ETHNONYMS: Keralite, Malabari (in north Kerala), Malayalee, Travancorean (in south Kerala).
Located on the far southwestern edge of India, Kerala is a state whose history has always been molded by its geography. In effect it consists of a long, narrow, but extremely fertile strip of coastland backed by the high mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, which are broken by very few passes. Numerous short and fast-flowing streams come down from these mountains to disgorge into the coastal backwaters that run for great lengths behind the ocean beaches. It has thus been natural that many of the Malayalis who inhabit the coastal area look to the sea for fishing and trade, and conversely that numerous foreign maritime powers have looked to the former principalities of Kerala for trade, religious converts, and sometimes slaves or loot. Thus the culture of the people has been formed by foreign contacts to a greater extent than was true for any other part of premodern India. Hellenistic traders from Alexandria and even Rome, Arab sailors, Chinese explorers, the Portuguese fleet of Vasco da Gama, the Dutch, and French and British imperialists represented the high points of a fairly constant commerce across the Indian Ocean; Kerala happens to lie almost in the center of that ocean. Ancient shipping that went from the Red Sea to Malakka, from Java to Madagascar, from China to Arabia, nearly always stopped in Kerala for water, food, and trading. Hence the extreme ethnic and religious diversity of the state.
It is one of the smallest Indian states, with 38,863 square kilometers and a 1981 population of 25,453,680 persons. Kerala produces irrigated rice, coconuts, pepper, cardamom, and other spices, as well as two valuable plantation crops, tea and coffee. Its other important economic resources are its fisheries, timber, iron ore, and tourism.
Malayalis, who may simply be defined as those people who speak the Dravidian language Malayalam (the Kerala state language, closely related to Tamil), include not only a diversity of Hindu castes but the Muslim Mappilas, the Syrian Christians, the Cochin Jews, and others besides. The basic Hindu culture of the area supposedly originated with the mythical sage Agastya, who, like the Yellow Emperor of China, is said to have invented various sciences and even dragged the arable land up from the sea. It is not impossible that the original of this great south Indian sage (ancient north India had what was probably a different Agastya) was none other than the Emperor Augustus and that Agastya's inventions were Roman innovations brought into the area. There certainly was a sizable Roman population, along with a legion of soldiers, in the Kerala seaport of Cranganur, and in the first century A . D . it did indeed have a temple to the god Augustus, the only Roman temple we know of in South Asia. Centuries after the Romans and Greeks had come from Alexandria, and with them the Jews and St. Thomas Christians, according to tradition, Arab Muslims came and sometimes settled, creating the first Muslim communities in southern India. The Chinese only came briefly, during the Ming expeditions of the early fifteenth century, and they had no lasting effect on the culture; but soon after their departure the Portuguese arrived, bringing Catholic missionaries and new trade opportunities. In later centuries the British and Dutch introduced Protestant missionaries.
The northern part of Kerala, called Malabar (now Malappuram), became a part of the British Indian Empire, whereas the south and central parts remained as the separate kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin until national Independence in 1947. These principalities retained a conservative social structure with pronounced hierarchical differentiation; and Travancore was almost unique in this part of Asia Because of its matrilineal royal family. Whether the matriliny practiced by Nayars was first introduced from the Minang-kabau area of Sumatra in ancient times is a matter that remains to be demonstrated; but certainly the rest of south Indian society is patrilineal (with a few exceptions in Kerala and Sri Lanka).
In the twentieth century Kerala has become distinct in other respects, too. With an estimated population density of 763 persons per square kilometer for the whole state in 1990, Kerala has some of the densest rural occupation anywhere on earth, and certainly the highest state density in India. While this fact alone might imply abject poverty, the fertility of both land and sea has been so high that people are fairly well fed. Even more remarkable is the fact that Kerala has the highest literacy rate of any state: in 1980-1981, when India as a whole had 36 percent literacy, Kerala had 75 percent for males and 66 percent for females. The Malayalis are inveterate newspaper readers, with a well-developed political consciousness and a fairly extensive intelligentsia. This is one part of India where communist parties have done quite well, and in 1957-1958 Kerala had the distinction of possessing the world's first popularly elected Marxist government. In very recent years the appeal of Marxism has lessened Somewhat, while the lure of employment in the Persian Gulf states has risen dramatically. Tens of thousands of Malayalis have worked there, bringing much-needed cash into their family economies. Huge numbers of skilled and white-collar workers have also migrated to other parts of south India, as well as to Western countries. These facts highlight the unemployment rate in Kerala itself, the highest of any Indian state. Partly it is to be explained by another modern feature of Malayali Society, the vast numbers of young people who are unemployed because they are college students. Incidentally, one final characteristic not unrelated to the extent of educational facilities here is that Kerala has a higher proportion of Christians in its population than any other Indian state except Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland. In 1981, 24 percent of all Malayalis were Christian—almost exactly the same number as were Muslim.
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Krishna Ayyar, K. V. (1966). A Short History of Kerala. Ernakulam: Pai & Co.
Krishna Iyer, L. A. (1968). Social History of Kerala. 2 vols. Madras: Book Centre Publications.
Rao, M. S. A. (1957). Social Change in Malabar. Bombay: Popular Book Depot.
Schneider, David M., and Kathleen Gough Aberle, eds. (1962). Matrilineal Kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Woodcock, George (1967). Kerala: A Portrait of the Malabar Coast. London: Faber & Faber.