The Real Kerala Story

(Published in The Times of India, May 08 2023)

Legend has it that when the goddess Annapoorneshwari journeyed to Kerala from Kashi, she travelled in a golden boat. Accompanying her were subordinate deities but also, interestingly, Buddhists and Muslims; indeed, her ship’s captain was Muslim. After arrival, the goddess was consecrated at Cherukunnu, where her temple still stands. As for the captain who delivered her safely to her new home, on death he was buried nearby—at what is now the Oliyankara masjid, minutes away from the goddess’s shrine.

For those with an interest in Kerala’s culture, such tales are available in a surplus. Not mortals alone, but the gods also mingled here with one another, whether it is tribal deities sharing space with Sanskritic ones, or Christian saints with links to Hindu temples. The region’s social fabric conceded space to all major communities. At the duodecennial Mamankam (Maha-Magha) festival, for example, Muslims were participants; in southern Kerala, only oil “purified” by the “touch” of a Nasrani Christian was accepted in many orthodox Hindu kitchens and temples.

As a trading society, with links to lands as far apart as Arabia and China, it is hardly surprising that Kerala made room for the many. Brahmins and Arabs both arrived here as migrants; with the former, there is the legend of Parasurama “gifting” the region to them, and with the latter, the seeding of Islam is condensed into the tale of a kingly convert who sails to Mecca. Christian myth, meanwhile, tells that when St Thomas, the apostle, landed in Kerala, he not only found Jews already settled here, but also parleyed playfully with the goddess of Kodungallur.

Legends are not, obviously, always factual. Yet they communicate how people perceived their world, and what they wished to be remembered. Walking into the Cheruvathur Veerabhadra temple, for example, one will find bronzes depicting an armless warrior. It commemorates a Muslim “friend” of the deity, who, according to one retelling, also helped defend the shrine during Tipu Sultan’s invasion. In punishment, his limbs were chopped off by the enemy. Here, both “sides” are Muslim, but the dividing line is between the Malayali and a foreign trespasser. Regional loyalty, not faith, defines the story.

This is not to romanticise Kerala. Acceptance of variety did not mean boundaries were erased; one was still labelled by community. Caste afflicted not just Hindus, but also Christians, where Nasranis—who trace a religious pedigree stretching back well over a millennium—disdained association with more recent “untouchable” converts. The 1921 Mappila Rebellion had many triggers, but also saw violent religious zeal unleashed. And in the Travancore principality in south Kerala, politics revolved around communal lines, between Brahmins, Nairs, Christians, and Ezhavas.

In general, however, the impulse was of tolerance, not conflict, with faith and ritual adapting to a heterogenous social landscape. As late as the 1920s, therefore, it was wholly natural for the childless maharani of Travancore—formally pledged to Lord Padmanabhaswamy—to make vows not only before her family deities, but also at a Christian church. When she gave birth after years of praying, she installed a flagstaff at the Attingal temple, but with equal devotion donated a silver cross to the Nasrani church. For the queen, both were “tradition”.

Even today, if one observes nerchhas (festivals) organised in honour of saints and heroes by north Kerala’s Muslims, the same elephants and drummers who lead celebrations at temples appear here. If Hindus offered cock sacrifices to goddesses, Nasranis also did so when commemorating Christian saints. Many are the churches, mosques, and even the odd synagogue that stand on land granted by Hindu lords. Some ceremonial links are even now maintained—the Paliam family of Chendamangalam still, it is said, fulfils obligations at Vallarpadam church, originally instituted by a seventeenth century ancestor.

It must be admitted, however, that in the colonial era, as identities solidified in new ways, such links were often buried by elements on all sides. The Neelamperoor temple near Changanassery houses a goddess, thus, but just outside also has a memorial to a Buddhist king whose figurine, strangely, features a cross. A century ago, it was recorded that Christians were traditionally first to pull the festival chariot, besides which they had other ritual duties too. But it came to an end, evidently at the demand of a padre, who frowned on such religious elasticity among his herd. The trend since then has been to maintain stricter boundaries.

And yet, in all this, there is a legacy worth recalling and, indeed, reclaiming. These stories are part of every Malayali’s cultural inheritance; they are essential to defining what it means to be Keralite. To me at any rate this is the real “Kerala story”. It also offers something of value more generally. We live, after all, in times where every cleavage, every aberration is weaponised to craft new, not always pleasant versions of who we are, and what we must become. In an age when burning bridges has grown more attractive than nurturing them, this sliver of the Indian coast might point us to an antidote.

And who knows, alongside Kerala, we may be able to tell a new India story too.