One of the stories central to the history of Kerala is that of the king Cheraman Perumal who leaves for Mecca on a pilgrimage, meets the Prophet himself, and converts to Islam. He is given the name Thajuddin. While traveling back, he dies in Oman, but his companions travel back to Kerala leading to the establishment of Islam in Kerala in 629 Common Era. This story stands at one end of the long association of Kerala with the Indian Ocean, that brought in the Chinese from the east and the Portuguese and Dutch from the west.

When the literary critic “Kesari” Balakrishna Pillai began his historical writings in the 1930s, he began with the connection of the southwest coast with the Roman Empire from the early centuries of the first millenium CE. Malayalis have always lived with the presence of flows of people from all over the world – travellers, merchants, religious specialists, and mercenaries.

When CV Raman Pillai wrote his celebrated novels of the Travancore monarchy in the 19th century, the cast of characters included Pathans, Rajputs, Tamilians all of whom had made their way to the expanding frontier of warfare and the emergence of a military labour market. This cosmopolitanism sat alongside the deep hierarchies of caste and the incarceration of Dalits and Adivasis within agrarian regimes of production. Arguably, there was a distinction between the cosmopolitanism of the coast and the social conservatism of the hinterland. The ocean existed as the horizon of both confinement as much as freedom.

History writing has paid attention to the stream of travelers and merchants – Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, even Russian – but little effort has been made to knit the story of land with that of the sea. The historiography of Kerala has concentrated on kings, temples and agrarian structures to the exclusion of maritime commerce. This has also meant that mainstream history produces a default upper-caste Hindu narrative, that leaves out the Muslims and Christians, as also the fisherpeople on the littoral.

Just as the Western Ghats, while seeming to be an impassable barrier to the east, has let in migrants through the Palakkad and Shencottah gaps over the centuries, the ocean has always existed as an avenue of commerce and of escape. Kerala has seen considerable migration in the late 19th century to South East Asia, West Asia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) by laborers in search of fortune and social mobility.

The British Library has several pamphlets titled Basrapattu, Pinangupattu, written by avarna migrants on their return, secure in the wealth that they had accumulated through labour. The remarkable feature of these pamphlets is the rich description of the voyage on the ship – secure in anonymity and surrounded by an excess of food and drink – and the feeling of escape from the rigid grip of hierarchy and humiliation back home.

Credit: Mercator, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The British Empire provided the carapace for subaltern travel in search of freedom from Aden to Burma. These migrants left an inhospitable environment back home and making a fortune for themselves abroad, they were willing to suffer labour regimes which provided them with a hope for the future rather than stagnation.

This steady stream of labour from the early 20th century became a flood in the 1970s with the opening of the Gulf regions to both professional and laboring classes as a result of the oil boom. This outflow was a result also of the coming to power of a Communist ministry in 1957 that inaugurated land reform and the politics of land to the tiller while at the same time introducing a strong discourse of egalitarianism. The challenge to a moribund agrarian system that had fostered caste inequality propelled subaltern groups outwards and would make Kerala the biggest remittance economy in India. Over a generation wealth earned in the “Gulf” was to create a great churn in Kerala society as a Malayali diaspora created its networks on land and across the ocean.

Arguably, the millenium-long connection with the rhythms of the Indian Ocean allowed for the existence of a disposition that was favorable to oceanic travel. Added to this was the fact that while conditions were hard and labour regimes were unregulated, migrants did not face the contempt that they did back home because of the scorning of manual labour within a caste society. This made possible an adaptation to a paradigm governed by the idea of a limited temporality of privation (at best) that was rewarded with generational mobility for individuals and those back home.

The Malayalam films of the 1980s – freed now from dependence on the Madras film industry and spurred by Gulf wealth – reflected the unease created by the wealth of the parvenu within a traditional society under strain. Money had begun to erode hierarchy and savarna families that had prided themselves on their landed wealth found their former servitors now bidding for their assets.

If adaptability arose less from choice than necessity for many of these migrants, there were other kinds of migration that arose from historical circumstances. The northern part of Kerala, Malabar, was a district of the Madras Presidency and more thoroughly integrated into the structure as well as the geography of the British Empire.

“Cochin, on the coast of Malabar”, by James Forbes, 1813. Credit: James Forbes,, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The hero of the first Malayalam novel, Indulekha, Madhavan traverses the geography of India with ease during his travels and is not at all in awe of the achievements of the Bengali intelligentsia – who come across as rather effete. This sense of a larger belonging meant that Malabar had a disproportionate number of individuals in the bureaucratic service of Empire and at the time of independence, Malayalis like VP Menon and KPS Menon were central to the emergence of the new India.

When the land reforms were instituted in the first two decades of the formation of the state of Kerala, the breakup of large landholdings led to the generation of a savarna diaspora that found employment all over India – leading to jokes about having to run from Pillai to post in Delhi, and the ubiquitous Malayali serving tea to Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon. This ease of being arose from the possession of cultural capital, but equally from the fact that the geography of an erstwhile empire was familiar to them.

It is a significant fact that Malayalam literature produced by this diaspora, from Anand to C Radhakrishnan, took the region of India that they were in as their canvas. This produced a “regional” literature very different from that of the other states in India, where authors wrote about the local and the specific. The Malayali, coming from an inherited cosmopolitanism was at home everywhere.

A combination of factors arising from the specific history of openness to the world as much as local historical conjunctures have enabled the Malayali abroad to feel at home everywhere from Mexico to South Africa and indeed, in India.

One story remains to be told, that of the Malayali nurse who is found everywhere from Europe to the United States and the Gulf states. It is significant that an overwhelming majority of them are Christians. It is possible to explain this by arguing that the Christians in Kerala are well educated and that the first members of the medical profession came from this community working in hospitals established by missionaries in the Princely States of Travancore and Cochin.

However, there is a darker fact that goes back to the faultline of caste that permeated Kerala, and arguably still plays an important part. Nursing involves both touching another body as well as dealing with the effluents from bodies – blood, sweat etc – anathema to the caste Hindu mind concerned with purity and impurity. Given the larger landscape of caste and inequality in India as a whole, the educated Malayali Christian woman was able to knit compassion with a lack of prejudice.

A history of cosmopolitanism, and exposure to the major religions within the region, may allow Malayalis to be at ease in the world. However, the still unresolved question of caste, and the marginalisation of the Dalit and Adivasi, arising from the triumphalism of a language of class, means that the push factor remains that propels Malayalis outward. A significant symptom of the occlusion of caste by class is the late emergence of a Dalit literature in Kerala (as compared to Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) as much as a radical Dalit consciousness.

The question of a historical and political inheritance is crucial. Cosmopolitanism, a strong sense of equality, political literacy, and the freedom from religious prejudice has allowed Malayalis everywhere to fit in as much as create a very distinct identity of their own.

Dilip M Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.