Kerala, India: A Historic Site of Religious Harmony

The religions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have unique and fascinating histories in the land of my ancestors: Kerala, India’s southernmost state. Due to its geographical feature of nearly 360 miles of western coastline along the Arabian Sea, Kerala has been visited by people from all over the world as proselytes, mystics, refugees, traders, explorers, conquerors and colonizers.

The diverse and pluralistic history of Kerala can be embodied in the small town of Chendamangalam on the banks of the historic Periyar River in the central district of Ernakulam. In this city, there is a Hindu temple in the south, a Muslim mosque in the east, a Christian church in the west and a Jewish synagogue in the north. They’re all inside a kilometer one another.

Such religious pluralism is prevalent in so many parts of Kerala. In my mother’s hometown, further north, in Thrissur, our neighbors on the left are Christians, on the right are Hindus, and in the middle is our Muslim family. At sunrise, local muezzins shout the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, which is followed by the nearby Hindu temple playing devotional music on the loudspeaker and intertwined with the ringing of church bells. morning church. I find the history of religion in Kerala to be of paramount fascination.

Early historical records indicate that an ancient Jewish community arrived on the shores of Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala during the time of the biblical King Solomon. Due to the active role of the Jewish community in mercantile maritime 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 AD Although anti-Semitism never took root in Kerala, the very observant Keralite Jewish community emigrated en masse to the State of Israel in the 20th century. Kerala’s last Jew, whom I had the honor of meeting in 2020, now operates an aquarium which is attached to the historical site Kadavumbagam (meaning “the crossing side”) Synagogue in Kochi.

The introduction of Christianity to Kerala coincided with the advent of Judaism. In the Syro-Malabar Christian tradition, St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, is said to have traveled to southern India to begin a series of ministries. Arriving on the shores of Muziris in Kerala, legend has it that he was greeted by a Jewish girl playing the lute. Today, after 2 millennia, about a fifth of Keralites are Christians. I was delighted to visit the first church founded by St. Thomas in the first century in Palayur, Kerala. Behind the church is perhaps the cradle of Christianity in India. According to legend, Saint Thomas saw Brahmins perform a ritual bath and convinced them to convert to Christianity by miraculously suspending the water they were throwing in 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 claimed that King Chera of Kerala in the 7th century witnessed the Islamic miracle of the splitting of the moon and was motivated to travel to Makkah where he converted to Islam. Although he died on the journey back to Kerala, he ordered the construction of the Cheraman Juma Masjid at Kodungallur. Today it is a functioning mosque and bears an ancient Buddhist architectural style. In the middle of the mosque hangs an ancient Hindu oil lamp which holds the oil of countless visitors and pilgrims – its flame symbolizing the syncretic nature of religious diversity in Kerala. Nearly a quarter of Keralites follow Islam today.

About 20 minutes by bus from my mother’s hometown is the town of Guruvayur where the Guruvayur Temple is located, an important spiritual and sacred site for Hindus. The temple is called Bhoolokha Vaikuntham, meaning “The Holy Abode of Lord Vishnu on Earth”. As Vishnu is a primary deity of the supreme Hindu trinity – Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver – Kerala has been an important religious site for Hindus all over the world. Kerala also produced one of the greatest Vedic scholars in history, Adi Shankara. In the 8th century, Adi Shankara traveled all over India and his codification of Hindu philosophical thought, known as Advaita Vedanta, was deeply influential. In Adi Shankara’s hometown of Kalady, temples bear commemorations for him and his mother.

It is because of this rich history and the resplendent natural beauty of Kerala that it graces the nickname of “God’s Own Country”. Despite the variety of religious traditions within it, its longstanding tolerance and embrace of religious ideological diversity has made this nickname ring true for every religious Keralite.

It is more important than ever to bear in mind the lessons of these stories, as religious intolerance and injustice are proliferating at an alarming rate in India. Historical and contemporary examples of the harmonious intertwining of cultures and religious traditions over thousands of years make me proud to be from here. Visit if you have the chance and try the fish curry!

Contact Moideen Moidunny at [email protected].

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