is no unanimity among historians about the history of ancient Kerala,
since so little written accounts exist. Much of the history is cloaked
in myths and conjectures. One such myth centres around the legend
of Parasurama, the warrior-sage who is regarded as the incarnation
of Vishnu . After destroying the Kshathriya kings, goes the legend,
the warrior-sage asked an assembly of learned men a way of penance
for his past misdeeds.
On being advised to hand over the lands
he had conquered to the Brahmins to save his soul from eternal damnation,
he readily agreed and sat in penance at Gokarnam, those days considered
to be land's end.
There having got boons from Varuna, the
God of the Oceans and Bhumidevi, the Goddess of earth, he proceeded
to Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin) and threw his battle axe northwards
across the waters. The waters subsided and what was left over was
called the land of Parasurama, that is today's Kerala.
Fiction ? Hardly so, since geologists have
pointed out that the elevation of Kerala from the sea was the result
of some seismic activity, either sudden or gradual. There is also
another theory. The rivers of Kerala emptying into the Arabian seas
bring down enormous quantities of silt from the hills. The ocean
currents transport quantities of sand towards the shore. The coastal
portions could well be due to the accumulation of this silt over
thousands of years.
Kerala occupied a unique place in the commercial world. The teak
found in the ruins of Ur must certainly have come from the Malabar
Coast. This means trade flourished around 3000 BC. Cotton from this
region was a favourite in Egypt, the Phoenicians visited the coast
of Malabar around the same time to trade in ivory, sandalwood and
spices. King Solomon is said to have sent his commercial fleet to
Ophir which is said to be somewhere in Southern Kerala.
Muziris (Kodungalloor or Cranganore) was
reputed to be the ancient world's greatest trading centre in the
East for such highly prized possessions as pepper, cinnamon, cardamom,
ginger and other spices. Pliny , the younger is said to have lamented
the fact that trade with the East was draining the treasury of Rome
! The trade flourished by ships riding on the monsoon winds from
Africa and back to Arabia, from where the overland caravan took
the prized items to the markets along the Mediterranean ports.
By common consent among the historians,
the earliest inhabitants of Kerala were the Pulayas, Kuravas and
Vetas . It is at a much later time that migratory populations from
the north subjugated them and ultimately enslaved them, a state
to which they were in until the abolition of untouchability in the
the beginning of the Christian era, there was a noticeable increase
in the influence of the Chera dynasty of across the Western Ghats
and into the political and cultural life of ancient Kerala. The
armies of the northern empires of the Mauryas could not enter the
lands of the Cheras, but Buddhism and Jainism did enter in a big
way. But it was the entry of Brahmins from the boundaries of modern
day Karnataka which really changed the power structure of Kerala for the next millenium .
From Payyannur in North Kerala, they gradually moved down south
and occupied the most fertile lands . By the time the terminal decline
of the Cheras started, it coincided with the rise of the Brahmins
in Kerala. By the 10th century, they were a powerful entity from
Gokurnum (North Kerala ) to the Cape Comorin, divided into 32 Brahmin
or 'Namboothiries' communities. Soon thereafter, the Buddhists and
the Jains had to beat a retreat from the social landscape of Kerala.
These land owning class of Brahmins were well on their way to great
wealth and power.To make their sway complete strict segregation
between classes of people came into being. In their practice, the
caste system of Kerala found no equal anywhere else in the country
. The edicts even include what distance a person of lowest caste
must keep from the Brahmins, even con sidering the shadow of the
persons concerned and avoiding even looking at a Brahmin !