The origin of the inhabitants of Kerala is nearly lost in the hoary past. It is beyond doubt that the Malayalee’s culture is the offshoot of Dravidian culture. There are striking similarities in the languages, customs and other cultural aspects to the Mediterranean civilization and Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and that of Sri Lanka. Anthropologically, the Dravidas are a mixture of Proto-Australoids, Mediterranean and Negritos. History has it that the Dravidas inhabited a land to the west of the Indian peninsula and eventually made Madurai their capital.
The origin of the inhabitants of Kerala is nearly lost in the hoary past. It is beyond doubt that the Malayalee’s culture is the offshoot of Dravidian culture. There are striking similarities in the languages, customs and other cultural aspects to the Mediterranean civilization and Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and that of Sri Lanka. Anthropologically, the Dravidas are a mixture of Proto-Australoids, Mediterranean and Negritos. History has it that the Dravidas inhabited a land to the west of the Indian peninsula and eventually made Madurai their capital. There is a tradition in the ‘Vadakkan Pattukal’ that the Ezhavas arrived in Kerala by sea from Ezham, which is interpreted to be the present day Sri Lanka. However, it is interesting to note that the land to the east of the Tigris in Iran, now called Khuzistan was once known as Elam. It is said that a civilization flourished there five thousand years ago with city-states having distinctive culture and language. Their language is found similar to the Dravidian language. In any case it appears that the ancestors of the present inhabitants of south India had arrived here by both sea and land from the north. It was at a much later stage that a distinctive culture began to take shape.
Mainly the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas ruled South India. The Cheras held their sway over the whole of Kerala and to some extent to the east of the Western Ghats. There were frequent clashes between the Cheras and the Pandyas and eventually the Cholas succeeded and ruled the whole of Kerala. Gradually several local rulers came up and for a few centuries there was little association between Keralites and outsiders. It is conjectured that Malayalam started developing as a separate language during this period. The influence of Sanskrit was tremendous and Malayalam became a sort of a synthesized language of Sanskrit and Tamil. During this period, Ayurveda also took its roots in Kerala. Even today, it is practiced mostly in Kerala with the specialty of ‘Panchakarma’ involving medicated oil massages. The influence of Adi Sankara who was born at Kalady in Kerala during the seventh or eight century was also very strong. He, who was the exponent of the Advaita Philosophy, revived the Brahminic Hinduism in the whole of India.
Keralites have always been a maritime people. Kerala perhaps had the strongest navy in India. Early overseas trade started with the export of ivory, peacocks, monkeys, teakwood, sandalwood etc. to the Middle East from the time of King Solomon. Later on, foreign trade continued with Rome till the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period Kodungallur was the commercial and political capital of Kerala. With the fall of the Cholas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the navy became weak. Yet, Kunhali Marikkar was a terror to the Portuguese in the 1500s. The Portuguese and thereafter the Dutch and then the British came here to rule the seas.
Kerala is a melting pot where several ethnic and religious groups mingle. A good illustration of the religious tolerance or secularism is found in the heart of Kerala’s capital, ‘Thiruvananthapuram’, where a Hindu temple, a mosque and a cathedral stand side by side. The ancient rulers of Kerala never practised religious discrimination. Patronage was distributed not only to the Hindus, but also to the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims. It has been an open field for the missionaries of all religions. St. Thomas who landed at Kodungallur was warmly welcomed. He converted several people including Brahmins into Christianity. ‘Chronique de Seert’ has references to the visit of David Dudi, the Bishop of Assyria between 295 and 300 AD, Thomas the Manichan in 277 AD and Thomas of Cana in the 8th century.
Three separate groups of Jews landed at Kodungallur in 68, 370 and 490 AD. By the edict of 999-1000, Bhaskara Ravi Varman of Kodungallur conferred upon the head of the Jews, ‘Joseph Rabban’ – the Title and Coat of Arms of a Naduvazhi, with rights to land and collect taxes etc. By the Tharisappally Edict of 849 AD, the Venad Aayyanadigal granted lands to a Christian Church. The Jews first came in King Solaman’s ship as traders and later as refugees in AD 69 fleeing Jerusalem because of the persecution. Even when the atrocities in Jerusalem were over, many of them were reluctant to return and remained in Kerala. Some of them have recently migrated to Israel after the realization of their ‘Promised Land’. The first Jewish Synagogue in India is in Mala though the most renowned one is at Mattancherry. In 644 AD, Malik bin Deenar arrived in Kerala to build mosques and spread Islam. He too was accorded a warm welcome.
The rulers welcomed all these diverse visitors and the response from the natives towards the calls for conversions belied all expectations. The lower classes, especially in the Hindu community, were oppressed for generations. They found their salvations in the Christian Missionaries. A Christian did not suffer from untouchability or other oppression and he, therefore, gained a good standing in the society. There has never been such peaceful co-existence of people of different faiths. There were incidents of clashes also. The Portuguese succeeded in banishing the Jews from Kodungallur .
With the advent of the British in the late 18th century, English language assumed importance. This brought about a tremendous impact upon the life and culture of the Keralites. In this respect, Kerala owes a great deal to the Christian Missionaries. They not only educated the people but also introduced health-care programmers. They were careful not to disturb the Hindu community and easily blended into the Kerala culture. Malayalam replaced Latin for Church services and candles were replaced for the traditional Kerala ‘Nilavilakku’. They also wholeheartedly participated in the Hindu festivities. Thus they enriched Kerala’s ethnic culture.
The Muslims of Kerala are the descendents of the Arab traders who came to Kerala and married locally and finally settled down here. They were mostly concentrated in the Malabar area and up to the 18th century, were engaged as agricultural labourers, petty traders and soldiers in the Zamorin’s army. The agricultural labourers in Malabar were oppressed under a system of land tenure in which the landlord had a stranglehold on them. They were accused of ‘throwing their lot’ with Hyder Ali and Tippu during their invasions. There were forced conversions and selective liquidations also. After the British restored peace, the Hindus who suffered started avenging the Muslims. Since the land mostly belonged to the Hindus, there were peasant uprisings, which gradually got a communal tinge, which was later termed as the Mopllah rebellion of 1921. Gradually it gained momentum and developed into a peasant revolt- the peasants were Muslims and the landlords were Hindus, among whom the Namboodiri’s were predominant. The British had to ruthlessly put down the revolt.
One of the distinguishing features of Kerala society is the matrilineal system. Historians have not been able to decide how this system evolved. Together with this developed the practices of fraternal and simple polyandry. With the advent of technology, the joint family system as well as the matrilineal system disappeared. Because of the peculiar geographical features that nature has bestowed upon it, Kerala is isolated from the rest of the country. This isolation is reflected in the myriad art forms that have evolved here over the centuries. Elsewhere in India, the inspiration for art was manifested in the architectural marvels of the rock cut temples or in the magnificent murals of Ajanta caves. But in Kerala man found his own body as a supreme medium for artistic expression. Chakyar Koothu is presented as a mono act, as in the early style of Sanskrit plays. In Koodiyattam more than one actor, takes part in the performance. Krishnanattam, Ramanattam and Kathkali are other forms of art, which took birth in places of worship. Temples have also been the centres of artistic expressions. There was a rich variety of graphic and performing arts. The temples of Kerala abound in wood Sculptures. Pre-historic paintings on the caves at Edakkal near Sultan Battery resemble those of 17th dynasty of Egypt.
Intermingling with the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British has resulted in the creation of a ‘Eurasian’ community. Most of them are Latin Christians and their culture is distinctly different from the traditional Kerala culture. There were infiltrations from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. A large number of Gujaratis, Marwaris, Konkanis, the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Parsis, Kudumbis etc. also migrated to Kerala. No wonder, Swamy Vivekananda called Kerala a ‘lunatic asylum of castes’. Historians point out that even during the Sangam period, there were no strict divisions based on castes. Caste consciousness and untouchability came much later and it is also difficult to pin point the antiquity of any of the original races now in Kerala. The transformation into a cosmopolitan and egalitarian society was comparatively quick. The inherent tolerance and resilience of all original classes ensured a peaceful reformation. The gradual fusion of various groups has brought about a superficial uniformity.