Hinduism in Kerala

Hinduism in Kerala is a mixture of original tribal practices, Jain and Buddhist influences and local cultural environment. North Indian Aaryan Brahmins incorporated all these into the Hinduism that they established here with the help of local rulers.

Original Dwellers of Kerala

People of mediterranean origin (from Nubia, Upper Egypt) are believed to be the original Dravidian people who settled in Kerala around 1000 BC. These original residents were hunter-gatherers who progressed to the slash-and-burn agriculture of neolithic age.

snake grove

One practice of these people that has come down to this day is the practice of keeping a small area of the forest untouched. In this small segment, called kaavoo (grove), no tree was felled, no flower was plucked and no snakes were harmed. Even today, many Nair (a Hindu community) households keep aside a small area of their homestead as a sarpa kaavoo (snake grove - see pic to the right and the small stone structure in the middle)where an offering is made annually to naagam (serpent god). This offering consists of milk, turmeric and the flower of arali tree, which are considered the favorites of snake god.

These paleolithic and neolithic people also built dwelling places for dead ancestors. The dead were cremated, buried or offered to birds and elements in the open.

The First Organized Religions

Jainism was the first organized religion to reach Kerala. During the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) the Jain saint Bhadrabahu is believed to have brought the religion to Kerala. Several Hindu temples, like the Koodalmanickam temple, are considered to have originally been Jain shrines. Jainism is supposed to have flourished till about 500 AD

Next came Buddhism, introduced by the missionaries of Emperor Ashoka. Buddhism flourished in Kerala from 200 BC till around 800 AD. Vadakkunathan temple at Thrissur and several others were reportedly Buddhist shrines. The Hindu community of Ezhavas, believed to have been Buddhists who migrated from Ezham (Sri Lanka), still show the influence of Buddhism.

Brahmins and Aryan Hinduism

Local rulers of Kerala began to bring in Brahmins from the North and settle them with gifts of land and privileges. The Brahmins brought Aryan beliefs and practices to Kerala. They had a well-developed language, Sanskrit, and knew about the relationship between seasons and agriculture.

The Brahmins were able to impress the rulers and the people, and began to impose their religion and social system in Kerala. They could not completely ignore local beliefs and customs, and so the Hinduism in Kerala incorporated local deities and practices. Unlike in the North, it was a tantric form of worship that gained acceptance here.

Bhagavathi Temple

Local rulers began a temple building spree all over Kerala. Many Jain and Buddhist shrines were converted into Hindu temples. Formal practices for temple construction and rituals were developed. The tantra samuchaya, for example, lays down the Hindu temple practices in Kerala.

Changes in land-ownership laws led to the Brahmins losing much of their land to tenants who were cultivating them. Brahmins lost their social pre-eminence and their place was taken over by other communities, notably the Nairs.