Structure and change in a traditional banking community: Nagarattar in the 21st century (completed)

Nathaniel Roberts

This project seeked to create a snapshot of the Nagarattar (Chettiar) caste in Southeast Asia, with a focus on the current state of the community and the efforts of its members.

Between 1860s to the 1930s, the caste’s marital, business, and ritual practices were integrated into a seamless whole such that each reinforced the other, and all contributed to the community’s wellbeing. Around  1930 the political and legal climate began to shift, and Nagarattar banking was suppressed, first by the British and later by postcolonial governments. Since the 1950s Nagarattar have shifted into non-banking businesses and professional occupations (“jobs”). Before 1930 the benefits to individuals of belonging to the community were simply overwhelming. The caste constituted total social and economic organization such that leaving its fold would have been scarcely conceivable. This research examines the Nagarattar in the post-traditional milieu, and seeks to understand the castes internal organization and how it is able to reproduce itself today? It focuses on the role that caste temples play in the community’s sense of its collective self, and in regulating intra-caste marriage.

The golden age of the Nagarattar banking caste in Southeast Asia lasted from the 1860s to the 1930s, the community was tied together by a unique and complex network based on interlinking financial arrangements, marital alliances, and caste temples, that together constituted a highly stable system of mutual trust and aid. The reliability of Nagarattar banking and the liquidity it extended to plantations, mining, and trade was instrumental in the economic development of Southeast Asia. Financially, the Nagarattar developed an interlinking system of family firms that extended credit to one another, and which were bound together by the circulation of young men between family firms as employees and apprentices. Potential sons-in-law were commonly hired as apprentices in families’ overseas operations; daughters’ dowries (cīr) were deposited in the accounts of the groom’s family firm, serving to interlink the fortunes of both families, or were invested by the groom’s family in an unrelated Nagarattar firm. Caste endogamy reinforced the Nagarattar business and financial model, and vice versa.

The Nagarattar are a single endogamous caste comprising nine exogamous temple clans. Nagarattar temples were the nexus of both Nagarattar financial and kin structures. Financially, temples functioned as “capital accumulators and distributors” (Rudner 1994: 195).  Nagarattar contributed to their temples through a nominal annual tax (pulli vari), through an occasional wealth tax (asti vari), and most importantly by way of large endowments of land or money. Clan temples were especially wealthy, and the wealth they accumulated was in turn deposited in the businesses of Nakarattars belonging to that clan. Clan temples also performed a social function by regulating Nagarattar kinship. They kept registers of all clan members and “legitimized Nagarattar marriages” such that “without clan temple sanction no marriage could occur” (Rudner 1994: 203). Previously community members who failed to pay the temple tax could thus be prevented from marrying.

The reproduction of a caste community has both cultural and social components. Culturally, a community’s continued existence depends on its members having a strong sense of a shared and distinct identity that they value and want to maintain. Socially, a caste community persists through time only insofar as a majority of those born into it continue to marry among themselves. If they do not do so, the community will eventually dissolve into the wider society unless there is some mechanism for integrating the offspring of mixed marriages.  This research has two empirical focal points: temples and marriage practices. It seeks to understand the role of temples in both the cultural and social reproduction of community through intra-caste marriage. Some specific questions will include:

  • How are temples organized today?
  • What challenges do leaders perceive for the community and for its temples in general?
  • Are there unique challenges faced by the community in a non-Hindu social and political context (i.e. in Southeast Asia) that differentiate it from the situation of Nagarattar in Tamil Nadu?
  • What ties exist between Nagarattar in Southeast Asia and Tamil Nadu? 
  • What role do temples play in record-keeping for the community as a whole?
  • What role do they play (if any) in legitimating intra-caste marriages?
  • How are marriages between Nagarattar and outsiders treated?
  • Are the non-Nagarattar spouses integrated into the community to any extent?
  • How are the offspring of mixed marriages classified?

Rudner, David West. 1994. Caste and Capitalism: The Nattukottai Chettiars. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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