Hiden India: The Kerala Spicelands Sunset with Palm Trees
kerala & her spices
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Fisherman off the Malabar Coast.
Fisherman off the Malabar Coast.

Geography played a major role in shaping Kerala's history and culture. Hemmed in on the west by the mountains, the peoples who occupied the Malabar Coast, modern Kerala, have always looked seaward. A myth says that the god Vishnu in one of his ten forms, threw an axe where the sea came up to the Ghat Mountains: the waters receded and the coastal lands rose. These were called "Cher-alam" meaning "added land," or Kerala (though some say the name means "Land of the Coconut"). For at least 3,000 years, this small region of India has attracted merchants, fishermen, and settlers from abroad. Unlike almost anywhere else in India, or other parts of the world, these outsiders were generally welcomed by Kerala's peoples and rulers. Trade and attitudes open to other peoples brought long periods of peaceful existence and a unique society.

Keralite women in Calicut
Keralite women
traditionally have higher status than any other women in India.

The original historical peoples of Kerala are called Dravidians, from the language group to which they belong. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is related to other south Indian tongues such as Tamil. This group is quite different from the languages of north India which belong to the Indo-European family. Several hundred years before the Common Era, peoples from the north entered Kerala and brought their religious system, Hinduism, with them. Today, the gods of the Hindu faith are the same throughout India, but the Dravidian people of Kerala retained their distinctive culture, elements of which remain to this day. One of these is the position of women, for unlike anywhere else, family lineage and inheritance passed through the women of a family and not men. Women always had high status, could control their own wealth, and even in pre-modern times women from elite families were often educated.


Pepper on Vine
Pepper on Vine.

The first kingdom of the "Cheras" rose from the union of northern Hindus and native Dravidians. It was to this ancient state with its capital at Muziris, now modern Cranganore near Calicut, that traders sailed across the Arabian Sea in their small cargo vessels. What they sought was a commodity so valuable that it was called "Black Gold" ("Karutha Ponnu" in Malayalam). It was pepper, the fruit of a vine native to Kerala. King Solomon of Judea in the 10th century BCE is said to have sent ships to get it. So did Ancient Greeks, Roman, Arabs, Chinese, Turks, Venetians, and others. Even today, Roman coins are found in sites all along the coast. Merchants sought not only pepper but also cardamon, ginger, and turmeric, rice, monkeys, ivory, and woven cloth. In fact, the name for one kind of popular cotton cloth, Calico, comes from the city of Calicut.

So great was the demand in Europe for spice, so much money was to be made in the trade, that in the 15th Century states such as Portugal and Spain began to search for all-water routes to the Indies. It was to the Indies that Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 and he actually thought that he'd found them when he landed on an island in the Bahamas in October of that year. He had not, but his commercial rival, the Portuguese Vasco da Gamma did by sailing around the horn of Africa and landing at Calicut in 1498. Thus began the modern age of exploration and conquest: the opening of the New World to the Old World peoples of Europe and Asia. And it was all due to the spices of Kerala.

Tea cutter in the Cardamon Hills
Tea cutter in the Cardamon Hills.

Throughout most of its history, Kerala was divided into several states headed by hereditary royal families. The Portuguese, Dutch, and French captured areas of Kerala and set up trading posts, but never really ruled the area completely. It was the British who took over all of India early in the 19th century and made it the "Jewel in the Crown" of their empire. They brought their language, laws, educational systems, transportation networks (railroads), to India and even began the tea plantations in the Cardamon Hills. Though they did not completely control the old princely states of Kerala, the British influenced them greatly. Today, English is virtually the second language of south India. Kerala became one of India's states in 1956 when the several old kingdoms, the main one being Travancore, gave up their sovereignty and joined the great union of peoples and cultures that comprise modern India.

To learn more about Kerala history http://artandkeralahistory.org/