Known today as the Spice Garden of India, Kerala had prominent trading posts with the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Arabs, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.
WORDS: MADHURI. Y
Kerala has a history of being an important exporter of spices since 3000 BCE. The name Keralaputra is mentioned on Emperor Ashoka’s rock inscriptions of 3rd century BCE, referring to the Cheras who had ruled over Kerala, and is the first known reference to the name Kerala.
The Rig Veda’s Aitareya Aranyaka is the earliest Sanskrit work to mention Kerala. It is also mentioned in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Skanda Purana. Katyayana in 4th century BC and Patanjali in 2nd century BC too refer to the region. Greco-Roman trade maps refer to Keralaputra as Celobotra.
ORIGIN OF THE LAND
Marine fossils found near Changanacherry have led to the conclusion that Kerala may have been under the sea in the ancient past. Evidence of pre-history, that is, the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Stone Ages, has been found in Kerala.
Dolmens, which are, large vertical stones supporting a horizontal stone were found in Idukki. Although archaeologists do not know their purpose, what they do know is that these date from the Neolithic age, that is, the New Stone Age which began about 10,200 BC and ended between 4500 and 2000 BC.
Locally, they are called muniyara, from muni which stands for sage and ara, meaning dolmen. Rock engravings in Wayanad’s Edakkal caves too date back to 6000 BCE. It is also possible that Kerala had interacted with the Indus Valley Civilization during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age.
Trade and Settlements
Sumerian records show that Kerala was a prominent exporter by 3000 BC, interacting with the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Arabs and Phoenicians. By the time the world entered the Christian Era, Greeks and Romans too were trading for Kerala’s spices. In addition, the Cheras who ruled over Kerala were trading with China and West Asia.
Sangam literature speaks of Roman exchange of gold for pepper. According to Pliny the Elder, with favourable South West monsoon winds, Kerala could be reached from the Red Sea ports in 40 days. Muziris, also known as Muciri, Mahodayapuram or Makotai was a flourishing sea port at the mouth of the River Periyar, and was later submerged by the sea. Nelcynda and Berkarai were two other Kerala sea ports.
At the time, Kerala was known to foreign regions as Malabar and some of these visitors established coastal settlements here. Some married local women, forming the Mappila communities, with Muslim, Syrian Christian and Jewish settlers.
The Cochin Jews believe that they are descendants of those who had fled Jerusalem’s destruction during the first century AD. The Saint Thomas Christians trace their ancestry to converts by Saint Thomas, one of Christ’s 12 disciples.
Dynasties of Kerala
The Early Cheras are believed to have ruled from 4th century BCE to 5th century CE over large parts of current-day Kerala, and Coimbatore and Salem districts. They were contemporaries to the Chola, Pandya, Tamiraparani and Satiyaputra. The Chera capital was Vanchi, which was either Vanchimutur or near Muziris.
Buddhism and Jainism had reached Kerala by the Christian Era. During the Sangam period, between 4th century BC and 2nd century AD, Brahmins settled in central Kerala and the Nambudiri community emerged.
The Ay dynasty had ruled from the 3rd century BC to 1200 CE from Nagercoil to Thiruvilla with Kollam as their capital. Weakened by Pandyan attacks during the 7th and 8th centuries, they declined. The Ay kingdom, particularly Venad, had been a buffer between the Cheras and the Pandyas and the weakened Ay dynasty became part of the Second Chera kingdom.
The Kulasekharas were also known as the Second Cheras, Later Cheras or Perumals and ruled between the 8th and the 12th centuries.
It is during their reign that Kerala emerged distinct from Tamils. Nair leaders ruled over provinces under the ruler.
Wars between the Cheras and the Cholas during the 11th century led to the decline of foreign trade and Buddhism and Jainism disappeared from the region. Caste divisions hardened into divisive lines. Chola invasions destroyed Kollam in the 11th century and Mahodayapuram fell during a subsequent battle, causing the Chera ruler Rama Varma Kulasekhara to shift his capital to Kollam. Hence, it is believed that he, the last emperor of the Chera dynastry may have founded the Venad royal house.
The Later Pandyas and Later Cholas gained control although Ravi Varma Kulasekhara regained control briefly during the 14th century. His death led to the rise of the Nair leaders in Samuthiri, Venad and Kochi.
Thrippapur and Chirava, which were branches of the Ay dynasty, merged into the Venad family during the latter half of the 12th century with the former having authority over the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, among others. Travancore was developed by Maharaja Marthanda Varma who belonged to the Thrippapurs, by expanding Venad during the 18th century.
With Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in Kozhikode, began a period of Portuguese trade dominance. During the 16th century, they established a factory and fort in the kingdom of Kozhikode which belonged to the Samuthiris. But, the Portuguese fell out with the Maharaja and were defeated.
During the 18th century, the French began controlling Mahe. After being captured by the Brisith twice, it was handed back to the French.
The Dutch weren’t far behind. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they defeated the Portuguese, but they themselves were weakened by battles with King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore Royal Family and the Travancore king gained greater power.
During the 18th century, Hyder Ali took control of Kozhikode. But, his son, Tipu Sultan was forced to cede control over Malabar district and South Kanara to the British during the late 18th century. The British turned Cochin and Travancore into princely states, and Malabar and South Kanara became part of the Madras Presidency.
Uprisings against the British continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. When India achieved independence, the Travancore and Cochin kingdoms joined the nation. On 1st November 1956, Kerala was formed, bringing together large parts of these two kingdoms and Malabar district.