From the Ancient to the Modern: Kerala Piravi Day

Written by Christina Dedhia

Artwork credit: Gopika Krishnan L.

Representing the beauty of Kerala, the picture draws us into the celebration of Kerala Piravi today. With lush green lands nestled by the waters as boats float gently across, we take pride in our 65th year as an independent state. The hues of the blue creating symphony with the white bring us to our very prized Aranmula Kannadi, a mirror in which we see years of tradition.

Commemorating the unification of Kerala, 1st November stands as testimony to an impressive and fruitful past. Kerala received its statehood on 1st November 1956 and now celebrates its 65th year as an independent and unified state. With its evergreen cultural vibrancy, each member of the land pridefully boasts of their heritage!

Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see.” Taking heed of these words, let us go back in time to see how Kerala has risen from the myths and lore and its authentic ancient history.

Several myths persist concerning the origin of Kerala. One of these is the creation of Kerala by Parasuram, a warrior sage who was the sixth of the ten avatars of Maha Vishnu. The word Parasu means ‘axe’ in Sanskrit, and therefore, the name Parasuram means ‘Ram with Axe’. His birth aimed to deliver the world from the arrogant oppression of the then ruling caste, the Kshatriyas. He killed all the male Kshatriyas on earth and filled five lakes with their blood. After destroying the Kshatriya kings, he approached an assembly of learned men to find a way of repentance for his sins. They advised him that to save his soul from damnation must hand over the lands he had conquered to the Brahmins. He did as they suggested and sat in meditation at Gokarnam. There, with blessings from Varuna, the God of the Oceans and Gokarnai – Goddess of Earth. From Gokarnam, he reached Kanyakumari and threw his axe northward across towards Gokarna. The place where the axe landed was Kerala. It was 160 katam (an old measure) of land lying between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari. Puranas say that Parasuram planted the 64 Brahmin families in the north of Kerala to expiate his slaughter of the Kshatriyas. In the Puranas, Kerala is known as Parasurama Kshetram, i.e., ‘The Land of Parasurama.’

Lore apart, Kerala was part of the ancient world and had its history dotted with proof. A 3rd-century-BCE rock inscription left by the Maurya emperor Ashoka (274–237 BCE) in one of his edicts about welfare is the first record of ‘Kerala’ as Ketalaputo (‘son of Chera [s]’). Kerala has also been mentioned in the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ and works of ‘Pliny’, as it was a trade hub. Ophir, a port or region mentioned in the Bible, famous for its wealth, is often identified with some coastal areas of Kerala.

Marine fossils recovered from the coast of Kerala point towards an underwater-submerged past. Further up the timeline, we find prehistoric monuments left behind by ancient ancestors. The dolmens at Idduki, various rock-cut caves across Kerala, rock carvings at Edakkal caves and the unique ‘Kudakkal’, meaning umbrella stones, show ancient burials and the beginnings of a rich culture. From the Paleolithic Age through the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Megalithic Ages, we see evidence of the development of the society in ancient Kerala.

The availability of spices and their lucrative trade attracted many trading communities such as the Arabs, Egyptians, Phonecians, Babylonians. Cinnamon and pepper found their way across the seas with these traders. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) records that the Egyptians and the Phoenicians monopolized the cinnamon spice industry.

Recorded in the edicts of Ashoka, the Chera’s, who was one of the four independent kingdoms of the time, were the first prominent dynasties to rule Kerala. They supposedly had their capital in Karur. The famous and yet unfound port of Muziris was part of the Chera kingdom. A short Tamil-Brahmi inscription containing the word Chera (“Kadummi Pudha Chera”) was found in the Edakkal caves in the Western Ghats. Present-day central Kerala detached from Kongu Chera kingdom around 8th-9th century CE to form the Chera Perumal kingdom, which derived most of its wealth from maritime spice trade with the Middle East. The Cheras transformed Kerala into an international trade centre by establishing trade relations across the Arabian Sea with all leading Mediterranean and the Red Sea ports and those of the Far East taking advantage of their location on the key routes of the ancient Indian Ocean trade. The Chera Perumal kingdom had alternating friendly or hostile relations with the Cholas and the Pandyas. After repeated attacks from the neighbouring Cholas and Rashtrakutas, it was attacked and eventually forced into submission by the Cholas in the early 11th century CE.

The Age of Swarupams and Naduvazhis comprising the middle ages in Kerala (1100-1800 CE) began with the disintegration of the second Chera kingdom. The ages witnesses the emergence of localised rulers of different Nadus and their original families known as Swarupams.The Chera inscriptions mention a few such Naduvazhis. The political scene of Kerala was dominated by these local chieftains. Swarupams were ruling houses that control the Nadus. They were large joint families. Their political authority was organised based on Kuru (Sincerity). The Chera inscriptions allude to the existence of Kuruvazhcha. As big landlords, the Swarupams received dues from their land, and tolls from trading centres.

Venad (later Travancore) was one of the most powerful kingdoms that arose following the disintegration of the Chera kingdom of Makotai. Venad means the land of Vel Chieftains. They controlled the agrarian tracts from Kollam to Nanchinadu. During the early Sangam age, Venad was part of the Ay kingdom. In the Perumal age, Venad had the status of a feudatory power. It attained an independent status only after the 12th Century.

In the 14th Century, Ravi Varma Kulashekhara of the southern Venad kingdom established a short-lived supremacy over southern India. After his death, the state broke up into small warring principalities, the most powerful being the kingdom of the Zamorin of Kozhikode. At the peak of their reign, the Zamorins of Kozhikode ruled from Kollam (Quilon) in the south to Panthalayini Kollam (Koyilandy) in the north. Ibn Battuta mentions the regime of Kozhikode being prosperous. Chinese sailors, Arab merchants, European travellers were the scene of the time.

King Deva Raya II (1424–1446 CE) of the Vijayanagara Empire conquered almost all present-day Kerala in the 15th Century. He defeated the Zamorin of Kozhikode, as well as the ruler of Kollam, around 1443 CE.

Jewish history in Kerala dates back to 68 CE. Their first settlement was in Crangannore, now known as Kodungallur. There is historical evidence to show that the erstwhile rulers gave trading rights and concessions in the area to the Jewish merchant Joseph Rabban. Following Rabban’s death in the 11th Century, a power struggle broke out among his sons, which led to the break-up of the community. Many moved to Mattancherry, which went on to become a major Jewish settlement. A theory disputing this version says that the Portuguese invasion of Kodungallore forced the Jews to move to Mattancherry, where the king of Kochi welcomed them. By the 17th Century, the Jews in Kerala had set up synagogues in Mattancherry, Ernakulam, Paravoor, Mala, Chendamangalam and Angamaly. They also built many mansions and buildings in Jew Town.

The advent of the Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, French and English) marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Kerala. The Portuguese began to expand their territories and rule the seas after the discovery of the sea route from Europe to Malabar in 1498. Portuguese attacks on Arab properties provoked the Zamorin and led to conflicts between them. The Portuguese took advantage of the rivalry between the Zamorin and the King of Kochi and allied with Kochi. In 1505 CE, they chose Fort Kochi (Fort Emmanuel) to build the Viceroy of Portuguese India headquarters over Kozhikode dominating relations with Kochi and establishing a few fortresses on the Malabar Coast. By the early decades of the 17th Century, the Dutch had emerged as a serious rival to the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company ousted the Portuguese and gained control of the trade during the Kozhikode and the Kochi conflicts. They lost to the Dutch at Quilon (Kollam) after 1661, and later, the Portuguese left the south-western coast. A Dutch fleet under Admiral Steven van der Hagen arrived at Kozhikode in November 1604 CE. It marked the beginning of the Dutch presence in Kerala, and they concluded a treaty with Kozhikode in 1604 CE, which was also the first treaty that the Dutch East India Company made with an Indian ruler. They succeeded in installing the prince of their choice on the Cochin Gaddi. They finally had to give up their claims in the face of opposition from the rulers of Thiruvitamkur, Mysore and the growing presence of the English East India Company. The Dutch defeat at Kulachal (1741), the Mysorian occupation of Chettuvay (1776) and the English capture of Kochi (1795) sealed their fate in Kerala. The most outstanding achievement of the Dutch in the cultural field was the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus, a monumental botanical work on the medicinal plants of Kerala.

The French, too, entered Kerala with the purpose of trade. They arrived near Thalassery in 1725 CE and occupied Mahe. Before long, the English had to face the rivalry of the French. The French at Mahe provoked the English during the Canarese Wars (1732-36 CE). They captured Mahe but had to return Mahe soon after the close of the Anglo-French conflict.

During the last days of Portuguese rule (1635- 35), the English secured access to all Portuguese Ports in Kerala, and they began to export pepper to England from 1636 CE. Fort Anjengo soon became the most crucial English possession on the West Coast, next only to Mumbai. Treaty of Travancore in 1723 CE laid the foundation of friendship between Travancore and the English East India Company, a friendship that lasted for several decades. The establishment of British supremacy witnessed the beginning of a new epoch in our history. It was an epoch of challenge and response, an epoch of domination and resistance. The native chieftains and people responded to the British challenge with a firm resolve to throw the foreign yoke, but in vain. But the attempt itself is remarkable. The resistance movements were organized and led by stalwarts as Kerala Varma in Malabar, Velu Thampi in Thiruvitamkur, Paliath Achan in Kochi, the Kurichiyas in Wayanad and the Mappilas in Eralnad and Valluvanad. And the early risings were led by such diverse elements as dispossessed local princes, feudal chieftains, aggrieved peasants and tribal communities.

Kerala of the present-day was created long after India gained independence in 1947. Three independent provinces named Malabar, Cochin and Travancore, the latter two being erstwhile princely states, made up the pre-independence Kerala. Kerala Varma Thampuran, popularly known as Aikya Keralam Thampuran, mooted the idea of a unified Kerala state in India for the Malayalam speaking population and stood for the merging of British Malabar, Cochin and Travancore. Fukyali Kerala (meaning united Kerala) was a popular movement to form the State of Kerala. On 1st July 1949, Travancore and Cochin merged, Travancore-Cochin state came into existence, and Darsanakalanidhi Parikshith Thampuran was the last official ruler of the Cochin princely state.

Until the mid-1950s, the land continued to be politically divided, despite geographic similarities and linguistic solidarity. During this period that communism managed to take firm roots in the region. The States Reorganisation Act, 1956 was a significant reform of the boundaries of India’s states and territories, organizing them along linguistic lines. The state of Kerala was formed by the States Reorganisation Act merging the Malabar District (excluding the islands of Lakshadweep), Travancore-Cochin (excluding four southern taluks, which were merged with Tamil Nadu), and the taluk of Kasargod, South Kanara. A Communist-led government under E. M. S. Namboodiripad resulted from the first elections for the new Kerala Legislative Assembly in 1957.

Kerala Piravi Day commemorates this momentous union that led to the formation of modern-day Kerala as we know it. Today we celebrate the 65th Kerala Piravi Day. Even today, Malayalis stay true to their roots and proudly carry their heritage around the world. While we are responsible for creating history, we must also be careful to look at multiple perspectives in its retelling. Our ancestors left us lessons and vibrant culture. As we design a future for Kerala, we need to ask ourselves what history and heritage we want to leave behind for the coming generations.

Founded in 1984, by R.Madhavan Nayar, The Kerala Museum, run by the Madhavan Nayar Foundation, facilitates a mystical ride through 20 centuries of Kerala’s rich past presented through 37 tableaus at the History Museum. Join us for the sound and light show, and experience the stories of people and events that changed the fortunes of this lush land and about Kerala’s significant contribution to the region’s history.


  3. Currents in Indian History, Art, and Archaeology, edited by Udai Prakash Arora, A. K. Sinha
  6. Kerala Society And Culture: Ancient And Medieval- the UNIVERSITY OF CALICUT
  7. The Quote Manual: Wisdom and Wit of the Ages, By Robert G. Moscatelli

You maybe also interested in...


Get exciting updates about our events and more

    Excited to visit us?
    We have more in store for you