History of Ezhava
The Ezhavas are the largest group among Hindu communities in Kerala. They are considered to be descendants ofVillavar the founders of ancient Tamil Chera Dynasty who once ruled parts of southern India. In Malabar they are called Thiyya, while in Tulu Nadu they are known as Billavas. They were formerly known as ‘Ilavar’. There were Ayurveda Vaidyars, Warriors, Kalari Trainers, Soldiers, Farmers, Cultivators, Siddha Phyisicans, and Traders. Some were also involved in texile manufacturing, liquor business and toddy tapping.
Historians believe that Ezhavas of Kerala are soldiers of Villavar tribe who founded Chera Kingdom. Villavars of Travancore were known as ‘Ilavar’ (now known as Ezhava). The word Ilavar is derived from Villavar which means archers who were a warrior caste among the Dravidians who ruled most of India.
According to historian C. V. Kunjuraman, the two gods of the Buddhist Ezhavas, namely Cittan and Arattan, are in fact Buddhist Sidhan and Arhatan from Buddhism. Some others argue that ezhava god Arattan is Lord Buddhahimself. T. K. Veluppillai, the author of The Travancore State Manual, believes that during Buddhist ascendancy in Kerala, before the arrival of the Tulu Brahmins, “the Ezhavas enjoyed great prosperity and power” (II, 845). However, he also says that it is very unlikely that the Ezhavas came from Sri Lanka and spread all over Kerala; instead they were the mainstream of Munda-Dravidian immigrants who left Tamil Nadu in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries to avoid persecution at the hands of their political enemies.
Mahakavi Kumaranasan, whose works such as Nalini, Leela, Karuna and Chandala Bhikshuki extol Buddhist ideals, lamented at times in his verses about the past glory of the Sinhalese, or the natives of Srilanka, whom he considered to be the forefathers of present day Ezhavas.
This Buddhist tradition, and the refusal to give it up, pushed the Ezhavas to an outcaste role within the greater Brahminic society. Nevertheless, this tradition is still evident as Ezhavas show greater interest in the moral, non-ritualistic, and non-dogmatic aspects of the religion rather than the theological.
Genetic studies which show that the allelic distribution of Ezhavas in a bi-dimensional plot (correspondence analysis based on HLA-A, -B, and -C frequencies) has a rather strong East Eurasian element due to its proximity to the Mongol population in the same plot.
The most widely accepted theory is that the customs and beliefs of Ezhavas and Thiyas are very primitive and their origin go back to the dim past to those ancient pre-Tamil Sangam days. Their Tamil background gave them the God Muruga (Subramanya) and the Goddess Kali, and host of other village gods like Chathan, Chithan and Arathan. Though there are not enough evidence to justify that Ezhavas are from the northern Srilanka, the theory about their existence in Srilanka (Ezham/Elam) during the first centuries of BC cannot be ignored.
The Word Eezham as referring to Sri Lanka
Ilava of Sri Lanka after whom Eeelam or Heladipa is named are the relatives of Villavars and Ezhavas(Ilavar). The word Eezham presented today in Malayalam/Tamil books/articles stands for the geographical identification of the entire island of what is called Sri Lanka today. The earliest use of the word, is found in a Tamil Brahmi inscription as well as in the Sangam literature, both dateable to the dawn of the Christian era. The Thirupparang-kun’ram inscription in Tamil, found near Mathurai in Tamil Nadu and dated on paleographical grounds to the first century BC, refers to a person as a householder from Eezham (Eezha-kudumpikan). According to William Logan (Malabar Manual) word ezhava is derived from Simhala (simhala, sihala, ihala).
The Word Eazha as related to Gold
The Tamil and Malayalam lexicons (Nikhandu), Thivaakaram, Pingkalam and Choodaamani, dating from 8th century AD, equate the word Eezham with gold. Eezha kaasu and Eezhakkarung kaasu are references to coinages found in the medieval inscriptions of Travancore, Mathurai, Malabar etc.