala is of different historical origins. In Kerala usage Pillai was the commonest title of dignity held by the Nairs of Travancore and corresponds to the Menon of Cochin. The title of Pillai was bestowed through a formal ceremony known as Thirumukom Pidikkuka i.e. holding the face of the King and included the payment of a fee known as Adiyara to the King. A person thus bestowed with this title now secured the honorific title of Pillai suffixed and the distinctive title of Kanakku (meaning accountant) prefixed to his name. However Kanakku and Pillai were never used together. Eg: either a person, Krishnan, would be referred to as Krishnan Pillai or Kanakku, followed by his maternal uncle's name, and Krishnan. The latter style was used in royal writs and communications. So important were the privileges granted by this title that as late as in 1814 a Brahmin, Sanku Annavi, Dewan of Travancore obtained the same from the Maharajah. Prominent among the Pillais of medieval Kerala were the Ettuveetil Pillamar of Travancore.

Tamil Nadu usage

In Tamil Nadu this title or surname is predominantly used by people of the Vellalar caste among the Tamil descent (particularly in southern districts), and the Nair caste population of the Malayalam-speaking immigrant population, although other castes also use the title. The Elur Chetty community in South Tamilnadu and Kerala also uses this surname.

Chempakaraman Pillai

A title superior to the ordinary Pillai was that of Chempakaraman Pillai, an innovation of Maharajah Marthanda Varma of Travancore. The individual whom it was the king's pleasure to honour was first taken in a procession by the nobles and ministers of the state, atop an elephant, around the main four streets of the city of Trivandrum and then received in the palace by the Prime Minister and seated next to him. The ceremony concluded by treating him to Paan Supari. A person thus honoured prefixed Kanakku, followed by Chempakaraman instead of the name of his maternal uncle, followed by his own name, e.g. Kanakku Chempakaraman Krishnan.

Ettarayogam and Ettuveettil Pillaimar,

The Ettara Yogam setup was formed in the year 1045 A.D. and its members consisted of six Potty Brahmin families, one from pushpanjaly Brahmin family and one representative  from a Nair family, the Kaaranavar of the family who assumed the role of the Temple protector. These trustees, who had one vote each in deciding the matters of the Temple management, the Maharajah of Venad, as it was then known, had just half a vote, rendering the ruler of the land almost powerless in the affairs of the Devaswom of Padmanabhapuram. Since the Temple possessed vast landed areas and wealth, gave immense power to the eight members and the King with just 1/2 vote was helpless. The council came be known as that of "Eight and a Half" or Ettara (8 1/2) yogam. The trusteeship of the Ettara Yogam was passed on hereditarily and the member families were represented by the oldest male member therein.

The lands of the temple were divided into eight adhikarems or districts and a Nair noble family was placed in each of these districts as a governor with the title of Pillai. Hence they came to be known as the Ettuveetil Pillamar or the Lords of the Eight Houses. Owing to the large amount of wealth and power vested in their hands, the Ettara Yogam and their associates the Ettuveetil Pillamar became highly arrogant towards the Royal family. When Maharajah Aditya Varma wished to build a palace at Trivandrum, even outside the jurisdiction of the Ettuveetil Pillamar or the Ettara Yogam, he was not permitted to do so. The confederacy of these Pillamar was eventually destroyed in the 18th century by Maharajah Marthanda Varma after they were found guilty of murder and conspiracy against the Royal house. Two families of the Yogam were banished from Travancore while the rest were permitted to stay on but with nominal rights in the Temple. After Marthanda Varma the temple came under the control of the Maharajahs of Travancore and the power of the Yogam ended.

These Potty families and the sole Nair noble family were:

  1. Kupakkara Potty

  2. Atiyara Potty of Vanchiyur

  3. Atiyara Potty of Kollur

  4. Muttavila Potty

  5. Neysseri Potty

  6. Karuva Potty

  7. Srikaryattu Potty

  8. Karanatta Kurup or Azhakath Kurup, the Nair nobleman

  9. 1/2 member, the sovereign of the land