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|Languages||Telugu, Tamil, Kannada|
|Populated states||Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala|
Balija is a social group of the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. In Karnataka, they are known as Banajigas. In Tamilnadu, the Balija merchants are called Kavarai (Gavara).
Variations of the name in use in the medieval era were Balanja, Bananja, Bananju, and Banijiga, with probable cognates Balijiga, Valanjiyar, Balanji, Bananji and derivatives such as Baliga, all of which are said to be derived from the Sanskrit term Vanik or Vanij, for trader.
Starting in the thirteenth century, inscriptions referring to "Vira Balanjyas" (warrior merchants) started appearing in the Andhra country. The Vira Balanjyas represented long-distance trading networks that employed fighters to protect their warehouses and goods in transit. The terms balanjya-setti and balija were also used for these traders, and in later times naidu and chetti. These traders formed collectives called pekkandru and differentiated themselves from other collectives called nagaram, which probably represented Komati merchants. The pekkandru collectives also included members of other communities with status titles reddi, boya and nayaka. They spread all over South India, Sri Lanka, and also some countries in the Southeast Asia.
Rao et al. note that the Balijas included a configuration of castes representing a combination of the martial and the mercantile. They were mobilised politically by Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadeva Raya. Afterwards they went to colonise the Tamil country in the 15th and 16th centuries, establishing Nayaka chieftancies. By this time, the term Balija came to include the Boyas, Gollas, Gavaras, and other castes.
There are numerous branches, sub-divisions or social groups which make up the larger Balija social group.
- The Kondeti Balija claim to have migrated from the princely state of Kondaveedu while the Gopathi Balija, who mainly inhabit Chittoor and Ananthapur, claimed to have divided over cattle and land.
- Balija Chettis (or Chetti Balija): Mentioned in several Vijayanagar accounts as wealthy merchants who controlled powerful trading guilds. To secure their loyalty, the Vijayanagar kings made them Desais or "superintendents of all castes in the country." They were classified as right-hand castes. David Rudner claims that the Balija Chettis became a separate caste from the Balija Nayak warriors as recent as the 19th century; and accordingly they have closer kinship ties to the Nayak warriors than to Chetti merchants. However, Veera Balingyas or Vira Banajigas were mentioned in the inscriptions of the Chalukyas of Badami and the Kakatiya dynasty as powerful and wealthy merchants who were known as the Five Hundred Lords of Ayyavolu.
- Gajula Balija/Kavara Balija/Sugavansi (pure) Balija: Mythic records say that Shiva's wife Parvati did a severe penance in order to look beautiful for Shiva. Himavanta (father of Parvati) sacrificed a bull to Brahma and from the fire emerged a person who brought forth combs, bangles, perfumes, sandals, powder, beads, and colored palf-leaf rolls for the ear for Parvati. Titles found amongst them are Nayudu, Nayakkan, Chetti, Setti and Nayak. Kavarai or Gavarai is said to be a corrupt form of Kauravar or Gauravar; as they claim to be the Kurus or Kuru descendents of Mahabharata.
- Rajamahendravaram Balija or RajaMahendram Balija: A numerically strong group across Andhra Pradesh, they are said to have originally belonged to Rajahmundry where their ancestors were employed in the army.
- Kambalatars/Thottiyans: The Gollavar, Sillavar and Tokkalavar were the subdivisions of the Raja Kambalattars and functioned as strictly endogamous units. TK Venkatasubramanian states
The Kambalattar (Kambalaththu Nayakar) are practically extinct. Remnants of their traditional agnates or cognates in the Telugu country are not to be traced. The polegars of Ettayapuram and Panchalamkurichi belong to this community. Their ancestry is traced to a community of hunters. Being dwellers of quasi-agricultural surroundings they were experts in reclaiming waste lands.
Some Balijas use surnames such as Naidu or Nayudu, and Naicker, which share a common root. Nayaka as a term was first used during the Vishnukundina dynasty that ruled from the Krishna and Godavari deltas during the 3rd century AD. During the Kakatiya dynasty, the Nayaka title was bestowed to warriors who had received land and the title as a part of the Nayankarapuvaram system for services rendered to the court. The Nayaka was noted to be an officer in the Kakatiya court; there being a correlation between holding the Nayankara, the possession of the administrative title Angaraksha and the status title Nayaka.
A more widespread usage of the Nayaka title amongst the Balijas appears to have happened during the Vijayanagar empire where the Balija merchant-warriors rose to political and cultural power and claimed Nayaka positions.
The Vijayanagara empire was based on an expanding, cash-oriented economy enhanced by Balija tax-farming. Some Balija families were appointed to supervise provinces as Nayaks (governors, commanders) by the Vijayanagara kings, some of which are:
- Madurai Nayaks
- Tanjavur Nayaks
- Gingee Nayaks / Senji / Chenchi Nayakas, Thundeera
- Chandragiri:Kasturi Nayadu and Peda Koneti Nayudu of the Vasarasi family belonged to the Balija caste.
Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam say that the emergence of left-hand caste Balijas as trader-warrior-kings was evidence in the Nayak period as a consequence of conditions of new wealth, produced by collapsing two varnas, Kshatriya and Vaishya, into one. In the brahmanical conceptualisation of castes, Balijas were accorded the Shudra position. The fourfold Brahmanical varna concept has not been acceptable to Non-Brahmin social groups and some of them challenged the authority of Brahmins who described them as shudras.
While seeking a Kshatriya varna position in the Census of 1901, a reference was made[by whom?] to the Srimad Bhagavatham, Vishnu Puranam and Brahmanda Puranam to seek classification as Somavanshi Kshatriyas.
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As regards the derivation of this word, the late Mr Venkayya says:- In Kanarese banajiga is still used to denote a class of merchants. In Telugu the word balija or balijiga has the same meaning. It is therefore probable that the words valañjiyam, valanjiyar, balañji, banañji, banajiga and balija are cognate, and derived from the Sanskrit vanij
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