The History of Kerala

About Kerala History

The History

Man came late to Kerala and there are no authentic Neolithic implement discovered in Kerala. It is believed that the Stone-Age people deliberately avoided the forests of Kerala infested by Malaria-bearing mosquitoes and man-eating tigers.

The appearance of mankind in Kerala dates back to Iron-Age with the evidence of Megaliths or huge burial stones carved by iron implements, scattered all along the ghats of Wynad in the north to Trivandrum in the south.

According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler and many historians, the megalith culture was introduced into Kerala between 300 B.C. and 50 A.D.

The legend says that Parasurama, atoned for the crime of his massacring of the Kshatriyas by doing penance for years. To protect the Brahmins from the encroachments of their enemies, Parasurama decided to create some land and donate it to the Brahmins. Accordingly, he threw his battle axe.

The weapon fell in Kanyakumari making the sea between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari a dryland which he gave to the Brahmins.

The first recorded history of Kerala appears in the inscriptions of the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka. In his inscription, Ashoka refers to four independent kingdoms that lay to the south of his empire. They were the kingdoms of the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Keralaputras and the Satiyaputras. Among them, the Keralaputras or the Cheras, as they were called, reigned over Malabar, Cochin and North Travancore. These kings managed to maintain their independence and were on good terms with the Great Maurya.

It is only in the Sangam Age that the history of Kerala emerges from myths and legends. The Sangam Age witnessed three political powers ruling the area which now constitutes the State of Kerala. They were the Ays in the south, the Cheras in Central Kerala and the Ezhimalas in the north.

The Ays established a kingdom which extended from Tiruvalla in the north to Nagercoil in the south. The Antiran, the Titiyam and the Atiyan were the most prominent of the Ay rulers. The Ezhimalas too ruled over an extensive area that covers the present Kannur and Wynad districts of North Kerala. However, the Cheras were the most conspicuous of the dynasties and founded a powerful kingdom in Kerala. 
The first Chera ruler was Perumchottu Utiyan Cheralatan who after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chola ruler, the King Karikalan, committed suicide. His son, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan, consolidated the Chera Dynasty and extended its frontiers. He inflicted a crushing defeat on his sworn enemies, the Kadambas of Banavasi. Imayavaramban’s reign is of special significance to the development of art and literature. Kannanar was his poet laureate. However, the greatest Chera King was Kadalpirakottiya Vel Kelu Kuttuvan, who is also identified with the mythical hero of the Silappadigaram (The Jewelled Anklet).

Silappadigaram is one of the three great Tamil epics of the Sangam Age. Kuttuvan was the proponent of the Patni (wife) cult. The cult emphasised the utter devotion of a wife towards her husband. He dedicated a temple at Vanchi to Kannagi (the female protagonist of Silappadigaram), and the present Kurumba Bhagavati Temple at Kodungallur (Cranganore) is modeled on it.

Kannagi’s devotion towards her husband was legendary. Recently, the Indian Government has instituted an award in her memory, which is given to the women.

After the Sangam Age, the era of Kalabhra Interregnum resulted in the dark period of Kerala which lasted for four centuries. At the end of the 8th Century, South Indian kingdoms such as the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pandyas succeeded in overthrowing the Kalabhras.

A reform movement was led by Adi Shankaracharya, a great saint. He travelled the length and breadth of India and got the better of many Buddhist missionaries in public discourses. Kalady, situated 25 kilometres northeast of Cochin, was the birthplace of Shankaracharya.

A great philosopher and theologian, he propagated the advaita (monism) philosophy, which is also known as kevaladvaita (strict monism). He established four mathas, the Hindu monastic establishments in the four corners of the country.

After the reign of the Kalbhras, the Second Chera Empire made its appearance in Kerala with its capital at Mahodyapuram (modern Kodangallur). It was founded by Kulasekhara Alvar, one of the 12 Alvars. The Alvars gave a great impetus to the Bhakti cult in South India between the 7th and the 10th centuries. Kulasekhara Alvar was a scholar and a great patron of the arts. He composed five dramas in Sanskrit. They are the Perumal Tirumozhi in Tamil, and Mukundamala, Tapatisamvarna, Subhadradhamala and Vichchinnabhiseka. 

The next ruler, Rajasekhara Varman founded the ‘Kollam Era’ of Kerala, which began in 825 A.D. He is also reputed to have issued the Vazhappali Inscription, the first epigraphical record of the Chera Kingdom. His reign witnessed a flourishing trade between Kerala and China. The Tillaisthanam Inscription indicates that he was on friendly terms with the Chola monarch. After his death, hostilities broke out between the Cheras and the Cholas, which continued until the disintegration of the Chera Kingdom.

Later, Venad emerged as an independent power with the kingdom reaching its zenith under Udaya Marthanda Varma (1175-1195) and Ravi Varma Kulasekhara (1299-1314). Udaya Marthanda Varma, a very efficient ruler was the architect of a brilliant administrative system for temples. RaviVarma Kulasekhara was also the most important ruler of the dynasty. His reign saw the development of art and learning. A scholar and musician himself, he patronised intellectuals and poets during his tenure. The Sanskrit drama Pradyumnabhyudayam is ascribed to him. Trade and commerce also flourished during his rule and Quilon became a famous centre of business and enterprise. 
During the medieval period, Calicut rose to prominence with the Zamorins (literally Lord of the Sea) being the hereditary rulers of Calicut. Trade with foreigners like the Chinese and Arabs was the main source of revenue for the Zamorins. But it was the Arabs who managed to establish stronger trade links with the rulers of Calicut. Art and culture flourished under the Zamorins who were great patrons of literature. Accounts of travellers like Ibn Batuta (1342-47), Ma Huan, the Chinese scholar, Abdur Razzak (1443), Nicolo Conti (1444) and Athanasius Nikitin (1468-74) corroborate this fact. The powerful Zamorins conquered Beypore, Parappanad, Vettat, Kurumbranad, Nilambur, Manjeri, Malappuram, Kottakal and Ponnai. By 15th century, clashes between Cochin and Calicut became increasingly frequent. The reigning Zamorin emerged as the undisputed monarch of the North Malabar area, extending up to Pantalayani Kollam.   

In 1498, the arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut was a landmark event in the history of Kerala. The Portuguese gained some trading facilities at Quilon and Cannanore. Kerala was in turmoil at that time. The Portuguese had the intention of stopping the Arabs from trading with India. With the support from the Raja of Cochin, they defeated the Zamorin and gained permission to fortify Cochin and Cranganore in 1503 and 1504, respectively. Later, Albuquerque was managed to make peace with the Zamorin.

A treaty was signed in 1513, which gave the Portuguese the right to construct a fort in Cochin and to carry on trade. However, the successors of Albuquerque were incompetent and corrupt which led to the decline of Portuguese power in Kerala. The Portuguese had a strong impact on the educational and cultural life of Kerala. The introduction of the printing press in Kerala can be counted as one of their biggest achievements.  

The Dutch also landed on the western coast, lured by the possibility of trade with India. Various treaties signed in 1608 and 1610 ensured trading facilities for the Dutch. With the treaty of 1619, the Dutch joined hands with the British to eliminate competition from the Portuguese. The Dutch were able to fortify and monopolise trade in the regions of Purakkad, Kayakulum, Quilon and Travancore by 1662.

One of the most singular achievements of the Dutch contingent in India was the conquest of Cochin in 1663. The decline of the Dutch became inevitable with the unprecedented rise of Travancore under Marthanda Varma and the Mysore invasion. The Zamorin also succeeded in depriving the Dutch of Cochin, Cranganore, Parur and Trichur.  

Travancore or Venad occupied centre stage in the political arena of Kerala because of the deeds of its two illustrious rulers, Marthanda Varma and Rama Varma. In his lifetime, Marthanda Varma successfully annexed the territories under the Dutch. Later, Rama Varma, also known as Dharma Raja ascended the throne and ably carried out the task of administration. Two distinguished ministers, Ayyappan Marthanda Pillai and Raja Kesava Das assisted him in administering the kingdom. Rama Varma had to bear the brunt of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan’s invasion. But Rama Varma’s defence system withstood even the might of Tipu’s forces.  

By 1634-1635, the British also had managed to gain permission to use all the Portuguese ports in Kerala from the Zamorin. The British fortified Calicut in 1664. In the years to follow, Travancore and Tellicherry also came under the control of the British. They had to face considerable opposition from the French and the Dutch. However, the British were successful in ousting other European powers. 

Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore, turned his attention towards Kerala after subduing Bednore in 1763. The regions of Kolathiri, Kottayam, Kadathanad, Kurumbranad and Calicut came under the dominion of Haider Ali. Again in 1773, Haider Ali laid siege on Kerala and conquered Trichur after restoring his authority in Malabar. Haider’s son, Tippu Sultan managed to annex the entire South Malabar in 1783. It was only in 1790 that he succeeded in breaching the Travancore Line. With the Treaty of Srirangapatnam in 1792, Tippu gave Malabar to the British.

Several revolts took place during the late 18th and early 19th century, which challenged British authority. The important was the revolt of Velu Thampi and Paliath Achan who were Chief Ministers of Travancore and Cochin, respectively. The famous proclamation asking people to rise against the British was issued in 1809 by Velu Thampi. Though the revolt was crushed mercilessly, Thampi and Achan are still revered as great patriots who sacrificed their lives for the country.  
Travancore was fortunate enough to be governed by many enlightened administrators like Velu Thampi, Rani Gouri Lakshmi Bai, Gouri Parvati Bai, Swati Tirunal, Ayilyam Tirunal, Sri Mulam Tirunal who did much to see science, art and culture flourish in Travancore. Around 1836-56, Malabar saw a lot of disturbances due to the Mappila Riots which were suppressed by the British forces. 

The Non-Cooperation Movement and the Khilafat agitation found enthusiastic supporters in Malabar too. The winds of patriotism swept through the princely states of Travancore and Cochin during the freedom struggle. Likewise, the Ezhava Memorial of 1896 was a petition that spelt out the injustices the Ezhava community had suffered for a long time.

The Indian National Congress established a Congress Committee in Thiruvananthapuram. Abdul Rahman Ali Raja of Cannanore became the President of the Muslim League in 1937. The Communist Party found a foothold in Kerala around 1939. Cochin also remained in the eye of the storm for several years during the national movement. A committee of the Indian National Congress was set up in Cochin.

After Indian Independence in 1947, the three provinces Travancore, Cochin and Malabar were joined together and the State of Kerala was formed in 1956. In 1957, Kerala became the first place in the world to freely elect a Communist government.

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