In a passage on the glories of the great king Mahāsudassana, it is mentioned that he consorted with only one of his 84,000 wives, either a khattiya maiden or a velāmikā. The passage is found in SN 22.96 and DN 17. In the latter context we find also the readings vessinī, velāmikānī, and vessāyinī.
While the reading vessinī yields a straightforward meaning for the passage—“maiden of the aristocratic or merchant class”—most translators have opted for velāmikā, leaving it in the Pali. I’m not really sure why they do so, I guess it’s lectio difficilior. However I think it’s a false reading.
There are many Chinese and Sanskrit parallels for this passage. Checking just a few of them, I find no cognate for velāmikā. At SA 264, for example, we find 剎利女、似剎利女, “a ksatriya maiden or one who looks like a ksatriya maiden”.
The commentary explains velāmikā as the child of mixed khattiya and brahmin parentage. There’s no particular reason why this should be right or wrong, but it does seem rather forced. The PTS suggests it is a regional term, “of Velāma”, which again may be correct, except we hear nowhere of such a region. To add to the confusion, there is in fact a modern caste called velama, found in Andhrapradesh; but there is no reason to assume any link.
A search for velāma in the canon reveals that the name only occurs in one other text, AN 9.20. This speaks of a wealthy brahmin of the past, who gave a great offering. What is curious about this is that the offerings so detailed—84,000 elephants with gold adornments and banners, covered with gold netting, and so on—are in many ways identical with the great wealth detailed of Mahāsudassana. This passage only occurs, I think, in these two contexts. Is it just a coincidence that this passage contains the only occurrences of the terms velama and velāmikā? Maybe, but it looks more than a little suspicious.
I suggest that the word velāma is the brahmin’s name, and somehow contaminated the text on Mahāsudassana. Perhaps the redactors wanted to add some details on Mahāsudassana’s glory, and copied over some text from the Anguttara reciters, getting it mixed up in the process.
Since this offers at least some justification for mixing up vessinī and velāmikā, I don’t think we need follow lectio difficilior, and can assume that the obvious reading is the correct one.