There are around 35 million people in Kerala (2012). Of these about one fifth are Muslim, one fifth are Christian and three fifths are Hindu. The fertility rate is only 1.7 percent, a low rate for India. Two thirds of Kerala women use birth control compared to 40 percent nationwide. The population is relatively stable.

Most of the people in Kerala are Malayalis and they are defined as speakers of Malayalam. They are a diverse group, not only embracing a wide variety of Hindu castes, but also including Muslim Mappilas, Syrian Christians, Cochin Jews and some tribal groups.

Keralans are good examples of “poor people that live well.” The GNP per person in the 1990s was only $1000, on par with Cambodia or the Sudan, but life expectancy was 72 years, infant morality was low and the literacy rate was high, as they are all now.

The people of Kerala are regarded as among the most outgoing, ambitious and skeptical group in India. They love sitting around in tea shops a having heated discussions about issues of the day. Kerala is full of clubs, groups and associations. There are film clubs youth clubs, soccer clubs, all providing opportunities for social activity. Shopkeepers and hotel personnel can sometimes be very rude. This is a result of Keralite pride, communism and distaste towards being a servant.


Kerala is an extremely fertile and green strip of land sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. Immortalized in the book God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and embracing the Malabar Coast, it is India's smallest and most populous state—only 20 to 80 miles wide, 360 miles long but packed with 35 million people. Kerala means "Land of Coconuts." The people are called Malayalees or Keralites or Keralans. They call their land “God’s own land” and the “the blessed land.” Kerala is laced with lakes and streams known as the Backwaters. The Malabar Coast lies in the northern part of Kerala.

Situated in the part of India where the monsoons arrive first and leave last, Kerala is known for its verdant and lush landscape. By contrast, Tamil Nadu to the east, which shares a long border with Kerala, is a desertlike scrubland. This is because the Western Ghats, mountains in eastern Kerala, blocks the rain before it reaches Tamil Nadu. There are two monsoons: the southwest monsoon from mid-June to early September; and the northeast monsoon from mid-October to the end of the November. The rest of the year is dry with occasional showers. The plains are very hot and humid. the highlands are cooler.

Kerala is one of the smallest, richest and densely populated of India’s states. It is divided into three regions: 1) a narrow alluvial coast extending only a few miles from the sea; a region of foothills between 75 and 200 meters high; and highlands that reach into the Western Ghats. A number of short, fast-moving streams and rivers flow out of the Western Ghats.

Among Kerala's attractions are some of the world's highest tea, cardamon, pepper, and rubber plantations in the Western Ghats; a lovely coast lined filled with coconut palms; and banana trees, rice paddies, vegetation-choked canals, mango and cashew trees, traditional rice boats, tea plantations, spice markets, hill stations, Ayurvedic medicine resorts, picturesque beaches and hundreds of Hindu temples, many with their own festival and some with their own Kathakali dance group. The fishing boats, flat conical hats and water buffalo seen here are more reminiscent of southeast Asia than the Indian sub continent.

History of Kerala

Kerala has a long history of contacts with outsiders and was one of the first parts of the Orient to be open to western Europe. It may have been "Ophir," where King Solomon's ships discovered apes, gold and peacocks. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Arabs and maybe the Phoenicians, visited the Malabar Coast before the first European explorers arrived. The Roman established a military facility here and built a temple that honored the Roman Emperor Augustus at the seaport of Cranganur. Islam most likely arrived in Kerala first, in the 7th and 8th centuries, and spread from there to the rest of India. There were also Jewish merchants from Venice. St. Thomas is said to landed here in A.D. 52. Columbus was look for its spices when he landed in America. For a while there was large Arab community in Kerala.

For a time Kerala was only source in the world for pepper. Vasco da Gama came here in 1498 and opened up a trade route that sent cotton fabrics, spices, ivory and other goods to Europe. The Dutch and French briefly controlled the region before the British took control. Ships traveling between places as diverse as Indonesia, Madagascar and Zanzibar often stopped in Kerala to load up on water and food.

Kerala has been known for its independent ways and enlightened views throughout its history. While foreigners were coming and going, Kerala was ruled a succession of kingdoms that varied in size and had complex relations with one another and histories. The kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore remained independent under the British. In the 19th century rulers in the state reduced the power of feudal lords and upper castes and raised the status of lower castes.

Kerala was formed in 1956 from a union of the kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin, ruled by maharajas, and the district of Malabar to the north. Kerala is divided into districts administered by collectors who, though appointed by the state, are federal employees. Below the districts are “taluks” and below them are “tahsildar”. Both are governed by elected and appointed officials. At the local level councils called “panchayats” are responsible for collecting revenues and running schools.

Kerala is the home of the world’s first popularly-elected Communist government. The Indian Communist party won seats from Kerala in the Indian Parliament in 1952 and 1957. In 1957, the state of Kerala elected a Communist government. Almost immediately it was declared a "problem state" by the Indian government. After civil disorder, the federal legislature took over its government. A non-Communist coalition was elected in 1960.

Kerala it is said has a developed political consciousness. People like to sit around and discuss and argue about politics. Although the militant trade unions, portraits of Che Guevara and five-year plans under the Communists stymied economic growth they also helped create the good quality of life for which Kerala is known.

Marco Polo in Southern India and Kerala

It took Marco Polo 18 month to go from Sumatra to India. It is believed that he initially missed the monsoon's going his direction. He also may have been slowed by worries about pirates which he said inflict "great loses to the merchant." Sumatra to India. He referred to Sir Lanka as the "Isle of Seilan" and reported that pilgrims there visited the grave of Adam (probably a reference to Adams Peak). [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

In India, Marco Polo stopped in Thanjavur (formally Tanjore) and Kollam in Kerala. It is believed that Marco Polo spent some time wandering around and checking out India by land. Of India, Marco Polo wrote the people have "all things different from ours, and they are more beautiful and better." He said their peacocks were "much more beautiful and larger" and rice and "all things which are needed by the body of man for life they have in great abundance." **

Marco Polo also described pearls, holymen, exotic spices, the abundance of indigo, bride burning, refusal to eat meat and the custom of smearing homes with cow dung. He also wrote how "Most worship the ox" and described "physicians who now well how to keep men's bodies in health" and used spices as cures. **

Kerala Language and Religion

Kerala is one fifth Muslim, one fifth Christian and three fifths Hindu. The people of Kerala have a strong tradition of religious tolerance. Pakaracha is a custom where people of different faiths get together and share food from the different religions.

Malayalam is spoken by 96 percent of the people of Kerala. It is a Dravidian language similar to Tamil. In ancient times the two language were considered the same. Malayalam was the last language in the Dravidian group to develop its own literature. It became distinguished from Tamil as it embraced a number Sanskit and Prakrit words and influences while Tamil, with its emphasis on remaining pure, did not.

The Malayalam language of Kerala has given English the words atoll and teak.

Syrian Christians

Syrian Christians are the largest group of Christians in India. There are about 6 million of them. They make up 94 percent of the Christians in Kerala, which in turn is about 20 percent Christian. The remainder of the Christians were descendants of Christians converted by European missionaries. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992] Syrian Christians live mostly in the Kerala and are centered around the Kerala town of Kottayam where followers have lived since the 4th century. They get the name from Syriac (classical form of Aramai), the language used of their liturgies. They are also know as Nazaranis (followers of Jesus of nazarene).

Syrian Christians speak Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala. They generally only marry other Syrian Christians. Some marriages are arranged. Cross-cousin marriage is generally not practiced. The nuclear family is the basic social unit and men have traditionally worked outside the house while women stayed at home.

Syrian Christians are often quickly recognizable by their Biblical names like Paul, Thomas, Andrew, Peter. Syrian Christian women have a little fan hanging out of the back of their blouse. In Kerala they are regarded as energetic, ambitious, entrepreneurial and devoted to higher education.

Book: “God of Small Things “ by Arundhati Roy offers some interesting insights into life of Syrian Christians. On the early Syrian Christian settlers from Baghdad and Nineveh that came to India, Roy wrote: “They arrived in a boat and speed into Kerala like tea from a teabag.”

Kerala Holidays and Festivals

The springtime Pooram Festival in Trichur, Kerala lasts for 30 hours and features processions with teams made up of members of temples in the Trichur area. All the teams gather at Vadakkunnathan temple, pay their respects to Shiva, and march to Thiruvambadi and Parmekkavu temples. Each team has elephants with gilded headdresses. Opposing temples face off with shocking pink and baby-blue umbrellas with golden tassels. The main elephants wear fringed cloth with 600 gold pieces and carry the deity of the temple team. Competitions are held in front of the Vadakkunnathan temple to see which elephant has the brightest parasol and which team can make the most noise.

As the teams move along the procession route, people wave peacock-feather fans and yak-tail brushes. Mela orchestras play cymbals, conch shells and long, curving horns. At Vadakkunnathan temple, 200 musicians gather to play their instruments. At night there are torch-light parades with elephants. Competing temples try to produce the most spectacular fireworks displays and unveil the largest elephant. Competition is said to be so stiff that husbands and wives from different temples are said to not sleep with each other for a month before the festival.

Snake Boat Races are held in Kerala on different weekends in August and September in Alleppey, Payipad, Aranmula and Chochin. The events often feature boat procession and races and are sometimes part of larger temple festivals honoring Hindu deities. Snake boats are long narrow crafts that can hold several dozen men and easily maneuver Kerala's waterways and canals. The boats, according to legend, were first used for after-harvest battles between rival peasant clans and were outfit with underwater battering rams and mounted canons.

Kerala Women

Many Malayali women hold professional position which is relatively uncommon elsewhere in India. Women used to settle disputes with the guilty being whipped right in front of them. Some women to Kerala carries guns for protection from political rivals—an illustration of how strong Malayali women are and how seriously politics are taken in Kerala. [Source:Peter Miller, National Geographic, May 1988]

Kerala women are the most literate in India; they have the longest life expectancy and the lowest birthrate. Unlike northern Indians, they can inherit property and easily get a divorce. "They seldom live with in-laws and tend to marry cousins or neighbors. If a women leaves her husband she can return home.” [Source: Emily MacFarquhar, U.S. News and World Report]

In Kerala, brides receive large gifts and few unmarried girls have committed suicide because their father's could not pay a large enough dowry. Women in Kerala have traditionally held positions of high status. Before the colonial era. wealth was passed down from mother to daughter. [Source: Emily MacFarquhar, U.S. News and World Report]

A literacy campaign in Kerala has helped women and girls. Kerala dramatically increased the number of girls in school by offering a free lunch in school. Families found it was more in their interests to send their girls to get some nutritious food, a possibly bring some home, than for the girls to stay home and take care of their younger siblings. Kerala was also at the forefront of making small loans available to women.

Kerala Life and Society

Many groups in Kerala are organized along matrilineal lines and cross-cousin marriages are common. The highest caste in Kerala is the Nambudiri who have traditionally priests, scholars and art patrons. Since the caste system has been downplayed they now work at many different kinds of jobs. In Kerala people formally known as untouchables are now called the “scheduled classes"

There are numerous tea shops and toddy shops in Kerala. Many people like to hang out in thatch-roof tea shops and sip tea from cracked clay cups and discuss issues of the day all day long. Much of the tea produced in Kerala is either consumed locally. Much of the rest is sent to the United States to make sweet ice tea sold in bottles and cans at supermarkets.

Keralans use almost every part of the coconut tree the same way Tibetans utilize almost every part of the yak. The leaves are used for thatch; the trunk is made into furniture; the roots supply firewood; and coconuts themselves supply flesh, oil, milk and vinegar which are essential ingredients for cooking.

Kerala Women wear jasmine flowers and a dot of sandalwood paste on their forehead. The traditional Keralan sari is white with yellow and navy trim. Many women wear a “mundu”, a sari-like garment that is made of two separate pieces of off white cloth with a gold border draped over an underskirt and blouse. Accessories and clothing also give clues to caste, religion and home village. Syrian Christians, for example, have a little fan hanging out of the back of their blouse. In Kerala many people carry umbrellas for protection against the sun.

Kerala Villages, Homes and Health

Kerala contains some of the world’s most densely populated rural areas. While most of India is divided by distinct villages and their surrounding fields, the Kerala countryside is like one big village made up of scattered houses, rice fields, gardens, and fruit trees. Spaced at distances of 5 to 10 kilometers are towns with 5,000 to 50,000 inhabitants, schools and hospitals.

Houses, traditionally been constructed of wood, are relatively well made, often using teak. The front of the house usually faces east. Each house has a storage room for rice. Traditional furnishings include cots which people slept on and palm-leaf mats used for sitting and squatting. Modern houses are made of brick and have electricity and modern conveniences such as color television.

The average life span in Kerala is the 70s, a level that is close to American and European standards, and the infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the developed world (half the rate of China). Great emphasis is put on hygiene. People wear clean clothes and brush their teeth before each meal and rise their mouths after every meal. They bath once a day and twice when it is really hot.

Kerala Culture

Kerala has a developed intelligentsia and has produced a cannon of literature that far exceeds its size. More than 4 newspapers are read by intellectuals as well as working class people. The “Malayala Manorama” was first published in 1888. Even though the Kerala language Malayalam is spoken by few people outside of Kerala. The Malayala Manorama was read by 8 million people in the early 2000s, making it India’s second most popular daily after the Times of India.

Kerala has a very lively film scene. It hosts a major international film festival and has a number of film societies that were established when Communists came to power in the 1960s. The Kerala film industry put out more than 100 films a year in the 1980s and 60 or 70 in the early 2000s, many of them financed with some help from the Kerala government.

See “God of Small Things “ and Arundhati Roy Under Literature.

Kerala Music and Dance

Kerala is famous for its ritual drumming featuring chenda drums (hollow meter-long cylindrical drum held like a guitar with a shoulder strap and played standing up), often played with Kuzhai oboes, bronze cymbals and C-shaped kombu horns. Chendra drums are the chief accompaniment for Kathakali and are played in many temples in Kerala. Large drumming groups called chenda melas, play at festivals and other large gatheringa. The performances are exhilarating and entertaining. Sometimes elephant trumpeting is worked into shows and the drumming is so intense and fast it is said to sound like a roaring lion.

Dances and Theater from Kerala

“Kudiyattam” is a form of dance-drama based on mythology only performed in temples, with performances by temple servants lasting up to 20 days and featuring more than 600 codified hand gestures. Among some of the other Kerala dances are “Teyyam”, a dance form that glorifies the mother Goddess Bhagavati, Lord Shiva's consort; “Krisgnatttam”, a dance that honors Krishna; and “Padayani”, a colorful folk dance with dancers wearing large elaborate masks.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Kummatti is a form of processional mask dance from the central parts of Kerala. Kummatti dances belong to the cult of Goddess Devi and different temples have their own variations of the tradition. Kummatti has the quality of a partly improvised, hilarious carnival. Everyone can participate in it since the dances do not require any special skills. The dancers’ costumes are made of bunches of hay, and they wear colourful wooden masks representing mythological characters. The masked dancers proceed from house to house collecting small donations for the temple. There is now also a children’s kummatti tradition in which children paint their faces with bright colours, and dance led by male dancers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Trance dances are performed by young girls in Kerala. In an attempt to invoke the snake god for an early marriage young girls smeared in oil do a trance dance while a priest plays primitive violin. During the flame dance the dancer takes on the personality of a Hindu God.

See Separate Article THEATER IN KERALA Under Culture

Kerala Education and Infrastructure

The people of Kerala are the most literate group in India. Their literacy rate is 90 percent. Nearly every village has a public library and a descent school. Nearly every child attends school. Large towns have colleges. One Cochin businessman told the New York Times, “Everyone reads. Even the guy who digs ditches, who can’t afford his own newspaper, goes to a tea shop every day and read theirs.” In the early 2000s, about 40 percent of Kerala's budget was spent on schools. There are a lot of schools and they are filled with clean, well-maintained classrooms and cheerful students in brightly-colored uniforms.

Christian have generally put a great emphasis on education and missionary schools have played an important role in educating the population of Kerala. The high literacy rate is partly the result of a 1989 literacy campaign in which 350,000 volunteers fanned out across the country to teach people in fishing villages, slums and remote tribal areas how to read.

There is a good system of railroads and paved roads in Kerala. Bullock carts were replaced by motorized vehicles long ago, unlike some parts of India. Forty-one rivers and more than a thousand shallow canals, known as backwaters crisscross the state, providing water for rice plantations and thoroughfares for shallow-bottomed boats throughout the state. City canals in Kerala provide baths and drinking water. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's longest canoe is a 135-foot snake boat used in Kerala. It has 109 rowers and nine "encouragers."

The Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, India's first rocket research center, is located in Kerala. It is where Indian rockets have been launched and research teams developed technology capable of launching large payloads into orbit.

Kerala Economics, Business and Agriculture

Kerala has been described as "poor but prosperous." Most people live in small houses; the average income in the 1990s was $1,000 a year—$200 less than the Indian average, and about one 30th the average income in the United States at that time. Even so Kerala leads the nation in education, health care, family planning, and the fight against poverty. Kerala's cities are virtually slumless. Among those who have drawn attention to Kerala's success at achieving a high quality of life is Nobel-prize-wining Indian economist Amartya Sen.

Kerala's low per capita income has been linked to the anti-capitalist ideology of the government, which has favored workers over businesses and scared away investors. Kerala has a high unemployment rate. This partly the result of producing so many educated people but not having jobs for them when they graduate. The labor movement in Kerala has traditionally been strong. Commerce is often disrupted by strikes. In Kerala out-of-work laborers in Trichur used to run a lottery booth called Unemployees Lucky Center. In Trichur you also once could find Urgent Dress Cleaners and Singsong Radio Spares.

One businessman in Kerala told Atlantic monthly, "It is a good place to live but a tough place to do business.” Many small businesses, such as groceries, restaurants and hardware stores are run by Christians. Some Christians are also involved in the trade of agricultural products. There is little manufacturing in Kerala other than that tied with with producing tiles, coconut fiber, rubber and cashew nuts. Kerala is know for jewelry and Ayurvedic medicines. Kerala has natural resources—rich fisheries, timber supplies and reserves of iron ore— that have not been exploited.

Many Keralans live abroad. There are currently maybe 2 million of them living overseas, many in the Middle East. A lot of money has been pumped into the Keralan economy by Muslim Malayalis and other Keralites who work in the Persian Gulf states. The money they have earned there has helped raised the standard of living of their families and Kerala as a whole.

Agriculture remains the main occupation for about half the population. Rice, pulses, sorghum, fruit, vegetables and spices are the primary crops. Cattle, buffalo, chickens and ducks are kept. Fresh water fish for export are raised in fish ponds. Important cash crops include cardamom, pepper, other spices. coffee, tea, cashew nuts and rubber, The British and the Christians profited from the trade of these crops. Many farms in Kerala are owned by Christians and worked by low-caste Hindu laborers.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.