History of Kerala
¤ Kerala History - Travel Back To Mauryan Time
The first recorded history of Kerala appears in the inscriptions of
the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka (269-232 b.c.). In these inscriptions,
Ashoka refers to four independent kingdoms that lay to the south of
his empire. These were the kingdoms of the Cholas, the Pandyas, the
Keralaputrasand the Satiyaputras. Among them, the Keralaputras or the
Cheras, as they were called, reigned over Malabar, Cochin and North
Travancore all part of present-day Kerala. They managed to
maintain their independence because they were on good terms with the
Great Maurya. Otherwise, Ashoka, who was a great empire builder, would
surely have attempted to bring these kingdoms under his tutelage.
The four South Indian Kingdoms extended a hand of friendship towards
the Mauryas. It was really Hobsons choice for them, having
already experienced the Mauryan onslaught during the reign of Ashokas
predecessor, Bindusara (297-272 b.c.)
¤ Origin of Kerala - The Sangam Age
Information about the Cheras during the Mauryan times is very scarce.
It is only in the Sangam Age that the history of Kerala
myths and legends. The Sangam Age refers to the period during which
Sangam literature was composed. Sangam literally means academy and
these great works in Tamil were written in the first four centuries of
the Christian era.
Tradition has it that the first three academies met at Madurai and
were attended by kings and poets.
However, the literature composed at the First Sangam is no longer
Tolkappiyam : The earliest
work on Tamil grammar, was composed during the Second Sangam.
Ettutogai : The Third Sangam produced a remarkable collection
of Tamil literature known as Ettutogai (Eight Anthologies).
These anthologies give us a detailed description of the political,
social and economic conditions of that period.
¤ The Chera Kingdom
The Sangam Age witnessed three political powers ruling the area which
now constitutes the State of Kerala. These were the Ays in the south,
the Cheras in Central Kerala and Ezhimalas to the north. The Ays
established a kingdom which in its halcyon days, extended from
Tiruvalla in the north to Nagercoil in the south. Antiran, Titiyam and
Atiyan were the most prominent of the Ay rulers.
The Ezhimalas too ruled over an extensive area that covers the
present Kannur and Wynad districts of North Kerala. However, the
Cheras were the most conspicuous of the dynasties and founded a
powerful kingdom in Kerala.
The first Chera ruler was Perumchottu Utiyan Cheralatan a
contemporary of the great Chola, King Karikalan. After suffering a
humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chola ruler at the battle of
Venni, he committed suicide.
His son, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralatan, another important Chera
ruler, succeeded him. During his long rule of 58 years, Imayavaramban
Nedun Cheralatan consolidated the Chera Dynasty and extended its
frontiers. He inflicted a crushing defeat on his sworn enemies, the
Kadambas of Banavasi (see Uttar Kannad for details). Imayavarambans
reign is of special significance to the development of art and
literature. Kannanar was his poet laureate.
However, the greatest Chera King was Kadalpirakottiya Vel Kelu
Kuttuvan, who is also identified with the mythical hero of the
Silappadigaram (The Jewelled Anklet). Silappadigaram is one of the
three great Tamil epics of the Sangam Age. The other two are
Manimegalai and Sivaga-Sindamani. The great Tamil poet, Paranar,
refers to his military exploits including his famous victory at Mogur
Mannan and Kongar. Kuttuvan was the proponent of the Patni (wife)
cult. The cult emphasised the utter devotion of a wife towards her
husband. He dedicated a temple at Vanchi to Kannagi (the female
protagonist of Silappadigaram), and the present Kurumba Bhagavati
Temple at Kodungallur (Cranganore) is modelled on it. Kannagis
devotion towards her husband was legendary. Recently, the Indian
Government has instituted an award in her memory, which is given to
¤ Kalabhra Interregnum
After the Sangam Age, Kerala passed through a dark period that lasted
four centuries. This era is known as the Kalabhra Interregnum.
At the end of the eighth centurya.d., South Indian kingdoms such as
the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pandyas
succeeded in overthrowing the Kalabhras.
¤ Shankaracharya The Great Theologian
It is a paradox that Buddhism disappeared (until its revival in
recent years) from the land of its origin. One of the main reasons for
this development was that a revived and reformed Hinduism began to
emerge after the sixth century a.d.
In the eighth century, this reform movement was led by Adi
Shankaracharya, whose position with respect to Hinduism is similar to
that of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Roman Catholic Church. He travelled
the length and breadth of India and got the better of many Buddhist
missionaries in public discourses. Kalady, situated 25 kilometres
northeast of Cochin, was the birthplace of Shankaracharya. A great
philosopher and theologian, he propagated the advaita (monism)
philosophy, which is also known as kevaladvaita (strict monism).
Shankaracharya was also a great organiser. His missionary zeal was
best exemplified in his establishment of four mathas (Hindu monastic
establishments) in the four corners of the country. These are located
at Sringeri in Karnataka, Dwarka in Gujarat, Puri in Orissa and
Badrinath in Uttar Pradesh. Shankaracharya died at the young age of
The Second Chera Empire
Just after the eclipse of the Kalbhras, the Second Chera Empire made
its appearance in the annals of Kerala history. Mahodyapuram (modern
Kodangallur) was its capital. It was founded by Kulasekhara Alvar
(a.d. 800-820), one of the 12 Alvars. Alvars were Tamil saints who
composed and sang hymns in praise of Vishnu (The Preserver in the
Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer). They were
exponents of the Bhakti (devotional) cult in South India. The Alvars
gave a great impetus to the Bhakti cult in South India between the
seventh and the 10th centuries. Kulasekhara Alvar was a scholar and a
great patron of the arts. He composed five dramas the Perumal
Tirumozhi in Tamil, and Mukundamala, Tapatisamvarna, Subhadradhamala
and Vichchinnabhiseka all in Sanskrit, which testify to his
¤ Rajasekhara Varman Rul (a.d. 820-44)
(succeeded Kulasekhara Alvar. He founded the Kollam Era
of Kerala, which began in a.d. 825. He is also reputed to have issued
the Vazhappali Inscription, the first epigraphical record of the Chera
Kingdom. Rajasekhara Varma was followed by Sthanu Ravi Varman (a.d.
844-55), a contemporary of the Chola King, Aditya I (a.d. 870-906).
The Tillaisthanam Inscription indicates that he was on friendly terms
with the Chola monarch. His reign witnessed a flourishing trade
between Kerala and China. This is borne out by the Arab merchant
Sulaiman who visited India in a.d. 851. His first love was astronomy
and Sankaranarayana, who composed the astronomical work
Sankaranarayaniyam, adorned his court.
After Rajasekharas death, hostilities broke out between the
Cheras and the Cholas, which continued until the disintegration of the
Chera Kingdom. The Pandyas of the Madurai also involved themselves in
Rama Varma Kulasekhara (a.d. 1090-1102) was the last of the Chera
Kings. He shifted his capital to Quilon when the Cholas sacked
Mahodyapuram during his reign. His death signalled the atomisation of
the Chera Empire, from the ruins of which arose the independent
kingdom of Venad.
¤ The Venad Kingdom
After the fall of the Kulasekharas, Venad emerged as an independent
power. The kingdom reached its zenith under Udaya Marthanda Varma
(1175-1195) and Ravi Varma Kulasekhara (1299-1314). An efficient
ruler, Udaya Marthanda Varma was the architect of a brilliant
administrative system for temples. The copper plates, which he issued
during his rule, and which were called the Kollur Madham Plates and
the Tiruvambadi Inscription of1183, testify to this fact.
Ravi Varma Kulasekhara was the most important ruler of the dynasty.
He was a brave and active warrior. He brought peace and order to the
strife-torn Pandya Empire, after Malik Kafur, lieutenant of the Delhi
Sultan, Ala-ud-din Khilji (1296-1315), ravaged it. His reign saw the
development of art and learning. A scholar and musician himself, he
patronised intellectuals and poets during his tenure. The Sanskrit
drama Pradyumnabhyudayam is ascribed to him. Trade and commerce also
flourished during his rule and Quilon became a famous centre of
business and enterprise.
After the death of Ravi Varma Kulasekhara, the history of the Venad
Kingdom is not of special interest. The kingdom lingered on until the
middle of the 18th century before it disintegrated.
¤ Emergence of Calicut
During the medieval period, Calicut rose to prominence from the ashes
of the mighty Kulasekhara Empire, in the northern part of Kerala. The
Zamorins (literally Lord of the Sea) were the hereditary rulers of
Calicut who traced their lineage to the old Perumal dynasty of Kerala.
Calicut emerged as a major seaport during the reign of the Zamorins.
Trade with foreigners like the Chinese and Arabs was the main source
of revenue for the Zamorins. But it was the Arabs who managed to
establish stronger trade links with the rulers of Calicut. Art and
culture flourished under the Zamorins who were great patrons of
Accounts of travellers like Ibn Batuta (1342-47), Ma Huan, the
Chinese scholar, Abdur Razzak (1443), Nicolo Conti (1444) and
Athanasius Nikitin (1468-74) corroborate this fact. Not content with
the size of their kingdom, the Zamorins set about expanding its
boundaries. The powerful Zamorins conquered Beypore, Parappanad,
Vettat, Kurumbranad, Nilambur, Manjeri, Malappuram, Kottakal and
Ponnai. By the 15th century, clashes between Cochin and Calicut became
increasingly frequent. The reigning Zamorin emerged as the undisputed
monarch of the North Malabar area, extending up to Pantalayani Kollam.
¤ The Europeans Arrive
The arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498, was a landmark event
in the annals of history. At that time, Kerala was in the throes of
political turmoil. Although the Portuguese did not enjoy cordial
relations with the Zamorin, they succeeded in procuring some trading
facilities at Quilon and Cannanore. But the Portuguese were intent on
stopping the Arabs from trading with India.
Hostilities between Cochin and Calicut were exacerbated because the
Raja of Cochin acted as a willing supporter of the Portuguese.
However, the Zamorin faced a crushing defeat at the hands of the
Portuguese when they laid siege on Cochin. The Portuguese gained
permission to fortify Cochin and Cranganore in 1503 and 1504,
After Vasco da Gama, the most notable Portuguese to set foot on
Indian soil, was Albuquerque. He managed to make peace with the
Zamorin. A treaty was signed in 1513, which gave the Portuguese the
right to construct a fort in Cochin and to carry on trade. However,
the successors of Albuquerque were incompetent and corrupt. Naturally,
that led to the decline of Portuguese power in Kerala.
The Portuguese had a strong impact on the educational and cultural
life of the people of Kerala. The introduction of the printing press
in Kerala can be counted as one of their biggest achievements.
However, religious intolerance and bigotry marked their rule, leading
to strife and disharmony among the local populace. This period also
saw the revival of the Bhakti movement.
¤ Trade Link With Dutch
Lured by the possibility of trade with India, the Dutch landed on the
western coast. Various treaties signed in 1608 and 1610 ensured
trading facilities for the Dutch. With the treaty of 1619, the Dutch
joined hands with the British to eliminate competition from the
The Dutch were able to fortify and monopolise trade in the regions of
Purakkad, Kayakulum, Quilon and Travancore by 1662. One of the most
singular achievements of the Dutch contingent in India was the
conquest of Cochin in 1663. The decline of the Dutch became inevitable
with the unprecedented rise of Travancore under Marthanda Varma
(1729-58) and the Mysore invasion. The Zamorin also succeeded in
depriving the Dutch of Cochin, Cranganore, Parur and Trichur at one
go. By 1759, curtains fell on the Dutch power in India.
¤ Rise of Travancore
Travancore or Venad occupied centre stage in the political arena of
Kerala around 18th century, thanks to the deeds of its two illustrious
rulers, Marthanda Varma (1729-58) and Rama Varma, popularly known as
Dharma Raja (1758-98). In his lifetime, Marthanda Varma successfully
annexed the territories under the Dutch. Known as the Maker of Modern
Travancore, Marthandas tenure is a remarkable period in the
history of Kerala.
Rama Varma ascended the throne and ably carried out the task of
administration. Two distinguished ministers, Ayyappan Marthanda Pillai
and Raja Kesava Das assisted him in administering the kingdom.Rama
Varma had to bear the brunt of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultans
invasion. But Rama Varmas defence system withstood even the
might of Tipus forces.
Travancore was fortunate enough to be governed by many enlightened
administrators like Velu Thampi, Rani Gouri Lakshmi Bai (1810-15),
Gouri Parvati Bai (1815-29), Swati Tirunal (1829-47), Ayilyam Tirunal
(1860-80), Sri Mulam Tirunal (1885-1924) who did much to see science,
art and culture flourish in Travancore.
¤ Mysore Invades Kerala
Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore, turned his attention towards Kerala
after subduing Bednore in 1763. The regions of Kolathiri, Kottayam,
Kadathanad, Kurumbranad and Calicut came under the dominion of Haider
Ali. Again in 1773, Haider Ali laid siege on Kerala and conquered
Trichur after restoring his authority in Malabar. Haiders son,
Tipu Sultan ascended the throne in 1782. Continuing in the footsteps
of his illustrious father, Tipu managed to annex the entire South
Malabar in 1783. Nevertheless, it was only in 1790 that he succeeded
in breaching the Travancore Line.
But the beginning of the Third Mysore War spelt disaster for Tipu as,
one after another, most of the kingdoms under Tipu surrendered to the
British forces. With the signing of the Treaty of Serirangapatam in
1792, the last blow was dealt to Tipus reign. According to the
terms of the treaty, Tipu had to hand over Malabar to the British.
¤ British Accession to Power
Like the other European powers, the British also came in as traders
to India. By 1634-35, they had managed to gain permission to use all
the Portuguese ports in Kerala from the Zamorin. The British fortified
Calicut in 1664.In the years to follow, Travancore and Tellicherry
also came under purview of the British.
But it was not all smooth sailing for the British. They had to face
considerable opposition from the French and the Dutch. However, the
British were successful in ousting other European powers such as the
French and the Dutch, from their turf.
But the Keralites did not give in to the British without a whimper.
Several revolts took place during the late 18th and early 19th
century, which challenged British authority. Among them, the most
important was the revolt of Velu Thampi and Paliath Achan who were
Chief Ministers of Travancore and Cochin, respectively. Velu Thampi
had led a popular uprising against the corruption and misrule of the
The dictatorial attitude and adverse policies of the British Resident
raised his hackles too. He found an ally in Paliath Achan, the Dewan
of Cochin who was also dissatisfied with British administration.The
famous proclamation asking people to rise against the British was
issued in 1809 by Velu Thampi. Though the revolt was crushed
mercilessly, Thampi and Achan are still revered as great patriots who
sacrificed their lives for the country.
With the Treaty of Serirangapatam in 1792, Malabar came under the
sway of the British. Compared to the many achievements of Travancore
and Cochin, progress made by Malabar was insignificant. Malabar was
converted into a district of the Madras Presidency.
Around 1836-56, Malabar saw a lot of disturbances due to the Mappila
Riots. It is still unclear whether the cause of the riots was
religious fanaticism or agrarian grievances and poverty. However, the
British forces repressed the rebellion quite ruthlessly.
¤ The Growth of the National Movement
There was no dearth of patriotic fervour amongst the people of Kerala
when India was going through the struggle for independence.Malabar was
a centre of political agitation from the inception of the national
movement. Many stalwarts of the Indian National Congress were from
Malabar. The Non-Cooperation Movement and the Khilafat agitation found
enthusiastic supporters in Malabar too. Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded the
Salt Satyagraha of 1930 and the Civil Disobedience movement of 1932.
These popular uprisings found an echo in Malabar too. The Muslim
League also had a branch here, though it became a force to reckon with
only in 1934. Abdul Rahman Ali Raja of Cannanore became the President
of the Muslim League in 1937. The Communist Party found a foothold in
Kerala around 1939.
The winds of patriotism swept through the princely states of
Travancore and Cochin during the freedom struggle.Travancore had a
long history of popular uprisings, the earliest of which was led by
Velu Thampi in 1799. The Malayali Memorial signed in 1891, which
chronicled the grievances of the local populace, raised the political
consciousness of the people. Likewise, the Ezhava Memorial of 1896 was
a petition that spelt out the injustices the Ezhava community had
suffered for a long time. The Indian National Congress established a
Congress Committee in Thiruvananthapuram. Travancore remained in a
state of political unrest for many years.
Cochin also remained in the eye of the storm for several years during
the national movement. The people of Cochin participated in several
uprisings like the Electricity agitation, the agitation for a
responsible government, to name a few. A committee of the Indian
National Congress was set up in Cochin too.