Cultural Heritage of Kerala
Muziris in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an itinerarium showing the road network in the Roman Empire.
Early ruling dynasties
Kerala’s dominant rulers of the early historic period were the Cheras, a Tamil dynasty with its headquarters located in Vanchi.
The location of Vanchi is generally considered near the ancient port city of Muziris in Kerala.
However, Karur in modern Tamil Nadu is also pointed out as the location of the capital city of Cheras.
Another view suggests the reign of Cheras from multiple capitals.
The Chera kingdom consisted of a major part of modern Kerala and Kongunadu which comprises western districts of modern Tamil Nadu like Coimbatore and Salem.
Old Tamil works such as Patiṟṟuppattu, Patiṉeṇmēlkaṇakku and Silappatikaram are important sources that describe the Cheras from the early centuries CE.
Together with the Cholas and Pandyas the Cheras formed the Tamil triumvirate of the mūvēntar (Three Crowned Kings).
The Cheras ruled the western Malabar Coast, the Cholas ruled in the eastern Coromandel Coast and the Pandyas in the south-central peninsula.
The Cheras were mentioned as Ketalaputo (Keralaputra) on an inscribed edict of emperor Ashoka of the Magadha Empire in the 3rd century BCE, as Cerobothra by the Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and as Celebothras in the Roman encyclopedia Natural History by Pliny the Elder.
The Mushika kingdom existed in northern Kerala, while the Ays ruled south of the Chera kingdom.
Trade relations of Kerala
The region of Kerala was possibly engaged in trading activities from the 3rd millennium BCE with Sumerians and Babylonians.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese were attracted by a variety of commodities, especially spices and cotton fabrics.
Muziris, Berkarai, and Nelcynda were among the principal trading port centres of the Chera kingdom.
Megasthanes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Magadhan king Chandragupta Maurya (4th century BCE) mentions Muziris and a Pandyan trade centre.
Pliny mentions Muziris as India’s first port of importance. According to him, Muziris could be reached in 40 days from the Red Sea ports of Egypt purely depending on the South west monsoon winds.
Later, the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea notes that “both Muziris and Nelcynda are now busy places”.
There were harbours of Naura near Kannur, Tyndis near Koyilandy, and Bacare near Alappuzha which were also trading with Rome and Palakkad pass (churam) facilitated migration and trade.
Roman establishments in the port cities of the region, such as a temple of Augustus and barracks for garrisoned Roman soldiers, are marked in the Tabula Peutingeriana; the only surviving map of the Roman cursus publicus.
The value of Rome’s annual trade with the region was estimated at around 50,000,000 sesterces.
Contemporary Tamil literature, Puṟanāṉūṟu and Akanaṉūṟu, speak of the Roman vessels and the Roman gold that used to come to the Kerala ports in search of pepper and other spices, which had enormous demand in the West.
The contact with Romans might have given rise to small colonies of Jews and Syrian Christians in the chief harbour towns of Kerala.
Formation of a multicultural society in Kerala
Buddhism and Jainism reached Kerala in this early period. As in other parts of ancient India, Buddhism and Jainism co-existed with early Hindu beliefs during the first five centuries. Merchants from West Asia and Southern Europe established coastal posts and settlements in Kerala.
Jews arrived in Kerala as early as 573 BCE.
The Cochin Jews believe that their ancestors came to the west coast of India as refugees following the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE.
Saint Thomas Christians claim to be the descendants of the converts of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Jesus Christ although no evidence that Thomas ever visited Kerala has been established. Arabs also had trade links with Kerala, starting before the 4th century BCE, as Herodotus (484–413 BCE) noted that goods brought by Arabs from Kerala were sold to the Jews at Eden.
They intermarried with local people, resulting in formation of the Muslim Mappila community.
In the 4th century, the Knanaya Christians migrated from Persia and lived alongside the early Syrian Christian community known as the St. Thomas Christians who claim to trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century although no evidence has been established to this claim.
Mappila was an honorific title that had been assigned to respected visitors from abroad; and Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Muslim immigration might account for later names of the respective communities: Juda Mappilas, Nasrani Mappilas, and Muslim Mappilas.
According to the legends of these communities, the earliest Christian churches, mosque, and synagogue (CE 1568) in India were built in Kerala.
The combined number of Jews, Christians, and Muslims was relatively small at this early stage.
They co-existed harmoniously with each other and with local Hindu society, aided by the commercial benefit from such association.