"Though the Shanars rank as a caste with the lower classes, and though the greater number of them earn their daily bread by their daily labour, pauperism is almost unknown amongst them. Of the great majority it may be said, that they are equally removed from the temptations of poverty and riches, equally removed from the superficial polish and subtle rationalism of the higher caste, and from the filthy habits and almost hopeless degradation of the agricultural slaves," writes Christian missionary and Tamil scholar Robert Caldwell in his book, 'Lectures on the Tinnevelly Missions, published in 1857.
Despite his seemingly dismissive tone, Caldwell wasn’t quite off the mark. For, it is believed that the Shanars, who later came to be known as Nadars, were able to keep poverty at bay through sheer hard work.
The main occupation of this community back in the day involved climbing palmyra trees and tapping toddy.
In the first census carried out in 1881, Shanars were classified as a lower caste. Because of this, throughout the 19th century and until the first half of the 20th century, they were subjected to different forms of untouchability. For instance, they were not allowed to draw water from the wells, not allowed to walk on the main road, and not allowed to milk the cows.
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