The following is an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s column in today’s Sunday Magazine supplement of The Hindu –
“The fundamental fact about Kerala is its openness to external influences. These have been many and varied: Arab, Roman, Chinese, British, and for that matter Islamist, Christian, and Marxist influences have gone into the making of the Malayali people. More than two millennia ago, Keralites had trade relations not just with other parts of India but with the Arab world, with the Phoenicians, and with the Roman Empire.
Oldest Christian community
From those days on, Malayalis have had an open and welcoming attitude to the rest of humanity. Jews fleeing Roman persecution found refuge in Kerala: it is said they first came to Kerala following the destruction of the First Temple of Judea by the Babylonians, or of the Second Temple by the Romans, both well before the birth of Christ. Some of these legends are unprovable, but there is evidence of their settlement in Cranganore in 68 A.D, after further Roman attacks. It is instructive that the Jews knew no hostility, let alone persecution, in Kerala until the Portuguese arrived from Europe 1,500 years later. Then, fleeing the Portuguese, the Jews settled in Cochin, where they built a magnificent synagogue that still stands.
The Christians of Kerala belong to the oldest Christian community in the world outside the Middle East, converted by Jesus’ disciple Saint Thomas (the “Doubting Thomas” of Biblical legend), one of the 12 apostles, who came to the State in 52 A.D. and, so legend has it, was welcomed on land by a flute-playing Jewish girl.
So Kerala’s Christian traditions are much older than those of Europe. Islam came to Kerala not by the sword, as it was to do elsewhere in India, but through traders, travellers and missionaries, who brought its message of equality and brotherhood to the coastal people.
Not only was this new faith also peacefully embraced, but it found encouragement in attitudes and episodes without parallel elsewhere in the non-Islamic world: in one example, the all-powerful Zamorin of Calicut asked each fisherman’s family in his domain to bring up one son as a Muslim, for service in his Muslim-run navy, commanded by sailors of Arab descent, the Kunjali Maraicars. (It was probably a Malayali seaman, one of many who routinely plied the Arabian Sea between Kerala and East Africa, who piloted Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and trader, to Calicut in 1496.)
In turn, Malayalees brought their questing spirit to the world. The great Advaita philosopher, Shankaracharya, was a Malayali who travelled throughout the length and breadth of India on foot in the Eighth Century A.D., laying the foundations for a reformed and revived Hinduism. To this day, there is a temple in the Himalayas whose priests are Namboodiris from Kerala.
The Gulf boom
Keralites never suffered from inhibitions about travel: so many Keralite typists flocked to stenographic work in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi that “Remington” was thought to be the name of a Malayali sub-caste. In the nation’s capital, the wags said that you couldn’t throw a stone in the Central Secretariat without injuring a Keralite bureaucrat. Nor was there, in the Kerala tradition, any prohibition on venturing abroad, none of the ritual defilement associated in parts of North India with “crossing the black water”. It was no accident that Keralites were the first, and the most, to take advantage of the oil-fuelled employment boom in the Arab Gulf countries; at one point in the 1980s, the largest single ethnic group in the Gulf sheikhdom of Bahrain was reported to be not Bahrainis but Keralites.
The willingness of Keralites to go anywhere to do anything remains legendary. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, my father’s friends laughed, he discovered a Malayali already there, offering him tea.
Openness and diversity are the Kerala hallmarks. So I firmly reject the very notion of Malayali chauvinism, in my column or outside it. In any case all three authors I cited are “marunadan Malayalis” — none of them lives in Kerala. Their concerns, and their books, are, in my view, of nationwide interest. They deserve a readership to match.”
Quite interesting to say the least, plus this article goes a long way in explaining why Kerala is a small country in itself. As someone who visits this wonderful state at least once in a year, this article explains quite a bit of the wonderful diversities in this state.