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Stone age writing in Edakkal Caves, Kerala.

This article concerns itself with the history of Kerala, a state in South India. Kerala had direct contact across the Arabian Sea with all the major Red Sea ports and the Mediterranean ports as well as extending to ports in the Far East. The spice trade between Kerala and much of the world was one of the main drivers of the world economy. For much of history, ports in Kerala were the busiest among all trade and travel routes in the history of the world.


First mention

The trench outside the St. Angelo's fort wall, to protect the fort from enemies.
Kingdom of Travancore
Part of History of Kerala
Travancore Kings
Rama Varma 1663-1672
Aditya Varma 1672-1677
Umayamma Rani 1677-1684
Ravi Varma 1684-1718
Aditya Varma 1718-1719
Unni Kerala Varma 1719-1724
Rajah Rama Varma 1724-1729
Marthanda Varma 1729-1758
Dharma Raja 1758-1798
Balarama Varma 1798-1810
Gowri Lakshmi Bayi 1810-1815
Gowri Parvati Bayi 1815-1829
Swathi Thirunal 1829-1846
Uthram Thirunal 1846-1860
Ayilyam Thirunal 1860-1880
Visakham Thirunal 1880-1885
Moolam Thirunal 1885-1924
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi 1924-1931
Chithira Thirunal 1931-1949

‡ Regent Queens

Padmanabhapuram 1721-1795
Thiruvananthapuram 1795-1949
Padmanabhapuram Palace
Kilimanoor palace
Kuthira Malika
Kowdiar Palace

Kerala is first mentioned (as Keralaputra) in a 3rd-century-B.C. rock inscription left by the Mauryan emperor Asoka the Great.[1] According to the first century annals of Pliny the Elder and the author of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Muziris in Kerala could be reached in 14 days' time from the Red sea ports in Egyptian coast purely depending on the South West Monsoon winds. The Sangam works Puṟanāṉūṟu and Akanaṉūṟu have many lines which speak of the Roman vessels and the Roman gold that used to come to the Kerala ports of the great Aryan kings in search of pepper and other spices, which had enormous demand in the West.

Mythological origins

Parasurama, surrounded by settlers, commanding Varuna to part the seas and reveal Kerala.

There are myths concerning the origin of Kerala. One such myth is the creation of Kerala by Parasurama, a warrior sage. The Brahminical myth proclaims that Parasurama, an avatar of Mahavishnu, threw his battle axe into the sea. As a result, the land of Kerala arose and was reclaimed from the waters.[2]

He was the sixth of the ten avatars (incarnation) of Vishnu. The word Parasu means 'axe' in Sanskrit and therefore the name Parasurama means 'Ram with Axe'. The aim of his birth was to deliver the world from the arrogant oppression of the ruling caste, the Kshatriyas. He killed all the male Kshatriyas on earth and filled five lakes with their blood. After destroying the Kshatriya kings, he approached assembly of learned men to find a way of penitence for his sins. He was advised that, to save his soul from damnation, he must hand over the lands he had conquered to the Brahmins. He did as they advised and sat in meditation at Gokarnam. There, Varuna -the God of the Oceans and Bhumidevi - Goddess of Earth blessed him. From Gokarnam he reached Kanyakumari and threw his axe northward across the ocean. The place where the axe landed was Kerala. It was 160 katam (an old measure) of land lying between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari. Puranas say that it was Parasuram who planted the 64 Brahmin families in Kerala, whom he brought down from the north in order to expiate his slaughter of the Kshatriyas. According to the puranas, Kerala is also known as Parasurama Kshetram, ie., 'The Land of Parasurama', as the land was reclaimed from sea by him.

This legend, however, may be a Brahmin appropriation of an earlier Chera legend where a Chera King, Velkezhu Kuttavan, otherwise known a Chen Kuttuvan flings his spear into the sea to claim land from it.[3] The myth of Parashurama is debatable as the legendary king Mahabali, under whose rule Kerala was the land of prosperity and happiness, was granted rule over netherworld (Patalam) by Vamana the avatar of Vishnu, who actually comes before the avatar of Parashurama according to the avatar stories of Hindu mythology. There is however a counter-point to this line of argument, because as per the 'Vishupuranam' Mahabali was ruler of the entire World (there is no mention of a place called Kerala) and eyed to capture the abode of the Devas when Vishnu incarnated as 'Vamana' and banished him. Also it is not necessary for one Avatara to end before the other one begins. Parasurama also appears along with Sri Rama in the Ramayana as well as the Mahabharata,as a Guru for Karna.

One legend of Kerala even makes Parasurama a Pandya ruler.[4] In another legend, the Pandyas themselves are the manifestations of Parasurama.[5] P.N. Chopra writes, "Parasurama is deemed by the Keralites as the father of their national identity."[6] The Kollam Era is also known as "Parasurama-Sacam".[7] Travancore Rajas claim descent from Chera King Bhanu Bikram, who according to legend was placed on the throne by Parasurama.[8] Scholar K. Narayanan Sivaraja Pillai mentions, "Even as the West Coast owes its very rudiments of civilized life to Parasurama...".[9] In the Keralolpatti, Parasurama is said to have selected goddess Durga (Kali) to be the guardian of the sea-shore of Kerala.[10] According to legend, Chera King Kuttuvan Chera (also called Kota Varman) once enraged, threw an into the sea, thereby causing it to retreat and the land to dry.[11] According to another legend, a Pandyan called "Vadimbalamba ninrapandyan" threw his spear into the sea, hereby causing the same effect.[11] There is another story of Ukkira Pandiyan obtaining a spear from the Sivan of Madura, and throwing it into the sea, causing the shore to retreat.[11] Tradition says that Parasurama minted gold coins called Rasi and that in Travancore, he sowed them and buried the surplus in Cairns.[12]

Early history

A Muniyara, dolmens erected by Neolithic tribesmen, in Marayoor.

The earliest written record mentioning Kerala is contained in the Sanskrit epic known as the Aitareya Aranyaka. Later, such figures as Katyayana (circa 4th century BCE) and Patanjali (circa 2nd century BCE) exhibited in their writings a casual familiarity with Kerala's geography. Megasthanes, the Greek Ambassador to the court of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (4th Century BCE) mentions in his work Indica on many South Indian States, including Automela (probably Muziris), and a Pandian trade centre. Ancient Roman Natural philosopher Pliny the Elder mentions in his Naturalis Historia (N.H. 6.26) a Muziris probably modern-day Kodungallur or Pattanam as India's first port of Importance. Later, the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea notes that "both Muziris and Nelkunda (modern Nillakal) are now busy places".

Malayalam, Kerala's main native language, believed to be originated as an offshoot of Tamil as all historical records available till date from Kerala is in Tamil, the principal native language of neighboring Tamil Nadu was Tamil. Malayalam (Derived from the local words: mala (means Mountain) and aalam (means Kingdom)) as a composite phrase means the living/inhabitants of Mountain Kingdom. This phrase, which in earlier times implied the geographical location of the region, was later replaced by Kerala. Kerala and Tamil Nadu diverged into linguistically separate regions by the early 14th century BCE. The ancient Chera Empire, whose court language was Tamil, ruled Kerala from their capital at Vanchi Karuvur (modern Karur in Tamil Nadu) as Kerala Society was more Feudal than Royal with Arya Namboothiri communities heading the Social order. Kerala at that time was composed of two regions, Venadu (later called Travancore) and Kuttanadu (Malabar). Allied with the Pallavas, they continually warred against the neighbouring Chola and Pandyan Empire. History says that (recorded im Mackenzie records) a Chozha princess was married to the Chera of Karur and he got a dowry of 48,000 agriculturists from the Chozha country. These people were settled in the then forested region of Venadu and Kuttanadu and thus the first agricultural settlements arose in what is called Kerala today.

A Keralite identity is associated with the development of Malayalam, subsequently evolved sometime during the 8th–14th centuries. Meanwhile, both Buddhism and Jainism reached Kerala in this early period. As in other parts of Ancient India, Buddhism and Jainism co-existed with early Christian and Shaivite beliefs during the first five centuries. By the 8th and 9th centuries, 2nd Chera kings inclined to Vaishnavism and some of them wrote great literary works in the stream of Vishnu Bhakthi. In the 8th century Sri Sankara (also known as Adi Sankaracharya) was born at Kaladi in central Kerala, who travelled extensively across the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, establishing institutions of Advaitha philosophy. The places of his visit and location of the Muths that he had instituted in the north, south, east and west, are broadly considered to be limits of the geographical expanse of ancient India.

Overseas contact

A Hebrew inscription at the Mattancherry Synagogue in Kochi, India, built in 1344 CE. It is the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations.

The significant presence of West Asians - primarily traders - on the Malabar coast has been recorded in many Roman[13] and Tamil[14] sources. They were encouraged to settle and set up trading outposts and factories by the local kings. Many migrations into Kerala were to escape religious and/or racial persecution. Jews of Kerala claimed to be remnants of the Jews that left the northern Kingdom of Israel following the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE. The white Jews were refugees from Spain following the promulgation of the Edict of Expulsion. Thomas the Apostle visited this region in 52 CE and preached Christianity among the Jewish people who are now known as Nasranis. Another well recorded (in the Tharisappally records) arrival of Mar Abo on invitation from Kollam King, is from Assyria in the 9th century CE who was the founder of the present Christian religion in Kerala shores independent from Vaishnavism. With the advent of Islam in West Asia the traders visiting Kerala's shores contained ever larger proportions of Muslims. Malik Ibn Dinar created the first Muslim settlement in Kerala in the 7th century CE. Arab Muslims eventually dominated the sea trade with Kerala until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century CE. As the Muslim settlers gained strength clashes erupted between them and the Christian & Jewish settlers in the 9th century CE. This resulted in Muslim control of trading centres and the latter communities scattering to places such as Angamaly and others further south[15].


Vasco da Gama delivers the letter of King Manuel I of Portugal to the Saamoothiri of Calicut.
Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma was the last ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Travancore.

Vasco da Gama's voyage to Kerala from Portugal in 1498 was largely motivated by Portuguese determination to break the Arabs' control over trade of spices grown in Kerala. The spice trade with the Middle East pre-dates Islam. Da Gama established India's first Portuguese fortress at Cochin (Kochi) in 1503 and taking advantage of rivalry between the royal families of Calicut and Cochin, ended the Arab monopoly. Conflicts between Calicut and Cochin, however, provided an opportunity for the Dutch to come in and finally expel the Roman Catholic Portuguese from their forts.

The Dutch East India company commander Captain Eustachius De Lannoy surrenders to Travancore king Marthanda Varma in the 1741 Battle of Colachel

The Dutch were, in turn, routed by the Nairs of Travancore (Thiruvithamcoore) ruler Marthanda Varma at the Battle of Kulachal in 1741. Hyder Ali of Mysore conquered northern Kerala in the 18th century, capturing Kozhikode in 1766. Hyder Ali and his successor, Tipu Sultan, (but Nairs under the capable Diwan of Travancoore Raja Keshavadas (Keshava pillai Diwanji) defeated Tippu near Aluva) came into conflict with the British, and the four Anglo-Mysore wars were fought across southern India in the latter half of the 18th century. Tipu Sultan ceded Malabar District to the British in 1792, and South Kanara, which included present-day Kasargod District, in 1799. The British concluded treaties of subsidiary alliance with the rulers of Cochin (1791) and Travancore (1795), and they became princely states of British India, maintaining local autonomy in return for a fixed annual tribute to the British. Malabar and South Kanara districts were part of British India's Madras Presidency.

Organised expressions of discontent with British rule were relatively not infrequent in Kerala. Uprisings of note include the rebellion by Pazhassi Raja, Velu Thampi Dalawa and the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt of 1946. In 1919, consequent to their victory in World War I, the British abolished the Islamic Caliphate and dis-membered the Ottoman Empire. This resulted in protests against the British by Muslims of the Indian sub-continent which is known as Khilafat Movement, which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi in order to draw the Muslims into the mainstream national independence movement. In the year 1921, the Khilafat Movement in Malabar culminated in widespread riots against the British government and Hindu population in what is now known as Moplah rebellion. Kerala also witnessed several social reforms movements directed at eradication of social evils such as untouchability from among the Hindus, pioneered by reformists like Srinarayana guru, Chattambiswami etc. The non-violent and largely peaceful Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 was instrumental in securing entry to the public roads adjacent to the Vaikom temple for people belonging to untouchable castes. In 1936, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balaramavarma the ruler of Travancore issued the Temple Entry Proclamation, declaring the temples of his kingdom open to all Hindu worshippers, irrespective of caste.

Modern post-colonial

After India's independence in 1947, the princely states of Travancore and Kochi were merged to form the province (after 1950 a state) of Travancore-Cochin on July 1, 1949. Madras Presidency became India's Madras State.

The state of Kerala was created on November 1, 1956 when Malabar District was merged with Tranvancore-Cochin state and Kasargod taluk of South Kanara District and Kaniyakumari was given over to Tamil Nadu to form the State of Kerala, based on the recommendations of the State Reorganisation Commission set up by the Government of India.[16] Elections for the new Kerala Legislative Assembly were held in 1957; this resulted in the formation of a communist-led government[16] headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Many Indians consider this the first democratically elected communist government[17] in the world; however, both San Marino (in 1948) and Guyana (in 1953) had elected communists to power years earlier. The social factors leading to elections of the communists was discussed in the 1959 book The red interlude in Kerala by Kainikkara Padmanabha Pillai.[18] Radical reforms introduced by the E. M. S. Namboodiripad government in favour of farmers and labourers helped change, to a great extent, the iniquitous social order that had prevailed in Kerala for centuries.

See also


  1. ^ "Kerala." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 8 June 2008
  2. ^ Aiya VN (1906). The Travancore State Manual. Travancore Government Press. pp. 210–212. Retrieved 2007-11-12.  
  3. ^ Menon, A. Sreedhara. A Survey Of Kerala History. Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society (Sales Deptartment); National Book Stall.  
  4. ^ Saletore, P. 29 Ancient Karnātaka
  5. ^ P. 39 Gadyakarṇāmr̥ta of Sakala-Vidyācakravarttin: Text and Study By S. S. Janaki, Sakala-Vidyācakravarttin
  6. ^ P. 14 History of South India By P.N. Chopra
  7. ^ P. 423 The History of India from the Earliest Ages By James Talboys Wheeler
  8. ^ P. 80 India and Jambu island, showing changes in boundaries and river-courses of India and Burmah from Pauranic, Greek, Buddhist, Chinese, and western travellers' accounts by Amarnath Das
  9. ^ P. 30 Agastya in the Tamil Land By K. Narayanan Sivaraja Pillai
  10. ^ P. 365 A manual of the Salem district in the presidency of Madras By Henry Le Fanu
  11. ^ a b c P. 515 History Of The Tamils: From the Earliest Times to 600 A.D. By Iyengar P. T. Srinivasa, P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar
  12. ^ P. 1931 Encyclopaedia of Hinduism By Nagendra Kumar Singh
  13. ^ Pliny's Natural History
  14. ^ Silapadhigaaram, Manimekalai, P.T.Srinivasa Iyengar's "History of the Tamils: from the earliest times to 600 AD", Madras, 1929
  15. ^ The Indian Christians of St Thomas, Leslie Brown, page 81
  16. ^ a b (Plunkett, Cannon & Harding 2001, p. 24).
  17. ^ (Jose 1998).
  18. ^ Thomas Johnson Nossiter (1982). C. Hurst for the Royal Institute of International Affairs. ISBN 0905838408.  
This article contains Indic text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks or boxes, misplaced vowels or missing conjuncts instead of Indic text.




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