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 the spelling Pillay, whereas some Sri Lankan castes may also use Pulle or Pilli.

Tamil Nadu usage

In Tamil Nadu this title or surname is predominantly used by people of the Vellalar caste among the population of 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.

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, sometime Dewan of Travancore obtained the same from the Maharajah. Prominent among the Pillais of medieval Kerala were the Ettuveetil Pillamar of Travancore.

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.

Andhra Pradesh usage

The Gavara community uses Pilla as a title, whereas the Aaraama Dravidulu community uses Chellapilla.

List of castes using the title

History of the title

"Pillai" was historically used throughout the medieval period as an honorific title bestowed on high functionaries serving in various royal courts in south India. Although traditionally bestowed on members of high status and aristocratic castes, the name became adopted as a surname by a broad layer of the Tamil peasantry during the 19th and 20th century. With the extension of tenancy rights, the growth of the market economy and with new opportunities for middle class employment, members of cultivator communities, starting with the Vellalar peasantry, began adopting the name as both a form of upward social mobility and as a means of differentiating themselves from the broader peasantry. Those adopting it for this reason included communities considered historically oppressed (see Maravar and Adi Dravida). The phenomenon was particularly notable amongst members of the Tamil diaspora in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, and Fiji, a diaspora created in part by the export of indentured agricultural labour at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Amongst some Tamil communities the name is also now used 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.

Some prominent Pillais

Politicians and Revolutionaries

See also


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