Poothicote Family

Kerala, The Land of Our Ancestors

Members of the Poothicote family were landowners for several generations. They engaged in agriculture and lived for 300 years in the small village of Mepral. In the beginning, people lived as joint families, where several generations lived together under the same roof.  Early in the 19th century, the extended family system evolved as adult children moved to their own houses, but they always lived near their parent's houses. But by the middle of the 20th century, members of our family started moving out of our ancestral village in search of different professions and careers, and the nuclear-family system with husband, wife and children emerged.  As the 21st century begins, our family members live in different parts of the world, and many of our younger generation have not visited Mepral, Kerala, or even India. For them I will try to give a glimpse of our country, our traditions, and a brief history.


 The people of my generation in India attach more importance to the province where we were born than to the country.  If asked who we are, we will tell that we are Keralites, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Tamilians,   Bengalis, etc. before we say that we are Indians.


 Winston Churchill once said that India is no more a country than equator is a country.  If you are an Indian living abroad, you know for sure that it is not true. Once outside India, our primary identity becomes as Indians. We all look alike and the unity in diversity of India is more appreciable as an Indian living outside India than as a resident citizen living in India. As non-resident Indians, we appreciate that though the unity of India is something abstract and difficult to define, we all feel it is in our core.


India in many ways is a land of contradictions to outsiders.  Name "India" comes from the Persian word for Indus River, but today river Indus flows in Pakistan. In 1947, Pakistan was carved out of India as nation for Muslims, but there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. In fact, India is the second largest Muslim country in the world.


India is home to all known ethnic and racial groups in the world. It is the birth place of 4 great world religions, and followers of Islam and Christianity were living here from the very founding of these religions. We are more than a billion in number, second only to China.  Its population increases as much as the total population of Australia every year.  We speak 17 languages which are mutually incomprehensible and use 22,000 different dialects.  It is the 7th largest country in the world with 1,269,419 square miles. After polar region, it has the largest accumulation of ice in the world, but it has also the most unbearable hot weather in some parts of the country.  We even have more than 400 recipes on how to prepare a simple chicken curry.


 Though I am an Indian in my heart and always will be so, I have to start with Kerala when I write about the land of my ancestors.  It is here my ancestors lived for more than two millenniums.  My roots are in Kerala soil and my value systems came out of it.


 Kerala, a narrow strip of land on the southwest corner of the Indian subcontinent.  It is 360 miles long and 80 miles in average width. It has 1% of the Indian land mass and supports 4% of its population. On one side is the Western Ghats with forests and hills that separates it from the rest of India, and on the other side is the Arabian Sea.


There is an epic legend about the creation of this land. According to this legend, Kerala was a gift of the Arabian Sea to Parasuraman, one the 10 avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu.  In order to atone for all the sins he committed in 21 wars, Parasuraman threw his favorite weapon, the axe, in to the sea standing in Gokarnam. The axe fell near Cape Comorin.  A land came out of the sea from where he stood to the place the axe fell. He called the land Keralam.  He divided it in to 64 parts and gifted it to 64 Brahmins families.


Of course this story is only a myth.  But geologically Kerala is much younger than rest of India, and it is believed that it came out of the ocean floor following some seismological event in the distant past.


Kerala today is an ethnological museum.  The original inhabitants of this land were dark skinned negritos of the proto-australoid race.  These original people have negroid features. About 3 thousand years ago, when the Dravidians moved to South India they pushed these original inhabitants to the hills and forests.  They were kept separate from the rest of the population till recently as untouchables.


The Dravidians originally came to India from the Mediterranean region passing through Iraq, Iran, and Baluchistan. Many scholars believe that they came out of the same stock as the Abraham's ancestors of the Sumerian civilization. They left for India before Abraham started his journey to the Promised Land in Palestine.


In North India, the Dravidians developed a great civilization which was authenticated by the excavations in Mohanjadaro and Harappa.  Then the fair skinned Aryans left their original abode in the Central Asian Steppes and migrated to India around 1500 BC, and they pushed the Dravidians to the south.  Another group from Central Asia went to Iran and settled there and still another group went to Europe. All these 3 groups are considered Caucasians and these pale skinned Caucasian immigrants to India brought with them the Sanskrit language and the Vedas, the most ancient religious writing of humankind.


The Aryans also gave the cast system to India.  According to Vedic writings, when Brahma, creator God was making man, the fair skinned priestly Brahmins came out of his head; the warrior race of Kshatrias came out of his arms, the Saivas, the merchant class came out of his thighs, and finally Shudras, the artisans and workers came out of his feet.  The astroloid Negrito people, the original inhabitants of the land were outside the caste system and considered untouchables.


Gradually the Aryans followed the Dravidians to the south and they brought Kerala also under the caste system.  Although large scale migration of Brahmin Aryans to Kerala took place only in the 8th century AD, trickling of their immigration started even before the first century. Poothicote family traces its origin to one of these Brahmin Aryan ancestors from the Kalikavu Illam and he was converted to Christianity by Apostle St. Thomas.


One of the South Indian Dravidian people, the Tamils, fiercely resisted the encroachment of their culture by the new Aryan arrivals and kept a separate identity... But Kerala got assimilated with the newly arrived Aryan Caucasians.  Kerala's language also got mixed with the Aryan Sanskrit and Malayalam language was evolved separate from the original Dravidian language in course of time.


There is another legend that points to the arrival of the Aryans.  A non-Aryan king, Mahabali ruled Kerala long ago.  During his reign, all the people were contented, happy, and equal. There was no caste difference. The news about this king and his prosperous kingdom spread all across the earth and the heavens.  In the heaven, gods became very jealous.  They went to Vishnu, the Lord sustainer of all, and complained that unless this non-Aryan king of Kerala is not checked, his kingdom might become threat to heaven itself.  So Lord Vishnu incarnated as a 3-foot man called Vamana.  Vamana went to the king Mahabali and requested land enough to measure 3 times the size of his foot.  The King was very generous and allowed Vamana to measure 3 feet and take it from any place he wanted in his kingdom.  Once he got the promise, Vamana showed his real size as Lord Vishnu. With one foot he measured whole earth and with the second foot, he measured the whole of the celestial space.  There was no place to put the foot a third time.  King Mahabali, to fulfill his promise said that the third time the foot could be placed on his head.  Vishnu put his foot on the king's head and pushed him to the netherworld.

While pushing him to the netherworld, Vishnu agreed to a last request by the king to allow him to visit his people in Kerala once a year. Onam is the yearly celebration when people believe that Mahabali is visiting Kerala.  It falls in the month of September and Malyalees everywhere in the world celebrate it.

Though this story is only a legend, it may denote the first arrival of Aryans to Kerala. The Aryans conquered the local population mainly through their superior religion and language, not by force of arms. In one way the local Dravidian population was also the victors. They got assimilated with the Aryans and the Aryans accepted many of the local cultures and part of their religion.


 Unlike among the Tamils, Aryanism became the dominant in cultural ethos of Kerala except among the untouchables. The untouchables with their darker skin and the rounded script of their language are the vestiges of the original inhabitants of Kerala. .


This spirit of assimilation is a major characteristic of Kerala culture.  America is said to be a melting pot of different cultures for the past 200 years. But Kerala has been a true melting pot of many cultures for the past 3,000 years. Though the breaks in the Western Ghats, the Dravidians and Aryans came to Kerala in the beginning, but Kerala's long seashores have left an open door for foreign visitors always. Some Jews came to Kerala in 585 BC, soon after their Babylonian captivity and also others later during the Roman persecution in 72 AD. After the Middle East, Kerala has the most ancient Jewish community in the world though most have left for Israel since its founding in 1948.  According to many Jewish historians, Kerala is the only land where the Jews of the Diaspora were never persecuted.

Apostle St. Thomas visited Kerala in 52 AD at the beginning of the Sangam period when Kerala was ruled by 3 dynasties, Ay, Chera, and Ezhimala and these kingdoms lasted till the 5th century AD. The golden period in Kerala history was from 800 to 1102 AD when Kerala was united under Kulasekhara dynasty. Much cultural and social progress was made during this period. These rulers conferred several privileges and honors on Christians and Jews living in their kingdom. Many of them were written on copper plates and they are preserved in the archives.  When Kulasekhara dynasty was finally destroyed in wars, Kerala was divided in to small kingdoms and principalities under several chieftains till Marthanda Varma again united them in 1729. The present Kerala state came in to existence in November 1956 uniting all the Malayalam speaking provinces of Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar following the linguistic re-organization of India.


 Islam did not come to Kerala by the sword as it did in many other places; but it came with the Arab merchants who immigrated to Kerala.  Because of the naval skills of the Muslims, one of the Hindu kings, Zomorin of Calicut encouraged his coastal fisherman families to bring up one child as Muslim.


 Even today, temples, churches, and mosques stand side by side here. The long wail of muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, and the Vedic chanting from the Hindu temple are heard along with church bells calling the Christians to worship.  Tolerance of different religions and cultures has been part of Kerala's legacy in its recorded history. Followers of different faiths know that they may not to mix together always, but they are sure that they belong together. A Kerala Hindu will be more at home with Kerala Christian or Muslim than with his Hindu counter part from another part of India.


 Greeks,  Romans, Phoenicians,  Arabs,  Chinese,  Portuguese,  Dutch, and  British visited its shores. Kerala sold its best to them, but it was always open to receive the best from the visitors, whether in culture, art, or culinary skills. Portuguese, Dutch and British were also colonial rulers in Kerala.


 Kerala has made many contributions to the world. Aryabhatta from Kerala in 5th century AD deduced that earth is round and circles around the sun.  It was a thousand years before Galileo made such a postulation in Europe for which he had to pay dearly. The value of pi was also calculated correctly for the first time by Aryabhatt.  Shakaracharya, the great Hindu philosopher who rescued Hinduism from the onslaught Buddhism lived in Kerala in 8th century and but for him, there would not be a Hindu religion as we know it today.


Hinduism is more than a religion, it is a philosophy and way of life. It has no founders, or prophets, as in all other religions, no sacred fundamental book like Bible or Quran, and no common code of ethics. Even agnostics and atheists could be its members...  It has always been very tolerant and accommodating to other faiths. During the 2,000 years of Kerala Christians, they never were persecuted. The Hindu kings always helped the Christians with the construction of their churches. Hindus have 333,000 manifestations of God. So it was no problem for them to accept one more religious founder as part of its system of God's manifestation.

But one fundamental problem of Hinduism was its practice of 4 layer cast system and the untouchables outside the system based on the ancient book Rig Veda.

Unfortunately in Kerala, it went a step further.  Untouchability in other parts of India became unapproachability here.  The safe distance in which an untouchable can come with out polluting a higher caste person was written down.  A Brahmin had to take bath immediately to purify him if an untouchable approached within a certain distance.  Even the ancient Christians who were converted high caste Hindus practiced untouchability.  They could not convert the lower casts to Christianity because they could not pray together in the same Church. One AD 1599 document shows that when the Portuguese converted many local Christians to Roman Catholicism and constructed new churches, they had to build annexes outside the church halls for the converts from the untouchables to participate in the Eucharist, otherwise local Christians would not participate in it.

Malayalam is a palindrome when written in English.  Many languages have contributed words to English language, and most of the words from Indian languages are snobbish like Mughal, Pundit, Brahmin, and Raja.  But a word contributed by Malayalam to English language is Pariah, meaning an outcast.


Things have changed remarkably during the past 50 years. The fact that one of the untouchables from Kerala, K. R. Narayanan, was elected as President of India speaks eloquently for the progress made in this half a century.


Few years ago the then US vice president Al Gore in one of his research papers written for WHO, made some interesting observations about Kerala.  According to that report, Kerala is one place in Asia where biostatistics that compare the general well being of the people is almost the same as that of America.  Life expectancy, infant mortality, and birth rate are almost the same as USA. In literacy Kerala is ahead of America, above 95%.  In two districts it is 100%.  These were achieved when Kerala per capita income was only $400, while US per capita income was $22,000. Gore's conclusion was that such results could be attained only by hard working well educated intelligent populace.


When President Bill Clinton made an official visit to India in 1995 and addressed the Indian parliament, one thing he specially noted was the high position the Kerala women enjoyed in the society unlike in other parts of Asia. In many professions their numbers and achievements are equal or better than men. Probably the only inequality in Kerala is that there are more women than men.


Kerala was attractive to foreign travelers in the past because of its spices, especially pepper, which was known as black gold.  The Spanish King Fernando and Queen Isabella heard about the land and asked one of their seasoned sailors to undertake a journey to Kerala in 1474. The sailors name was Christopher Columbus; but he lost his way to Kerala and reached the Americas. He thought he was in Kerala and called the people he first met in Americas "Indians".


Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sailor who traveled to Kerala in 1498, picked up a Malayalee naval guide from Arabia.  Unlike Hindus in other part of India, Keralites had no religious prohibitions against traveling abroad by crossing the sea. So many traveled abroad and sharpened the skills of navigation.


But since the latter half of the 20th century, there was a great exodus of Malayalees to other parts of the world and sometimes it is referred as the brain drain of India. 

The real reason for people to leave their homeland is that Kerala has too many people and too little space.  Kerala's best export today is its educated and skilled citizens.

With their great capacity to learn any language and assimilate in to any culture, it has been a remarkable saga for Keralites.  First Keralites moved to other states in India where Malyalee professional, businessmen, and intellectuals rose to prominence.  A good example is my good friend, the most celebrated Indian singer of our generation, K.J. Yesudas .Once Yesudas opened his personal wallet and showed me a small envelope. The envelope contained a 20 Rupee bill. Yesudas told me that he carried it always with him to remind him of the amount of borrowed money he carried with him when he first went outside Kerala. When Yesudas rose to the pinnacle success and glory, he did not know any other Indian language other than Malayalam.  But he sang in all the 14 Indian languages, and received awards for being the best singer in all these languages.  Most of those who left Kerala did to a lesser or greater extends what Yesudas did.


Kerala political leaders have been always a powerful force within the Federal government in Delhi. Even at lower levels they did well.  For an example, many of the prime ministers of India selected Malayalee Christians are their private secretaries whom they trusted.


Exodus of Malayalees professionals and workers to Middle East started in 1970s. In few of the Arab countries, Malayalees are the major ethnic group. Once a former Indian ambassador to Kuwait told me that fist he studied some Arabic before he went there, but when he reached Kuwait, he felt that he should have studied Malayalam as there were more Malayalees in Kuwait than the Kuwaitis.


The life of a Keralite is shaped by the geography and history of his land. . Kerala is part of the Indian subcontinent, but separated from it by mountains and forests on one side; but it has a coastal line on the other side, which the people and its enlightened rulers in the past left open as door to the rest of the world. The Malayalees have shared fortunes and misfortunes, dreams and nightmares, tragedies and triumphs, for several millenniums as one people. Our lagoons, hills, forests, beaches, the canopy of coconut and palm trees, and the gentle monsoon breeze, still make ours 'the God's own country'.