The religions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have unique and fascinating histories in the land of my ancestors: Kerala, the southernmost state in India. Due to its geographic feature of nearly 360 miles of western coastline along the Arabian Sea, Kerala has been visited by people from all over the world as proselytizers, mystics, refugees, traders, explorers, conquerors and colonizers.
The diverse and pluralistic story of Kerala can be epitomized in the small town of Chendamangalam on the banks of the historic Periyar River in the central Ernakulam district. In this town, there is a Hindu temple to the South, a Muslim mosque to the East, Christian church to the West and a Jewish synagogue to the North. They are all within one kilometer of each other.
Such religious pluralism is prevalent in so many parts of Kerala. In my mother’s hometown further north in Thrissur, our neighbors to the left are Christians, to our right are Hindus and in the middle is our Muslim family. At sunrise, local muezzins cry the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, which is followed by the neighboring Hindu temple playing devotional music on the loudspeaker and is interwoven with the clanging of morning church bells. I find the history of religion in Kerala to be of paramount fascination.
The earliest historical records indicate that an ancient Jewish community arrived on the shores of Cochin in the South Indian state of Kerala during the time of the biblical King Solomon. Due to the Jewish community’s active roles in maritime mercantile trade along the Roman trade routes through Abyssinia, Arabia and Kerala, many more Jews settled in Kerala after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 70 A.D. The very observant Keralite Jewish community migrated en masse to the state of Israel in the 20th century. The last Jew in Kerala, whom I had the honor of meeting in 2020, now operates an aquarium that is attached to the historic Kadavumbagam (meaning “the crossing side”) Synagogue in Kochi.
The introduction of Christianity in Kerala was concurrent with Judaism’s advent. In Syro-Malabar Christian tradition, it is said that St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, traveled to South India to begin a series of ministries. Upon arriving on the shores of Muziris in Kerala, the legend is that he was greeted by a lute-playing Jewish girl. Today, after 2 millennia, approximately one-fifth of Keralites are Christian. I was ecstatic to visit the first church that St. Thomas founded in the first century in Palayur, Kerala. Behind the church may be the birthplace of Christianity in India. According to legend, St. Thomas witnessed Brahmins performing ritual bathing and convinced them to convert to Christianity by miraculously suspending the water that they were throwing into the air.
The first mosque in the Indian subcontinent, and most of Asia for that matter, was actually built in Kerala during the lifetime of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It is purported that the Chera King of Kerala in the 7th century witnessed the Islamic miracle of the moon splitting and became motivated to travel to Mecca where he converted to Islam. Although he died on the voyage back to Kerala, he ordered the construction of the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur. Today, it is an operational mosque and bears an ancient Buddhist architectural style. In the middle of the mosque hangs an ancient Hindu oil lamp that contains the oil of innumerable visitors and pilgrims — its flame symbolic of the syncretic nature of religious diversity in Kerala. Nearly a quarter of Keralites follow Islam today.
About a 20-minute bus ride from my mother’s hometown is the town of Guruvayur where the Guruvayur Temple is located, a significant spiritual and holy site for Hindus. The temple is referred to as Bhoolokha Vaikuntham, meaning “The Holy Abode of Lord Vishnu on Earth.” As Vishnu is a principal deity in the supreme Hindu trinity — Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver — Kerala has been an important religious site for Hindus around the world. Kerala has also produced one of the greatest Vedic scholars in history, Adi Shankara. In the 8th century, Adi Shankara traveled around all of India and his codification of Hindu philosophical thought, known as Advaita Vedanta, has been profoundly influential. In Adi Shankara’s hometown of Kalady, the temples bear memorializations to him and his mother.
It is because of this rich history and Kerala’s resplendent natural beauty that it adorns the nickname “God’s Own Country.” Despite the variety of religious traditions within it, its longstanding tolerance and embracement of religiously ideological diversity has made that nickname ring true for every religious Keralite.
It is more important now than ever to be mindful of the lessons of these histories because religious intolerance and injustice is proliferating at an alarming rate within India. The historical and contemporary examples of the harmonious interweaving of cultures and religious traditions for thousands of years make me proud to be from there. Do visit if you get the chance and try the fish curry!