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A Suburb Named Kerala

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 23, 2011

“Albeit the country is but small, yet it is so fulfilled with people, that it may well be called one town from Mount D’ely to Coulam” – Duarte Barbosa, c. 1516.

The land the Portuguese writer is elucidating is the coast line of the Indian state of Kerala, from the town of Kannur in the north to Kollam in the south. If we extend this observation to the entire state of Kerala, we can see that, half a millennia later, Barbosa’s words remain true as ever.

The Early Years

It was the spice trade that brought Barbosa and the Portuguese to Kerala. The Arab traders and the Italian city states held a virtual monopoly in it and the Portuguese intended to break that monopoly. He would later accompany Magellan around the world but die on the way in Philippines. The “town” of Kerala that Barbosa saw was made of four city states – Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Kollam. These city states competed amongst themselves, at times violently, over the lucrative spice trade. These rivalries, however, remained independent of influence from the rest of the subcontinent. The Western Ghats provided a natural barrier to a large scale deployment of force from the other southern states (They did occasionally send, often successful, sorties to Kerala, but a meaningful annexation was difficult).

Insulated from the continuous warfare of the subcontinent and helped by the fertile land of the region, Kerala progressed in numbers and its economy flourished (which probably led Barbosa to make that comment). Indeed it can be said that while the Western Ghats kept Kerala away from rest of the subcontinent, the allure of the spices brought the rest of the world to Kerala further enriching its people, both in culture and economy.

However, the southern states did have considerable influence over the culture of Kerala, especially the Tamil nation, of which the people of Kerala originally were. The unknown author of “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (c. 100 AD) talks of two kingdoms in this region – Cerabothra (Cheras) and Pandian (Pandyas) and their main ports of Muziris (Near Kochi) and Nelcynda (Perhaps Kollam). These were ruled from Karur and Madurai both in present day Tamil Nadu. The influence of the Tamil culture was ever present in those days. Silappathikaram, a Tamil epic dated around this time feature the three Tamil nations – Chola, Chera and Pandya, prominently.

But this was a time when the people of Kerala had not yet branched off from the Tamil people. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is believed to have developed much later, in the sixth century. By eighth century the Chera kingdom had re-formed in Mahodayapuram near Kochi, while in the extreme South the Ay kingdom ruled as feudatories of the Pandya in Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram. Muziris remained as the chief port in the region till it got flooded in 1341 and disappeared from history. Over time the Chera kingdom also disappeared and the city states that Barbosa came across replaced it (Ay kingdom merged with Kollam to form Venad).  The Dutch and the English would soon follow the Portuguese and an uneasy trade alliance was formed between the city states and the mercenary trading companies.

This would be destroyed by the aggression of the usurpers of Mysore, Hyder Ali and Tipu, which eventually resulted in the ouster of the northern kingdoms by the British East India Company. The Southern half however remained independent from British India, but as autonomous princely states within the British Empire.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the current state of Kerala was divided into three; two princely states – Travancore (erstwhile Venad) and Kochi, and the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency of British India*. The society was heavily based in agriculture (and to a lesser extend trade), but it remained thickly populated. The twentieth century would bring considerable change to the region, but in many ways it continued to remain the same.

The Making of an Ideal Development Model

Chart A: Density of Population 1871-2001 (Persons per sq km) **

Kerala has always been a highly populated region. The early twentieth century saw a considerable increase in population making it more populous than even Bengal, perhaps an indication of the improving healthcare of Kerala. This huge increase in population, however, put a tremendous stress on the society and its resources. Fertile land remained the most important resource, but its importance was reduced with the increase of population. As land got divided over generations, its ability to support its owners reduced.

From 1921 to 1941, the population had grown by 50%. The pressure of population on land was such that in early 1940s large communities of people, mainly Christians, migrated out of Travancore and settled in unpopulated tracts of Malabar. Though this provided a temporary release of pressure, there was no escape from the population explosion that happened across the world after WWII. By the 1970s, the population of 1940s had almost doubled. It soon became difficult for the people of Kerala to depend purely on land for their life.

Despite the slowly choking economic growth, this was a period that saw tremendous societal progress. The Kingdom of Travancore led the way in social reforms receiving commendations from British India on its administration. Kochi did not lag far behind. Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), the architect of the Thiruvananthapuram, initiated the reforms in Travancore, while Shakthan Tampuran (1790-1805), the architect of Thrissur, initiated the reforms in Kochi. The latter was responsible for bringing traders to Thrissur to develop the economy of the region. A century and a half later, Thrissur was lauded for its organized banking system. Early in the nineteenth century the then Queen of Travancore, Gowri Lakshmi Bai (1810-1813), took personal initiative to introduce vaccination to her state. Her son, Swathi Thirunal (1813-1846), established many education institutions. Early in the twentieth century, Rajarshi (1895-1914), King of Kochi, invested the Royal Treasury to bring railway to Kochi. This was soon extended to Travancore a decade later.

By the early twentieth century, both the Kingdoms of Travancore and Kochi had developed excellent educational and health infrastructure. However, not all were freely accessible. Racism, like in rest of India, was strong in Kerala as well. Although it would continue to persist to the latter part of the century, the Dalit movement led by Ayyankali ensured that the lower castes received access to education in line with the rest of the society. There was resistance among the Hindu community but this was quickly brought down. The prevalence of Christian missionary backed educational institutes would have also made education accessible to everyone. Kerala always had a substantial Christian community since the arrival of the Portuguese, who came with a specific directive to convert people to Christianity, unlike their English and Dutch counterparts.

When the British chose to leave India in 1947 after the pyrrhic war of WWII, Kochi was the first nation to join India. The then King of Kochi put forward a proposal to have a united state of Malayalam speaking people. The King of Travancore was initially reluctant to join, and for good reason. It is possible that there were apprehensions about the continuance of the societal reforms taken by him and his predecessors. Fortunately and perhaps as a confirmation of those reforms, the new state of Kerala took special interest in continuing the educational and healthcare reforms of the princely states and extend it to the Malabar region as well. The success of the earlier reforms can be inferred by the fact that it could provide the personnel necessary to support such a state wide expansion.

In the 1970s, the Kerala society received much praise from the intelligentsia around the world for its societal indicators. These indicators were a result of a century of enlightened rule by the Kings of Travancore and Kochi and their continuation by the Government of Kerala. The rest of India for its part intervened very little in this development. However, economic growth continued to be out of reach and the state faced a worrying future with its main resource, fertile land, not enough to provide for its people. It was the time for the people of Kerala to show their mettle.


For centuries, people from around the world came to Kerala for its spices. But, there is a very limited record of people from Kerala going around the world. Perhaps it was because the people were well supported by the land. With that no longer possible, Malayalis had to search elsewhere for their future.

Gulf Boom and Economic Growth

Kerala has an ancient connection with the Arab world. Arab traders held a monopoly of trade with Kerala for close to a millennium, before the interference of European colonialists. Kerala also has a proud Muslim tradition dating back to the days of the Prophet, much longer than the rest of the country. By the 1970s, propelled by the oil trade, the Arab nations were riding high on economic growth. However, they were sparsely populated and suffered a considerable shortage of manpower. Kerala, on the other hand, had a surplus of educated manpower. The historic trade connection and the Muslim tradition helped meet demand with supply, resulting in the Gulf boom of Kerala. The cost of living differences allowed a person earning in Gulf to provide for a larger family in Kerala. The homeward remittances also trickled down to trade and provided impetus to economic growth.

The Gulf boom had some unintended consequences as well. It had a negative impact on the growth of the manufacturing sector. It was already reeling under trade union activism in the state brought upon by a well aware working force. The opportunity of a much better job abroad (or even being already supported by somebody abroad) did not improve this either. It also took off pressure on fertile land as many former farmers also went abroad. Many took opportunity of this to convert farmland to real estate and gain profits. Many chose to leave their fields fallow and focus away from agriculture (This was eventually reined in by the government enforcing cultivation on agricultural land. If left fallow, it would be taken over by the government). But on the whole, the Gulf boom provided the momentum Kerala  needed. It also meant that Kerala progressed from an agriculture based economy to a service based economy, without going through the manufacturing phase.

The Story Now

Kerala has come a long way since the Gulf boom. In the 1970s, Kerala had excellent educational infrastructure, but it was mainly limited to basic education. Technical and professional studies still lagged behind. This was addressed with the privatization of higher education in the early 2000s, right in time for the children of the Gulf “veterans” made their way into college. Jobs in Kerala were still few, but the economic growth of India provided adequate employment opportunities for the new batch of better educated Keralites, which they gracefully took.

Many still find employment in the Gulf regions, but the cost of living difference has since been corrected. Most, however, find employment within the state or in India. The government still continues to provide employment to large sections of the state, but many are employed in trade, exports and tourism. Agriculture has lost its initial importance, as was seen in a recent uproar in the declassification of rubber, tea and coconut cultivators as farmers because it covered a large chunk of the farmers of the state. Exports continue its historical role in Kerala, while tourism has brought in additional revenue. The relief on land meant that the natural beauty of the region remained unexploited for the welfare of the people. This in turn proved to be a boon for the tourism industry.

Although the economy is not as dependent on homeward remittances like the previous generation, there is still considerable investment by the Malayali Diaspora in the state, in the form of real estate. Trade has grown as well, especially in sarees and gold jewellery, perhaps an indication of husbands working away from home trying to keep their wives happy.

Chart B: Per Capita Income per State (Source: RBI)

Economy of Kerala has mostly grown in-line with the bigwigs of the Indian economy; Maharashtra and Gujarat. States like West Bengal and Bihar which have a comparable density of population to Kerala have fallen behind considerably. For a state with limited resources to continuously outperform its peers is of worthwhile significance. More heartening to see is the poverty numbers which reveal that the spread of wealth is even. There is no accumulation of wealth like in the case of Maharashtra. A curious side note is that Kerala rely on migrants from other state for its low end labour. A generation ago, it was performed by Tamil immigrants. Now, Bihari, Bengali and Oriya migrants monopolize it. Despite having a considerable surplus of people, it is still dependent on migrant labour.

Table A: Poverty Estimates on URP Consumption (Source: Planning Commission of India)










A century ago, fertile land was Kerala’s best resource. Now it is its people. The Kings of Travancore and Kochi laid the foundation for a strong society, which the government of Kerala carried forward. But it still required the people of Kerala to step up to work. And they did. Even then things are not all rosy. There are still very concerning aspects about the Kerala society like the high alcoholism, high suicide rates and well, of course, the antics of Sreesanth (Although high alcoholism can be explained by the tradition of consumption of toddy among the people. Ezhavas, the largest community in Kerala, were traditionally the makers of toddy). Like in 1970s, Kerala still do not have the resources to support its own people. Though the population growth has been reined it, density remains high. Keralites have to rely on themselves to make their own path. All the government can still do is provide the tools for it.

Government of India, for its part, had very little to add to Kerala’s progress. Given the situation of the rest of the country, especially the Hindi states, it is not surprising. However, Keralites still rely on its bigger “city neighbour” for defence and, more importantly, employment.

For most of its history, the people of Kerala have been in control of their destiny. For their sake, it continues to be so. That is the Kerala story.

* The Nagercoil district of Travancore was transferred to Tamil Nadu, while parts of South Kanara district of Madras Presidency were added to Kerala.

** The data for 1871-1911 was taken from Wikipedia, 1911-1941 from Census of India, 1951-2001 from India Budget.  From 1871-1911, Kerala includes the data of its three contingents – Travancore, Kochi and Malabar, but for 1921-1941 the data for Malabar has not been considered. But since there is no remarkable fluctuation between 1941 and 1951 data, it is likely that Malabar grew in correlation with the other parts of Kerala. Pre independence Tamil Nadu is based on Madras Presidency, while Bengal contains Bengal Presidency (With Princely States) before independence and only the West Bengal state post independence. Also, Burma and Aden has been excluded from India given above.


A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to Fall of Vijayanagar – KA Nilakanta Sastri
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – Translated by Wilfred Schoss


One Response to “A Suburb Named Kerala”

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