Kerala - Myth and Reality

The first mention of the word ‘Kerala’ can be traced to the Asokan era.

'Kerala', the land of coconut palms.
The explanations regarding the origins of word are still contested. A point of view is that the name has its origins in the Malayalam word for coconut, ‘kera’ hence ‘Kerala’, the land of coconut palms. Equally popular is the version which says it origin from ‘Chera’ as was the name of the region at a particular time in history. The word ‘keram’ is the Kannada pronunciation of the word ‘cheram’. Another version is related to the Tamil word ‘charal’ which means, hill slope and that has evolved into ‘cheral’. It was the coming together of ‘cher' (mud flat) and ‘alam' (place) which became 'Keralam'. The foreigner called the whole region, Malabar. Many others called it Malibar, Manibar, Mulibar, and Munibar. There is yet another version on the term, which says it is the land of the mountains (‘mala’ in local parlance), hence, Malabar.

Kerala attracted foreigners with its rich aromatic herbs and spices, long years ago, but its yesterdays were shrouded in mystery.

Parasuraman
Kerala finds mention in the Indian puranas, historical works and in the epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and old timers refer to it as ‘Parasurama’s Kerala’.

According to Hindu mythology, the ‘trimurtis’—Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer)--are revered. Whenever the world faced a crisis, Vishnu took on the human form and there were ten such incarnations (avatars). Lord Krishna and Lord Rama were believed as manifestations of these forms.

Parsurama, who hived land out from the ocean to create ‘Kerala’, is another such incarnation, therefore Kerala usually sees a prefix ‘Parasurama’s Kerala’.

The Sanskrit history text, ‘Keralamahatmyam’ and a similar treatise in Malayalam, the ‘Keralolpathi’, have references about Parasurama. The legend is that Parasurama requested the sea God for land to meditate and for this he stood at Gokaran and threw his axe into the ocean to hew out a slice of land and thus was emerged ‘Kerala’. This avatar of Lord Vishnu got Brahmins from the north to manage the newly formed region and subordinate castes too. The area did not experience peace because there were bitter struggles between the groups. Under such circumstances the ‘Perumals’ (rulers) from beyond the state were brought to control the region. Each Perumal was given twelve years for administration.  The last ruler in that series was Cheraman Perumal whose term had been extended many times .

After repeated extensions were given, the Perumals wanted to relieve himself of the responsibility. He parcelled out the territory to his successors and then went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. While early writers of the history and the 'Keralolpathi' and 'Keralamahatmyam' have relied on these sources, modern historians have considered these as myths.