Kerala History Dates Back To Mauryan Empire
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 Hobson’s choice for them, having already experienced the Mauryan onslaught during the reign of Ashoka’s predecessor, Bindusara (297-272 b.c.)
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 emerges from 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 extant.
History of Shankaracharya
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). Imayavaramban’s 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. Kannagi’s devotion towards her husband was legendary. Recently, the Indian Government has instituted an award in her memory, which is given to the women.
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 32.
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 scholarship.
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 Rajasekhara’s 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 the conflict.
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 literature.
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, respectively.
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 Portuguese.
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, Marthanda’s 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 Sultan’s invasion. But Rama Varma’s defence system withstood even the might of Tipu’s 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. Haider’s 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 Tipu’s 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 king’s advisers.
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.