Paraiyar or Parayar (in the past, anglicised as Pariah) is a caste group found in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Tamil Nadu though they have been enumerated under three different caste names as Paraiyan, Samban and Adi Dravida, they have generally been referred to as Paraiyar. In northern Tamil Nadu they are known as Paraiyar, in southern Tamil Nadu they are known as Samban. Paraiyan and samban are synonymous with Adi Dravida.
The Indian census of 2001 reported that in Tamil Nadu the Adi Dravida population was about 5,402,755 and the Paraiyar population as 1,860,519.
Robert Caldwell conjectured that the Paraiyar or Paraiyan name was derived from the Tamil word Parai (a drum) because some members of the community act as drummers at marriages, funerals, village festivals, and on occasions when Government or commercial announcements are proclaimed. Whereas later, in the 1891 Madras Census Report, it is recorded that "it is only one section of Paraiyars that act as drummers, nor is the occupation confined to the Paraiyars. It seems in the highest degree improbable that a large, and at one time powerful, community should owe its name to an occasional occupation, which one of its divisions shares with other castes." the census report further notes that the word was unknown in old works such as the Divakaram Tamil dictionary of the 11th century AD This claim was at least in part contradicted by the Census Report for 1901, which refers to an inscription of the Chola king Raja Raja of around the eleventh century in which the Paraiyar caste is called by its name.
Gustav Salomon Oppert was another who thought that the derivation from Parai was unlikely. He argued that it was a "weak foundation" and that the name was "most probably an afterthought, the more easily explicable since the lower classes delighted in the noise of the drum, and the name of the drum-beating class was transferred to the instrument by which the Pariah made his presence known." He thought the name to be "intimately connected" with the names of other communities such as the Paravars, Paradas, Bhars and Mhars.
The name Pariah became famous as the Paraiyars were considered typical of the depressed castes in India. The mistaken use of the term Pariah as being applicable to the whole of the lowest castes, or even to out-castes, became generally known in Europe during the last quarter of the 18th century. The natives of India never designate the lower castes of other parts of the country as Pariahs.
Some scholars presume that Paraiyars must have been followers of Buddhism , constituted the original population and after the invasion by Brahmanical conquerors, they lost their culture, religion, wealth and status in the society and become destitute. The writers Thiruvalluvar and Auvaiyar, as well as the architect of Hastinapur, were all Paraiyars.
Paraiyars belong to the Valangai ("Right-hand caste faction"). Some of them assume the title Valangamattan ("people of the right-hand division"). The Valangai comprised castes with an agricultural basis while the Idangai consisted of castes involved in manufacturing.Valangai, which was better organized politically,
In the second half of the 19th century, there were frequent descriptions of the Paraiyars in official documents and reformist tracts as being "disinherited sons of the earth". The first reference to the idea may be that written by Francis Whyte Ellis in 1818, where he writes that the Paraiyars "affect to consider themselves as the real proprietors of the soil”. In 1894, William Goudie, a Weslyan missionary, said that the Paraiyars are self-evidently the "disinherited children of the soil".
Iyothee Thass, a Siddha doctor by occupation, belonged to a Paraiyar elite. In 1898, Thass and a large number of his followers converted to Buddhism and founded the Sakya Buddha Society (cākkaiya putta caṅkam) with the influential mediation of Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society. Olcott subsequently and greatly supported the Tamil Paraiyar Buddhists.
The Parayar Mahajana Sabha was founded by Rettamalai Srinivasan in 1892 and in 1895 Thass founded the “People’s Assembly of Urdravidians” (Adidravida Jana Sabha) in Madras. Michael Bergunder states that, it was the circles around Iyothee Thass claimed the description Urdravidian or Adidravidan, still a common synonym for Paraiyars in South India and Iyothee Thass Was the first to introduce the concept of Adidravida into political discussion and in the 1920s and 1930s E.V.Ramasami ensured the wide dissemination of this term.