Saturday, January 24, 2009

A quick peek at Kerala- an amazing cultural cauldron

This is in continuation of my previous post..
The state of Kerala where I hail from became Kerala after India got its independence.
Before that for a long time, it had 3 main kingdoms- Travancore (Thiruvithankur), Cochin (Kochi) and Malabar. Known for its incredible natural beauty and trade in spices, this narrow strip of land was well known throughout the known world. King Solomon’s ships used to trade at the Malabar coast and so did the Arabs, the Chinese, the Romans etc.

Myth has it that the land of Kerala was created by the sage Parashuram, the 6th Avtar of Vishnu when he threw his Axe over the sea from Gokarnam in north to Kanyakumari in south. The land rose up from the sea as the Axe passed and created this lush green land. The land was used by Parashuram to do his penance for his slaughter of Kshatriyas.

Kerala (by this, I mean what consists of the present state of Kerala – which prior to independence was the Malayalam speaking kingdoms) also had a distinct and differently evolved cultural system.

I would say that the really distinct feature of Kerala was the Matriarchal system which was prevalent in many communities. Children stayed with their mothers and the mother’s side of the family. One inherited property from the mother’s side. My surname, Vallath, comes from my mother. Women could accept any number of suitors, and could as easily get out of a relation and into a new one as could their consorts. Women, in a nutshell were empowered.

But the curse of Kerala was also that the caste system which was pervasive across India was extremely strong in Kerala. There were the 4 castes (Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) and then the untouchables. It is believed that the untouchables had a really tough time in Kerala. The shadow of an untouchable was not allowed to touch the path of a Brahman.

The strong cultural beliefs also gave Kerala some wonderful art forms (Kathakali, Koothu, Mohiniyattam etc.) based around temple life. Several temples in Kerala acquired huge myths and legends around them – Guruvayur, Sabarimala, Kodungalloor, Chottanikkara, Pazhavangadi, Vadakkunnathan, and several dozens more. Stories of these temples, their patron kings, the temple elephants, the gods and goddesses- all interwoven in some of the most fascinating myth/legends ever to come down over generations- some of them over a 1000 years or more. (I would love to share some of these stories – Aitheehyams – sometime later)

Kerala rulers and people were also very xenophilic. Openly embracing and accepting different cultures and religions which traded with them. The first Islamic mosque outside Arabia was built in Kerala at Kodungalloor in 612 AD during the lifetime of Mohammed, by the King of Musiris, This was done, after the previous king, Cheraman Perumal sent back letters of introduction along with his Arab friends from his death bed en route back from Mekkah. He had earlier abdicated his throne on hearing of Mohammed from Arab traders, and made the pilgrimage to Mekkah and met up with Mohammed.

The Jews were trading in the Malabar coast from the time of King Solomon (BC1000) and St. Thomas (one of the original 12 disciples of Christ) landed in Kerala and spread the gospel.

The average Malayali even today shows these signs of openness to different ideas and ideologies. They also show an extremely complex mix of empowerment of women on one hand and male chauvinism on the other – a state no doubt reached by the male trying to fight back for supremacy. The first ever democratically elected communist government in the world came up in Kerala in 1956. So did the Kshetrapraveshana Vilambaram, a proclamation which legally allowed the untouchables to enter the temples.

It is from this rich tapestry of cultural and religious milieu that the Vallath family and RamG emerges !!!!!!!!!!!!!


Satish Shah said...

Hi Ram,

This is great stuff, thanks for sharing this, i really did not know about the culture (Had an idea, but this was an eye opener).


Ramgopal Vallath said...

Hi Satish,
Yes, Kerala is quite amazing in terms of the cultural richness.
Wait till you see my next Blog- India over 2 millennium.

Kalyani said...

You could have avoided the grammar mistake in the last sentence hehe... excellent, again!