The distinctiveness of Kerala's cultural identity is reflected in the Brahmin myths of its origin. The sixth incarnation of Vishnu, having been banished from the land, was given permission by Varuna, the Lord of the Sea, to reclaim all the land within the throw of his axe. When Parasuruma threw the axe it fell from Kanyakumari to Gokarna, and as the sea withdrew Kerala was formed.
This may have originated in the 10th-century conflict with the Cholas. Krishna Chaitanya suggests that as many men were slaughtered there was a surplus of women, encouraging the development of a matrilineal system in which women controlled family property.
Kerala is the first state in India to claim 100% literacy in some districts and women enjoy a high social status. Uniquely in India there are more women than men in the population.
The majority of the population is Hindu, but as much as a quarter is Muslim and there is also a large Christian population. Religious communities have often lived amicably together. There is no conflict between the varying Hindu sects, and most temples have shrines to each of the major Hindu divinities.
Christianity, which is thought to have been brought by St Thomas the Apostle to the coast of Kerala at Kodungallur in AD 52, has its own very long tradition. The large Muslim community traces its origins back to the spread of Islam across the lndian Ocean with Arab traders from the seventh century.
Kerala's cuisine reflects its diverse religious traditions, its location on the seaboard and the ubiquitous presence of the coconut.
Uniquely in India, beef is widely eaten, although seafood is far more common. Fish moilee is prepared with coconut milk and spices while for pollichathu the fish is baked with chilli paste, curry leaves and spices.
Coconut-based dishes such as thoran, a dry dish of mixed vegetables chopped very small, herbs and curry leaves, and avail, similar to thoran but cooked in a sauce, are widely eaten. Erisseri is a thick curry of banana or yam and kichadi is beetroot or cucumber in coconut-curd paste. You can try these with the soft centred, lacy pancake appam or the soft noodle rice cakes iddiappam.
Jackfruit, pineapples, custard apples and an endless variety of bananas also play a vital part in many dishes. For dessert, you might get milk payasam, made with rice or vermicelli.
Malayalam, the state language, is the most recent of the Dravidian languages, developing from the 13th century with its origin in Sanskrit.
The special dance form of Kerala, Kathakali, has its origins in the Theyyam, a ritual tribal dance of North Kerala, and kalaripayattu, the martial arts practised by the high-caste Nairs, going back 1000 years.
In its present form of dance-drama, Kathakali has evolved over the last 400 years. The performance is usually outdoors, the stage bare but for a large bronze oil lamp, with the drummers on one side and the singers with cymbal and gong, who act as narrators, on the other.
The art of mime reaches its peak in these highly stylized performances which used to last through the night; now they often take just three to four hours.
The costume is comprised of a large billowing skirt, a padded jacket, some heavy ornaments and headgear. The make-up is all important.
The paints are natural pigments while the stiff 'mask' is created with rice paste and lime. The final application of a flower seed in the lower eyelid results in the red eyes you will see on stage.
This classical dance requires lengthy, hard training to make the body supple, the eyes expressive. The 24 mudras express the nine emotions of serenity, wonder, kindness, love, valour, fear, contempt, loathing and anger.
The gods and mortals play out their roles amid the chaos brought about by human ambition, but the dance ends in peace and harmony restored by the gods.
Government Kerala politics have often been unstable - even turbulent - since the first elections were held in March 1957, when Kerala became the first state in the world to democratically elect a Communist government.
The debate has always been dominated by the struggle between the Marxist Communist Party, the Congress and various minor parties; and the state government has often been formed by coalitions.
Politics here have traditionally been secular, as the BJP's failure to gain a single seat in Kerala Assembly till now.
Traditionally Kerala's economy has depended heavily on agriculture. Estate crops, especially tea and rubber, make a major contribution to exports, while coconut and coconut products like coir (the coarse fibre used for matting and string and rope production), or copra (the oil-rich flesh of the coconut), continue to be vital to the state.
Recent decades have seen the rise of Kerala as a remittance economy, with large flows of money being repatriated by Malayali workers in the Gulf to invest in land, housing and small-scale industries.
Highly educated and increasingly middle class Keralites have been abandoning old-fashioned and 'menial' industries such as agriculture.
Rice production has been in long-term decline, as farmers converted paddy land to other more profitable uses, and where farm fields still exist, they are largely run by Tamils or other migrant workers-who in turn earn more in Kerala than in their home states.
Business leaders bemoan the leftist culture of the state and the stranglehold the trade unions have on its workforce, which makes for a working week dominated by strikes, thus barring the way for the high levels of foreign investment that characterize Bengaluru (Bangalore), Hyderbad and Chennai's urban economies.
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