Kerala is a state on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. To its east and northeast, Kerala borders Tamil Nadu and Karnataka respectively; to its west and south lie the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean with the islands of Lakshadweep and the Maldives, respectively. Kerala envelops Mahé, a coastal exclave of Pondicherry. Kerala is one of the four states of South India.
First settled in the 10th century BCE by speakers of Proto-South Dravidian, Kerala was influenced by the Mauryan Empire. Later, the Cheran kingdom and feudal Namboothiri Brahminical city-states became major powers in the region. Early contact with overseas lands culminated in struggles between colonial and native powers. Finally, the States Reorganisation Act of November 1, 1956 elevated Kerala to statehood. Social reforms enacted in the late 19th century by Cochin and Travancore were expanded upon by post-Independence governments, making Kerala among the Third World’s longest-lived, healthiest, most gender-equitable, and most literate regions. However, Kerala’s suicide, alcoholism, and unemployment rates rank among India’s highest. A survey conducted in 2005 by Transparency International ranked Kerala as the least corrupt state in the country.
The etymology of Kerala is widely disputed, and is a matter of conjecture. A prevailing theory states that it is an imperfect Malayalam portmanteau that fuses kera (‘coconut palm tree’) and alam (‘land’ or ‘location’ or ‘abode of’ ). Another version is that the name is originated from the phrase chera alam (Land of the Chera). Natives of Kerala — Keralites — thus refer to their land as Keralam. Kerala’s tourism industry, among others, also use the phrase God’s own country.
During Neolithic times humans largely avoided Kerala’s rainforests and wetlands. There is evidence of the emergence of prehistoric pottery and granite burial monuments in the 10th century BCE that resemble their counterparts in Western Europe and the rest of Asia. These were produced by speakers of a proto-Tamil language. Thus, Kerala and Tamil Nadu once shared a common language, ethnicity and culture; this common area was known as Tamilakam. Kerala became a linguistically separate region by the early 14th century. The ancient Chera empire, whose court language was Tamil, ruled Kerala from their capital at Vanchi and was the first major recorded kingdom. Allied with the Pallavas, they continually warred against the neighbouring Chola and Pandya kingdoms. A Keralite identity — distinct from the Tamils and associated with the second Chera empire — and the development of Malayalam evolved between the 8th and 14th centuries. In written records, Kerala was first mentioned in the Sanskrit epic Aitareya Aranyaka. Later, figures such as Katyayana, Patanjali, Pliny the Elder, and the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea displayed familiarity with Kerala.
Muniyaras (Keralite dolmens or megalithic tombs) in Marayoor, erected by Neolithic tribesmen.The Chera kings’ dependence on trade meant that merchants from West Asia established coastal posts and settlements in Kerala. Many — especially Jews and Christians — also escaped persecution, establishing the Nasrani Mappila and Muslim Mappila communities. According to several scholars, the Jews first arrived in Kerala in 573 BC. The works of scholars and Eastern Christian writings state that Thomas the Apostle visited Muziris in Kerala in 52 CE to proselytize amongst Kerala’s Jewish settlements. However, the first verifiable migration of Jewish-Nasrani families to Kerala is of the arrival of Knai Thoma in 345 CE. Muslim merchants settled in Kerala by the 8th century CE. After Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in 1498, the Portuguese sought to control the lucrative pepper trade by subduing Keralite communities and commerce.
Conflicts between the cities of Kozhikode (Calicut) and Kochi (Cochin) provided an opportunity for the Dutch to oust the Portuguese. In turn, the Dutch were ousted at the 1741 Battle of Colachel by Marthanda Varma of Travancore (Thiruvathaamkoor). Meanwhile, Mysore’s Hyder Ali conquered northern Kerala, capturing Kozhikode in 1766. In the late 18th century, Tipu Sultan — Ali’s son and successor — launched campaigns against the expanding British East India Company; these resulted in two of the four Anglo-Mysore Wars. He ultimately ceded Malabar District and South Kanara to the Company in the 1790s. The Company then forged tributary alliances with Kochi (1791) and Travancore (1795). Meanwhile, Malabar and South Kanara became part of the Madras Presidency.
Kerala saw comparatively little defiance of the British Raj — nevertheless, several rebellions occurred, including the 1946 Punnapra-Vayalar revolt. Many actions, spurred by such leaders as Sree Narayana Guru and Chattampi Swamikal, instead protested such conditions as untouchability; notable was the 1924 Vaikom Satyagraham. In 1936, Chitra Thirunal Bala Rama Varma of Travancore issued the Temple Entry Proclamation that opened Hindu temples to all castes; Cochin and Malabar soon did likewise. In 1921, sectarian violence erupted in Kerala, with conflicts between militant Muslims on one hand and Hindus and the British Raj government on the other. The conflict became known as the Moplah Rebellion.
After India’s independence in 1947, Travancore and Cochin were merged to form Travancore-Cochin on July 1, 1949. On January 1, 1950 (Republic Day), Travancore-Cochin was recognised as a state. Meanwhile, the Madras Presidency had become Madras State in 1947. Finally, the Government of India’s November 1, 1956 States Reorganisation Act inaugurated the new Kerala state, incorporating Malabar District, Travancore-Cochin (excluding 4 southern Taluks which were merged with Tamil Nadu), and the taluk of Kasargod, South Kanara. A new Legislative Assembly was also created, for which elections were held in 1957. These resulted in a communist-led government — one of the world’s earliest — headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Subsequent social reforms favoured tenants and labourers. This facilitated, among other things, improvements in living standards, education, and life expectancy.
Kerala’s 38,863 km² landmass (1.18% of India) is wedged between the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats — identified as one of the world’s twenty-five biodiversity hotspots — to the east. Lying between north latitudes 8°18′ and 12°48′ and east longitudes 74°52′ and 72°22′, Kerala is well within the humid equatorial tropics. Kerala’s coast runs for some 580 km (360 miles), while the state itself varies between 35 and 120 km (22–75 miles) in width. Geographically, Kerala can be divided into three climatically distinct regions: the eastern highlands (rugged and cool mountainous terrain), the central midlands (rolling hills), and the western lowlands (coastal plains). Located at the extreme southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kerala lies near the centre of the Indian tectonic plate; as such, most of the state is subject to comparatively little seismic and volcanic activity. Geologically, pre-Cambrian and Pleistocene formations compose the bulk of Kerala’s terrain.
Agroecological zones of Kerala.Eastern Kerala lies immediately west of the Western Ghats’s rain shadow; it consists of high mountains, gorges and deep-cut valleys. 41 of Kerala’s west-flowing rivers, and 3 of its east-flowing ones originate in this region. Here, the Western Ghats form a wall of mountains interrupted only near Palakkad, where the Palakkad Gap breaks through to provide access to the rest of India. The Western Ghats rises on average to 1,500 m (4920 ft) above sea level, while the highest peaks may reach to 2,500 m (8200 ft). Just west of the mountains lie the midland plains composing central Kerala; rolling hills and valleys dominate. Generally ranging between elevations of 250–1,000 m (820–3300 ft), the eastern portions of the Nilgiri and Palni Hills include such formations as Agastyamalai and Anamalai.
Kerala’s western coastal belt is relatively flat, and is criss-crossed by a network of interconnected brackish canals, lakes, estuaries, and rivers known as the Kerala Backwaters. Lake Vembanad — Kerala’s largest body of water — dominates the Backwaters; it lies between Alappuzha and Kochi and is more than 200 km² in area. Around 8% of India’s waterways (measured by length) are found in Kerala. The most important of Kerala’s forty four rivers include the Periyar (244 km), the Bharathapuzha (209 km), the Pamba (176 km), the Chaliyar (169 km), the Kadalundipuzha (130 km) and the Achankovil (128 km). The average length of the rivers of Kerala is 64km. Most of the remainder are small and entirely fed by monsoon rains. These conditions result in the nearly year-round water logging of such western regions as Kuttanad, 500 km² of which lies below sea level. As Kerala’s rivers are small and lack deltas, they are more prone to environmental factors. Kerala’s rivers face many problems, including summer droughts, the building of large dams, sand mining, and pollution.
With 120 – 140 rainy days per year, Kerala has a wet and maritime tropical climate influenced by the seasonal heavy rains of the southwest summer monsoon. In eastern Kerala, a drier tropical wet and dry climate prevails. Kerala’s rainfall averages 3,107 mm annually. Some of Kerala’s drier lowland regions average only 1,250 mm; the mountains of eastern Idukki district receive more than 5,000 mm of orographic precipitation, the highest in the state. In summers, most of Kerala is prone to gale force winds, storm surges, cyclone-related torrential downpours, occasional droughts, and rises in sea level and storm activity resulting from global warming. Kerala’s maximum daily temperature averages 36.7 °C; the minimum is 19.8 °C. Mean annual temperatures range from 25.0 – 27.5 °C in the coastal lowlands to 20.0 – 22.5 °C in the highlands.
Culture & arts
Kalarippayattu, an ancient martial art, is experiencing a revival. Here, experts use kettukari (cane staffs) in the kolthari style of combat.Kerala’s culture is a blend of Dravidian and Aryan influences, deriving from both a greater Tamil-heritage region known as Tamilakam and southern coastal Karnataka. Later, Kerala’s culture was elaborated upon through centuries of contact with neighboring and overseas cultures. Native performing arts include koodiyattom, kathakali – from katha (“story”) and kali (“performance”) – and its offshoot Kerala natanam, koothu (akin to stand-up comedy), mohiniaattam (“dance of the enchantress”), thullal, padayani, and theyyam. Other arts are more religion and tribal themed. These include chavittu nadakom, oppana (originally from Malabar), which combines dance, rhythmic hand clapping, and ishal vocalisations. However, many of these artforms largely play to tourists or at youth festivals, and are not as popular among most ordinary Keralites. These people look to more contemporary art and performance styles, including those employing mimicry and parody. Additionally, a substantial Malayalam film industry effectively competes against both Bollywood and Hollywood.
Koodiyattam performance by Guru Padma Shri Mani Madhava Chakyar.Malayalam literature is ancient in origin, and includes such figures as the 14th-century Niranam poets (Madhava Panikkar, Sankara Panikkar and Rama Panikkar), whose works mark the dawn of both modern Malayalam language and indigenous Keralite poetry. The “triumvirate of poets” (Kavithrayam), Kumaran Asan, Vallathol Narayana Menon, and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, are recognised for moving Keralite poetry away from archaic sophistry and metaphysics, and towards a more lyrical mode. In the second half of the 20th century, Jnanpith awardees like G Sankara Kurup, S. K. Pottakkat, and M. T. Vasudevan Nair have added to Malayalam literature. Later, such Keralite writers as O. V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan, and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy have gained international recognition.
Kerala’s music also has ancient roots. Carnatic music dominates Keralite traditional music. This was the result of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma’s popularisation of the genre in the 19th century. Raga-based renditions known as sopanam accompany kathakali performances. Melam (including the paandi and panchari variants) is a more percussive style of music; it is performed at Kshetram centered festivals using the chenda. Melam ensembles comprise up to 150 musicians, and performances may last up to four hours. Panchavadyam is a different form of percussion ensemble, in which up to 100 artists use five types of percussion instrument. Kerala has various styles of folk and tribal music. The popular music of Kerala is dominated by the filmi music of Indian cinema. Kerala’s visual arts range from traditional murals to the works of Raja Ravi Varma, the state’s most renowned painter.
Kerala has its own Malayalam calendar, which is used to plan agricultural and religious activities. Kerala’s cuisine is typically served as a sadhya on green banana leaves. Such dishes as idli, payasam, pulisherry, puttucuddla, puzhukku, rasam, and sambar are typical. Keralites — both men and women alike — traditionally don flowing and unstitched garments. These include the mundu, a loose piece of cloth wrapped around men’s waists. Women typically wear the sari, a long and elaborately wrapped banner of cloth, wearable in various styles.
Several ancient ritualised arts are Keralite in origin. These include kalaripayattu — kalari (“place”, “threshing floor”, or “battlefield”) and payattu (“exercise” or “practice”). Among the world’s oldest martial arts, oral tradition attributes kalaripayattu’s emergence to Parasurama. Other ritual arts include theyyam and poorakkali. However, Keralites are increasingly turning to more modern activities like cricket, kabaddi, soccer, and badminton. Dozens of large stadiums, including Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and Thiruvananthapuram’s Chandrashekaran Nair Stadium, attest to the mass appeal of such sports among Keralites. Television (especially “mega serials” and cartoons) and the Internet have impacted Keralite culture. Yet Keralites maintain high rates of newspaper & magazine subscriptions, host a sizeable “people’s science” movement, and participate in such activities as writers’ cooperatives.