The history of kerala is
not well defined, both mythologies , legends , and heresays have spun
a web of mystery among which the generations of historians have gropped
in the dark in the process of finding a logical conclusion of what
has happened in this land since time immemorial and the processes
which evolved this magnificent piece of land and a unique culture
which cannot be traced anywhere in India or in the world.
As such there is no unanimity among historians about the history of
ancient Kerala, since so little written accounts exist. Much of the
history is cloaked in myths and conjectures.
The most popular among the myths centres around the legend of Parasurama,
the warrior-sage who is regarded as the incarnation of Vishnu .
After destroying the Kshathriya kings, goes the legend, the warrior-sage
asked an assembly of learned men a way of penance for his past misdeeds.
On being advised to hand over the lands he had conquered
to the Brahmins to save his soul from eternal damnation, he readily
agreed and sat in penance at Gokarnam, those days considered to
be land's end.
There having got boons from Varuna, the God of the
Oceans and Bhumidevi, the Goddess of earth, he proceeded to Kanya
Kumari (Cape Comorin) and threw his battle axe northwards across
the waters. The waters subsided and what was left over was called
the land of Parasurama, that is today's Kerala.
Fiction ? Hardly so, since geologists have pointed
out that the elevation of Kerala from the sea was the result of
some seismic activity, either sudden or gradual. There is also another
theory. The rivers of Kerala emptying into the Arabian seas bring
down enormous quantities of silt from the hills. The ocean currents
transport quantities of sand towards the shore. The coastal portions
could well be due to the accumulation of this silt over thousands
Ancient Kerala occupied a unique place in the commercial world.
The teak found in the ruins of 'Urus' (wooden vessels - the process
of making it still exists in Beypore)must certainly have come from
the Malabar Coast. This means trade flourished around 3000 BC. Cotton
from this region was a favourite in Egypt, the Phoenicians visited
the coast of Malabar around the same time to trade in ivory, sandalwood
and spices. King Solomon is said to have sent his commercial fleet
to Ophir which is said to be somewhere in Southern Kerala.
Muziris (Kodungalloor or Cranganore) was reputed to
be the ancient world's greatest trading centre in the East for such
highly prized possessions as pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger
and other spices. Pliny , the younger is said to have lamented the
fact that trade with the East was draining the treasury of Rome
! The trade flourished by ships riding on the monsoon winds from
Africa and back to Arabia, from where the overland caravan took
the prized items to the markets along the Mediterranean ports.
By common consent among the historians, the earliest inhabitants
of Kerala were the Pulayas, Kuravas and Vetas . It is at a much
later time that migratory populations from the north subjugated
them and ultimately enslaved them, a state to which they were in
till the abolition of untouchability in the recent past.
By the beginning of the Christian era, there was a noticeable increase
in the influence of the Chera dynasty of across the Western Ghats
and into the political and cultural life of ancient Kerala. The
armies of the northern empires of the Mauryas could not enter the
lands of the Cheras, but Buddhism and Jainism did enter in a big
way. But it was the entry of Brahmins from the boundaries of modern
day Karnataka which really changed the power structure of Kerala
for the next millenium .
From Payyannur in North Kerala, they gradually moved
south and occupied the most fertile lands . By the time of the terminal
decline of the Cheras started, it coincided with the rise of the
Brahmins in Kerala. By the 10th century, they were powerful entity
from Gokurnum (North Kerala ) to the Cape Comorin, divided into
32 Brahmin or 'Namboothiries' communities. Soon thereafter, the
Buddhists and the Jains had to beat a retreat from the social landscape
of Kerala. These land owning class of Brahmins were well on their
way to great wealth and power.
To make their sway complete strict segregation between
classes of people came into being. In their practice, the caste
system of Kerala found no equal anywhere else in the country . The
edicts even include what distance a person of lowest caste must
keep from the Brahmins, even considering the shadow of the persons
concerned and avoiding even looking at a Brahmin !
The Christians who had arrived from the middle East in the 3rd century
AD and the Muslims who arrived in the 8th century were generally
traders and were not involved in this social segregation and generally
kept aloof from the ambit of caste politics of those days. The Jews
who arrived Kerala in the early years of the Christian era were
given privileges to trade and became an influential part of the
melting pot of Kerala's population.
The Namboothiries also were the landowners ( janmi)
of most lands in Kerala. Lands being leased out to next higher castes
for share cropping, and these in turn would further be leased out
to those lower on the caste hierarchy and to non-Hindus. The lowest
castes of course were only labourers and were traded along with
the land . In such a rigid hierarchy, the all powerful Namboothiries
were the unquestioned rulers.
By and by Kerala entered a phase of feudal chieftains
or warlords (naduvazhis). Some were anointed by the Namboothiries,
but most just walked into a power vacuum existing at the time. Hence,
Kerala at the turn of the 11th century AD had power triangle in
the caste system supported by the Landlords and ruled by the warlords.
This in turn gave rise to instability in the absence of strong central
leadership. Wars and conflicts were common for control of turf.
Ultimately three war lords emerged with some semblance of authority
in their regions - the Zamorin of Calicut (Samuthiri of Kozhikode)
to the North, Moopins of Perimpadappu (near modern day Kochi) in
the central regions and chieftain of Kollam.
It is also interesting to note that these kingdoms
are centred around the ancient ports of Kozhikode, Kochi ( a small
harbour appeared in present day Kochi in 1341 after a natural calamity
closed the ancient port of Muziris or Kodungalloor. The name Kochi
comes from the word kochu thura meaning small port or opening out
to the sea !), and Kollam.
The combination of caste, feudalism and warfare ultimately took
its toll. The landlords lived in supreme luxury, while the peasantry
toiled to keep them in comfort. The endless feuds also impoverished
the country side.
The feuds between the chieftans enabled the
British - who were here primarily for trade finding a sea lane to
the fabled land of spices and other treasures of the nature.interfering
and thus establishing their authority over the local chieftans .They
adopting the policy of divide and rule marched into the kingdoms
one by one thus starting a process which no one could stop the establishment
of an era of coloniall rule which lasted the next five centuries.