Travel Bucket List: India – Kerala Part 1

Our next state in this series where we visit various Indian states is in God’s own country which is Kerala. A state on the southwestern Malabar coast, Kerala was formed on 1 November 1956, following the passage of the States Reorganisation Act, by combining the Malayalam-speaking regions of the erstwhile states of Travancore-Cochin and Madras. Spread over 38,863 sq km, Kerala is the twenty-first largest Indian state by area and is bordered by Karnataka to the north and northeast, Tamil Nadu to the east and south, and the Lakshadweep Sea to the west. It is also the thirteenth-largest Indian state by population and is divided into 14 districts with Tiruvanthapuram being the capital and Malayalam being not just the the most widely spoken language, but also the official state language. Kerala is a relatively prosperous state with it’s economy being the 10th largest in the country and has the distinction of having the highest literacy rate in India with a literacy rate of 96.2% according to a 2018 survey as well as the highest life expectancy at 77 years; and the highest sex ratio in the country at 1,084 women per 1,000 men. The state also has the highest media exposure in India with newspapers publishing in nine languages, mainly English and Malayalam. The state has witnessed significant emigration, especially to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf during the Gulf Boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, and its economy depends significantly on remittances from a large Malayali expatriate community. The culture of Kerala is a synthesis of Aryan, Dravidian, Arab, and European cultures, developed over millennia, under influences from other parts of India and abroad.

The Chera Dynasty was the first prominent kingdom based in Kerala. The Ay kingdom in the deep south and the Ezhimala kingdom in the north formed the other kingdoms in the early years of the Common Era. The region had been a prominent spice exporter since 3000 BC. The region’s prominence in trade was noted in the works of Pliny as well as the Periplus around 100 AD. In the 15th century, the spice trade attracted Portuguese traders to Kerala, and paved the way for European colonisation of India. At the time of Indian independence movement in the early 20th century, there were two major princely states in Kerala-Travancore State and the Kingdom of Cochin. They united to form the state of Thiru-Kochi in 1949. The Malabar region, in the northern part of Kerala, had been a part of the Madras province of British India, which later became a part of the Madras State post-independence. After the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, the modern-day state of Kerala was formed by merging the Malabar district of Madras State, excluding the Gudalur taluk of Nilgiris district, Topslip and the Attappadi Forest east of Anakatti, the state of Thiru-Kochi excluding four southern taluks of Kanyakumari district, Shenkottai and Tenkasi taluks and the taluk of Kasaragod, now Kasaragod District in South Canara or Tulunad which was a part of Madras State.

A prominent tourism destination, Kerala is well known for its backwaters, hill stations, beaches, Ayurvedic tourism and tropical greenery. It is also well known for the production of pepper, natural rubber and cahew.

The name Kerala has an uncertain etymology. One folk etymology derives Kerala from the Malayalam word kera which means coconut tree and alam, meaning land; which makes Kerala the ‘land of coconuts’, a nickname for the state used by locals due to the abundance of coconut trees. The word Kerala is first recorded as Ketalaputo in a 3rd-century BC rock inscription left by the Maurya emperor Ashoka who ruled between 274 and 237 BC, one of his edicts pertaining to welfare. This contradicts the theory that kera is from coconut tree. At that time, one of three states in the region was called Cheralam in Classical Tamil where Chera and Kera are variants of the same word. The word Cheral refers to the oldest known dynasty of Kerala kings and is derived from the Proto-Tamil-Malayalam word for lake. The earliest Sanskrit text to mention Kerala as Cherapadha is the late Vedic text Aitareya Aranyaka. Kerala is also mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two Hindu epics. The Skanda Purana mentions the ecclesiastical office of the Thachudaya Kaimal who is referred to as Manikkam Keralar, synonymous with the deity of the Koodalmanikyam temple.  Keralam may stem from the Classical Tamil cherive-alam which means declivity of a hill or a mountain slope or chera alam meaning land of the Cheras. The Greco-Roman trade map Periplus Maris Erythraei refers to Kerala as Celobotra.

According to the Sangam classic Purananuru, the Chera king Senkuttuvan conquered the lands between Kanyakumari and the Himalayas. Lacking worthy enemies, he besieged the sea by throwing his spear into it. According to the 17th century Malayalam work Keralolpathi, the lands of Kerala were recovered from the sea by the axe-wielding warrior sage Parasurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu which is why Kerala is also called Parasurama Kshetram or the Land of Parasurama. Parasurama threw his axe across the sea, and the water receded as far as it reached. According to legend, this new area of land which extended from Gokarna to Kanyakumari was filled with salt and unsuitable for habitation, so Parasurama invoked the Snake King Vasuki, who spat holy poison and converted the soil into fertile lush green land. Out of respect, Vasuki and all snakes were appointed as protectors and guardians of the land. Another much earlier Puranic character associated with Kerala is Mahabali, an Asura and a prototypical just king, who ruled the earth from Kerala. He won the war against the Devas, driving them into exile. The Devas pleaded before Lord Vishnu, who took his fifth incarnation as Vamana and pushed Mahabali down to netherworld to placate the Devas. There is a belief that, once a year during the Onam festival, Mahabali returns to Kerala. The Matsya Purana, among the oldest of the 18 Puranas, uses the Malaya Mountains of Kerala and Tamil Nadu as the setting for the story of Matsya, the first incarnation of Vishnu, and Manu, the first man and the king of the region.

A substantial portion of Kerala may have been under the sea in ancient times with marine fossils found in an area near Changanacherry, supporting the hypothesis. Pre-historical archaeological findings include dolmens of the Neolithic era in the Marayur area of the Idukki district. They are locally known as “muniyara”, derived from muni meaning hermit or sage and ara or dolmen. Rock engravings in the Edakkal Caves, in Wayanad date back to the Neolithic era around 6000 BC. Archaeological studies have identified Mesolithic, Neolithic and Megalithic sites in Kerala and studies point to the development of ancient Kerala society and its culture beginning from the Paleolithic Age, through the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Megalithic Ages. Foreign cultural contacts have assisted this cultural formation with historians suggesting a possible relationship with Indus Valley Civilization during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age.

Kerala has been a major spice exporter since 3000 BC, according to Sumerian records and it is still referred to as the Garden of Spices or as the Spice Garden of India. Kerala’s spices attracted ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians to the Malabar Coast in the 3rd and 2nd millennia before Christ with the Phoenicians establishing trade with Kerala during this period. The Land of Keralaputra was one of the four independent kingdoms in southern India during Ashoka’s time, the others being Chola, Pandya, and Satiyaputra and scholars hold that Keralaputra is an alternate name for the Cheras, the first dominant dynasty based in Kerala. These territories once shared a common language and culture, within an area known as Tamilakam. Along with the Ay kingdom in the south and the Ezhimala kingdom in the north, the Cheras formed the ruling kingdoms of Kerala in the early years of the Common Era. In the last centuries before Christ, the coast became important to the Greeks and Romans for its spices, especially black pepper. The Cheras had trading links with China, West Asia, Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire and the region was known as Male or Malabar. Contemporary Sangam literature describes Roman ships coming to Muziris in Kerala, laden with gold to exchange for pepper and one of the earliest western traders to use the monsoon winds to reach Kerala was Eudoxus of Cyzicus, around 118 or 166 BC, under the patronage of Ptolemy VIII, king of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. Merchants from West Asia and Southern Europe established coastal posts and settlements in Kerala with the Jewish connection starting in 573 BC. The Arabs also had trade links with Kerala, starting before the 4th century BC, and in the 4th century, the Knanaya or Southist Christians also migrated from Persia and lived alongside the early Syriac Christian community known as the St. Thomas Christians who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. The earliest Saint Thomas Christian Churches, Cheraman Jumu’ah Masjid which has been traditionally dated to 629 AD is regarded as the first mosque of India and Paradesi Synagogue built in 1568 AD is the the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations and these were all buiit in Kerala.

The Namboothiri Brahmins migrated to Kerala during the early Middle Ages and apart from introducing the caste system, they also changed the socio-economic life of the people by commissioning new religious centres. A second Chera Kingdom, also known as the Kulasekhara dynasty of Mahodayapuram which is in present day Kodungallur, was established by Kulasekhara Varman, which ruled over a territory comprising the whole of modern Kerala and a smaller part of modern Tamil Nadu. During the early part of the Kulasekara period, the southern region from Nagercoil to Thiruvalla was ruled by Ay kings, who lost their power in the 10th century, making the region a part of the Kulasekara empire. Under the Kulasekhara rule, Kerala witnessed a developing period of art, literature, trade and the Bhakti movement of Hinduism. A Keralite identity, distinct from the Tamils, became linguistically separate during this period around the seventh century. For local administration, the empire was divided into provinces under the rule of Naduvazhis, with each province comprising a number of Desams under the control of chieftains, called as Desavazhis. Portuguese invasions in the 15th century caused two major religions, Buddhism and Jainism, to disappear from the land. It is believed that the Menons in the Malabar region of Kerala were originally strong believers of Jainism and the social system became fractured with divisions on caste lines. In the 14th century, Ravi Varma Kulashekhara who ruled between 1299 and 1314 in the southern Venad kingdom was able to establish a short-lived supremacy over southern India. After his death, in the absence of a strong central power, the state was divided into thirty small warring principalities; the most powerful of them being the kingdoms of Samuthiri in the north, Venad in the south and Kochi in the middle. In the 18th century, the Travancore King Sree Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma annexed all the kingdoms up to Northern Kerala through military conquests, resulting in the rise of Travancore to pre-eminence in Kerala.The Kochi ruler sued for peace with Anizham Thirunal and Malabar came under direct British rule until India became independent.

After Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in Kappad Kozhikode in 1498, the Portuguese began to dominate eastern shipping, and the spice-trade in particular and established a trading center at Tangasseri in Quilon during 1502 as per the invitation of the then Queen of Quilon to start spices trade from there. The Zamorin of Kozhikode permitted the new visitors to trade with his subjects such that Portuguese trade in Kozhikode prospered with the establishment of a factory and a fort. The Portuguese took advantage of the rivalry between the Zamorin and the King of Kochi allied with Kochi. During Francisco de Almeida’s reign as Viceroy of Portuguese India from 1505, the Portuguese managed to dominate relations with Kochi and established a few fortresses on the Malabar Coast. An insurrection at the Port of Quilon between the Arabs and the Portuguese led to the end of the Portuguese era in Quilon. In 1571, the Portuguese were defeated by the Zamorin forces in the battle at Chaliyam Fort. The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch East India Company, who during the conflicts between the Kozhikode and the Kochi, gained control of the trade who in turn were weakened by constant battles with Marthanda Varma of the Travancore Royal Family, and were defeated at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. An agreement, known as “Treaty of Mavelikkara”, was signed by the Dutch and Travancore in 1753, according to which the Dutch were compelled to detach from all political involvement in the region. Marthanda Varma annexed northern kingdoms through military conquests, resulting in the rise of Travancore to a position of preeminence in Kerala. In 1766, Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore invaded northern Kerala and his son and successor, Tipu Sultan, launched campaigns against the expanding British East India Company, resulting in two of the four Anglo-Mysore Wars. Tipu ultimately ceded the Malabar District and South Kanara to the company in the 1790s with both being annexed to the Madras Presidency of British India in 1792. By the end of 18th century, the whole of Kerala fell under the control of the British, either administered directly or under suzerainty. There were major revolts in Kerala during the independence movement in the 20th century; most notable among them being the 1921 Malabar Rebellion and the social struggles in Travancore. In the Malabar Rebellion, the Mappila Muslims of Malabar rioted against Hindu zamindars and the British Raj. Some social struggles against caste inequalities also erupted in the early decades of 20th century, leading to the 1936 Temple Entry Proclamation that opened Hindu temples in Travancore to all castes.

After India’s independence, Travancore and Kochi were merged on 1 July 1949 to form Travancore-Cochin. On 1 November 1956, the taluk of Kasargod in the South Kanara district of Madras, the Malabar district of Madras, and Travancore-Cochin, without four southern taluks, which joined Tamil Nadu, merged to form the state of Kerala under the States Reorganisation Act. A Communist-led government resulted from the first elections for the new Kerala Legislative Assembly in 1957 and was one of the earliest elected Communist governments.

Unlike how I go about exploring a state, starting from its capital and then moving to other cities, since Kerala is long and narrow, we will start from the north and work our way to the south and the state capital of Thirvanthapuram.

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