ancient Keralites followed a Dravidian way of life and their religion was
a strong mixture of animism, totemism and spiritual worship. Tree worship
and animal worship were also common.
The advent of Aryan religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism from the north changed this Dravidian way of life. The liberal natives welcomed the new religions, leading to a synthesis of Aryan and Dravidian religious practices.
Buddhism And Jainism
Jainism was the first to come to Kerala. It arrived even before the Christian era. The Koodalmanikyam Temple of Irinjalakkuda is believed to have originally been a Jain temple. Jainism started declining in Kerala around the 8th century and nearly disappeared around the 16th century.
Jain shrines still survive in Wayanad, Kasargod, Alappuzha and Kochi. Buddhism came to Kerala around the 3rd century BC during the reign of emperor Ashoka and held sway in Kerala for a few centuries.
The Vadakkunnatha Temple of Thrissur and the Shiva Temple at Madavurpara at Kazhakkoottam near Thiruvananthapuram show evidence of having been Buddhist shrines at one time. The temple architecture, the 'sastha' cult, 'naga' (serpent) worship and the festival processions evince shades of Buddhist influence.
The Malayalam Language too shows the influence of Buddhism in the sizeable content of Pali words in it. Buddhism started declining by around the 8th century AD. It was the Hindu reform movement that hastened the decline of both religions.
The Syrian Christians of Kerala believe that St. Thomas, one of the direct disciples of Christ landed near Muziris in 52 AD and established 7 churches, of which 4 exist even today.
There is recorded evidence of a theologian from Alexandria coming to Kerala to preach the gospel in 180 AD and the migration of about 400 people from the Middle East in the 4th century and yet another exodus at the beginning of the 9th century.
The Portuguese who arrived in 1498 AD introduced Latin rites. Later, during the British rule, the Church Mission Society of London began its work in the country.
Today, there are five distinct branches of Christianity in Kerala, the Roman Catholic Church following either Syrian, Latin or Malayalam liturgies, the Orthodox Syrian Church, the Mar Thomas Syrian Church, the Church Of South India and the Nestorian Church.
The Arabs had a long relationship with Kerala, dating back to several centuries, probably even before the Christain era. It was around the 8th century AD that Islam came to Kerala from over the seas.
Legend has it that the last of the great monarchs of the Chera empire, Cheraman Perumal, embraced Islam and set sail to Mecca. His conversion served as a fillip to the spread of Islam in Kerala.
The Zamorins of Kozhikode also encouraged the Muslims. In later years, the invasions of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore spawned an increase in the number of Muslims in north Kerala.
One of the pioneers of the Hindu renaissance was Sankaracharya or Adi Sankara (7th century AD), who founded a school of Vedic studies. His philosophy of 'Advait Vedanta' stressed the oneness of the individual soul with the all pervading cosmic force, 'brahmin'.
Sankara's preaching combined the best of Hinduism and Buddhism. This philosopher-saint set up 'mutts' (religious centres) in the four corners of India, Badrinath in the northern Himalayas, Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west and Sringeri in the south.
In effect, he laid the foundations of a cultural synthesis, which constitutes the religious history of India. Since the Hindu gurus imparted their philosophy in Sanskrit, the language of scholars, they wielded little influence over the masses.
The saints and savants of the Bhakti cult, by popularising simple Hindu devotional literature in local dialects, generated intense religious enthusiasm among the masses and this eventually precipitated the decline of Jainism and Buddhism in Kerala.
The Jew Of Kerala
The Jews reached Kerala in the 1st century AD they came to Muziris fleeing the Pogroms in their homelands and settled in places like Parur and Mattancherry.
They became a prosperous trading community under the patronage of Hindu rulers like Bhaskar Ravi Varman, whose grant of privileges can be seen in the 1000 AD copper plated preserved in the Mattancherry Synanogue.
Under Portuguese duress, the Jews shifted to Kochi, where they established the now famous Jew town. With the formation of Israel, most of Jews in Kochi migrated home, leaving behind barely a hundred members of the community.