Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 5 - A Short History of God's Own Country

Chapter 5


A short history of Kerala – what is here referred to as God’s Own Country – is very difficult to come across. Vainly I searched to end up in cul-de-sacs and internet information overloads, i.e., much information and no substance. Many versions of Kerala’s history exist, none of which are in any logical or chronological order. So here’s an attempt, humble, and painstaking, I must admit, to put the history of God’s Own Country into some semblance of order.

I must also confess here that research for this chapter was done on the material available on the Internet and that no authors were credited with the matter put up on these Internet web sites. This made it difficult to give credit to their scholarly material. After all, Kerala has a history as elaborate as an elephant’s decorated forehead during the Trichur temple festival.

I must admit at the very outset that most what I am writing may be hearsay, or, for that matter, apocryphal. However, given below is an attempt to trace the history of Kerala, and at the same time, I make a humble request to readers to willingly suspending disbelief in the interest of an understanding of the background of the state. Also, you may safely skip this chapter, if you aren’t a keen student of history, although, a knowledge of Kerala’s history would help in understanding the state and its people much better.

While writing this I must admit that Kerala is of recent origin, believed in mythology to have been created by Parashurama – an incarnation of the maintainer God Vishnu – by throwing his battle axe into the sea.

To begin at the beginning, Parashurama was son of a Brahmin sage, Jamadagni. Parashurama, a Brahmin, and a priest, showed warrior-like leanings, and wanted to rule the world as a priest-warrior. He killed kings like Sahastrarjuna and gave their land to priests. The warrior kings didn’t like this. They detested a Brahmin ruling over them. It is said that Parashurama exterminated, in what must have been an ethnic cleansing of those days, the warrior class, about twenty-one times.

As the story goes Parashurama was struck by remorse at his wanton killings, and offered penance on the top of a mountain. The sea god Varuna responded to his prayers, and offered him all the land equal to the distance to which he could throw his axe. It is believed, according to mythology, that Parasurama threw his axe from Gokarnam in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. As promised the sea under the command of the sea god Varuna gave way to land, and made Kerala rise from the oceans. This is the mythological origin of Kerala.

Interestingly, there is a scientific explanation to the origin to the state. According to geologists and scientists Kerala is the result of centuries of silt deposition by the abundant rivers that flow through the state - rivers such as Bharatapuzha, Periyar, Pampa, Meenachil, and many others. This is a phenomenon seen even today. The land is still forming around the estuaries of these rivers, in what is a curious and inexplicable phenomenon of land reclamation. In fact, in most parts of Kerala a few feet of digging would yield a reddish striated laterite stone formation that supports this theory.

As the new land was being formed beyond the Sahyadri mountains ranges, people are believed to have migrated to these new lands from the Tamil-speaking lands. Legend has it that the earliest settlers were called as Malayali, “mala,” meaning mountain and, “alu” meaning person, or, inhabitant.

Historically, the furthest I can go in my quest for a past to this green paradise is the 297 to 272 to BC when Kerala is said to have experienced the Mauryan onslaught during the reign of emperor Ashoka’s predecessor, Bondasura.

The subsequent historical recording of the history of Kerala occurs in the inscriptions of the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who had conquered most parts of India. In these inscriptions, Ashoka refers to the four independent kingdoms that exist to the south of his empire. These are the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Cheras, and the Satiyaputras.

Among these distinct kingdoms, the Cheras ruled over Malabar, Cochin and North Travancore – all part of what is Kerala today. They are believed to have maintained their peace with the great Maurya Emperor Ashoka. Peace prevailed in God’s Own Country.

Sadly, information about the Cheras who ruled Kerala during the period of the Mauryan empire is not very abundant. It is much later, in the Sangam Age that the history of Kerala emerges out of the thick curtains of myths and legends. The Sangam age is supposed to have existed during 300 AD. The word Sangam means academy, and the Sangam age is known for literary works in Tamil, which were written in the first four centuries of the Christian era. There were three Sangams.

From what information is available it seems what is referred as Academies met at Madurai and were attended by kings and poets. Apparently, the literature forming part of the First Sangam is no longer available. However, there is evidence that suggests that Tolkappiyam, the earliest work of Tamil grammar was composed during the Second Sangam.

Likewise, the third Sangam also produced a noteworthy collection of Tamil literature known as Ettutogai, or, eight anthologies. A notable feature of this anthology is that it gives us a detailed description of the political, social and economic conditions of that period. I do not know if Kerala is mentioned in any of these works of literature. I confess my searches proved futile.

What is notable about the Sangam Age is that we learn that at that time Kerala was divided into three kingdoms, with the Ays ruling in South Kerala, the Ezhimalas in North Kerala and the Cheras in Central Kerala. There is no knowledge whether these kingdoms fought amongst themselves or they were the best of neighbours.

The kingdom of the Ays extended from Tiruvalla in the north to Nagercoil in the South. The Ay kings were benevolent rulers and notable among them were Antiran, Titiyam and Atiyan. The Ezhimalas ruled over extensive areas of the north including the districts of Kannur and Wynad.

However, the Cheras who ruled over Central Kerala from four to seven centuries AD were the most powerful of warriors and rulers who reigned over Kerala. The first prominent Chera ruler, Perumchottu Utiyan Cheralatan, was defeated by the great Chola king Karikalan at the battle of Venni, and, so disgraced, he committed suicide.

Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan, his successor, ruled for 58 years and extended the Chera kingdom into new territories. We learn that he even had a poet laureate in court by the name of Kannanar. What is referred as the Sangam Age was a significant period in the development of Kerala as an independent entity under the Ay, Chera and Ezhimala dynasties.

However, after the conclusion of the Sangam Age, Kerala passed through a dark interregnum when the Kalabhras ruled over Kerala. Not much is known about this interregnum, or, for that matter, these rulers, except for the fact that the South Indian kingdoms of Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pandyas carved out Kerala into their own territories.

Approximating around this time was born one of Kerala’s greatest sons, who in his short life of thirty-two years dealt a blow to the rapid spread of Buddhism in the land of its origin, India, by reviving Hinduism. During the sixth century AD Adi Shankaracharya, born in Kalady near Cochin, preached his Hindu philosophy of advaita (monism) and engaged many Buddhist missionaries in dialogues. His writings and discourses called “bhashyams” are considered seminal works in Hindu philosophy by religious pundits and commoners.

His philosophy and preaching created such an impact that Hinduism came back from hibernation as the principal religion of India that too at a crucial time when Buddhism had almost spread throughout India. An ascetic and celibate all his life, his tremendous energy and organizing ability saw the establishment of four monasteries, in four corners of India — Sringeri in Karnataka, Dwarka in Gujarat, Puri in Orissa, and Badrinath in Uttar Pradesh. Unimaginably, he did all this in a very short life span of his thirty-two years in this world. Truly, he was a great son of Hindu India. Needless to add, a true Malayali from Kerala – God’s Own Country – was responsible, most significantly, for the revival of Hinduism at a crucial stage in its history.

Coming back to the Kalbhras, where we left off, after the Kalabhras, a second Chera empire took shape with Kodungallur as its capital. This second Chera empire was founded by Kulashekara Alvar who reigned from 800 AD to 820 AD. Ironically, the Alvars, according to some texts, were actually Tamil saints of the Bhakti cult who composed songs in praise of Vishnu, the god who maintains the world. Kulasekhara Alvar, a scholar, is credited with having written five plays – the Perumal Tirumozhi in Tamil, and the following works in Sanskrit: Mukundamala, Taptisamvarna, Subhadradhamala and Vichchinnabhiseka. This lends credence to the theory that the Chera kings were actually Tamils.

After Kulasekhara Alvar came Rajasekhara Varman in 825 AD who is credited with having published the Vazhapalli Inscription, a record of the Chera kingdom. After his reign ended came Sthanu Ravi Varman in 844 AD who had an excellent rapport with the Chola King, Aditya I. This monarch was a great patron of astronomy and a scholar by the name of Sankaranarayana, author of the astronomical work Sankaranarayaniyam, lived during his time.

However, sadly, after Rajasekhara’s death war clouds again arose between the Cheras and Cholas which resulted in the sacking of the former’s capital Kodungallur. The then ruler Rama Varman Kulasekhara, who ascended the throne after Rajasekhara, shifted his capital from Kodungallur to Quilon. Rama Varman’s death resulted in the ultimate polarization of the proud Chera empire and the ascendance of the Venad or Travancore empire.

Venad or Travancore which was till then a part of the Chera empire came into its own after the fall of the Kulasekhara dynasty following the death of Rama Varman Kulasekhara. The newly emerged power of Travancore assumed glory under the great Udaya Marthanda Varma who reigned between 1175 AD and 1195 AD and Ravi Varma Kulasekhara who reigned between 1299 AD and 1314 AD.

Udaya Marthanda Varma, the reformer, brought in changes in the administration of Hindu temples. Even now the devasom boards of Kerala administer the Hindu temples under the guidelines laid down in those days. Details of his reign are inscribed in the Kollur Madham Plates and the Tiruvambadi Inscriptions on copper plates since paper was unknown in those days and copper plates were used for inscriptions of importance. Those days, common writing used to be done on palm leaves using a sharp instrument.

Why those days, my first Malayalam lessons – curlicued letters – were written by my white-haired asan, or, teacher, with a sharp instrument on palm leaves. And that was in the end of the nineteen fifties. That goes to show how in Kerala some things never change. By some unknown quirk of fate, the traditional and the modern snugly dovetail into each other in the land that the Gods chose as their own.

Under Ravi Varma Kulasekhara the Travancore kingdom flourished further. He brought peace to the Pandya kingdom after it was pillaged by Malik Kafur, lieutenant of the Delhi Sultan Alaud-din Khilji. He was a scholar and musician and is also believed to have authored Pradymanabhyudayam — a Sanskrit drama. During his benevolent reign Kollam became a prominent centre for trade and commerce.

After Ravi Varma Kulasekhara, there was a lull in the development of Travancore and the might of this empire almost dwindled. At the same time a mighty empire rose in Calicut towards the north under the Zamorins. The Zamorins’ rule is recorded by traveller who visited Kerala during the period including Ibn Batuta from Africa, Ma Huan from China, and Nicolo Conti and Athanasius Nikitin from the west.

The muslim Zamorins’ main income was from trade with the Chinese and Arabs. They were great seafarers and the name Zamorin literally means Lord of the Seas. Zamorins’ Malayalam equivalent is Samoothiri, and Samoodram means sea. The Zamorins were also patrons of literature and art. They were especially very powerful between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and annexed most of the territories in the north of the present-day Kerala. 

A significant development in Kerala’s history was the arrival of the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498. The European ascension in Kerala had begun. Initially, the Zamorins were suspicious of their intentions and continued trading with the Arabs. The Portuguese, however, had a friend in the Cochin king and established trading posts in Cochin and Kollam. This exacerbated the rivalry between the Zamorins in Calicut and the king of Cochin and resulted in a war in which the Zamorins laid siege of Cochin, but were eventually defeated by the Portuguese.

Post Vasco da Gama another notable Portuguese citizen to set food in Kerala was Albuquerque who bartered peace with the Zamorins of Calicut. The Portuguese power declined thereafter as the followers of Albuquerque were corrupt and inefficient. In fact, the Portuguese can be credited with many an influence on the educational and cultural life of the people Kerala. It was during their reign that the Roman Catholic faith spread in the previously Eastern Orthodox Kerala.

With Europe conquering territories in the new world, the Dutch weren’t very far behind the Portuguese. I have referred to the European ascension earlier and this episode takes it further. In a treaty signed in 1619 the British and Dutch joined hands, in a friendship of convenience, to eliminate the hold of the Portuguese over trade. The Dutch set up trading Centres in Purakkad, Kayamkulam, Kollam and Travancore as early as 1662. The next year, i.e., in 1663, they conquered Cochin.

Consequently the Dutch power ebbed when Marthanda Varma – not to be confused with Udaya Marthanda Varma – came into power in Travancore in 1729 and reigned till 1758. The Zamorins further compounded the Dutch dilemma by conquering Cochin, Cranganore, Parur and Trichur. A reformer like his predecessor and namesake, King Marthanda Varma succeeded in liberating territories occupied by the Dutch.

Marthanda Varma’s successor Rama Varma was also an equally able administrator. He brought in improvements under which all castes and social classes were given administrative powers. He had to bear the onslaught of two invasions from the rulers of Mysore, Haider Ali and his son, Tippu Sultan. Haider Ali conquered Kolathiri, Kottayam, Kadathanad, Kurumbanad and Calicut and Tippu Sultan who assumed the throne in 1782 annexed the entire South Malabar. To his credit Rama Varma’s defenses could fend off the might of Tippu Sultan, a recurring theme in the legends and folk lore for Kerala.

The clouds of doom hung thick over Tippu’s ambitions when the king of Travancore signed the Treaty of Serirangapatam with the British in 1792. In the ensuing Third Mysore War, Tippu’s forces surrendered meekly to the British. Under this treaty Malabar, towards the north of Kerala, became a district of the Madras presidency and Travancore became a British-protected state.

In return for British assistance in the Third Mysore War the king of Travancore was asked by the British East India Company officers to bear the entire expenditure of the war. The reason? The war was fought for the defence of Travancore. A new treaty was then signed in 1795 in which Travancore was further downgraded from a friendly kingdom to a protectorate with a British-appointed minister, or, Dewan who wielded considerable power.

The King of Travancore had to maintain an army far beyond his means to support. Travancore was in the centre of a financial crisis and the King was forced to borrow from moneylenders and merchants. Velu Thampi Dalava tried some economy measures by reducing the field allowance offered to soldiers during peace. This led to a revolt by the army that was put down with the help of the British.

The British took advantage of the relationship with the vassal state by monopolizing the pepper trade. Pepper was, and, is a hot trading commodity of Kerala and the British took full advantage of the plenitude of this spicy food ingredient in the green paradise. Pepper trade saw a sudden surge and no culinary item in the West could be without this indispensable spice. The combination of salt and pepper shaker became omnipresent on every fine dining table. The British, sensing an opportune moment, also succeeded in signing a new treaty with the king of Travancore giving themselves enhanced powers.

Velu Thambi Dalava, another laudable hero of Malayalam folklore, was against the growing clout of the British and made preparation for a revolt against them around the year 1799. He mustered forces for a mutiny and collected arms and soldiers. The revolt that ensued was trenchant enough but petered out soon enough for lack of inspired leadership. British forces began accumulating in Travancore from different regions. This led to the mutineers giving up and the king writing to the British Resident for peace. Velu Thambi Dalava who went into hiding committed suicide.

On the whole the kings and queens of Travancore were benevolent rulers and there were two queens who also ruled for brief periods. Rani Gouri Lakshmi Bai ruled between 1810 and 1815 and Gouri Parvati Bai ruled between 1815 and 1829. All the kings and queens were great patrons of the arts, science and culture. Malayalis show uncommon zeal in preserving their legacy and culture. That may be why many arcane religious and social observances are still followed even in the midst of intellectual modernism. There is in a Malayali a spirit akin to a Bengali in the pursuit of art and literature. And today, if two Malayalis meet even by chance anywhere in the world, they are sure to form a Malayali Samajam to promote their individual culture.

The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the nation-wide independence movement and Malayalis supported this move, having tasted British high-handedness in trade, and military intervention. Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement had its staunch supporters in Kerala too. Communist revolution and the founding of the USSR in 1921 had its echoes in distant Kerala with the formation of the Communist party in Kerala in 1939.

Patriotic fervour swept through the princely states and British districts of Kerala until freedom day, August 15, 1947. The thirst for freedom and democracy won over and Kerala elected its first legislative assembly in 1957. To the surprise of all concerned in this naturally blessed state the first election returned a Communist government to power. It is also whispered that it was the first time in the world that the Communists seized power by popular vote and not by revolution. Che Guevera must have been a happy man. From then it was a checkered history for this state that had seen the seeds of a revolt sown by the legendary Velu Thambi Dalava. His dream of independence from the British was finally realized when Travancore, too, merged with the rest of India and Kerala was carved out as a state of Malayalam-speaking people by joining Malabar in the north with Cochin and Travancore in the south.

Eventually the concept of a single Malayalam speaking state that was given birth by the Cheralatan kings, nurtured by the Kulasekhara kings and the great Marthanda Varma, ultimately found fruition in the state of Kerala in independent India. Thus was born a vibrantly beautiful state that today bears the euphemism of God’s Own Country, where God and his believing and disbelieving minions take equal pride in their legacy.


Rohit said...

Dear John,

Just read your post and came across this statement: " The muslim Zamorins’ main income was from trade with the Chinese and Arabs. "

This is incorrect and is a misrepresentation of historical facts. The Zamorin's were practicing Hindus.

Please check up and correct the information accordingly.

John said...

Hi Rohit,

Thanks for pointing this out and clearing a doubt. Yes, indeed the Zamorins were Hindus, but they employed a lot of Muslims in their naval forces.

Thanks again,