Ancient Kerala is mentioned as the land of the Cheras in a third-century BC Ashokan edict, and in several even older Sanskrit texts, including the Mahabharata. Pliny and Ptolemy also testify to thriving trade between the ancient port of Muziris (now known as Kodungallur) and the Roman Empire. Kodungallur is also tipped to be where one of the twelve disciples, St Thomas, first set foot in 52 AD; today Christians account for some 21 percent of Kerala’s population. Little is known about the region’s early rulers, whose dominion covered a large area, but whose capital, Vanji, has not so far been identified. At the start of the ninth century, King Kulashekhara Alvar – a poet-saint of the Vaishnavite bhakti movement known as the alvars – established his own dynasty. His son and successor, Rajashekharavarman, is thought to have been a saint of the parallel Shaivite movement, the nayannars. The great Keralan philosopher Shankaracharya, whose advaitya (“non-dualist”) philosophy influenced the whole of Hindu India, was alive at this time.
Eventually, the prosperity acquired by the Cheras through trade with China and the Arab world proved too much of an attraction for the neighbouring Chola empire, which embarked upon a hundred years of sporadic warfare with the Cheras at the end of the tenth century. Around 1100, the Cheras lost their capital at Mahodayapuram in the north, and shifted south to establish a new capital at Kollam (Quilon).
Direct trade with Europe commenced in 1498 with the arrival in the capital, Calicut, of a small Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama – the first expedition to reach the coast of India via the Cape of Good Hope and Arabian Sea. After an initial show of cordiality, relations between him and the local ruler, or Zamorin, quickly degenerated, and da Gama’s second voyage four years later was characterized by appalling massacres, kidnapping, mutilation and barefaced piracy. Nevertheless, a fortified trading post was soon established at Cochin from which the Portuguese, exploiting old enmities between the region’s rulers, were able to dominate trade with the Middle East. This was gradually eroded away over the ensuing century by rival powers France and Holland. An independent territory was subsequently carved out of the Malabar Coast by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, but his defeat in 1792 left the British in control right up until Independence.
Kerala can claim some of the most startling radical credentials in India. In 1957 it was the first state in the world to democratically elect a communist government, and still regularly returns communist parties in elections. Due to reforms made during the 1960s and 1970s, Kerala currently has the most equitable land distribution of any Indian state. Poverty appears far less acute than in other parts of the country, with life expectancy and per capita income well above the national averages. Kerala is also justly proud of its reputation for healthcare and education, with literacy rates that stand, officially at least, at 96 percent for men and 92 percent for women. Industrial development is negligible, however: potential investors from outside tend to fight shy of dealing with such a politicized workforce.