By Prabhath P
Blessed with nature’s bounty, nurtured by diverse religious and cultural traditions, tiny Kerala has made huge contributions in diverse areas and is today India’s most progressive state
Kerala is a land of indescribable beauty and infinite wisdom. Rarely is there a region in the world so bountiful in every way as this small state in south India. Famed the world over for its breathtakingly beautiful backwaters and lush greenery, and ayurvedic massage, Kerala is also where the human creative impulse has flowered into various performing arts and literature. It is the land of the gods, literally, with many sacred places where pilgrims flock from far and near to pay obeisance. But first, the land’s history.
Legend has it that Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, created Kerala by throwing his ax into the sea. According to another popular legend, the Asura king Mahabali ruled Kerala in the Golden Age. Vamana, the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu, sent Mahabali to the netherworld. His return every year to his kingdom is celebrated as Onam.
Archaeological research points to the presence of Stone Age Paleolithic and Neolithic people in the region. Jews, Greeks, Romans and Arab Muslims arrived here in the first century AD in search of spices. Migrations of people from different parts of the subcontinent facilitated the convergence of various cultural practices, beliefs, world-views and knowledge systems in the region.
The era of Chera kings shaped Kerala’s cultural identity. Adi Sankara, the famous 8th century advaita philosopher, was born in Kaladi in Kerala, and revived Vedic Hinduism even as he traversed the country, establishing four Shankaracharya seats in four corners of India. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, one of the most ancient treatises on statecraft, was written in old Malayalam around the 12th century.
This was also a period of cultural symbiosis as Jains, Buddhists, Saivites, Vaisnavites, Arabs, Christians and Jews not only coexisted peacefully but also interacted to create a composite culture.
In 1498, with the historic landing of Vasco da Gama near Calicut, and subsequently with the arrival of the Dutch and the French, colonization began. Soon, the British arrived. Under their rule, only the princely states of Travancore and Kochi were able to preserve a nominal independence.
In architecture, mathematics, astronomy and medicine, lasting contributions were made during 15th to 18th centuries. Nilakanta’s Tantrasamgraha, Jyestadeva’s Yuktibhasa, Putumanasomayaji’s Karanapadhati and Sankara Varma’s Sadratnamalaexemplify the amazing heights Kerala astronomy and mathematics reached during the period. At least three centuries before Newton and Liebniz, Kerala’s mathematicians Madhava and Nilakanta had taken the decisive step from the finite procedures of ancient mathematics to treat their limit passage to infinity, which is understood today as central to classical mathematical analysis. In 1936, Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja of Travancore made the historical Temple Entry Proclamation, opening the temples of Travancore for all Hindus irrespective of caste. In 1957, history was created yet again when Kerala became the first place in the world to elect a communist government led by EMS Namboodiripad.
A SPIRITUAL REVOLUTIONARY
In the 18th and 19th centuries the caste system had become rigid, breeding intolerance towards the ‘lower castes’. It was in such a vitiated atmosphere that Sree Narayana Guru, the greatest social reformer Kerala has known, emerged.
He was born in 1856 in the backward Ezhava community and became a wandering mendicant when in his 20s. He learned yoga and meditated in solitude to perfect his practice. He then returned as ‘Guru’ and traveled widely all over Kerala.
Between 1888 and 1928, Narayana Guru transformed the social fabric of Kerala. To overcome the Brahmin hegemony, he began consecrating temples where all were welcome. The first one was the Siva temple at Aruvippuram. He founded a monastery and consecrated two temples at Sivagiri near Kollam. In Alwaye, he founded an ashram to propagate advaita. In 1903, Dr P. Palpu, a devotee, founded the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, to spearhead social reform.
Gradually, Narayana Guru introduced more revolutionary ideas. In the Kaaramukku temple in Trichur in 1920, he consecrated a lamp instead of an idol. In 1922, at a temple at Murukkumpuzha, he consecrated an inscription saying ‘Truth, Dharma, Love, Mercy’. The pinnacle of his temple reform was the installation of a mirror, symbolic of self-realization, for worship in a temple at Kalavancode.
In 1928 the Guru attained Mahasamadhi at Sivagiri, where his body lies in state at the Maha Samadhi Mandir. On every New Year day, a spiritual convention is held here which is attended by leaders of all religions.
A MECCA FOR MANY
When it comes to pilgrimages, Kerala is truly God’s own country. After Tirupati, it is home to two of the most famous pilgrim destinations of India—the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple and the Guruvayur Krishna temple. The Pooram festival of the Vadakkunnatha (Shiva) temple in Thrissur is world famous for its elephant procession. The festival of lights, Lakshadeepam, at Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a major attraction. At the Kottankulangara Bhagavathi temple near Chavara, Kollam, men dress as women carrying lamps in a procession to please the Goddess, a unique ritual not found elsewhere.
Sabarimala Sri Dharmasastha Temple, 191 km from the state’s capital and situated in the Sahyadri Mountains, is the most famous temple in Kerala. It is believed that Parasurama installed the idol of Lord Ayyappa here. The Sabarimala pilgrimage begins in November and ends in January where pilgrims converge from all over the country and abroad. The unique feature of Sabarimala is that it is open to people of all faiths. Its secular character is best exemplified by the existence of ‘Vavar Nada’ in honor of a Muslim saint situated close to the main temple where all pilgrims worship. They also worship in the mosque at Erumeli.
Significantly, all pilgrims whether rich or poor, learned or illiterate, master or servant, are equal before Lord Ayyappa to denote which, they address each other as ‘Ayyappa’.
The most important pilgrimage seasons at Sabarimala are the Mandala Pooja and Makaravilakku. During Makaravilakku, millions gather near the hill of Ponnambalamedu to see the Divine Light Makara Jyoti appearing at the top of the hill.
For Sabarimala pilgrims, Guruvayur in Thrissur district is a must visit destination. Guruvayur has Maha Vishnu as its presiding deity. The devotees generally invoke the Lord as Unnikrishna or Balakrishna. The unique idol of Guruvayur temple is carved out of Pathalanjana Sila. It is believed that Lord Krishna himself had earlier enshrined this idol in Dwaraka and worshipped it.
A highlight among the temple’s rituals is the memorial honor for Gajarajan Kesavan, the legendary elephant, held during the Ekadasi festival. The head elephant places a wreath at the statue of Kesavan and all the elephants stand around and pay obeisance.
Christianity came to Kerala in 52 AD with the arrival of St Thomas. The Portuguese introduced the Roman Catholic Church here in 1599. Christianity in Kerala now has five major branches—the Nestorian Church, Roman Catholic Church, the Jacobite Syrian Church now known as the Orthodox Syrian Church, Anglican Church and the Marthoma Syrian Church.
Christian pilgrim centers include the St Thomas Cathedral at Palayam St Andrews Church, Arthungal, and St Mary’s Church, Bharananganam where the mortal remains of Sister Alphonsa are kept.
Islam also has a significant presence here. Arab traders introduced Islam during the 8th and 9th centuries. Some people believe the last Chera king embraced Islam and went to Mecca. The religious tolerance of the rulers helped Islam flourish. During the reign of the Zamorins, Muslims were a strong force in Kozhikode. Zamorins’ naval chieftains were Muslims who fought bravely against the Portuguese. The Malabar Muslims, Moplas, used to join the Zamorins’ naval fleet in large numbers. The most famous Muslim pilgrim center in Kerala is the Bima Mosque near Thiruvananthapuram.
RICH CULTURAL HERITAGE
Kerala’s culture is rich and varied. The oldest classical dance form in Kerala is Koodiattam, a kind of Sanskrit drama associated with temple rituals. Recently, UNESCO declared it a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.
Kathakali is the world famous dance drama from Kerala. Mohiniattam, the dance of the enchantress, is also unique to the state. Theyyam and Thiruvathirakali are noted folk dance forms. Panchavadyam and Sopana Sangeetham are Kerala’s contribution to music. The state is also the home of Kalarippayattu, said to be the mother of all martial arts.
In literature, Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthatchan, who wrote the Adyatma Ramayana and Mahabharata in Kilippattu style poetry, is known as the father of Malayalam language. He is also credited with spreading spirituality among the masses through his works. Kunchan Nambiar originated the uniquely satirical form thullal.
The three great poets, Kumran Asan, Vallathol and Ulloor heralded a renaissance in Kerala’s literary firmament during the first half of the 20th century. Modern novelists like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, MT Vasudevan Nair, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and OV Vijayan have written world class novels. The English poems of Kamala Das and Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning bestseller The God of Small Things have received wide international acclaim.
Malayalam cinema occupies an enviable position in India. Avante garde directors like the late Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shaji N. Karun have put Indian cinema on the world film map with their films bagging prestigious awards. Murali Nair’s Malayalam film Maranasimhasanam (The Throne of Death) became the first Indian film ever to win a top honor at the Cannes Film Festival. Actors Mammootty and Mohan Lal have won national awards several times.
Directors from Kerala, like Priyadarshan (Virasat) and Santhosh Sivan (Asoka) have made their mark in Bollywood. Rajeev Anchal is making an English film series, Beyond the Soul, in Hollywood. Keralite expatriate Manoj Night Shyamalan stormed Hollywood with The Sixth Sense.
Yesudas won fans all over the country with his soulful songs in many languages. Though he is a Christian, his devotional songs are played in major Hindu temples. He is focusing more on classical music now.
Kerala has been a frontline state in sports also, the most famous stars being athletes P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson, footballer IM Vijayan and cricketer Tinu Yohannan.
A COSMOPOLITAN STATE
Kerala became a state in the Indian Union on November 1, 1956. It has a composite culture that welcomes all religions, philosophies and ideologies. Here, communism and almost all major religions coexist.
The educational initiatives of Christian missionaries were crucial in laying the foundation of literacy in the state, which is 100 per cent now. X. Anil, Director of Public Relations, points out that ”a strong foundation in primary and secondary education made 100 per cent literacy possible in Kerala.” The social development indices of the state equal those of the developed world.
In fact, newspapers have played a crucial role in Kerala’s social development. Malayala Manorama, started in 1890, is the only other newspaper in the country after The Times of India to cross the one million mark in circulation. Says KM Mathew, chief editor of Malayala Manorama: ”The Manorama’s inaugural editorial on March 22, 1890 was about the urgent need for imparting education to the Pulayas, one of the lowest castes in Kerala at that time. Since then, it has been a forceful and luminous presence in Kerala, spurring social progress as well as preventing cultural sensibilities from going amuck.”
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