is a popular title of Tamil
- and Malayalam
-speaking people of India and others living in Sri Lanka
, South Africa
, mostly from Vellalar
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.
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.
A title superior to the ordinary Pillai was that of Chempakaraman Pillai
, an innovation of Maharajah Marthanda Varma
. 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
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
, 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
- V. O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), Indian freedom fighter
- Mannathu Padmanabhan Pillai (1878-1970), founder of Nair Service Society
- Pattom A. Thanu Pillai (1885-1970), first Chief Minister of unified Kerala
- Paravur TK Narayana Pillai (1890-1971), Indian freedom fighter
- Champakaraman Pillai (1891–1934), Indian freedom fighter
- Sardar Vedaratnam Pillai (1897-1961), Indian freedom fighter
- K. A. P. Viswanatham Pillai (1899-1994), a leader of the Self-Respect Movement
- Sir N. R. Pillai, first Cabinet Secretary of Independent India
- Rao Bahadur P. I. Chinnaswamy Pillai, first Municipal Chairman of Palakkad, Kerala, India
- R. Balakrishna Pillai (born 1935), former State minister in Kerala
- L. D. Swamikannu Pillai, Indian astronomer, Speaker of Tamil Nadu Assembly
- Gopal Krishna Pillai, IAS, Secretary, Commerce, Government of India
- Navanethem Pillay, South African Judge, UN High Commissioner for Human RightsOthers
- Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai, eminent writer in Tamil literature; his poem "Niraarum Kadal Udutha" is the official Tamil Anthem
- Nagai Vedachalam Pillai Also Known as MARAIMALAIADIGAL.
- Devasahayam Pillai (1712-1752), Indian court official, controversial convert to Christianity
- Maruthanayagam Pillai (1725-1764) Commandant for the British East India Company, later became Administrator for Madurai. Also known as "Muhammad Yusuf Khan"
- Subbayya Sivasankaranarayana Pillai (1901-1950), Indian mathematician
- K.C. Sreedharan Pillai (1920-1985), Indian mathematician
- Dr. Sivathanu Pillai, Head of Defence Research and Development Organisation
- Rajmohan Pillai (born 1964), Chairman of the Beta Group
- Dhanraj Pillay (born 1968), Indian hockey player
- Nisha Pillai, Indian-born BBC News journalist and news anchorArts
- Joseph Vijay:known as Ilayathalapathy
- S. A. Chandrasekhar:Famous Director & Father Of Vijay
- Vadivelu:Famous Tamil Comedian