James Thanickan

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On Religious Topics

1. Kerala and Malayalam Language: A Conspectus

2. The Coonan Cross Oath: the First Popular Uprising Against European Colonialism in India

3. Onam

4. Legends of Kadamattathu Kathanaar

5. United Kerala Movement: A Descriptive Essay

Kerala and Malayalam Language

A Conspectus




Kerala lies between 817’30” and 1247’40” north latitudes and 7451’ and 7724’47” east longitudes. It stretches for about 580 kms. along the Malabar Coast with its width varying from 32 kms. in the north and south to over 120 kms in the middle. It is separated from the rest of the Indian peninsula by the Western Ghats. It has an area of 38,863 sq. kms., that is 1.27 per cent of the total land area of India. It is bordered by the states of Karnataka on the north, Tamil Nadu on the east and the south and the Arabian Sea to the west. Geographically Kerala has three regions: the costal areas on the west are lowland, the plains are in the midland and the eastern highland consists mostly of hills.




The ancient history of Kerala is mired in mythologies and legends. The most famous of the stories is that of Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu. According to this legend, Kerala was created by Parasurama from the sea. The story, however, has a grain of truth in that some of the coastal areas of Kerala are not that old and emerged out on the receding of sea during the last two millennia. The oldest historical record about Kerala is in a rock edict by emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C. Kerala finds mention in the Aitareya Aranyaka and in the writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors such as Megasthenes, Pliny, Ptolemy and the unknown author of Periplus of the Eritryean Sea. Microlithic artefacts of 4000 B.C have been unearthed from the north of Kerala.  Megalithic monuments such as burial stones and urns of Later Stone Age have been dug out from various parts of the state leading to the conclusion that Kerala had Neolithic settlements, although of a period later than that of in most other parts of Asia. There is no definiteness about the earliest settlers; opinions vary as to whether they were of Negroid or Proto-Australian stock. The Dravidians from Mediterranean regions seem to have settled in Kerala one or two millennia before Christ whereas the Aryan migration from the north perhaps occurred during the second or first century  B.C. 


The historical period of Kerala starts a little before the Christian era. There had been extensive trade links between Kerala and Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks in the West and the Chinese in the east. The port of Ophir, from which King Solomon imported teak, peacock feathers and ivory as per the Old Testament, is believed to have been on the Kerala coast. Roman coins of various periods upto that of Justinian I have been recovered from different parts of Kerala. Muziris (near Kodungallur) is famed as a great port in the ancient world. The main items exported from here were various kinds of spices such as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and so on. The size of the trade can be gauged from Pliny’s lament over the drain on the Roman treasury on account of the imports of spices. The trade between Kerala and the West increased in volume after the discovery of the monsoon winds by Hippalus.


In the Sangam period, during the early centuries of the Christian era, Kerala was part of Tamizhakam comprising the present day Kerala, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu and parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The great work of the Sangam era, Chilapathikaram is adduced to a Kerala poet, Ilanko Adikal.  Kerala in those times was known as the Chera Kingdom.  The Cheras, the Pandyas and the Cholas were the three dynasties of the Tamils. The capital of the Cheras was Vanchi near Muziris. In the 10th century or so, Mahodayapuram or Makkotapuram became the capital.  Although later royal houses of Kerala claim descent from the Cheras, the Chera Kingdom as a distinct identity seemed to have come to an end in the 12th century. The Chera period is interspersed with legends about the rule of the Perumakkals, each of whom ruled for a specific period, viz., twelve years. According to folklore the last of Perumals, the Cheraman Perumal, divided the land among his heirs and left for Arabia.


Except for the internecine wars among the three Tamil dynasties and occasional attacks by outsiders like the Kadambas in the fifth century, the main events of the Chera period are the visits by a number of foreign travellers whose writings give fragmentary glimpses of life in Kerala.  Foreign trade was the major revenue earner for the government. Trade also seemed to have given rise to small colonies of Jews and Syrian Christians, and later Arabs, around the port cities.  A number of ports on the Malabar Coast are mentioned by travellers.  The most famous of them was Muziris. Consequent on a big flood in 1341 this ancient port was heavily silted and was abandoned. Its place was taken over by Kochi, a little to the south of Muziris. Idyllic pictures of life of the times are found in the literary works while in the writings of travellers trade related activities take pride of place.


After the Chera period, Kerala entered a phase of feudalism with a number of local chieftains (naduvazhis) exercising power in different parts. The important feudatory lords were of Kolathunad, Purakizhnad, Kurumpanad, Eranad, Valluvanad, Kizhmalainad, Vempalinad and Venad. This came to an end with the rise of the three kingdoms of Travancore or Venad in the south, Kochi in the middle and Zamorins of Kozhikkod in the north during the period between 14th to 18th centuries. 


The landing of Vasco de Gama near Kozhikkod in 1498 can be considered as the starting point of Kerala’s modern history. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and finally the British. The attacks of Tipu Sultan in the 18th century led to the decline of the Zamorins. Malabar was annexed by the British after defeating Tipu Sultan and the Zamorin was pensioned off. Travancore and Kochi accepted the suzerainty of the British and remained as princely states till India became independent. The British period witnessed many agitations for democratic and civil rights by the people of the princely states and freedom struggle in the Malabar province. The Mappila rebellion in Malabar and the struggle for responsible government and the non-cooperation movement in Travancore are important. Congress and Communist parties also came into existence during the 20th century. It was people’s agitation lead by the Travancore State Congress that compelled the Travancore king to join the Indian Union on attainment of independence from the British.


After Independence, the two kingdoms of Travancore and Kochi were merged into the state of Thirukochi (Travancore-Cochin). In 1956 all the Malayalam speaking areas in the mainland was merged and the state of Kerala was formed. Since then democratically elected governments lead either by the Communists or the Congress have been in power in the state.


Administrative Divisions


Kerala is presently divided into 14 districts. They are, from the north to the south: Kasargod, Kannur, Wayanad. Kozhikkod, Malappuram, Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. The capital of the state is Thiruvanathapuram. As per the 2001 Census the population of Kerala is 31.84 million.


Social Development


The state has made tremendous progress in the fields of education and other social indicators such as health care, infant mortality and so on. Kerala is a hundred per cent literate state for more than a decade and its social development index is on par with that of developed countries.


Nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw positive social re-engineering in the state consequent on a number of social movements.  Under the leadership of Sri Narayana Guru, the Ezhava community and Ayyankali the Dalits challenged the then existing social norms. The Vaikom Satyagraha of the 1930s resulted in the untouchables and other backward communities of Hindus in Travancore getting the right of entering the temples. The Nair community made tremendous progress under the leadership of Mannathu Padmanabhan in the educational and social fields.  There have been movements among the orthodox Nampoothiri community also leading to widow re-marriage and other social reforms. Education has made great impact on the Christians who became an economic force in Kerala since Independence. Job opportunities in the Gulf have helped the Muslim community also to get on the train of progress.


Culture and Religion


The peculiar geographical location of Kerala has resulted in the formation of a distinctive culture. It is a blend of the Aryan north and the Dravidian south. This has been embellished with elements from other parts of the world because of the extensive trade relations that Kerala had. Kerala has a unique settlement pattern of isolated independent houses. Marumakkathayam or matrilineal system of inheritance (among Nairs and certain other communities) and sambhandham, a kind of unattached marital relationship between  a Nampoothiri man and a Nair woman, are peculiar to Kerala. However, this system has almost become extinct along with the joint family system during the 20th century. Kerala has its own traditions in visual and performing arts such as Koothu, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyattam, Ottan Thullal, Kathakali, Chavittunatakam and martial arts like Kalari Payattu.


Kerala had a vibrant history in science and philosophy. In the fields of astronomy, mathematics, Ayurveda, philosophy and literature Kerala had contributed significantly.  One of the early solar calendars was the Malayalam calendar known also as Kollam Era starting from A.D. 825.


Ancient Keralites were following Dravidian religious practices which were mostly animistic and egalitarian. Later, organised religions from the north such as Jainism, Buddhism and Brahmanism entered Kerala a few centuries before Christ. Initially Jainism and later Buddhism held sway in Kerala, but with revival of Hinduism under the leadership of Adi Shankara, a great Hindu sage and philosopher who was born in Kalady in Kerala but travelled through out India, in the eighth and ninth centuries, these religions started declining and almost disappeared from the scene by the 15th century. The ascent of Brahmanical Hinduism brought in its wake social divisions like castes and sub-castes. Christianity and Islam are believed to have come to Kerala in the initial years of their founding. Christians of Kerala, who go by the name Nazranis, believe that their faith was founded by Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ,  in the first century. The small Christian community later got strengthened with the immigration of large number from Syria in the fourth century. During the colonial period the number of Christians increased by conversions especially from the socially and economically backward sections. Islam came to Kerala in the 8th century with the Arab traders and became a predominant section of Kerala society over the centuries. According to tradition, a large group of Jews migrated to Kerala in the first century and settled in Kodungalloor and later in Kochi. After the establishment of Israel most of them migrated to that country.


Hinduism now account for 57 per cent of Kerala’s population while Islam for 23 per cent and Christianity for 19 per cent. The remaining are made up of diverse other faiths and even non-believers.




Malayalam is the predominant language of Kerala. It is also the language of Lakshadweep, a group of islands to the west of Kerala. Malayalam belongs to the Dravidian family of languages. Other important languages of this family are Tamil, Telugu and Kannada of which Malayalam is the youngest. Along with Tamil, Irula, Toda, Kota, Kodagu, Badaga, Kannada and Tulu, it belongs to the southern branch of Dravidian languages. Proto Tamil-Malayalam, the common stock of Tamil and Malayalam apparently disintegrated over a period of four or five centuries from the 9th century onwards resulting in the emergence of Malayalam as a language distinct from Tamil. The earliest written record of Malayalam is the Vazhappalli Sasnam (inscription) of around A.D. 830.  The literature of the 9th to 15th centuries reflect a language which now appear a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. Even this literature mostly consisted of folk songs. Ramacharitam of the 12th century is considered as the first major Malayalam literary work. In the centuries that followed Malayalam literature grew in size and grandeur and is now one of the leading literatures of India.


Kerala can be roughly divided into three distinct dialectical regions.  The southern dialect shows great Tamil influence and is spoken mostly in the Thiruvananthapuram district.  The northern dialect in which the prevalence of Kannada is quite high is spoken mostly in Kasargod and Kannur districts. The other parts of the state can be considered as falling in the middle dialect region although there are still regional variations in intonation patterns, vocabulary and distribution of grammatical and phonological elements. Linguisticians, however, identify twelve distinct dialect areas for Malayalam. The influence of Sanskrit on the evolution of Malayalam language is evident in the number of Sanskrit words used in Malayalam today. Besides, the trade relations that Kerala had with different parts of the world have resulted in the Arabs, the Persians, the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English influencing the language by adding to the vocabulary. Of late Hindi has also become a contributor to the Malayalam vocabulary.


Kerala had a distinct script from very early times. The oldest known one is the vattezhuthu (round writing). The influence of Sanskrit and Granta script on Vattezhuthu resulted by the 16-17th centuries in the emergence of the Arya Ezhuthu popularised by Ezhuthachan.  The modern Malayalam script is a resultant of this modified Granta or Arya Ezhuthu. Malayalam now consists of 53 letters including 20 long and short vowels and the rest consonants. The earlier style of writing is now substituted with a new style from 1981. This new script reduces the different letters for typeset from 900 to less than 90.  This was mainly done to accommodate Malayalam in the keyboards of typewriters and computers.


Reference Books


1. Kerala Sahitya Charithram (5 volumes) (1953) (Malayalam) by Ulloor S. Parameswara Aiyer, Department of Publications, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram,1990.


2. Kerala Charitram (Malayalam) (1967) by A. Sreedhara Menon, Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, Kottayam, 1983.


3. Cultural Heritage of Kerala: An Introduction (1978) by A. Sreedhara Menon, East-West Publications Private Ltd., Kochi, 1978.


4. History of Kerala (4 volumes)  (1924) by K. P. Padmanabha Menon, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1998.


5. Malabar (2 volumes) (1887) by William Logan, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1995.


6. People of India Volume XXVII Kerala (2002), Anthropological Survey of India and Affiliated East West Press Private Limited, New Delhi, 2002.


7. Dravidian Encyclopedia (3 volumes) (1997), The International School of Dravidian Linguistics, Thiruvananthapuram, 1997.


James Thanickan October 23. 2003. Kerala

The Coonan Cross Oath: The First Popular Uprising Against European Colonialism in India


T. C..James


Colonialism manifested in India in different forms in political, economic and religious sectors. In all spheres it evoked antipathy and aversion among Indians from its very beginning.  The political and economic colonialism and the struggle against it attracted enough attention of scholars and lay people alike, but the colonialism in the sphere of religion and the fight against it has gone largely unnoticed.  This was probably because the number of people affected was small.  Another reason could be that colonialism in religion was practised mainly by the Portuguese who received very little attention in the Indian historical firmament, which was almost wholly dominated by the British.


European colonialism in the sphere of religion started with the arrival of the Portuguese, the first European power to come to India, at Kozhikode, Kerala.  The description “gun in one hand and cross in the other” fitted the Portuguese.  They were Roman Catholics of the Latin rite and they made Latinisation of the Indian church one of their main objectives in the field of religion.


Christianity in India had a much longer history than in Portugal.  According to tradition prevalent in Kerala, Christianity arrived in India in the first century A.D. itself.  The Syrian Christians of Kerala believe that St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles (disciples) of Christ, came to India (Cranganore or Kodungalloor on the west coast) in A.D. 52, that he baptized a large number of Indians, that he established seven churches in different parts of Kerala, and that he became a martyr at Mylapore on the east coast in A.D.73. There are no historical documents in support of this tradition.  But it is strongly held and believed in by the Christians of Kerala.


Indian Christianity was closely allied with the Syrian Church, their bishops came from Syria; and their ecclesiastical language (the language in which church services are performed) was Syriac.  There were occasional immigrations of Christians from Syria, too.  Thus it had regular interaction with Christians in Syria.  Their relationship remained without much friction probably because the bishops from Syria did not interfere in the social and cultural life of the Christians who in these matters were indistinguishable from their Hindu neighbours.  A local priest was the head of the community.  He was known as ‘Jathiku Karthaviyan’ (Archdeacon).  All temporal powers were vested in him and the bishop’s domain was the spiritual.


The advent of the Portuguese disturbed this serene landscape.  The Portuguese were practitioners of Western Christianity.  Their church language was Latin and Pope was the head of the church.  The Middle Ages had regimentalised the rituals and practices; and anything different from those rituals was apostasy and heresy. To the Portuguese the Indian ways and customs and the Eastern practices of the Christians here were anathema.


Initially, the Portuguese and Indian Christians had a friendly relationship. The Christians here were naturally happy to welcome a Christian power.  They might have been watching with jealousy the close relationship of the Muslims and the Arabs.  So when people professing their own faith came from the West they were overjoyed and received them with gifts and presents. They even surrendered the crown and sceptre of the last Christian king of Kerala, as per legends, which they had preserved, to the Portuguese. 


This bonhomie did not last long.  The Portuguese could not reconcile with an ‘alien culture’.  There were differences also on account of differing perceptions on faith and evangelisation.  It must be remembered that the Portuguese got the East and the Spanish the West by the infamous division of the world between these two countries ordained by Pope Celextus III through his Bull Inter Caetera of 13th March, 1455.  Both these powers proceeded to conquer and colonise    their respective hemispheres.  Conversion of the local people to Christianity, which was not always by fair means, was one of their objectives.  This was in sharp contrast to the approach of the Indian Christians who, in the true Indian way, was not enamoured of just increasing their numbers.


To the Portuguese the Christians here were not ‘real’ Christians.  They were dubbed as Nestorians.  They considered it their bounden duty to ‘purify’ the Indian Christians of their Nestorianism.  In the words of Cardinal Tisserant: -


The Portuguese did not tolerate very long the fact that the Christians of the Indus followed usages different from their own …Hence they launched a wholesome campaign of Latinisation, [Eastern Christianity in India, p.174].


The Portuguese, initially, had neither Episcopal nor temporal power over the Syrian Christians.  Consequent on the signing of a pact between the Pope and the King of Portugal, in 1514, the Padroado came into existence under which the King of Portugal got powers to appoint bishops in the areas under his control, of course, in consultation with the Holy See.  Under the guise of the Padroado the Portuguese started interfering in the affairs of the Kerala church.


The Portuguese realized very early that they would not get suzerainty over the Kerala Christians so long as the Syrian bishops continued to come.  Hence their first targets were the Syrian bishops.  They put all sorts of hindrances in the way of these bishops.  They saw to it that new bishops from Syria did not reach the Indian coast.  Since the Portuguese were quite powerful on the sea, they generally succeeded in this.  (The other sea power in the Indian Ocean was the Arabs who had no love lost with the Syrian Christians).  It still speaks of the courage and commitment of the Syrian bishops that some of them managed to reach Kerala after facing untold hardships on land and sea.


The Portuguese were, perhaps, the first to use that perennial colonial strategy, of ‘divide and rule’.  The people converted by the western missionaries were kept as a separate entity and not allowed to join the Christian community already existing in this country.  Separate churches were erected for them; separate bishops and priests were provided to them; and they were to follow the Latin rite only.  The principle of ‘one bishop one territory’ was thus thrown to the winds.


The final onslaught was frontal.  After the death of Mar Abraham, the bishop from Syria who was persecuted in many ways by the Portuguese, in 1597, Archbishop Alexis Menezis of Goa assumed (illegally) full powers over the Syrian Christians of Kerala.  Archbishop Menezis was the counterpart of Albuquerque, the Portuguese governor in India, in religious matters.  He was as rigid and cruel as the military man.  Stephen Neil says,


Menezis had no doubt at all as to what was to happen, all Christians in India must come under his jurisdiction, all must adopt the Roman orthodoxy of the sixteenth century, as defined in the Council of Trent (1562) and there must be no nonsense about any independence (History of Christian Mission, p. 146).


He believed that “a good administrator ought to replace Syriac by Latin.”  Towards this end he convened a local synod at Udayamperur (Diamper), near Kochi, in 1599.  Even according to the Latin Canon this was an invalid synod.  In the synod Archbishop Menezis rode rough shod over the local priests and laity and declared as passed the resolutions prepared in advance by him.


The decisions, so passed in the synod, were unabashedly aimed at latinising the Kerala Church liturgically, ecclesiastically and culturally.  Liturgically, it removed from the texts all references to eastern saints; it changed the liturgical calendar and axed anything that was found inimical to the Roman Church.  Ecclesiastically it introduced the Roman hierarchical structures in which all powers were concentrated in the hands of the bishop. The greatest damage was done in the field of culture.  As mentioned above the Christians in Kerala were culturally one with their brethren in other religions.  The synod prohibited a number of customs and practices, which were common to Christians and others.  It banned many of the Indian rituals and cultural practices, which the Portuguese could not stomach.  The whole attempt was aimed at   europeanising the Christians of Kerala who were Indians through and through.


The decisions, especially the areas affecting their daily life, were not liked by the Christians.  The resistance to these changes started immediately.  One can say that the fight against colonialism started with the synod of Diamper.  To quote Tisserant again,


Writing in 1604, Bishop Francis Roz gave an account of how part of the population of Cranganore had fled to the hills, the Ghats, in order to escape the Latin missionaries who compelled them to eat fish on fast days contrary to their discipline, forbade them to begin Lent before Ash-Wednesday and prevented the Kathanars (local priests) from using leavened bread at Mass (op.cit., p.178)


The Christians realized that their weakness lay in having a bishop not of their liking i.e. of their rite.  As already mentioned, they were getting their bishops earlier from Syria till the Portuguese created problems.  Now, they started fresh efforts to get a bishop from Syria, who would be of their rite and who would respect their customs and traditions.  They had approached the Patriarchs of Antioch, Selucia-Czeziphone and even the Nestorian Patriarch of Babylon for this.


While they were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a bishop from Syria or Mesopotamia word reached that one Mar Ahtallah reached Kalamina (Mylapore, near Madras). (The honorific ‘Mar’ means reverend or saint and is used by bishops in Eastern Churches.)  He claimed that he was sent by the Patriarch of the East.  He sent a message to the Christians in Kerala that he was imprisoned by the Portuguese, that he would very soon be taken to the Inquisition in Goa and that they should try to save him when the ship would reach Kochi.


The Christians went in number to Kochi when the ship carrying Mar Ahtallah docked there. The Portuguese captain of the ship did not allow the Christians to meet Mar Ahtallah and surreptitiously sailed off.  This both angered and saddened the people.  They assembled in the church at Mattancherry, (part of present day Kochi) and for the first time in India raised the banner of revolt against European colonialism.  They decided to declare their independence from the Europeans in the matter of religion.  Since the number of people assembled was so large and all could neither be accommodated inside the church nor touch the stone cross in the courtyard while taking the oath, they tied a rope to the cross and holding on to that rope took the famous ‘Coonan Cross Oath.’ (It is said that the cross got the name which means ‘cross with a bend’ because people tied a rope to the cross so that every one could touch the rope for taking the oath and the pull on the rope caused the bend on the cross.)


The people took a solemn pledge to the effect that they reject the European Archbishop (Francis Garcia) imposed on them and vowing that they would never in future accept the ‘Paulinists.’  This was on 3rd January, 1653.


This was the first formal declaration of independence from European colonialism anywhere in India.  Even though it related to matters of religion it asserted the right of self-determination.  It was an oath to throw off the yoke of imperialism.


This great revolt did not stop with the oath. It was followed by concrete action.  The faithful reassembled at Angamaly (near Kochi).  May be for the first time in the history of the Church after the apostolic times, a bishop was elected – neither appointed nor nominated.  Even the consecration of the bishop was in a ‘democratic and progressive’ way.  Twelve Kattanars (local Christian priests) laid their hands on his head and declared him bishop. The Christians of Kerala, thus, for the first time in their long history, got a native bishop. He was Thomas the Archdeacon who assumed the title of Mar Thomas.  The first popular uprising against European colonialism thus culminated in the installation of a native bishop.





Onam is the most popular festival of Kerala. It is celebrated by all communities, though the level of celebration is more among Hindus than among Christians and Muslims. From 1961 it is celebrated as state festival by Government of Kerala.  


Malayalees fondly and reverentially refer to the festival as Thiru Onam (holy Onam). It is celebrated in Chingam, the first month of Malayalam calendar. Chingam corresponds to mid August to mid September.  Astrologically it is the time sun is in the zodiac sign Leo. The word Chingam is a vernacularisation of the Sanskrit word Simha which means lion or Leo. Onam is the Malayalam form of Sravana, i.e.  Aquila the 22nd lunar asterism.


History of the festival is shrouded in mystery. As with any festival or ritual there is a mythological story ascribed to Onam too. The story runs thus: There was an Asura King, Maha Bali (the Great Bali) who was ruler of Kerala. He had an interesting genealogy. His grand father was Prahlad, the great Vishnu devotee whose father was Hiranyakasipu, a godless Asura who was killed by Vishnu through his incarnation as Narasimha. Though an Asura Maha Bali was a benevolent and popular ruler and his subjects loved him. One of the folk songs associated with Onam sings the glories of Maha Bali and his rule. During his reign every one was happy; people were good; no body cheated another. No bad characters any where. In fact it was a Utopian world. Maha Bali conquered the three worlds, the earth, the heavens (swarg, the upper world) and the Hades (pathal, the under world). He was so mighty that Indra (the chief of devas [gods]) and other gods got scared of him. They approached Maha Vishnu with the request to redeem their lost glory. In those days Maha Bali decided to do an yagya at Bhrigukatch on the banks of Narmada. Vishnu took the incarnation of a dwarfish Brahmin, Vamana and approached Maha Bali for bhiksha (alms). He requested that he be given land measuring three foot. Not heeding the advice of his guru Sukra, Maha Bali promised to give the land. Thereupon Vamana grew into the Virat Purush (the Great Being). His first step covered the entire earth and the second the entire heavens. Now he asked Maha Bali for the place to put his foot for the third step. Thereupon Maha Bali bowed to him and requested Vamana to place his holy foot on his head. With that Maha Bali was banished to the pathal world. Vamana however gave him a boon to visit his beloved people once every year. According to the story, Onam day in chingam is the day when Maha Bali visits his subjects, the Malayalees. Hence they celebrate Onam to welcome their beloved king.


Historians do not give any value to the mythical story. In fact as mythology it contradicts the other mythical story of Parasurama creating Kerala by recovering land from sea since Parasurama is a later incarnation.


It is, however, true that Onam celebration goes back to many centuries. Reference to Onam is found in the Portuguese version of the decrees of the synod of Udayamaperur (Diamper) held under the Portuguese auspices in 1599. In the poem Perumal Thirumozhi of 8-9th century there is a reference to Onam celebration. Still earlier, in the poem Maturai Kanchi of the Sangam era there is vivid description of Onam festival of Maturai. Maturai Kanchi is an important poem in the Pattuppattu (Ten Poems). It is by Marutanar from Mankudi. The poem describes Onam Nannal (the good day of Onam). As per the poem the festival continued for seven days. It was in honour of Vishnu. There are elephant tournaments of Maravar community, ceremonial baths of mothers with infants as well as of young pregnant women and much music and drum beating.  Except for the linkage with Onam day and Vishnu (Mayon), the Maturai festival has nothing in common with modern day Onam. The absence of any mention of  Cera Kingdom, the ancient name of Kerala, in the description of Onam festival further raises the doubt that the Maturai Onam may be a different festival and not the one from which the present day Onam of Malayalees has evolved.   It is also worth noting that modern Tamils do not celebrate Onam.



There is also a view that Onam goes back to the new year festival of Assyria. The first scholar to propound this theory was the late N.V. Krishna Varier in 1954. The theory is based on a presumption that Malayalees originally came from ancient Assyria. There were many kings in Assyria whose names end in ‘Bal’. It is argued that Maha Bali was one of them. The logic is that Asuras were the people of Assyria. The argument linking the new year celebration of Assyria with Onam is further strengthened by the similarity of the images prepared for worship at Onam time (Onathappan) and those found in old Assyria (zigrai). Both lack any human shape and are pillar shaped. The theory is, however, mostly based on homonymous names in the mythical story and in ancient Assyria. Till further credible proofs emerge of the historical linkage of Kerala with Assyria, this theory has to b considered as mere conjecture.


Many scholars consider Onam as the harvest festival of Kerala. World over harvest festivals are celebrated by different communities. As with most things of social life, festivals too could be traced back to the times of hunter-gatherer period of history. Festivals are occasions for celebration and feasting. In the hunter gatherer society they might have occasioned by the killing of large preys that could be shared with many. It is rational to presume that when large preys were brought down that would have occasioned some kind of celebration, if not for anything but the sheer joy of the success of the hunting.


As humans moved from wandering existence to settlements and agriculture, festivals must have got associated with agrarian activities such as sowing and harvesting. Since harvest times are seasons of plenty and joy, harvest festivals would have slowly emerged as major occasions of celebration. Later with the growing clout of priests and people’s fears of the unknown, such festivals would have received the garb of religion. Mythologies might have evolved around them linking them with some gods. When a particular community adopted a new religion the new gods would have been reimposed on the old ones associated with the festival. This explains the incongruities one finds in the mythological stories about the origins of many festivals. For example Easter which originally was the festival of the goddess Aeoster later got rechristened as the festival of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after the Pagan population of Europe converted to Christianity. In the case of Onam too such a transformation can be seen. It is, however, unique festival in that it celebrates the defeated one, i.e. the Asura king Maha Bali instead of the hero Vamana. Onam festival fits in very well as a harvest festival. The season is the right one for a festival. The previous two months are times of heavy monsoon rains which really keep people indoors and poor people do not have any work. No work means no income and consequentially poverty. Those two months, Mithunam and Karkadakom, (in Malayalam era) are known as the scarcity months for this reason. With the new month and new year the season changes. Sunny days are there again. People get work. Harvesting takes place in many parts of Kerala. The times of scarcity are over. So people are in a mood to celebrate. That is when Onam in Chingam occurs. This theory gets added strength from the fact that there is more enthusiasm among Nairs and other communities associated with farming sector than among Brahmins.


People celebrate Onam with new clothes, presents, big feasts and games. Onam is in complete wihtout Onakodi (new cloth purchased for Onam). Farm workers and share croppers used to make presents of their best products, particularly bananas and vegetables, to their landlords who in turn would gift them onakodi.


The feasts are mostly vegetarian though in some parts of Kerala chicken curry is a must. The dishes are numerous. The most prominent ones are Parippu curry, Erissery, Kalan, Upperi, Olan, Inchipuli, and Aviyal. Sambhar has also now become an essential one. Number of dishes increases depending on the affordability of the family. Pappadam and at least a couple of payasams are a must. No feast is complete without banana. Traditionally the feast is taken on a plantain leaf.


In earlier times men used to engage in Pakida kali (a kind of dice game), Onathallu (a game in which two groups engage in slapping each other till one group admits defeat), Pulikali (a show where a person dressed as a tiger entertains people), thalapantu kali ( a ball game in which the ball is made of coconut leaves), kilithattu kali (popular in southern Kerala) and so on. Now card games have become very common. Women and girls mostly play on swings temporarily erected on branches of trees. Kaikottikali (a kind of folk dance) and singing are also very common among women. Now a days boat races are a prominent feature of Onam celebration in Kerala.


One of the most attractive aspects of Onam celebration is the Pookalams (floral designs) laid in front of houses. This starts ten days in advance and even now children in groups go round country sides every morning in search of flowers for floral designs. Phlomis flower is a must for these floral decorations.


Changing life styles change ways of celebration and Onam is no exception. It is now becoming more of an indoor festival except for the boat races than an outdoor one. However, Onam still remains as a season for family get together, particularly since large number of Malayalees move out of Kerala in search of employment.

Legends of Kadamattathu Kathanaar



            The legends of Kadamattathu Kathanaar are parts of the folk lore in Kerala. These are stories of the magical feats of a priest from Kadamattom, a place near Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district. Such folk stories are a testimony for the indigenousness of the Christian community of Kerala and also show how integrated they are with the social and cultural fabric. It is only a community assured of its place and confident of its moorings that can indulge in such fanciful stories which reflect almost irrational beliefs and practices of the society around them. There is hardly anything Christian about magical practices. The historicity of the story is also doubtful. But they have value for throwing light into the society of a time.


            There is no uniformity among folklorists as to the period of the life of the priest. Some ascribe it to 6th century while some to the 16th- 17th centuries.  Since in some stories there are references to the presence of Dutch and in some to the visit of a Patriarch from Jerusalem, it may be reasonable to take that the society described in the legends is that of 16th-17th centuries.  Kathanaar is old Malayalam for a local priest.



            As per the legends as compiled in the book Aitihamala by Kottarathil Shankunni the priest’s name was Paulos. He was born of a poor family and both his parents died when he was a young boy. The orphan was then adopted by the parish priest of Kadamattom who wanted him to become a priest to succeed him. One day, the young deacon (Semmassan) was grazing the cattle of the priest when he had to enter the forest in search of a strayed cow. Inside the jungle he was caught by Mala Arayas, a cannibalistic tribe. They took him to their chief who took a liking for the intelligent looking boy. He did not kill him. Instead he taught him the magic which the tribe had been practising for long. Thus Paulos semmassan remained with the tribe for twelve years. His heart was always pining for the parish priest and people of Kadamattom. Finally he took courage and requested the chief for permission to leave. The chief allowed him but on condition that he had to manage to escape himself. This was no big deal for the Semmassan. He could do so one night.




The Semmassan on his escapade from the caves/forests walked for about 4-5 miles and reached a habitation. Being quite tired and hungry he entered a small house by the roadside.  There was only an old woman there. Semmassan requested that old woman for some rice gruel. She informed him that she had not cooked any rice even the previous day as she had not had any rice. Semmassan insisted that there would at least be some grains left in the corners of her rice box and she brought that out. On the Semmassan’s advice she boiled water and put the rice stuck to the corners and edges of the box. In the pot. When the water boiled there was a full pot of cooked rice. With that they both had a good lunch. After that Semmassan had a siesta before setting out for Kadamattam.




While Semmassan was narrating his experiences and escapade to the parish priest, the sacristan rushed in quite shaken and informed them that the church was full of devils, massive and terrifying creatures. He was afraid to go in and toll the bell for the evening prayers. The priest and semmassan then went to the church. Semmassan already had realised that those who had come are the forest dwellers (Mala Arayas) from whose clutches he had escaped. They had come to take him back. Semmassan warned them of dire consequences if they did not return to the forest. They refused. Then he did some gestures and they all fell down unconscious with loud thuds. Since having so many bodies in and around the church was a problem the priest enquired how to get rid of them. Thereupon semmassan did another gesture and they all woke up as if from sleep. This time they agreed without a murmur and went back.


Later Semmassan was ordained as full fledged priest and succeeded his mentor on his death. He came to be known as Kadamattathu Kathanaar, after the place and became famous for his magical powers. People from all over Kerala sought his help often for various matters. He had lots of disciples also. Even a style of magic has come to be known after the priest. Some of the stories recounted by Kottarathil Shankunni are presented in the following paras.




The capital of Travancore in those days was Padmanabhapuram, now in Tamil Nadu. It was deep jungle between Thiruvanathapuram and Padmanbhapuram. However, people were forced to use the forest track for travelling to Padmanbhapuram for want of any good road. Once one Yakshi (vampire) settled down in the forest. Simulating the appearance of a beautiful woman she would wait by the wayside and request those men who happened to pass that way for white lime for her pan. After she gets the lime she would enter into a chat with them and entice them to go with her deep into the forest. Once inside she would kill them, drink their blood and eat them. Only hair and teeth would be left. So people were scared to go that way. She then started catching people from neighbouring villages. The village elders sought the help of kadamattathu Kathanaar. So he went that way one day and sure enough the Yakshi was there. As usual she requested for the white lime. The priest offered the same to her on an iron nail. Although the Yakshi initially hesitated, finally accepted the same.  She became a slave of the priest. When the Yakshi thought that the priest offered lime on the nail, actually the priest reciting some magical words had inserted the nail into her head. Kathanaar then walked back on his way to Kadamattam and the Yakshi followed him like a lamb. After 4-5 days walk they reached the house of an old woman at Kayamkulam. She was an aunt of the Kathanaar. The old woman was really looking for a domestic help. The priest offered to keep the Yakshi who now looked like a good and obedient young woman there as a domestic help and his aunt was very happy to have such a nice girl. After the meals Kathanaar had a siesta. Being a bright a bright afternoon, the old woman was happy to comb and pick lice from the hair of the beautiful girl. She then found the iron nail on her head and took it out. Yakshi immediately got back her powers and became invisible. The old woman got quite scared and reported everything to the priest.


On learning by his magical powers that she was headed for the north the priest also took to that direction. After two days they both reached Mannanam. Just before the priest arriving at the river bank, the boatman had already taken the Yakshi to the other side and dropped her at Parayannarkavu (kavu is a small temple). Since there was no other boat on the Kathanaar’s side of the river, he cut a banana leaf and on that crossed the river. He then caught up with her and took hold of her again. However, on her agreeing to stay there without harming people, the priest allowed her to do so. She later came to be known as Panayanarkavu Yakshi as well as Parumala Yakshi.




Another famous magician of the times was Kudamon Potty. He and Kadamttathu kathanaar were friends but at the same time thee was competition between the two. One day Potty invited the priest to visit him. When the priest reached the boat jetty there was no boat. Realising this was a test by Potty, Kathanaar brought a boat from the other side by his magical powers and rode without any boatman. Seeing him coming without any assistance the Potty did not show any surprise. After a sumptuous lunch the priest was to go back. The potty accompanied him to the boat place. There was no boat. The boat in which the  Priest had come was on top of a tree. Potty smiled and looked at the priest. Kathanaar understood the meaning of the smile. He told Potty if he did not get the boat down, the ladies of Potty’s household would come out in whatever dress they were in and would get the boat down. Potty thereupon challenged the priest to do so. Immediately the ladies started emerging from the house. Seeing that Potty apologised and got the boat down. 




Once the Patriarch (Bawa) from Jerusalem  visited Kadamattom. As per practice gifts were presented to the Patriarch which were things available only In Europe. The Patriarch then expressed a wish to have some fresh grapes. Thereupon Kathanaar told him that everything would be available in Kerala and that if you planted a seed within no time it would grow into a fully grown vine and produce lots of grapes. The Patriarch then wanted to see such a miracle. The Kathanaar then planted a grape seed and it instantly sprouted, grew and produced plenty of  bunches of grapes.  The Patriarch enjoyed the grapes greatly. But when he came out for a walk, a person told him that Kathanaar was a magician and hypnotist and that he has got  many books on magic at his house. Thereupon the Patriarch visited Kathanaar’s house. Then the books flew like pigeons and stood in the sky. All efforts by the Bawa and his entourage to bring them down did not succeed.  The Bawa then called the Kathanaar and told him that such magic was not appropriate for Christians and that he should not practice magic. Kathanaar told him that he had never practised any black magic and that all he did was in the public interest with the good intention that his knowledge should be used for the general good of the society. The Patriarch then permitted to him to do what ever he considered good.


The priest is believed to have later passed on to the other world through a well in the church complex of Kadamattom. People would still point out the well and until recently offerings were made at the well.




A Descriptive Essay


James Thanickan*


            In 1948, E.M.S. Namboodiripad published the Malayalam work Keralam: Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi (Keralam: the Motherland of Malayalis)[1]. This work examined the history of Kerala as one unit whose culture is a result of the fusion of two streams, the Aryan and the Dravidian. It also envisaged the emergence of a new Kerala. This was perhaps the first politico-historical work that explicitly identified Kerala as the land of the Malayalam speaking people, i.e., a state on linguistic basis. The movement for a United Kerala (Aikya Kerala) as a separate state consisting of areas where the predominant language is Malayalam, however, had already begun in 1928. In May (25th to 27th)  of that year, a Political Conference was held under the auspices of Kerala Provincial Congress and under the chairmanship of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at Payyannoor (in present day Kannur [Cannanore] district) in Malabar. That Conference passed a resolution requesting the Central leadership of Indian National Congress to take steps for forming Kerala as a separate province when the constitution of independent India is framed[2]. A month before that in April, a State Peoples’ Conference held at Ernakulam in the Kochi (Cochin) princely state had passed an Aikya Kerala resolution.[3] Already, a Kerala Provincial Congress Committee (KPCC) had been formed for Congress activities in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Malabar district of the Madras Province of British India, although they were separate political entities. This was following passing of a resolution to organise Provincial Congress Committees (PCCs) on linguistic basis by the Nagpur session of the Congress in 1920. The first Kerala Provincial Congress Committee Conference (Political Conference) was convened at Ottappalam in Malabar in April 1921[4]. Delegates from Travancore and Cochin, besides from Malabar, attended that Conference. “This was the herald of the movement for a united Kerala which became a reality 35 years later.[5]

United Kerala was the dream of most Keralites for quite some time already. K.P. Kesava Menon, founder editor of Mathrubhumi, a Malayalam daily, claims in his autobiography that he had opined in a meeting of the Madras Malayali Club in 1919 that a United Kerala be formed by merging Malabar, Travancore and Cochin.[6] This dream came out of a strong historical sense and inseparable cultural bonds. The author of the Imperial Gazetteer of India  describes aptly, “identical in people, language, laws, customs, and climate, the whole of ancient Kerala is homogeneous in every respect, except in the accident of a divided political administration.”[7]

The mythical story about the origin of Kerala in the Keralolpathi speaks about the land stretching from Gokarnam in the north to Kanyakumari in the south along the west coast of India as reclaimed from the sea by Parasuram, an incarnation of Vishnu. As per the story, the sea withdrew from the territory traversed by Parasuram’s axe when he threw it into the sea after the slaughter of all Kshatriyas and this land is Kerala[8].

The name Kerala is an ancient one. Its etymology is variously interpreted. The popular belief is that it came from the Sanskrit word kera meaning coconut and the Tamil-Malayalam alam meaning land[9]. It is not natural for a Sanskrit and a Tamil word to form a joint word. It seems that the cited derivation is a creation of some one influenced by the plentiness of coconut trees in modern Kerala. The other, more plausible, derivation is that it is a combination of chera and alam, both Tamil-Malayalam words. The word Chera could be either from the Chera dynasty who ruled on the western parts of Tamizhakam (Tamil land) for long, one of the three Tamil dynasties, the other two being Cholas and Pandyas, or from the simple word cheral meaning ‘added’. The arguments of the proponents of the latter theory were that the land of Kerala was submerged earlier and slowly the sea withdrew and dry land appeared. The transformation from Cheralam to Keralam is explained by consonant changes occurring from ch sound to k sound in many languages and vice versa. For example, English church becomes Scottish kirk and Greek centum becomes Sanskrit satam, which would explain why "Cheralam" became "Keralam," for instance, in the Kannada language and Malayalam[10].

Be that as it may, it is a fact that the land on the western coast stretching from Gokarnam to Kanyakumari has been referred to as Kerala[11] or a similar sounding word from ancient times. In the writings of Katyayana of fourth century B.C. and Patanjali of second century B.C., there are references to it. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana refer to the people of the land as ‘Keralas’. Coming to more historical documents, we find references to ‘Keralaputra’ (son of Kerala) as ruler of Kerala on the borders of his empire in the second and thirteenth edicts of Asoka. Pliny’s reference to ‘Calobotras’ is taken as reference to the ruler of Kerala whose capital was Muziris[12]. In the Periplus of the Erithrean Sea (1st century A.D.) also there is reference to ‘Keprobotras’. Ptolemy, who lived in the second century A.D., states that ‘Kerobotras’ resided at Karoura. All these references are accepted as variants of ‘Keralaputra’ for the ruler of Kerala by scholars[13]. There are very few countries who can trace their names denoting a separate identity to over two millennia.

            While we get references to the land and people, we do not have a continuous political history of the country. When the historical times dawn around the first century B.C., Kerala is divided among a number of dynasties in different parts of the country. The north was under the Mushakas and the south under the Ays with the Cheras in the middle[14]. The Cheras, who ruled most of the western parts of Tamizhakam, are one of the three famous Tamil dynasties, the other two being the Pandyas and Cholas. The first Chera dynasty’s reign is corresponding to the Sangam age of Tamil literature. The stories of the Cheras form the contents of much of Sangam literature. After the Sangam period, Kerala seemed to have come under the sceptre of Chalukyas, Pallavas, Pandyas, Rashtrakudas and Kalabras, one ater the other for short periods during the 5th to 8th centuries. By the beginning of the 9th century, Cheras re-established themselves and reigned upto 1102. They had taken the title of Kulasekhara or Kulasekhara Perumal[15] and their capital was Mahodayapuram near present day Kodungalloor. The Kulasekhara kingdom extended over the entire present day Kerala and certain parts of Nilgiri, Salem, Coimbatore and Kanyakumari districts[16]. One of the kings of this dynasty had the name Veera Keralan (the brave Keralite) who ruled from 1022 to 1028[17]. The Kulasekhara period, however, witnessed frequent warfare with the Cholas[18].

During the second Chera regime of Kulasekharas, the people of the west coast developed a separate identity from the Tamils of neighbouring Pandya kingdom, in language, culture and institutions[19]. A separate calendar for the Malayalam speaking people, known as Malayalam Era also came into existence in A.D. 825. It is also known as Kollam Era. Therefore, one theory about its origin is that it was begun to commemorate the founding of Kollam (Quilon) city. This theory now has few takers. Though no conclusive proof about its origin has been advanced, athe predominant view among scholars is that it is, perhaps, a fortuitous extension of the last cycle of Saptarshi Era, which used to restart every hundred years. Whatever be its origin, the Malayalam calendar got recognition over the entire region of the present day Kerala.

The collapse of the centralised rule by the Cheras gave birth to the Naduvazhi (independent feudal lord) period in the 13th to 18th centuries when Kerala is believed to have been divided among sixteen feudal lords. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries three of these feudal lords became more powerful and became overlords over the others. They were the Zamorins in the North, the Perumpadappu in Central Kerala and the Venad in the South.[20] They became the kingdoms of Kozhikode (Calicut), Kochi and Thiruvithankoor (Travancore) respectively. The southern expedition of Tippu Sultan brought to an end the Zamorin’s kingdom of Kozhikode. The area under the Zamorins became the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency of the British. Kochi and Thiruvithankoor (Travancore) accepted the suzerainty of the British and could continue to rule as their vassals.

            All through these annexations, mergers and dissolutions of kingdoms, the people of Kerala perceived themselves as one nation. There were quite free and frequent interactions and engagements among people. It is this kind of free movement that resulted in the evolution of a common language among them. In the 9th to 15th centuries, Malayalam developed into a separate language cutting its umbilical cord with Kodum Thamizh (early form of Tamil). In the absence of close interactions and movements it would not have been possible for a common language to evolve. The literature that emerged in the new language was owned by all Keralites. Thus the Adhyatma Ramayana of Ezhuthachan and Krishnagatha of Cherusseri, both of whom belonged to the Malabar region, were accepted and read by Hindus of all regions of Kerala.

There are social and religious customs unique to Kerala. The matrilineal system among the Nair community and the 64 ‘anacharas’ (non-customs) among Namboodiris are two of them. The dress, personal names and life styles of the Syrian Christian community are exclusive to Kerala.

Cultural forms such as Kathakali, Koothu, Theyyam, etc. also emerged as distinct from other parts of the world but as common for the people of Kerala. Kalaripayattu, the martial arts form of Kerala is unique to the land. The celebration of Onam brings out the unity and distinctiveness of Kerala. It is a festival unique to Kerala and at the same time it is celebrated all over Kerala. It is not celebrated in other parts of India including Tamil Nadu although the festival is in honour of the demon king Mahabali. If we define Kerala as a territory where Malayalam is spoken and Onam celebrated, the geographical boundaries of that territory can easily be drawn and that will be the same as that of the present Kerala.

Though divided among a number of kingdoms, for many centuries Kerala as a ‘sentiment’ ran through the people always. This finds expression in personal names such as Kerala Varma, names of books such as Keralolpathi, Kerala Mahatmya, Kerala Vijayam and Kerala Sakuntalam, epithets to persons such as Kerala Panini to the Malayalam grammarian Raja Raja Varma and Kerala Kalidasan to Kerala Varma, the litterateur, who translated Kalidasa’s Abhigyana Shakuntala into Malayalam. A number of periodicals that started in the early twentieth century took names such as Kerala Patrika, Kerala Chintamani, Kerala Kesari, Bhaje Keralam, Malayala Rajyam, Kerala Kaumudi and so on. The fact that they were published from places as distant as Kozhikode in the north and Thiruvananthapuram in the south reflect how wide spread this feeling of Kerala as one country was. It is also a reflection of the Kerala consciousness of the people.

With the emergence of political and social consciousness, a number of associations got formed in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar in the early 20th century. The names of most of them reflect the all Kerala nature of them. Some of them are All Kerala Theeya Youth League, Kerala Kalidasa Smaraka Samajam (Kerala Kalidasa Memorial Society) , Kerala Literary Conference, Kerala Women Teachers’ Association, Kerala Mahila Desa Sevika Sangham (Kerala Women National Service Society), All Kerala Women’s League and the  Kerala Hindu Maha Sabha (1932). The ‘Kerala Society’ was formed for scholarly discussion on Kerala history in 1927.  Way back in 1905 the Travancore Nair Samajam had changed its name to Keraleeya Nair Samajam. In 1924, K.P. Padmanabha Menon published his scholarly History of Kerala, covering the history of all the three parts of Kerala. All these reflect the natural urge of the people to be one. The Payyannoor resolution of 1928 was a public expression of that thirst to be one political unit.

In 1928, Bodheswaran published a collection of poems under the title Swatantra Keralam (Independent Kerala) which pleaded for a united Kerala province. This collection contained the famous Kerala gananm (Kerala anthem) which runs as under:

Jaya jaya komala Kerala dharani

Jaya jaya mathika poojitha jananee

Jaya jaya pavana Bharata harinee

Jaya jaya dharma samnvaya ramanee

Already in 1918, even before Kesava Menon’s statement on united Kerala, Vallathol Narayana Menon’s poem had sung about the “Kerala with its feet in the Arabian sea and head in the Sahyadri ranges.”

            From 1928 onwards, resolutions were passed almost regularly in various fora demanding formation of a Kerala State. Most of these were in the meetings of the Congress. In 1923, in the first editorial of Mathrubhumi, Keshava Menon stated:

Although Keralites, who speak the same language, share the same history and myths and follow same customs and practices, are now under four separate regimes, it is necessary for these people who live in different parts of Kerala to be kept united. Therefore, Mathrubhumi will continuously strive for achieving that objective.[21]

Kesava Menon relentlessly worked for the same. When he left the editorship of Mathrubhumi in 1925, P. Ramunni Menon, his successor, in an editorial praised the work he had done for this during the intervening years. Even during the 20 years he spent in Malaya from 1927 to 1946 Kesava Menon’s heart was in the unification of Kerala and he had written occasional articles on AikyaKerala in Mathrubhumi and other periodicals.

            The political session of KPCC meeting at Vadakara in 1930 passed a resolution on United Kerala. Again, the Kozhikode session of the KPCC in 1935 demanded the formation of a United Kerala State.[22] After this, there seems to have been a lull in the political activities for creation of a separate Kerala state, possibly because, the issue of state formation is to be subsequent to independence for the whole country. However, a Political Conference held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1938 under the aegis of Travancore Congress Committee and under the chairmanship of Pattabhi Sitaramiah passed a resolution for the formation of a sub-federation consisting of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. The Cochin State Praja Mandalam in its annual meetings since its formation in 1941, recognised the need for a United Kerala.

With the possibility of an Independent India appeared an achievable target, the activities for a united Kerala also gained speed. A sub-committee was formed by KPCC in 1946 to work for a United Kerala. The committee met at Cheruthuruthi in October, 1946 under the chairmanship of K.P. Kesava Menon[23]. A Working Committee for United Kerala was formed by this Committee with Kelappan as President, K.A. Damodara Menon as Secretary, U.Gopala Menon as Treasurer and Kuroor Nilakandan  Namboodiripad, M. Mukunda Raja, K.V. Nuruddin, T. Narayanan Nambiar, Desamangalam Narayanan  Namboodiripad, T. Balakrishna Menon, Anne Mascreen, C.Kesavan, K.V. Krishnan, and Mrs. K.M.R. Menon as Members[24]. Following this a mammoth United Kerala meeting was organised at Thrissur (Trichur) in April 1947. Over 2000 representatives and more than 5000 visitors attended this meeting which was inaugurated by the Maharaja of Kochi who extended whole hearted support to the formation of a United Kerala[25]. Komattil Achutha Menon welcomed the participants. K. Kelappan, then President of KPCC presided over this meeting. In his presidential address, Kelappan pleaded for a State with an area of 21,000 sq. miles and 1.25 crore population. T. Prakasam and V.K. Krishna Menon also spoke in the meeting supporting formation of a Kerala State. The resolution passed by this meeting stressed the need for the formation of a United Kerala for the political, economic and cultural development of Keralites. The resolution was moved by T.M. Varghese (from Travancore) and supported by Janab Moidu Maulavi (from Malabar) and E. Ikkanda Varier (from Kochi)[26], thus reflecting the joint will of the three political units. It also elected  a 100 member council to work for this with Kelappan as President and Damodara Menon as Secretary.

            The statement of the Cochin King at the Convention was as unambiguous a statement as it can be on the future of Cochin in independent India and this was followed by action consistent with what he stated. The King had said,

Now let me come to the question of Cochin’s relation to the rest of India. This Convention has met here for considering ways and means of establishing United Kerala. The Travancore Government has said that it does not favour this idea and has declared its intention of assuming independence after June, 1948. Its relations with Central Government are going to be governed by Treaties. You would like to know in these circumstances what Cochin’s attitude is in this respect. I have no hesitation to declare that Cochin would continue to remain part of the mother country. It is joining the Constituent Assembly at once. No word or act of mine shall usher in a day when a Cochinite finds, he has lost the right to call himself an Indian.[27]

Cochin immediately joined the Constituent Assembly. Again this was not a decision on the spur of the moment. In a message to the Cochin legislature on 29th July, 1945 he had already iterated the need for a United Kerala and extended his full support for the same.

After the attainment of Independence, the movement for a United Kerala gathered further momentum. A convention was held on 2nd February, 1948 at Alwaye which again passed a resolution for a United Kerala. This convention set up a 15 member committee in place of the earlier 100 member committee, under the chairmanship of K Kelappan. In the memorandum submitted by the United Kerala Committee to the Dhar Commission, the demand was for a state comprising Travancore, Cochin, Kudagu, Malabar, Nilgiri, southern Canara, Mahe and Lakshadweep. The Congress Working Committee in its 1949 resolution observed that formation of a United Kerala should await the nod of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin who are to become parts of the new entity. On 1st July 1949, Travancore-Cochin state was formed[28]. While the AikyaKerala movement considered this as a first step towards formation of a United Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad viewed this as “a step away from a United Kerala[29].” Kelappan too felt that the formation of Travancore-Cochin would adversely affect the formation of a United Kerala whereas the majority of members of the AikyaKerala Committee felt otherwise. According to K. A. Damodara Menon, then Secretary of the AikyaKerala Committee, Kelappan was for a large west coast state comprising Travancore, Cochin, Malabar, South Karnataka and Nilgiri district of Madras Province. When he realised that the majority was not with him Kelappan resigned from the presidentship of the committee. In the opinion of Damodara Menon, the stand of Kelappan for a West Coast State influenced many Malabar Congress men who later not favoured the formation of a Kerala State.[30] In the meeting held at Thiruvanathapuram on 18 September 1949 Kesava Menon was elected president. On 6th November, 1949, a Conference was held at Palakkad which passed a resolution demanding a Kerala without a Raj Pramukh[31]. Though Kelappan did not participate he sent a telegramme to M.P. Govinda Menon advising, “attend, oppose, win”[32].

            In June 1952, the KPCC split and a Travancore-Cochin Pradesh Congress Committee (TCPCC) and a Malabar Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) were formed. While the Travancore-Cochin government and Travancore-Cochin PCC supported formation of Kerala, MPCC was against it. A meeting of the MPCC at Palakkad in April 1953 passed a resolution for a southern state with Travancore-Cochin as part of it.

People in the literary world were very vocal supporters of a United Kerala. In an editorial in the Sahitya Parishad magazine before the formation of the Travancore-Cochin state, G. Sankara Kurup, poet, wrote: The wish of nature is that Kerala should become an independent state…. Unity of Kerala is nature’s wish. Kesava Menon exhorted for the unity of Kerala in Mathrubhumi. Kerala Jeevat Sahitya Sangham (Kerala Progressive Literature Society) was established in 1937.

Among the political leaders, Mathai Manjooran was a strong proponent of a United Kerala. He convened a United Kerala conference in Mumbai on 19 November, 1944 which was attended in large numbers by the Malayali diaspora.  He convened another AikyaKerala conference, after India became independent, at Aluwa (Alwaye) on 6 February, 1949. By this time his ideas had changed and  he pleaded for the formation of an autonomous Socialist Republic of Kerala. Manjooran, however, did not become a separatist but got elected to the Rajya Sabha. There, in 1953, he made a stirring speech urging the formation of states on linguistic lines.[33]

The leftist movements, particularly the Communist Party, viewed Kerala as one political unit from the very beginning. The trade union movements developed on all Kerala basis. In May 1935, an All Kerala Workers’ Conference was organised in Kozhikode. An All Kerala Workers’ Union was formed with P. Krishna Pillai as the secretary. Second All Kerala Workers Conference was organised at Thrissur in 1937. The leftist student movements also had an all Kerala perspective. Kerala Students Federation was formed in 1937.

A prominent supporter of the Aikya Kerala Movement from Travancore was Mannathu Padmanabhan, the leader of the Nair Service Society. He actively participated in the conventions and meetings for United Kerala. In a meeting of the Nair community in 1956 he pleaded for a Kerala stretching from Kanyakumari to Kasarkode[34].

When the movement for a separate state for Malayalam speaking people picked up momentum, a counter movement for the separation of the Tamil speaking areas of the Travancore-Cochin state from the proposed Kerala state began. This agitation in the Kanyakumari district was led by one Marshal A. Nesamony. Kanyakumari was for centuries part of Venad or Travancore whose capital itself was at Padmanabhapuram in Nagercoil till it was shifted by Rama Varma also known as Dharma Raja to Thiruvananthapuram in 1798[35]. The Travancore Tamil Nadu Congress, formed with the blessings of Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, the then Dewan of Tranvacore, whose calculation was that the new organisation would reduce the influence of State Congress which was not particularly enamoured of the Dewan, was behind this agitation. The agitation took a violent turn during the time when Pattom Thanu Pillai was the Prime (Chief) Minister of Travancore-Cochin. In a police firing seven people lost their lives and consequently Pattom had to resign. The Tamil emotions ran very wild and the agitation took a clear anti-Malayali nature. Slogans such as nalu muzham chelai ozhika (the four yard cloth go away[36]) were common. Nesamony became the supreme leader of the agitation and was referred to as Nesamony Raja. The separatist movement was a bit surprising when one remembers that the region which demanded separation from Travancore provided a number of Prime Ministers of Travancore such as Ramayyan and Velu Thampi[37]. Perhaps, the land ownership pattern in the area had something to do with the fact. The landlords were mostly Malayali Nairs (Pillais) whereas the tenants and labourers were mostly Tamil Nadars. E.M.S., however, termed the Tamil agitation as a movement against democracy.

The movement for a United Kerala received support from Malayalis outside the geographical limits of the proposed state as the following report in The Hindu dated 22nd March, 1954 indicates:

A resolution expressing the view that the formation of Aikya Kerala was essential for the all-round progress of the Malayalam-speaking people was adopted by the 15th Madras All-Malayali Conference held in St. Mary's Hall, Madras, on March 21. The conference was of the opinion that the division of South India into Aikya Kerala, Tamil Nadu, United Karnataka and Vishal Andhra was necessary for the unity, security and administrative convenience of the people concerned. It requested the Central Government to take necessary steps to carve out Aikya Kerala and appealed to Malayalees in other parts of India to join in the demand for its formation.

            On 30th May, 1954 an Aikya Kerala Conference was organised by the Aikya Kerala Committee at Kozhikode under the chairmanship of K.P. Kesava Menon. As per the report in The Hindu dated 1st June, 1954, nearly 900 delegates from all over Malabar, Kasarkode and Gudalur attended the conference, including Dr. C. R. Krishna Pillai, Prof. P. J. Thomas, Prof. Joseph Mundasseri, Mr. N. Narayana Menon, Mr. E. M. Sankaran Namboodiripad, Mr. K. A. Damodara Menon, Mrs. Leela Damodara Menon, Mr. G. Sankara Kurup and Srimati Parakkal Gouri Amma. Delegates from the Malayali associations in Bombay, Lakshadweep, Ahmedabad and other places also attended the conference.

Towards the end of December 1954, the States Reorganisation Commission with Justice Fazal Ali, Hridayanath Kunzru and Sardar K.M. Panikkar was appointed. When this Commission visited Kozhikode in June 1954, the Aikya Kerala Committee submitted a Memorandum to it requesting for a United Kerala consisting of Travancore-Cochin, Malabar, certain parts of southern Karnataka, Gudallore, Ooty, Kudagu and Lakshadweep. However, there were many who were arguing for a large South India state. According to Kesava Menon, the Congress of Malabar was for such a state and not Aikya Kerala at that point of time. In fact, the Malabar Pradesh Congress committee had already passed a resolution in its meeting held at Palakkad in April 1953 supporting a state consisting of the entire south India. V.K. Krishna Menon was one of those who supported such a state. K.M. Panikkar wonders why Krishna Menon who had argued for United Kerala at Thrissur meeting changed his view so soon.[38]

The Tamil speaking people of Madras state had no objection to the Malayalam speaking Malabar getting separated from that state as it would then be an almost  pure Tamil state[39]. The irony was that most leaders of Malabar, except a few like Kelappan, Kesava Menon and Damodara Menon were for continuing as part of Madras state.[40] This is not withstanding the observation of E.M.S. that the politicians, skilled labourers and businessmen of Malabar supported United Kerala because of the grievance that the Tamil lobby was upstaging all programmes for the development of Malabar whereas their counterparts in Travancore-Cochin supported the same as they thought the new state would provide a larger area for the furtherment of their vested interests[41].

The State Reorganisation Commission considered the views of all. It, however, did not agree with the proposal to retain the Tamil speaking Kanyakumari district in the United Kerala and also did not approve of the demand for adding Nilgiri (Gudallore) , Salem, Coimbatore districts and certain parts of Mysore state (South Canara) to the proposed Kerala state. Chengottai of Travancore was recommended for adding to Tamil Nadu. Although there was a demand for merging certain parts of Peermedu to Tamil Nadu, it rejected that proposal on the ground that the Tamil speaking people, though they formed the majority, were not permanent residents of the area. So far as Lakshadweep was concerned, the State Reorganisation Commission’s view was that it should be a Union Territory for economic reasons[42]. E.M.S. welcomed the recommendation of the State Reorganisation Commission as it recommended a state of all Malayalam speaking people.

Even after the State Reorganisation Commission recommended the formation of a Kerala with the present borders, it faced problems. During the discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the reorganisation of states, B. Shiva Rao introduced a resolution demanding separation of Kasarkode from Kerala and inclusion of it in Karnataka. The resolution was introduced at a time when most of the Members of Parliament (M.Ps.) from Kerala had gone to their home state for the Onam festival. It would have passed since  M.Ps. from other states had no specific interest in the matter. Fortunately, Bharati Udaya Bhanu from Kerala was present in the House and she opposed the resolution strongly and it was not passed[43].

When Government of India took the decision to form Kerala state on the basis of the State Reorganisation Commission Report, a meeting of the Aikya Kerala Committee was held at Thrissur on 4th March, 1956. In the resolution adopted by the Committee, it regretted not getting the Kerala it demanded, but accepted the decision and exhorted the people to work for the success of the new state[44].

Kerala finally became a reality on 1st November, 1956 when the present Kerala state was formed. A public meeting to celebrate the formation of the new state was held on the occasion at Ernakulam. Kesava Menon presided over the meeting[45]. The formation of the new state was a matter of pride and happiness for all Malayalees. Meetings were held not only in Kerala but also in other places by Malayalam speaking people celebrating the birth of the new state.

The Aikya Kerala movement was a gentleman’s movement. It never took to violent street demonstrations unlike the movement for formation of states like Andhra Pradesh. The only incidence of violence occurred in the Tamil movement against Aikya Kerala. It must also be conceded that it was not a mass movement like the freedom struggle or even the later ‘liberation struggle’ against the first government of united Kerala in 1959. It was rather a movement on the pattern of the pre-Gandhi Congress, where a number of the elite of the society would assemble from time to time and pass resolutions raising various demands.  

A second point that deserves attention is that it was not a movement against any community or caste. Even when the Tamils in Kanyakumari district agitated for joining with a Tamil majority state, the United Kerala movement did not become an anti-Tamil movement. It was a positive one and gave vent to the aspirations of a people who had a common language and culture.

A question that arises is whether the Aikya Kerala movement was really instrumental in the formation of the present Kerala state. The answer is ambiguous. The formation of a state for Malayalam speaking people was a consequential result of the decision to have states on linguistic basis. Though the Indian National Congress had favoured that approach in 1920, when India became independent in 1947, it did not pursue that policy. This led to agitations in many parts of the country including the Aikya Kerala movement in Kerala. Finally, succumbing to public pressure, the Government of India appointed the State Reorganisation Commission for carving out states on linguistic basis. Consequently, along with states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Kerala also came into existence. Had there not been a movement for United Kerala, perhaps, Malabar would have continued to be part of the Madras state and Travancore-Cochin remained a separate state. To that extent, the Aikya Kerala movement also could be termed as a contributing factor in the formation of linguistic states. Looking back, fifty years later, we could state with conviction that had it not happened then, still it would have happened sometime later, as in the case of some other states such as Gujarat. Popular aspirations cannot be ignored in a democracy.




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Kerala State Gazetteers, Volume II, Part II, Thiruvananthapuram, Government of Kerala, 1999.

Constituent Assembly Debates, available at

Imperial Gazetteer of India, volume 17 p. 59 accessible at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/reference/gazetteer/images/DS405.1.134_V17_062.gif

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 Menon, A. Sreedhara, Cultural Heritage of Kerala: An Introduction , Cochin, East-West Publications  Private Ltd., 1978.

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Gundert, Herman, Keralolpati (The Origin of Malabar), Mangalore, 1843. Reprint. Keralolpathiyum Mattum (Eight Works published during 1843-1904)   Kottayam, D.c. Books, 1992.

Kelappan Smaraka Grantha Prasadaka Samithi, Kelappan Smaraka Grantham, Kozhikode, 1972.

Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Nammude Saahityam Nammude Samooham 1901-2000  Vol I, Thrissur

Manmathan, M.P., Kelappan, Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala Sarvodaya Mandalam, 1984.


Moosath, C.K., Kelappan Enna Mahamanushyan, Kottayam, Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham (SPCS), 1982.

Menon, A. Sreedhara, Adhunika Keralam, Kottayam, SPCS, 1988.

                      Kerala Charitram, Kottayam, SPCS, 1967

Menon, K.P. Kesava, Kazhinja Kalam, Kozhikode, Mathrubhumi (4th edition) 1979.

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* T.C. James, 2006. Author’s e-mail ID is jamesthanickan@gmail.com and website is http://jamesthanickan.tripod.com.


[1]  Namboodiripad, E.M.S., Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhhumi, (vol 9 of the Collected Works of EMS) Chinta Publishers, Thiruvananthapuram.


[2] This was the fourth Kerala State Conference of the Congress party. Mannathu Padmanabhan hoisted the flag for the social reform session. This Conference announced Poorna Swaraj (complete freedom) as the ultimate goal of Congress. This was later adopted by the All India Congress Committee. See Nammude Sahityam Nammude Samooham 1901-2000 Vol. I Thrissur, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, pp. 518-519.

[3] Ibid. pp. 516-517.

[4] Nammude Sahityam, Nammude Samooham p. 440. See also                                 http://www.kerala.gov.in/history&culture/emergence.htm

[5] http://www.Kerala.gov.in

[6] Kesava Menon, K.P. , Kazhinja Kalam, p.  

[7] The Imperial Gazetteer of India, volume 17 p. 59 (1840-1922). New edition published under the authority of His Majesty’s secretary of state for India in council, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1908-1931 accessible at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/reference/gazetteer/images/DS405.1.134_V17_062.gif.

[8] The name Parasuram means Ram whose weapon is axe.

[9] Kerala is the English word for the Malayalam ‘Keralam’. Kerman Gundert in his Malayala Rajyam states that Keralam means land of coconuts.

[10] Thundy, Zacharias P. ‘Kerala: The Land and Its People' in Keralites in America, edited by
K. P. Andrews (New Hyde Park, NY: KRAMS,2001), p. 17. 

[11] “Keralam = Cheram 1. the country between Gokarna and Cumari.” A Malayalam – English Dictionary  by Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert, Mangalore, Basel Mission, 1872

[12] Muziris is presumed to be present day Kodungalloor in Thrissur district of Kerala.

[13] Caldwell, Bishop, Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages.


[14] Kerala State Gazetteer, volume 2 Part 1, Government of Kerala, 1986 Thiruvananthapuram, p.28.

[15] Perumal means big lord or emperor.

[16]Kerala Charitram (History of Kerala) (Malayalam) by Sreedhara Menon, A., Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, Kottayam, 1967, p.184.

[17] Ibid p. 174.

[18] Ibid pp.118-119 and pp.164-183.

[19] Kerala State Gazetteer, op.cit. Ibid p.169.

[20] For a short period, a kingdom of Kolathiris too existed in the North.

[21] Kesava Menon, K.P. Kazhinja Kalam, p.362.

[22] http://cmcnetwork.netfirms.com/calicutrebels.htm

[23] Sreedhara Menon, A. ,op.cit.  p. 136.

[24] Manmathan, M.P. Kelappan (biography in Malayalam), Thiruvananthapuram, Sarvodaya Mandalam, 1984.

[25] Ibid p. 274.

[26] Manmathan op.cit.  p.277.

[27] Quoted from the speech by P. Govinda menon from Cochin in the Constitutent Assembly on 28 April, 1947. The speech can be accessed at . EMS considers the declaration of the king as a strategy against the movement for democracy since the king pleaded for preserving the positions and privileges of royal family in United Kerala.

[28] Sreedhara Menon, A., Adhunika Keralam, Kottayam SPCS, 1988 p.92.

[29] E.M.S. op cit p.278.

[30] Kelappan Smaraka Grantham (Malayalam), Kelappan Smaraka Grantha Prasadaka Samiti, 1972, p.82.

[31] Travancore-Cochin state was headed by a Raj Pramukh who was the former King of Travancore, instead of a Governor.

[32] Moosath, C.K., Kelappan Enna Mahamanushyan, Kottayam, SPCS, 1982, p.179.

[33] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathai_Manjooran

[34] Moosath, C.K.,op.cit. p.183.

[35] Menon, Sreedhara, Kerala Charitram,  op cit p. 370

[36] The reference is to the shorter mundu (cloth) of Malayali women compared to the longer sarees of the Tamil women. See Nair, Chandrasekaran, IG Smaranakal, p.172.

[37] IG Smaranakal, p. 168.

[38] Panikkar, Sardar K.M., Atmakatha (autobiography) Thrissur, Manglodayam, 1964, p.193.

[39] Ibid., p.189.

[40] Ibid. pp. 192-193.

[41] E.M.S. op cit. p. 288.

[42] Panikkar, op.cit. p. 200.

[43] Udaya Bhanu, Ente KathayumAalpam, D.C. Books, Kottayam, 1998. p.286.

[44] Kesava Menon, op.cit. pp. 370-371.

[45] Kesava Menon, op.cit. p. 373.

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