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Discover Kerala

Kerala is the southernmost state in the Indian subcontinent on the western Arabian sea coast. The leaf-slim state's 560 km length widens out in the centre to 120 km but all along its eastern edge it is guarded by the Western Ghats which rise to an average height of 900 meters and occasionally rise to well over 1,800 meters.

The Early Migrants of Kerala

Nothing definite can be said about the original inhabitants of Kerala as there is no evidence or record.  However, according to the Archaeologists, the early inhabitants of Kerala were the hunters and food gatherers of a Negrito tribe. There aren't many places through which the first people could have entered Kerala. The dreadful heights for hunter-gatherers to scale, particularly when the forests must have been densely wooded and infested with all the giants and hobgoblins that the mind of man can conceive! There were, however, three places where the high wall of protective mountains receded. Through the northern and southern extremities and roughly in the centre, in a pass known as the Palghat Gap, the first migrants could have discovered Kerala. In 1987, an archaeologist excavated charcoal remains from three trenches in  Quilon District. They were identified as 4,200; 5,100 and 5,200 years old. Traces of an even more sophisticated megalithic people were found by Kerala's archaeologists in 1991. This 10 sq. meter burial site was identified by 28 laterite standing stones. Buried underneath were 20 terracotta jars containing earth, bones, iron implements and cornelian beads.


Drawing from such varied sources as folklore, anthropology and archaeology there are reasonable grounds to believe that the first citizens of Kerala were those bright little hunter-gatherers, the tiny Negrito people. Judging from the folk ways of the predominantly Negrito people who still inhabit the mountains of southern India today, this broad-headed race lived close to Nature, and in harmony with it. Consequently, they had a good knowledge of herbal medicine and were skilled in interpreting natural phenomena. Some of this knowledge could have been passed on to the race that superseded them in Kerala; the Austrics.


The Austrics people of Kerala are of the same stock as the present-day Australian Aborigines. Many anthropologists believe that the Austrics laid the foundations of Indian civilization, and introduced the cultivation of rice and vegetables: activities which are still part of the Kerala scene. It is also more than likely that they introduced snake-worship into Kerala as well as emblems normally associated with fertility rites. Traces of such worship and ancient rites have been found among the Aboriginal tribes of Australia. Austric features can still be discerned, fairly clearly, among the people of present-day Kerala.


The Dravidians came in. These Mediterranean people had close racial affinities with the early people of Asia Minor, Crete, pre-Hellenic Aegeans of Greece and, possibly, even with the Pharaonic people of Egypt. There are increasingly strong grounds to believe that the first major wave of Dravidians could have come to India as traders, sailing their ships up navigable rivers from the Arabian Sea, and establishing the, so-called, Indus Valley city civilization. Earlier, sporadic, infiltrations of them could have been responsible for megalithic burial monuments such as urn burial under upright stones.

There is reason to believe that, though they had absorbed many of the beliefs of the earlier Negrito and Austric people, the Dravidians were strongly inclined to the worship of the Mother Goddess in all her myriad forms; Protector, Avenger, Bestower of Wealth, Wisdom and the Arts. The Dravidians occupied the western part of the Indian Peninsula and regarded Madurai as their capital. They built rock-cut tombs and megaliths in the coastal regions of Kerala.


It is also likely that their urban civilization was overtaken by invading flocks of Indo-Iranians between 2000 and 1500 BC. The Dravidians migrated southwards, carrying their civilization with them, though they left a considerable cultural imprint on their successors the way the Greeks left their mark on the Romans. Kerala is still strongly influenced by Dravidian traditions;  cash-crop and trade-oriented, and with strong materialistic biases. The Indo-Iranians, erroneously referred to as the Aryans, appear to have made a deep impression on Kerala in late proto-historic times. The legend of the Indo-Iranian priestly families of Kerala contends that they were led to this land when their faith was threatened in their original home in the north. Here, they re-established their beliefs and, because they were astute and well-informed people, established almost a theocratic oligarchy over Kerala's many warring states. Their hold was challenged only after Arab and Jewish traders started exporting Kerala's spices to the west. These contacts, in turn, led to the growth of Christianity and Islam into Kerala. It was the first place in India to host these two faiths. The first Christians in Kerala soon filled the growing social need for bankers and professionals. Before Kerala's international trading links had been firmly established, its society had been roughly stratified into Warrior rulers, Priestly-teachers and Cultivators-Fishermen-Hunters. Now it needed financiers and organizers and the Christians assumed these jobs with quiet efficiency.

Later, when a new need arose, the Islamic people became Kerala's shipbuilders, seafarers and powerful merchant princes. In the 15th century, when the Semitic monopoly of the spice trade became too expensive for the European markets to bear, and Portugal financed Vasco da Gama to discover the sea route to the spice lands of Kerala, the Portuguese navigator made commercial contact with an Islamic ruler of northern Kerala; the Zamorin of Calicut. From these contacts flowed Europe's great Age of Discovery. The Dutch followed the Portuguese into Kerala, then by the French in a limited way and finally by the British who stayed on in India till 1947.

Nine years later, the Indian government merged the two surviving princely states of this southern region with a few other Indian territories and created the state of Kerala on the 1st November 1956.

The People of Kerala

Nurtured by its climate and terrain, fertilized by a rich variety of cultural streams, Kerala holds a fascinating mosaic of people. They all call themselves Malayalees and yet they have managed to retain many of the ethnic characteristics that make them rugged individuals within the complex pattern of Kerala.

Many anthropologists believe, however, that the basic culture of Kerala is Dravidian. All other cultures have grafted their mores on Dravidian rootstock, as it were. Of Dravidian stock are the Thiyyas and Ezhavas. There is a legend that says that these people either by-passed Kerala on their migration southwards, or they left Kerala, and settled in Sri Lanka and the off-shore island chain of Lakshadweep. From there, apparently, they returned bringing the coconut to Kerala. It's an interesting legend but as the coconut grows on virtually the entire 7,516.5km coastline of India; one does not have to rely on a specific group of coconut planters to explain the presence of this remarkable tree.

The prime Dravidian groups are the Nairs. Most of the kings of Kerala were Nair stock and so, too, were the warriors of this land. The Nairs could have brought their matrilineal system down with them form the Indus valley, and earlier from the Mediterranean; or it could have developed as a result of their way of life. A professional warrior's material needs are taken care of by his commanders. In return, he surrenders all right to a settled life. Consequently, the women of his community have to knit his society together, give security to his children, stability to his home. A Nair husband, traditionally, married into his wife's family, his children took her family name, property was inherited through the maternal line.

The Indo-Iranian Namboodris, too, had rigid inheritance laws. As traditional priests, with inherited rights to manage the temporal affairs of the temples in which they officiated as priests, Namboodris had to ensure that unseemly family squabbles would not bring odium on their high office. Consequently, only the eldest son of a Namboodri could marry a Namboodri girl and inherit his father's rights.

Thus neither the Nairs nor the Namboodris had the social sanction to become traders. This slot was filled by outsiders. First it was the Romans and the Greeks. Then, when those civilizations collapsed, it was the semitic Jews and Arabs who discovered the cyclic power of the monsoons to fill the sails of their ships, and soon set up trading stations in Kerala.

St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, came to Kerala in AD52. He preached the gospel in the region and traveled to other parts. Many young Namboodris and Nair men accepted Thomas' path and formed the early Christian community in Kerala. Later they enjoyed special privileges from the rulers. In the third century, through the Jewish and Arab merchants, people in Syria learned about the Christian communities in Kerala and that they enjoyed privileges. In due course, there were several migration from Syria and they lived together with the St. Thomas Christians and eventually they called themselves.

Syrian Christians

Still later, in AD 643, a disciple of the Prophet Mohammed named Malik Ibn Dinar came to Kerala. Many of the Arab traders and their local associates became followers of this path and Islam established firm roots in the soil of Kerala. The enterprising and gracious community, often known as the Moplahs, was born.

When the semitic monopoly on the spice trade led to the arrival of the Portuguese, a new community came into being. The Iberians were surprised to find that there were people in Kerala who had been Christians for many centuries before Spain and Portugal had found the Christian path. And they were angry to discover that these Christians did not say their prayers in Latin, as the Iberians did, but in Syrian. Encouraged by the Portuguese, many of the underprivileged people of Kerala began to follow the Latin path of Christianity and have, ever since, been called Latin Catholics.

In the years that followed, intermarriages between the European colonials and local people produced the Anglo-Indian community of Kerala distinguished by their European surnames, western lifestyles which eschewed arranged marriages, and English as their mother tongue. Most of them were physically indistinguishable form the Jews, a later wave of whom had fled to Kerala to escape the Inquisition in Spain. The majority of these people, however, have migrated; the Anglo-Indians to Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; the Jews to Israel. And then, largely after Independence, other communities including the artistic Bengalis and the ebullient Punjabis began to make their presence felt in Kerala. They, too, began to be merged in the great emulsifying process of this state. It is this ceaseless churning, this constant influx of new people, new influences, new systems that makes Kerala what it is. Nothing is static in Kerala.

(Source: Discovering Kerala, Published by the Kerala Tourism Department)

The Native Tribes (Adivasis)

As the Indo- Iranians or Aryans moved into the land and spread long and wide into the Peninsula, the earlier inhabitants were forced to leave their fields and lands and became subject to the four caste system introduced by them, accepting their menial jobs. The good looking and organized groups were given a higher division of jobs like warriors and business communities, while the darker poorer groups were given the sudra or untouchable status. These last groups today form the Scheduled castes and those who resisted and fled to the forests and hills are known as the tribals / adivasis. On the Western Ghat mountaions in South India  alone there are 35 tribal groups, distinct from one another in features, culture and language.

See Tribes in Kerala

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