Hiden India: The Kerala Spicelands Sunset with Palm Trees
kerala & her spices
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*Statue of Ganesha
Statue of Ganesha*


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 System

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 rules.

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.

Hinduism and Education

Sree Narayan Guru
Sree Narayan Guru

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.


Christian church in Kottyam
Christian 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.


First Mosque in India is in Kerala
First 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.


Jewish quarter in Cochin
Synagogue in Cochin
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.

To learn more about Jews in Kerala visit