Its great variety of religious
expressions sets Kerala apart: for at least 1000 years,
Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have lived harmoniously
in this sun-filled land. The earliest religion of
Kerala was that of the Dravidian peoples. With many
gods and heroes, and probably a kind of caste system,
it had features in common with the Hinduism of north
India. By the first centuries several forms of Hindu
or Vedic faith beliefs had entered Kerala, including
Brahmanism with its rigid caste system and beliefs
in great deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and perhaps
the most beloved of all, the elephant headed Ganesha.
Many of the teachings of the Hindu faith are told
in two great epic poetic cycles, the Mahabharata and
the Ramayana. The first, composed of 100,000 lines,
tells of the Pandava Brothers and how they had to
battle to regain their kingdom. The Ramayana in 24,000
lines is the story of King Rama's fight with the demon
Ravana who had kidnapped his wife, Sita. Aided by
Hanuman, the Monkey King, Rama finally wins after
an epic battle. These colorful epics are filled with
moral and ethical lessons for all human beings.
*In the television program, Ganesha is said to have been married, but he was not. He is accompanied by his brother, lord Subrahmanya.
Caste (Varna, meaning "color" in the ancient
Indian language) is a system where people are divided
by family and birth into certain social and economic
positions. Normally, Brahmins stood at the top of
the heap. They were priests and scholars, who still
carry out all the significant rituals by which people
live. Beneath them were Ksatriyas, warriors and merchants,
and lower down the social pyramid were the workers,
or Sudras. At the very base of the social order were
Untouchables who did all the "dirty" work
that society required. Eventually hundreds of sub-castes
developed to handle each economic and social task.
Elaborate rules governed the system, so that Untouchables
were never permitted to even be near a Brahmin, much
less touch one. Ever since India became a nation in
1947, laws have been passed to break down these terrible
Kerala also had the caste system,
but it differed from those in other places. A native
caste called the Namboodiris were above Brahmins and
all others. They owned the land and only married among
themselves. The warriors, Nairs, were much lower down
the scale and the Ezhavas who tended coconut trees
were the laborers. At the bottom stood Pulayas, poor
agricultural laborers and slaves. Nairs retained their
matrilineal and matrilocal (the family house belongs
to the women) systems. Nair is a fairly common name
in Kerala and Nair women are still thought of as independent,
educated, and powerful.
Although the caste system existed,
it lost its force in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Because Kerala was so open to new peoples, and underwent
modernization, it was hard for Hindu elites to maintain
their old ways. Education was one key to that. An
Ezhava leader, Sree Narayan Guru led the fight to
see his fellow caste members educated. Under his direction,
schools were set up all over Kerala and many young
people from the lower castes became not only literate
but leaders in many areas of life. Those schools and
many others still operate and Kerala has the highest
literacy rate, more than 90%, of any state in India.
Education has led to a general feeling of social equality
in Kerala, something that would have been unthinkable
under the ancient caste system.
church in Kottyam.
There were other reasons why Kerala
became more socially progressive than other areas
of India. Being open to the sea and new peoples, Kerala
accepted other religions and ideas. The old rulers
encouraged this as a way to develop their economies.
Today, about 60 percent of the population are Hindu,
20 percent Muslim, and another 20 percent Christian.
Once there was even a sizable Jewish population. The
first Christian community is said to have been established
by one of the Twelve Apostles, St. Thomas, in the
year 52CE. Whether St.Thomas himself actually sailed
to Kerala , the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is
quite old. Early congregations were established in
Muziris and were followed by others from the Persian
Christian Church. Persian decor and objects can still
be seen in such churches as St. Mary's Valliappali
in the northern part of Kerala. Christians became
important in overseas trade and had the status of
Brahmans. As word of peaceful and prosperous conditions
spread, more Christians migrated to Kerala. Today
there are about 20 different Christian groups, some
following Orthodox (similar to Greek and Russian Orthodox)
rites, others Roman Catholic, and some Protestant.
Christians can always be identified by family names,
such as Thomas and Matthew.
Mosque in India is in Kerala.
Christianity was one way to escape
the caste system, Islam was another. As Islam spread
from Arabia in the 7th and 8th Centuries CE, it reached
northern Kerala through Arab merchants and fishermen.
Called Mappilas, they settled down, married local
women, and lived peaceably among their Hindu and Christian
neighbors. Many expressions, songs, and stories have
their roots in the Arabic past, but the Muslims of
Kerala do not follow the rigid rules that govern some
other countries of the Islamic world. Throughout the
Middle Ages the Mappilas were important in the spice
trade which was an Arab monopoly. They are still the
main fishing people of the northern coastal region.
Today, beautiful, sometimes highly colored, mosques
can be seen throughout Kerala. These are centers of
worship but also carry out such important functions
of the Islamic faith as charity.
built in 1568.
One other religious group, among
the many in Kerala, has now almost disappeared: Jews.
Since the days of King Solomon, merchants from the
ancient kingdoms of Judea and Israel traveled to these
far-away spicelands. Although the settlements of some
10,000 Jews in Kerala is said to date to the Roman
destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 135
CE, it is likely that they were present in south India
long before that time. For a thousand years the Jews
of Kerala lived in peace with their neighbors, engaging
in trade, and worshiping in their traditional ways.
That ended with the Portuguese who persecuted them
for religious reasons, and finally in the 1600s many
of the remaining families settled in the city of Cochin,
then ruled by the tolerant Dutch and later by the
British. Their part of the city is still called "Jewtown,"
though with the establishment of Israel in 1948, most
migrated to that new state. Today, only the old buildings
and a beautiful synagogue remain, tended by just a
handful of families.
Each of these religious groups and the
peoples who brought them lived together in harmony
for centuries and they still do. Walk down the main
road in Trivandrum, Kerala's capital city, and you
will see Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and Christian
churches very near one another. Each has its congregations,
but looking at the people attending you would find
it difficult to tell most of them apart by religious
preference. That is how integrated they all are into
Keralite life and culture.