Arunthathiyars are addressed in Tamil Nadu in various names like Thottis, Sakkilian, Madigan, Adi Andra, and Adi Karnataka. Among these Sakkiliyan is the most popular term used to address these people. Hence those who are associated with menial jobs are addressed as Sakkiliyan. Scholars and activists like Mr. Adiyaman, founder of Aathi Thamilar Peravai, and Elangovan say that the term “Sakkiliyan” is used in a context of humiliation because it was derived from the word “Shakuli,” which means a person who eats dead cow, who is blind, a coward, and a slave. Hence the term “Sakkiliyan” should be replaced by Aruthathiyars. It is believed that the word “Arunthathiyar” refers to a woman who was known for her purity and virginity (Elangovan 2002). Since they are coolies and daily wage labourers, they often depend on others for their daily food. It was often noted as a cause for concern that the Sakkiliyars had not organized themselves in a similar manner as Pallars or Paraiyars.
Sakkiliyar community is spread across Tamil Nadu and the majorities reside in the Western part of Tamil Nadu.
Arunthathiyars are not organized and they have been discriminated against by Pallar and Paraiyar populations. Hence, Arunthathiyars asserted their identity by rewriting histories and agitating against the injustice done to them. An exclusive history of the Arunthathiyars was written by a Christian priest (Mark 2001). Late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw a number of writers from Arunthathiyar community asserting their identity and the history which was written by Thurston (1993) was put under a heavy pressure from the oppressed.
Their history has been interpreted by many scholars in various ways. A historian and an anthropologist, Thurston writes
….Sakkiliyans are considered to be of the very lowest status. In some parts of the District they speak Telugu and wear the namam (Vaishnavite sect mark on the forehead) and are apparently immigrants from the Telugu country. (Thurston 1993:3)
He says that Chakkiliyans or Sakiliyans; like the Telugu Madigas, have exogamous sects called gotra in the north, and the Killai in the South. He concludes by saying that Sakkiliyars were the Telugu speaking people who lived in a District called Kanjam – a region in Andhra Pradesh.
Mark (2001) writes that at various points of time Sakkiliyars had migrated to Tamil Nadu. When Krishna Devaraayar (1509-1529), was ruling Vijayanagar there were inner conflicts in the then Tamil Nadu. Hence, in order to dominate Tamil Nadu, he sent Narasa Nayakar to rule Chera and Naga Nayakar to Pandia, which was in Tamil Nadu. So accompanying the warriors of Narasa Nayakar and Naga Nayakar, some people were taken for cooking food, clothing and shelter. Sakkiliyars were among these people.
1. After successfully invading Tamil Nadu, Naga Nayakar stopped obliging Krishna Deva Raayar. Hence Vishuva Naayakar, son of Krishna Deva Raayar, sent some troops to fight against him. Again Sakkiliyars were in the troop.
2. Naga Nayakar was defeated. Vishuva Naayakar ruled between 1529 and 1564. During this time many Telugus came and settled in Tamil Nadu. It is assumed that Sakkiliyars might also have come during this period.
3. When Nayakar kings built temples, dams and bridges, they used to sacrifice Sakkiliyars, who were considered to be the lowest in the social hierarchy. Scared Sakkiliyars ran away towards Thenpakuthi. Such people stayed in Viruthunagar and Thirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu.
Elangovan (2002) writes a different version of Arunthathiyars’ history. He says that the place Adhiyars lived was the mountain Thakadur (Dharmapuri District in Tamil Nadu) border of Vadukar Nadu (Andhra Pradesh). The land had good fertility and good rain. Hence most of the people used to go to Vadukar Nadu for business. Sometimes they continued to stay there. He says that there are possibilities of Sakkiliyars migrating to Vadukar Nadu often. So it is possible that Sakkiliyars migrated to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and stayed in the border region of the state. When Elangovan talks about their past he says that during the Chera, Chola, and Pandiya rule there were small monasteries ruling here and there. These monasteries belong to the Vellir community. Among these Vellirs there were “Adiyar.” Adiyars were later called Arunthathiyars. The name Arunthathi is found in Tamil classical works such as Agananuru, Paripadal, Kalithogai, Aigurunuru, Thirikadugam and Silapathikaram. In such epics the poet mentions a woman’s character: “Arunthathi”, who is from Adhiyar community. Hence the name “Arunthathi” was even there during the olden days. However, the Arunthathi mentioned in this thesis is not a Sanskrit form, but taken from the ancient Tamil Literature and Myths.Hence Sakkiliyars claim that they belong to Adhiyar community. Therefore I will refer to them as Arunthathiyars henceforth.
However contradicting Elangovan, Mr. Buthamithiran, an officer of Indian Revenue Service, prefers the name “Sakkiliyar” because it was the name of a king called “Saku” (Buthamithiran 2003). Sakkiliyars are the heir of Saku King. He was degraded by the Upper Castes. They influenced others to accept the same. He states that oral histories prove that Sakkiliyars were Buddhists and the heir of Shaku Kula King. He quotes a poem written by Ms. Maha Kavi Papathi ammaal, which is a sung sung to praise Budda (Buthamithiran 2003).
Oruvan Madigan enna, Ulagam Madigam ennum;
Oruvan Sakiliyan enna Ulagam Sakkiliyan ennum;
When one say Madigan, the world would say Madigam;
When one say Sakkiliyan the world would say Sakkiliyan
He reads the above poem as proving that the Sakkiliyars were Buddhists. After the invasion of the Aryans, many Buddhists were butchered and identified as untouchables.