Kerala Creation Myth

At one time there was a demon king named Mahabali who was so powerful that he was able to take control of the entire world. He was a very benevolent king and all of the people loved him. Eventually his power had gotten to a point that the gods started to feel threatened, so Lord Vishnu was chosen to take control of the world back from Mahabali. He assumed the form of the pathetically ugly and comical dwarf Vamana.

One day Vamana appeared before Mahabali as a holy beggar to ask a boon. He asked Mahabali for the gift of as much land as he could cover in three paces. Mahabali, not knowing this beggar was actually Lord Vishnu, agrred to grant him this. As Vamana began to take his first stride he started to grow into a being so gigantic that his three paces encompassed the entire world. King Bali was forced to retreat to the infernal region, the only kingdom that was left to him. After Vishnu had won earth from Mahabali, he was incarnated for the sixth time as the son of a Brahmin sage named Jamadagni. He took the name of Parasurama, or Rama with the axe.

When he returned to earth, a wicked king of the Kshatriya caste, named Kartavirya, was reigning. Kartavirya robbed Jamadagni, so in defense Parasurama killed him with his axe. In turn, the sons of Kartavirya killed Jamadagni. Parasurama was now very angry, and proceeded to kill all of the males of the Kshatriya caste. He massacred these constantly resurected enemies 21 times, until they were completely erased. Parasurama consequently underwent a grear penance for this and upon the advice of the sage Vishyamitra gave all of India to the Brahmins. The Brahmins in turn forced him to retire to the summits of the Western Ghats, which at that time was the coast of the Indian Ocean. Visnu called on his fellow gods for help. Subramania with Varuna, the god of the sea, came to help him. They agreed to give the exiled hero all of the land which he could cover with one throw of his axe off the top of the mountain where he stood. Immediately Parasurama threw his axe, which landed near Cape Comorin. As soon as the axe splashed into the ocean all of the land between the Western Ghats and the place where the axe landed rose from the sea. This land is the area now known as Kerala.


The history of Kerala is one that may be difficult to give as ďa history, because Kerala has only recently become a state. On November 1, 1956 the new government of Free India combined the kingdoms of Travancore, Malabar, and Cochin, thus eliminating the princely rule that had been in effect there for centuries. As the following history is given, it is important to remember that this is the history of three kindoms that evolved together, separated from the rest of India by natural boundaries. Each of these different kingdoms has enjoyed its own distinct history, cultural slight cultural differences, varied social patterns, and political histories. These kingdoms have traditionaly been bound by language, art forms, food, dress, festivals, and religion. There is also the fact that there are several tribal groups that have existed in Kerala as long as its history, each with itís own history and culture. Kerala like her people is a wonderful conglomeration of cultures and histories. The following paragraphs will outline the history of the area of Kerala as it stands today.

The Early Centuries and the Spice Trade

Kerala is sandwiched between the Indian Ocean, and the southern region of the mountain range known as the Western Ghats, that extend past the top of Kerala almost right to the southernmost tip. The area that is now Kerala extends over an area that is no more than 15,000 square miles. Within this area, Kerala consists of three narrow longitudinal strips of land: the highlands, a low plateau and foothills, and an alluvial coastal plain. The present physiography of the area has changed somewhat drasically throughout the history of Kerala. This is evidenced by the fact that the area between the Western Ghats and the Indian Ocean has grown even within the last 2,000 years. This can be seen by the fact that cities that once enjoyed the benefits of being situated on the coast now lie inland. A beautiful network of backwaters now trace the area that once was covered by the Indian Ocean. Kerala holds physical evidence of being inhabited as long ago as 10,000 years, which puts the shelter in the Neolithic era. High in the mountain ranges of the district of Wynad is a rock shelter known as the Edakal caves. The walls of the shelter are filled with beautiful drawings that were made by the hunters who lived there. The drawings were etched into the walls of the shelter as a result of these hunters sharpening their celts. Surprisingly this part of Keralaís history has not received much recognition on a world-wide basis.

However, Kerala has historically received a great deal of recognition all throughout the world presently and historically for its abundance of sought after spices. The trading of spices between Kerala and many sectors of the world has a history of its own, going back at least to the third millenium B.C. The information in the following paragraphs was taken from Menon, 1978. The spices of Kerala were in great demand in the countries of West Asia as well as many others. Cinnamon and cardamom were the first to draw the attention of these places, and then pepper, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg later found their way into the list of wanted spices. These spices were used for many different purposes, from food, to healing, to propitiation of the gods.

The Babylonian markets sold spices received from Kerala by boat or caravan from distant places. The Assyrians and the ancient Egyptians also sought after the spices of Kerala. Cinnamon from Kerala was one of the main embalming spices used in mummification of their people, and the manufacture of holy oils and perfumes. The Arabs were the first to discover the treasure of spices held in Kerala. Some scholars claim that they built their civilization on the riches they obtained from the spice trade. The Arabs closely guarded the treasures of Kerala. When they would trade these spices with other civilizations like the Europeans they would claim that cinnamon, which was their major commodity in the spice trade, was generated from the nests of birds that lived in the innaccesible rocky regions of Arabia and Ethiopia. Cardamom and Ginger were also important commodities of the Arabs. However, they did not tap into the vast market of pepper, which would later become the most extensively traded spice of Kerala.

The Old Testament makes references to the high esteem in which the Kerala spices were held. King Soloman, who lived around 1,000 B.C., was said to have sent fleets of ships to the port city of Ophir, which scholars have placed on the coast of Kerala. These ships carried back with them animals, precious and base metals, wood, and spices from Ophir. The spices which were introduced to the Romans and Greeks by the Arabs became extremely important in Rome and Greece. These spices were luxuries that were appreciated by the aristocracy. Cinnamon was part of the royal gift that was presented to the temple of Appolo by King Seleucos I.

Then in 45 A.D. the pattern of the monsoon winds was discovered by Hippalus, an Egyptian navigator. After this discovery trade between Kerala and the Western world became highly accelerated. Pepper became the most highly prized spice of Kerala. In the fourth century A.D. Constantinople became a center for the West to obtain the spices of Kerala. Cloves and pepper were part of the gift that Emporor Constantine gave to the Bishop of Rome. In the fifth century A.D. Rome was beseiged by the Visigoths. King Alaric spared Rome from destruction only upon payment of 3,000 pounds of pepper.

The trading of spices between Kerala and other parts of the world was an extremely important piece of Keralas history. Not only were spices being traded, but also culture, ideas about science and math, architectural styles, language, religion, etc. Because of the spice trade, Kerala also became home to many people from many different places, and many different religions and cultures. Many of these cultures and religions have remained in Kerala up to the present day.Kerala has accepted the religions of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, and Buddhism and has allowed these religions to flourish within its borders

Religion in Kerala

In the early times of Kerala the presiding religion was that of the Dravidians. In the Dravidian religion there was not one particular edict that was followed. They had a variety of local deities and tree worship as well as ancestor worship was widely practised. Offerings of food were the most common offerings of this time. The Dravidian religion was based on social freedom and equality and the recognition of the dignity of labour. Eventually the religions of North India entered into Kerala and became tightly settled within Kerala's borders.

Jainism was one of the first to be introduced in Kerala. The Jains who settled in Kerala made little effort to convert the Dravidians residing there. They came looking for a place where they could find an atmosphere of peace and quiet so that they could indulge in their meditation. During the 8th century A.D. Jainism in Kerala started its decline, and many of the Jains were being converted into the Hindu religion. By the 16th century Jainism was almost non-existent in Kerala. Like Buddhism in Kerala almost all of the Jains and their temples had been converted to Hinduism.

Buddhism is believed to have been introduced into Kerala during the 3rd century B.C. Like Jainism, Buddhism was allowed to flourish in the mostly Dravidian Kerala, and like Jainism Buddhism in Kerala started to decline around the 8th century A.D. Unlike Jainism, however, Buddhism left a lasting mark in the life of Kerala. Buddhism had a great influence on Malayalam literature even into the present times. Buddhism became part of the Hindu culture that had started to enwrap Kerala life and culture. Many Buddhist ceremonies and modes of worship had become part of the Hindu religion. Some of the Hindu gods are even believed to be representations of the Buddha, and even the architecture of Hindu temples was greatly influnced by Buddhism in Kerala. The rise of Hinduism in Kerala is synonomous with the decline of Jainism and Buddhism in Kerala.

The Hindu religious leaders in Kerala set into motion a program to undermine the influence of Jainism and Buddhism. This was a nonviolent program that had began to take serious effect during the 8th century A.D. The most effective part of this program was the importation six eminent Hindu scholars from the North, who met with the Buddhist leaders in Kerala. As the local tradition goes they met in argument, and the Hindu scholars completely defeated the Buddhists, which allowed the Hindus to gain control over the people of Kerala. The Hindus established schoools for sastric studies, and converted many of the Jain and Buddhist temples into Hindu temples. By the 12th century A.D. the caste system had taken control over a large portion of the state of Kerala.

Christianity has also been a religion which has gained a great deal of influence in Kerala. The common belief among the Christians of Kerala is that the religion was introduced there with the landing of Saint Thomas, the Apostle, in 52 A.D. The story has it that St. Thomas converted certain Brahman families with displays of miracles, these families in turn established seven churches on the Malabar coast. In 345 A.D. there was an influx of 400 Syrian Christians into Kerala. As the centuries continued, Christianity made steady progressin Kerala. Christians there had begun to establish themselves as merchants and traders, and had gained certain rights and priveleges from the Kerala kings. The early Christians were called Syrian Christians, because the Syriac was the sacred language of the Kerala church.

After a few centuries, and the recognition of Christianity in Rome, Christian missionaries had visited Quilon to introduce Latin Christianity, which also became highly influential among Kerala Christians. Latin and Syriac liturgy coexisted for years there, until the Portuguese established their political influence after 1498 A.D. At this point the Latin rite established themselves as the primary form of Christianity in Kerala. A section of these Christians then fell under the jurisdiction of the papacy, and missionary work increased. The existence of Christianity has remained in Kerala into the present day. Many low caste Hindus in the past century have been converting to Christianity in order to escape the grasp of the caste system.