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Art & Culture


Among the people who have enriched Indian Cultural Heritage and helped the cause of national integration, the people of the Kerala region of South India have a place of honour. Kerala culture is in fact, an integral part of Indian culture. Kerala like the Indian sub continent can claim to have a culture the history of which runs into the dim recesses of antiquity.

Kerala's culture is also a composite and cosmopolitan culture to which several people and races have made their significant contributions. The gradual evolution of composite and cosmopolitans culture led to the emergence of a spirit of tolerance and catholicity of outlook, which still persist among the people of Kerala. Its history unfolds the romantic and fascinating story of a unique process of cultural synthesis and social assimilation. In response to every challenge Kerala has demonstrated through the ages its genius for adaptation and fusion of old traditions and new values in every sphere of human thought and endeavour.

The culture of Kerala has persisted through the ages precisely for the reasons of antiquity, unity, continuity and universality of its nature. In its widest sense it embraces the highest achievements of the human spirit in every sphere of life. Thus, in its totality, it represents the quintessence of the collective achievements of a people in the fields of religion and philosophy, language and literature, art and architecture, education and learning and economic and social organisation. In fact, all through its history the genius of Kerala has blossomed forth in all its vigour and vitality and has helped its people to reach the peak of excellence in all their endeavours.

The population of ancient Kerala is an assortment of different groups of Dravidian stock. The dominant view is that the present day hill tribes, the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, might have been the main groups of people who inhabited this region from times of yore. The ancient Dravidian kingdoms of South India (Chera, Chola and Pandya) as well as their people were held together by intimate bonds of blood, language and literature and that was the force which promoted a sort of cultural homogeneity in South India inspite of occasional intrigues, feuds and wars that caused not infrequent disharmony.

The end of the Perumal empire marks a turning point in the history of Kerala. From that period onwards, the people began to draw apart and those on this side of the Ghats began to build up their own customs and ways of life developing their own distinct culture in the long run.

The next landmark was the Aryan invasion. The warp of the Dravidian social structure gradually began to mingle with the weft of the Aryan cultural pattern. The Aryan immigrants, known locally as Namboodiri Brahmins, might have come in successive waves. Against the backdrop of Aryan invasion, the Parasurama legend about Kerala's origin, becomes meaningful.

Aryan influence

The new social evolution brought about by the influence of the oncoming Aryans was distinguished by three important features; private property in land, caste system and Aryan culture. The Aryan culture, which was first confined to the Namboodiris, began to percolate to those non-Aryans who had close contact with them in social life and slowly but steadily through them to those in the lower strata. Brahminical Hinduism, with its religious ritual and ceremony, its beliefs and practices, its traditions and mythology, its language and literature, began to have its impact on the society.

Aryan systems of medicine, astrology, art and architecture also were introduced. The Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas became the scripture.

Aryan heroes became popular, their idols began to be installed in temples side by side with the deities of the early settlers. Sanskrit became the court language and coming alive to its influence, the native tongue, which was of Dravidian origin, began gradually to form itself into Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Sanskrit has had a tremendous unifying influence in India, shaping and enriching almost all the languages in the country. Malayalam language has assimilated and appropriated Sanskrit sounds, words and idioms in a remarkably large measure.

Since persuasive sociological trends do not follow the principle of one-way traffic, the Aryan immigrants who settled in Kerala had themselves to undergo radical changes in their ways of life, habits, customs and manners. This process of transformation paved the way for a desirable fusion of the two streams of culture; the Aryan and the Dravidian. Out of this synthesis evolved Kerala culture as it is today. Cut off, as it is from the rest of India, Kerala has a culture with certain distinct characteristics. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have contributed their significant share in enriching the cultural wealth of Kerala.

Religious influences

There is yet another aspect of Kerala life and history worth mentioning. The cosmopolitan outlook and character of the Malayalee, which has attracted the attention of many visitors to this region, is because of historical reasons. Kerala appears to have had the largest and longest contacts with the rest of the world, dating back to the millennium preceding the Christian era. There were important trading centres along the Kerala coast viz., Kollam, Kochi, Kodungallor, Kadalundi, Kozhikkod, Dharmadom and Kannur. Egypt, Asia Minor, the Assyrian and Babylonian empires at the height of their power, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese-all maritime nations, had trade relations with Kerala long before the Christian era.

During the early centuries of the Anna Domine, trade relations existed with the Malayan Peninsula, the Philippines, Jawa and Sumatra. Ships from these countries of the East and the West, laden with cargo, sailed into the Kerala waters to return rich with the special produces of this land. Traders from Arabia and elsewhere also came in large numbers. The Kerala kings, the Perumals in particular, and later the Zamorins, gave them all help and facilities and even permitted them to settle down here.

It is believed that the Apostle St.Thomas landed in Kerala during the early period of Christianity. The spread of Christianity in Kerala, more than in any other region in India, is attributed to the advent of St.Thomas.

One of the earliest Muslim mosques in India is found near Kodungallur. The history of the advent of Jews to Kerala is also traced back to ancient times. The Jews later established their colony in Kochi and built their synagogue there. The tolerance and the cosmopolitan outlook which characterise the Malayalee is perhaps mainly due to the contacts which Kerala had with the outside world down the centuries.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala