India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves
The Saurashtrian community of Madurai is another example of a migrant group moving across India and establishing a vibrant and successful community in a distant land.
Saurashtra may refer to sau meaning hundred and rashtra meaning nation, referring to perhaps the hundred principalities in the Saurashtrian region, in modern day Gujarat.
Another theory is that the people of the region worshipped the sun (saura) and therefore their land was called Saurashtra.
It is believed that following turbulence and political uncertainty in western Gujarat, the people of Saurashtra started emigrating to Maharashtra in western India. Gradually they moved further south courtesy of the Vijayanagar Empire of peninsular India. Being predominantly silk weavers, their skills were valued by kings and queens alike. The chieftain of Madurai, the Naiker, led one of the major centres established following the disintegration of the Deccan empires. It is believed the Naiker invited these skilled weavers to Madurai. They settled in thousands enriching the arts and crafts of the region. They acquired the reputation of being great silk weavers and the name Palkars.
Over a period of time, some moved to Mysore, under the auspices of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the tiger of Mysore. Later, smaller groups emigrated to Bangalore, falling the defeat of Tipu Sultan at the hands of the British in 1799.
At present, there are probably around 300,000 individuals of the Saurashtrian community in and around Madurai. A large number still live in the vicinity of the old palace of the Naikers, the Thirumalai Naiker palace in Madurai. They have been extremely successful in business, trades and professions such as music and medicine.
They speak dialects similar to but distinct from the actual Saurashtrian spoken in Gujarat. The Saurashtrians of Madurai have acquired Dravidian customs and habits as well as names gradually over the centuries. However, caste based marriages have ensured a yet very distinct identity for them.
Photograph – courtesy of wishvam on Flickr (wishvam’s photostream)