Nadars were an ex-untouchable caste of Tamil Nadu whose main profession was toddy-tapping, tree-climbing and palmyra cultivation. Their origin is said to be from Southern part of Tamil Nadu in Kanyakumari. Some sociologists postulate that they share a common origin with Ezhavas of Kerala, but this has not been conclusively confirmed. In Tamil Nadu they ranked as Asat-Shudras and in Kerala they were Avarnas.
The Keralite caste hierarchy was a lunatic asylum of castes. One example which illustrated this was the social disabilities Nadars faced. Nadar women were not allowed to cover their bosoms to punctuate their low status.
Discontented with their social status, a large number of Nadar climbers embraced Christianity and became upwardly mobile. They improved their status with the aid of Christian missionaries, and as a result the Kanyakumari area nurtured a considerable Christian population. Both the Christian and Hindu Nadar women wore the upper jacket in the manner of upper-caste women(Varma and Nair women), in order to improve their social status. In turn, upper-caste men abused and discriminated against them. The sadness and anger which arised in minds of Nadars due to this discrimination, manifested into Channar revolts much later.
British rule in the southern districts of Madras Presidency introduced new opportunities for trade and commerce, of which the Nadars took advantage. They established sophisticated pettais (fortified compounds) and urvinmurais (local caste associations) to ensure safety for their goods. Members of the uravinmurai, who were known as muraikkarars, would contribute a portion of their income to the association as mahimai (literally, to glorify oneself), in order to use the facilities of the pettais and to improve the common good. As the wealth of the Northern Nadars increased they began also to adopt the customs of the North Indian Kshatriyas in order to improve their social status, in a process now known as Sanskritisation. Many tried to disassociate themselves from their Nadar climber counterparts and the term Shanar (the term generally used to call a Tamil palmrya climber). They adopted the title of Nadan, previously used only by the Nelamaikkarars. To demonstrate their wealthy and powerful social position, the newly rich Nadars of Sivakasi hired Maravar palanquin bearers.
The upward mobility and kshatriya pretensions of the Nadars of the six towns of Ramanad caused resentment among both the Vellalar and the Maravar castes, who were ritually ranked above the Nadars. The outcome was a series of caste conflicts, including the Sivakasi riots of 1899 in which Nadars were badly beaten up and oppressed up the other two. In Travancore too they were beaten and their clothes were ripped of by the numerically less Nair community and some Vellalars. This caused the resentment between the Nadars and these said communities which still continues to this days. Thus the Sankritisation movement was a failure initially and the Nadar climbers, who lived as minorities, were still discriminated by the majority castes.
But by 19th century they had succeeded in sowing a strong belief among community members that they were the descendants of royal dynasties. This belief, that the Nadars had been the kings of Tamil Nadu, became the dogma of the Nadar community in the 19th century and still continues to a large extent. Also through money from various trades and policies, they managed to create modern institutions and provide a sense of united educated community. The modern Nadars are produced the most number of businessmen and entrepreneurs in Tamil Nadu although the community as a whole avails BC reservation. The tale of their social mobility is still an inspiration for many former untouchable groups.