Capital : Thiruvananthapuram
Largest city : Thiruvananthapuram
Largest metro : Kochi metropolitan area
District(s) : 14
Population : 31,838,619 (12th) (2001)
Density : 819/km² (2,121/sq mi)
Language(s) : Malayalam
Established : November 1, 1956
Kerala is a state on the tropical Malabar Coast of southwestern India. To its east and northeast, Kerala borders Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; to its west and south lie the Indian Ocean islands of Lakshadweep and the Maldives, respectively. Kerala nearly envelops Mahé, a coastal exclave of Pondicherry. Kerala is one of four states that compose the linguistic-cultural region known as South India.
First settled in the 10th century BCE by speakers of Proto-South Dravidian, Kerala was influenced by the Mauryan Empire. Later, the Cheran kingdom and feudal Namboothiri Brahminical city-states became major powers in the region. Early contact with overseas lands culminated in struggles between colonial and native powers. The States Reorganisation Act of 1 November 1956 elevated Kerala to statehood.
Social reforms enacted in the late 19th century by Cochin and Travancore were expanded upon by post-independence governments, making Kerala among the Third World’s longest-lived, healthiest, most gender-equitable, and most literate regions. Though the state’s basic human development indices are roughly equivalent to those in the developed world, the state is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Europe and North America. Nevertheless, Kerala’s suicide, alcoholism, and unemployment rates rank among India’s highest. A survey conducted in 2005 by Transparency International ranked Kerala as the least corrupt state in the country.
The widely disputed etymology of Kerala is a matter of conjecture. In the prevailing theory, Kerala is an imperfect Malayalam portmanteau that fuses kera (“coconut palm tree”) and alam (“land” or “location”). Another theory is that the name originated from the phrase chera alam (“Land of the Chera”). Natives of Kerala, known as Keralites or Malayalees, thus refer to their land as Keralam. Kerala’s tourism industry, among others, also use the phrase God’s Own Country.
Muniyaras (Keralite dolmens or megalithic tombs) in Marayoor, erected by Neolithic tribesmen.According to a Brahminical myth, Parasurama, an avatar of Mahavishnu, threw his battle axe into the sea. As a result, the land of Kerala arose and was reclaimed from the waters. During Neolithic times, humans largely avoided Kerala’s rainforests and wetlands. There is evidence of the emergence of prehistoric pottery and granite burial monuments in the 10th century BCE that resemble their counterparts in Western Europe and the rest of Asia. These were produced by speakers of a proto-Tamil language. Thus, Kerala and Tamil Nadu once shared a common language, ethnicity and culture; this common area was known as Tamilakam. Kerala became a linguistically separate region by the early 14th century. The ancient Cherans, whose mother tongue and court language was Tamil, ruled Kerala from their capital at Vanchi and was the first major recorded kingdom. Allied with the Pallavas, they continually warred against the neighbouring Chola and Pandya kingdoms. A Keralite identity—distinct from the Tamils and associated with the second Chera empire—and the development of Malayalam evolved between the 8th and 14th centuries. In written records, Kerala was first mentioned in the Sanskrit epic Aitareya Aranyaka. Later, figures such as Katyayana, Patanjali, Pliny the Elder, and the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea displayed familiarity with Kerala.
Book NowThe Knanaya Syrian Orthodox Valia Palli (St. Mary’s Church) in Thazhathangadi, Kottayam. Built in 1550 CE, it hosts an 8th-century Persian cross and Sassanid Pahlavi inscriptions.The Chera kings’ dependence on trade meant that merchants from West Asia and Southern Europe established coastal posts and settlements in Kerala. Many, especially Jews and Christians, escaped persecution and established the Nasrani Mappila and Muslim Mappila communities. According to several scholars, the Jews first arrived in Kerala in 573 BC. The works of scholars and Eastern Christian writings state that Thomas the Apostle visited Muziris in Kerala in 52 CE to proselytize amongst Kerala’s Jewish settlements. However, the first verifiable migration of Jewish-Nasrani families to Kerala is of the arrival of Knai Thoma in 345 CE. A Muslim merchants (Malik ibn Dinar) settled in Kerala by the 8th century CE. After Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in 1498, the Portuguese gained control of the lucrative pepper trade by subduing Keralite communities and commerce.
Conflicts between the cities of Kozhikode (Calicut) and Kochi (Cochin) provided an opportunity for the Dutch to oust the Portuguese. In turn, the Dutch were ousted at the 1741 Battle of Colachel by Marthanda Varma of Travancore (Thiruvathaamkoor). Hyder Ali, heading the Mysore, conquered northern Kerala, capturing Kozhikode in 1766. In the late 18th century, Tipu Sultan, Ali’s son and successor, launched campaigns against the expanding British East India Company; these resulted in two of the four Anglo-Mysore Wars. He ultimately ceded Malabar District and South Kanara to the Company in the 1790s. The Company then forged tributary alliances with Kochi (1791) and Travancore (1795). Malabar and South Kanara became part of the Madras Presidency.
Memorial of Veera Pazhassi Raja (the “Lion of Kerala”) in Mananthavady, Wayanad. Pazhassi Raja launched a guerilla war against the British in the late 18th century.Kerala saw comparatively little defiance of the British Raj. Nevertheless, several rebellions occurred, including the 1946 Punnapra-Vayalar revolt, and leaders like Velayudan Thampi Dalava, Kunjali Marakkar, and Pazhassi Raja earned their place in history and folklore. Many actions, spurred by such leaders as Sree Narayana Guru and Chattampi Swamikal, instead protested such conditions as untouchability; notable was the 1924 Vaikom Satyagraham. In 1936, Chitra Thirunal Bala Rama Varma of Travancore issued the Temple Entry Proclamation that opened Hindu temples to all castes; Cochin and Malabar soon did likewise. The 1921 Moplah Rebellion involved Mappila Muslims battling Hindus and the British Raj.
After India gained its independence in 1947, Travancore and Cochin were merged to form Travancore-Cochin on July 1, 1949. On January 1, 1950 (Republic Day), Travancore-Cochin was recognised as a state. The Madras Presidency was organised to form Madras State several years prior, in 1947. Finally, the Government of India’s November 1, 1956 States Reorganisation Act inaugurated the state of Kerala, incorporating Malabar district, Travancore-Cochin (excluding four southern taluks, which were merged with Tamil Nadu), and the taluk of Kasargod, South Kanara. A new legislative assembly was also created, for which elections were first held in 1957. These resulted in a communist-led government—one of the world’s earliest—headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad.[ Subsequent social reforms favoured tenants and labourers. As a result, living standards, education, and life expectancy improved dramatically.
Landscape near Thekkady, Iddukki.Kerala’s 38,863 km² landmass (1.18% of India) is wedged between the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats—identified as one of the world’s twenty-five biodiversity hotspots—to the east. Lying between north latitudes 8°18′ and 12°48′ and east longitudes 74°52′ and 72°22′, Kerala is well within the humid equatorial tropics. Kerala’s coast runs for some 580 km (360 miles), while the state itself varies between 35 and 120 km (22–75 miles) in width. Geographically, Kerala can be divided into three climatically distinct regions: the eastern highlands (rugged and cool mountainous terrain), the central midlands (rolling hills), and the western lowlands (coastal plains). Located at the extreme southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kerala lies near the centre of the Indian tectonic plate; as such, most of the state is subject to comparatively little seismic and volcanic activity. Pre-Cambrian and Pleistocene geological formations compose the bulk of Kerala’s terrain.
Book NowEastern Kerala lies immediately west of the Western Ghats’s rain shadow; it consists of high mountains, gorges and deep-cut valleys. 41 of Kerala’s west-flowing rivers, and 3 of its east-flowing ones originate in this region. Here, the Western Ghats form a wall of mountains interrupted only near Palakkad, where the Palakkad Gap breaks through to provide access to the rest of India. The Western Ghats rises on average to 1,500 m (4920 ft) above sea level, while the highest peaks may reach to 2,500 m (8200 ft). Just west of the mountains lie the midland plains composing central Kerala; rolling hills and valleys dominate. Generally ranging between elevations of 250–1,000 m (820–3300 ft), the eastern portions of the Nilgiri and Palni Hills include such formations as Agastyamalai and Anamalai.
Sunrise over the Backwaters near Alappuzha.Kerala’s western coastal belt is relatively flat, and is criss-crossed by a network of interconnected brackish canals, lakes, estuaries, and rivers known as the Kerala Backwaters. Lake Vembanad—Kerala’s largest body of water—dominates the Backwaters; it lies between Alappuzha and Kochi and is more than 200 km² in area. Around 8% of India’s waterways (measured by length) are found in Kerala. The most important of Kerala’s forty four rivers include the Periyar (244 km), the Bharathapuzha (209 km), the Pamba (176 km), the Chaliyar (169 km), the Kadalundipuzha (130 km) and the Achankovil (128 km). The average length of the rivers of Kerala is 64 km. Most of the remainder are small and entirely fed by monsoon rains. These conditions result in the nearly year-round water logging of such western regions as Kuttanad, 500 km² of which lies below sea level. As Kerala’s rivers are small and lack deltas, they are more prone to environmental factors. Kerala’s rivers face many problems, including summer droughts, the building of large dams, sand mining, and pollution.
With 120–140 rainy days per year, Kerala has a wet and maritime tropical climate influenced by the seasonal heavy rains of the southwest summer monsoon. In eastern Kerala, a drier tropical wet and dry climate prevails. Kerala’s rainfall averages 3,107 mm annually. Some of Kerala’s drier lowland regions average only 1,250 mm; the mountains of eastern Idukki district receive more than 5,000 mm of orographic precipitation, the highest in the state.
In summers, most of Kerala is prone to gale force winds, storm surges, cyclone-related torrential downpours, occasional droughts, and rises in sea level and storm activity resulting from global warming. Kerala’s maximum daily temperature averages 36.7 °C; the minimum is 19.8 °C. Mean annual temperatures range from 25.0–27.5 °C in the coastal lowlands to 20.0–22.5 °C in the highlands.
A blue tiger (Tirumala limniace) butterfly.Much of Kerala’s notable biodiversity is concentrated and protected in the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve in the eastern hills. Almost a fourth of India’s 10,000 plant species are found in the state. Among the almost 4,000 flowering plant species (1,272 of which are endemic to Kerala and 159 threatened) are 900 species of highly sought medicinal plants.
Petals of the gloriosa lily (Gloriosa superba) flower curve upward into a claw-like shape; below, its stamens grow radially outwards.Its 9,400 km² of forests include tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests (lower and middle elevations—3,470 km²), tropical moist and dry deciduous forests (mid-elevations—4,100 km² and 100 km², respectively), and montane subtropical and temperate (shola) forests (highest elevations—100 km²). Altogether, 24% of Kerala is forested. Two of the world’s Ramsar Convention listed wetlands—Lake Sasthamkotta and the Vembanad-Kol wetlands—are in Kerala, as well as 1455.4 km² of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Subjected to extensive clearing for cultivation in the 20th century, much of Kerala’s forest cover is now protected from clearfelling. Kerala’s fauna are notable for their diversity and high rates of endemism: 102 species of mammals (56 of which are endemic), 476 species of birds, 202 species of freshwater fishes, 169 species of reptiles (139 of them endemic), and 89 species of amphibians (86 endemic). These are threatened by extensive habitat destruction, including soil erosion, landslides, salinization, and resource extraction.
Book NowThe Bengal Tiger inhabits Kerala’s eastern forests.Eastern Kerala’s windward mountains shelter tropical moist forests and tropical dry forests, which are common in the Western Ghats. Here, sonokeling (Indian rosewood), anjili, mullumurikku (Erythrina), and Cassia number among the more than 1,000 species of trees in Kerala. Other plants include bamboo, wild black pepper, wild cardamom, the calamus rattan palm (a type of climbing palm), and aromatic vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides). Living among them are such fauna as Asian Elephant, Bengal Tiger, Leopard (Panthera pardus), Nilgiri Tahr, Common Palm Civet, and Grizzled Giant Squirrel. Reptiles include the king cobra, viper, python, and crocodile. Kerala’s birds are legion—Peafowl, the Great Hornbill, Indian Grey Hornbill, Indian Cormorant, and Jungle Myna are several emblematic species. In lakes, wetlands, and waterways, fish such as kadu (stinging catfish and Choottachi (Orange chromide—Etroplus maculatus; valued as an aquarium specimen) are found.
Most Keralites, such as this fisherman, live in rural areas.The 31.8 million of Kerala’s compound population is predominantly of Malayali Dravidian ethnicity, while the rest is mostly made up of Indo-Aryan, Jewish, and Arab elements in both culture and ancestry (both of which are usually mixed). Kerala is also home to 321,000 indigenous tribal Adivasis (1.10% of the populace), who are mostly concentrated in the eastern districts. Malayalam is Kerala’s official language; Tamil and various Adivasi languages are also spoken by ethnic minorities.
A Malayali woman wearing a neryathu known as a set sari.Kerala is home to 3.44% of India’s people; at 819 persons per km², its land is three times as densely settled as the rest of India. Kerala’s rate of population growth is India’s lowest, and Kerala’s decadal growth (9.42% in 2001) is less than half the all-India average of 21.34%. Whereas Kerala’s population more than doubled between 1951 and 1991 by adding 15.6 million people to reach 29.1 million residents in 1991, the population stood at less than 32 million by 2001. Kerala’s coastal regions are the most densely settled, leaving the eastern hills and mountains comparatively sparsely populated.
Women compose 51.42% of the population. Kerala’s principal religions are Hinduism (56.1%), Islam (24.7%), and Christianity (19%). Remnants of a once substantial Cochin Jewish population also practice Judaism. In comparison with the rest of India, Kerala experiences relatively little sectarianism. Nevertheless, there have been signs of increasing influences from religious extremist organisations such as the Hindu Aikya Vedi.
Rural women processing coir threads.Kerala’s society is less patriarchical than the rest of the Third World. Certain Hindu communities (such as the Nairs), Travancore Ezhavas and the Muslims around Kannur used to follow a traditional matrilineal system known as marumakkathayam, which ended in the years after Indian independence. Christians, Muslims, and some Hindu castes such as the Namboothiris and the Ezhavas follow makkathayam, a patrilineal system. Kerala’s gender relations are among the most equitable in India and the Third World. Forces such as the patriarchy-enforced oppression of women threatens this status.
Kerala’s human development indices—elimination of poverty, primary level education, and health care—are among the best in India. Kerala’s literacy rate (91%) and life expectancy (73 years) are now the highest in India. Literacy is 88% among females and 94% among males according to the 2001 census. Kerala’s rural poverty rate fell from 69% (1970–1971) to 19% (1993–1994); the overall (urban and rural) rate fell 36% between the 1970s and 1980s. By 1999–2000, the rural and urban poverty rates dropped to 10.0% and 9.6% respectively. These changes stem largely from efforts begun in the late 19th century by the kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore to boost social welfare. This focus was maintained by Kerala’s post-independence government.
A formation of gold-caparisoned elephants at the Thrissur Pooram. Poorams are Hindu temple-centered festivals popular among both Keralites and tourists.Kerala’s culture is a blend of Dravidian and Aryan influences, deriving from both a greater Tamil-heritage region known as Tamilakam and southern coastal Karnataka. Later, Kerala’s culture was elaborated upon through centuries of contact with neighboring and overseas cultures. Native performing arts include koodiyattom, kathakali—from katha (“story”) and kali (“performance”)—and its offshoot Kerala natanam, koothu (akin to stand-up comedy), mohiniaattam (“dance of the enchantress”), thullal, padayani, and theyyam.
A close-up of a kathakali artist.Other forms of art are more religious or tribal in nature. These include chavittu nadakom, oppana (originally from Malabar), which combines dance, rhythmic hand clapping, and ishal vocalisations. However, many of these art forms largely play to tourists or at youth festivals, and are not as popular among most ordinary Keralites. These people look to more contemporary art and performance styles, including those employing mimicry and parody.
Kerala’s music also has ancient roots. Carnatic music dominates Keralite traditional music. This was the result of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma’s popularisation of the genre in the 19th century. Raga-based renditions known as sopanam accompany kathakali performances. Melam (including the paandi and panchari variants) is a more percussive style of music; it is performed at Kshetram centered festivals using the chenda. Melam ensembles comprise up to 150 musicians, and performances may last up to four hours. Panchavadyam is a different form of percussion ensemble, in which up to 100 artists use five types of percussion instrument. Kerala has various styles of folk and tribal music. The popular music of Kerala is dominated by the filmi music of Indian cinema. Kerala’s visual arts range from traditional murals to the works of Raja Ravi Varma, the state’s most renowned painter.
During Onam, Keralites create floral pookkalam designs in front of their houses.Kerala has its own Malayalam calendar, which is used to plan agricultural and religious activities. Kerala’s cuisine is typically served as a sadhya on green banana leaves. Such dishes as idli, payasam, pulisherry, puttucuddla, puzhukku, rasam, and sambar are typical. Keralites—both men and women alike—traditionally don flowing and unstitched garments. These include the mundu, a loose piece of cloth wrapped around men’s waists. Women typically wear the sari, a long and elaborately wrapped banner of cloth, wearable in various styles.
Malayalam literature is ancient in origin, and includes such figures as the 14th century Niranam poets (Madhava Panikkar, Sankara Panikkar and Rama Panikkar), whose works mark the dawn of both modern Malayalam language and indigenous Keralite poetry. The “triumvirate of poets” (Kavithrayam), Kumaran Asan, Vallathol Narayana Menon, and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, are recognised for moving Keralite poetry away from archaic sophistry and metaphysics, and towards a more lyrical mode.
In the second half of the 20th century, Jnanpith awardees like G Sankara Kurup, S. K. Pottekkatt, and M. T. Vasudevan Nair have added to Malayalam literature. Later, such Keralite writers as O. V. Vijayan, Kamaladas, M. Mukundan, and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, whose 1996 semi-autobiographical bestseller The God of Small Things is set in the Kottayam town of Ayemenem, have gained international recognition.
Kalari puttara shrines are seven-tiered platform-alters where kalaripayattu practitioners pray to the guardian deity.Several ancient ritualised arts are Keralite in origin. These include kalaripayattu—kalari (“place”, “threshing floor”, or “battlefield”) and payattu (“exercise” or “practice”). Among the world’s oldest martial arts, oral tradition attributes kalaripayattu’s emergence to Parasurama. Other ritual arts include theyyam and poorakkali. However, larger numbers of Keralites follow sports such as cricket, kabaddi, soccer, and badminton. Dozens of large stadiums, including Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and Thiruvananthapuram’s Chandrashekaran Nair Stadium, attest to the mass appeal of such sports among Keralites.
Football is the most popular sport in the state. Some notable football stars from Kerala include I. M. Vijayan and V. P. Sathyan. Several Keralite athletes have attained world-class status, including Suresh Babu, P. T. Usha, Shiny Wilson, K. M. Beenamol, and Anju Bobby George. Volleyball, another popular sport, is often played on makeshift courts on sandy beaches along the coast. Jimmy George, born in Peravoor, Kannur, was arguably the most successful volleyball player ever to represent India. At his prime he was regarded as among the world’s ten best players.
Cricket, which is the most-followed sport in the rest of India and South Asia, is less popular in Kerala. Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, who was born in Kothamangalam and often referred to as simply “Sreesanth”, is a controversial right-arm fast-medium-pace bowler and a right-handed tail-ender batsman whose actions were pivotal in sealing, among other games, the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Among less successful Keralite cricketers is Tinu Yohannan, son of Olympic long jumper T. C. Yohannan.
Sunset at Varkala Beach, one of the state’s most popular attractions.Kerala, situated on the lush and tropical Malabar Coast, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Named as one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 places of a lifetime” by the National Geographic Traveler magazine, Kerala is especially known for its ecotourism initiatives. Its unique culture and traditions, coupled with its varied demographics, has made Kerala one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Growing at a rate of 13.31%, the state’s tourism industry is a major contributor to the state’s economy.
A mohiniaattam performance.Until the early 1980s, Kerala was a relatively unknown destination; most tourist circuits focused on North India. Aggressive marketing campaigns launched by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, the government agency that oversees tourism prospects of the state, laid the foundation for the growth of the tourism industry. In the decades that followed, Kerala’s tourism industry was able to transform the state into one of the niche holiday destinations in India. The tagline God’s Own Country, which was used in its tourism promotions, soon became synonymous with the state. In 2006, Kerala attracted 8.5 million tourist arrivals, an increase of 23.68% over the previous year, making the state one of the fastest-growing destinations in the world.
Kovalam beach, TrivandrumPopular attractions in the state include the beaches at Kovalam, Cherai and Varkala; the hill stations of Munnar, Nelliampathi, Ponmudi and Wayanad; and national parks and wildlife sanctuaries at Periyar and Eravikulam National Park. The “backwaters” region, which comprises an extensive network of interlocking rivers, lakes, and canals that centre on Alleppey, Kumarakom, and Punnamada (where the annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held in August), also see heavy tourist traffic. Heritage sites, such as the Padmanabhapuram Palace and the Mattancherry Palace, are also visited. Cities such as Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram are popular centres for their shopping and traditional theatrical performances. During early summer, the Thrissur Pooram is conducted, attracting foreign tourists who are largely drawn by the festival’s elephants and celebrants.