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Kerala History

Ancient Kerala History
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Ancient Kerala History

HISTORY


There 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.
Ancient 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 recent past.

By 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 considering the shadow of the persons concerned and avoiding even looking at a Brahmin !

The Christians who had arrived from the middle East in the 3rd century AD and the Muslims who arrived in the 8th century were generally traders and were not involved in this social segregation and generally kept aloof from the ambit of caste politics of those days. The Jews who arrived in Kerala in the early years of the Christian era were given privileges to trade and became an influential part of the melting pot of Kerala's population.

The Namboothiries also were the landowners ( janmi) of most lands in Kerala. Lands being leased out to next higher castes for share cropping, and these in turn would further be leased out to those lower on the caste hierarchy and to non-Hindus. The lowest castes of course were only labourers and were traded along with the land . In such a rigid hierarchy, the all powerful Namboothiries were the unquestioned rulers.

By and by Kerala entered a phase of feudal chieftains or warlords (naduvazhis). Some were anointed by the Namboothiries, but most just walked into a power vacuum existing at the time. Hence, Kerala at the turn of the 11th century AD had a power triangle in the caste system supported by the Landlords and ruled by the warlords. This in turn gave rise to instability in the absence of strong central leadership. Wars and conflicts were common for control of turf.

Ultimately three war lords emerged with some semblance of authority in their regions - the Zamorin of Calicut (Samuthiri of Kozhikode) to the North, Moopins of Perimpadappu (near modern day Kochi) in the central regions and chieftain of Kollam.

It is also interesting to note that these kingdoms are centred around the ancient ports of Kozhikode, Kochi ( a small harbour appeared in present day Kochi in 1341 after a natural calamity closed the ancient port of Muziris or Kodungalloor. The name Kochi comes from the word kochu thura meaning small port or opening out to the sea !), and Kollam.

The combination of caste, feudalism and warfare ultimately took its toll. The landlords lived in supreme luxury, while the peasantry toiled to keep them in comfort. The endless feuds also impoverished the country side. When Kerala was ripe for the picking.

This is precisely what the Europeans who found a sea lane to the fabled land of spices and gold did.

There was nothing anyone could do to stop the next five centuries of colonial rule !





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