Religion in Kerala

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Kerala State

Religions in Kerala are a mixture of different faiths, most significantly Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Kerala has a reputation of being, communally, one of the most tolerant states in India. According to the 2001 Census of India figures, 56% of Kerala residents are Hindus, 24% are Muslims, 19% are Christians, and the remaining follow other religions including Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Judaism.[1] Various tribal people in Kerala have retained various religious beliefs of their ancestors.


Kerala's Religious Population Source : Census India 2001
Religion Population % Population below 6 yrs of age[2] % Dist. with highest Population Dist. with lowest Population Population growth since 1991[3] Children born per women (TFR)[4]
Hindus 17,883,449 56.2 1,932,504 50.78 Thiruvananthapuram Waynad -1.55% 1.66
Muslims 7,863,342 24.3 1,178,880 30.99 Malapuram Pathanamthitta +1.75% 2.97
Christians 6,057,427 19 677,878 17.82 Ernakulam Malappuram -0.32% 1.78

Table : Percentage distribution of population according to community by district (The statistics are based on a sample survey in 1998).[5]

District SC/STs Nairs Ezhavas Syrian Christians Latin Christians Muslims Others Total
Thiruvananthapuram 11.3 13.2 24.9 1.4 23.7 15.3 10.2 100
Kollam 16.7 24.5 16.7 3.6 13.6 14.2 10.7 100
Pathanamthitta 8.6 11.0 13.5 49.0 9.5 11.3 7.1 100
Alappuzha 7.6 13.7 39.3 13.7 2.9 7.0 25.8 100
Kottayam 8.2 8.8 21.1 29.2 10.9 11.9 9.9 100
Idukki 14.3 7.6 15.4 26.2 12.8 5.4 18.3 100
Ernakulam 7.4 8.0 14.3 13.4 21.3 22.7 12.9 100
Thrissur 8.7 8.2 24.3 23.9 10.8 15.5 8.6 100
Palakkad 14.2 10.3 22.9 0.9 3.8 32.3 15.6 100
Malappuram 5.3 1.8 8.3 0.5 3.9 75.3 4.9 100
Kozhikode 4.9 13.7 31.4 0.9 0.4 41.8 6.9 100
Wayanad 16.3 16.3 19.8 17.0 3.2 17.0 10.4 100
Kannur 3.5 19.5 30.3 3.6 0.7 27.5 14.9 100
Kasargod 8.0 2.1 13.6 0.1 2.3 47.0 26.9 100
Kerala 9.1 11.1 21.6 14.25 5.65 26.8 11.5 100


Main article: Hinduism in Kerala

Various practises of Hinduism are unique to Kerala and are not followed in other parts of India. Different cults of Shiva and Vishnu are popular in Kerala. Malayali Hindus also worship Bhagavathi as a form of Shakti. Almost every village in Kerala has its own local guardian deity, usually a goddess. Hindus in Kerala also strongly believe in power of snake gods and usually have sacred snake groves known as Sarpa Kavu near to their houses.[6]

The most popular temples amongst Hindus in Kerala are Vadakkunnathan Temple, Guruvayur Temple, Sabarimala, Sree Poornathrayesa Temple, Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple, Chottanikkara Temple, Rajarajeshwara Temple and Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Some of these temples have various dress code restrictions. For example, in Sabarimala, women between the age of 12–50 years are prohibited from visiting the temple. Temples in Kerala follow elaborate rituals and only priests from the Nambudiri caste can be appointed as priests in major temples. These priests are assisted by a caste known as Ambalavasis. Hindu women keep their head uncovered in temples, but its not a strictly followed custom.

Malayali Hindus have unique ceremonies such as Chorunu (first feeding of rice to a child) and Vidyāraṃbhaṃ[7] (beginning of education of a child). Marriages among Hindus in Kerala are a very simple affair compared to other parts of India.[citation needed]

Vavu Bali ceremony honoring the deceased in the Malayalam month of Karkadakam

Hindus in Kerala usually cremate their dead at the southern end of their house.[citation needed] Unlike in other parts of India, daughters also take part in various rituals after cremation.[citation needed]


The major festivals amongst Hindus in Kerala are Onam and Vishu. The former is more of a pan-Kerala festival. Other festivals include Maha Shivaratri, Krishna Janmashtami, Diwali and temple festivals like Pooram, Thaipusam, Bharani, Nemmara Vallangi Vela, Mamankam festival, Radosthsavam, Thalapoli, Pongala, Ekadashi, Thrissur Pooram, Guruvayur Ekadasi and Nemmara Vela.


Jainism in Kerala has a small following, mainly amongst the original Jains of Kerala and the North Indian business community, settled in and around Kochi and Calicut.[citation needed]

Tribal and other religious faiths[edit]

Various groups classified as tribes in Kerala still dominate various remote and hilly areas of Kerala.[8] They have retained various rituals and practices of their ancestors.


The number of the Jews in Kerala is a few dozens; most of them are elderly people.[citation needed]


Christians in Kerala can be broadly divided into two categories: 1) the St. Thomas Christians i.e. the Syriac Christians, whose spiritual ancestors, they believe, were originally converted by the apostle St. Thomas, and 2) those whose spiritual ancestors were converted by the colonial missionaries of Catholic and Protestant faiths. Despite being a heterogeneous group, Malayali Christians, especially the St. Thomas Christians find unity in a common history and faith.[citation needed]

Among the Syriac denominations, there are Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant divisions. The Catholic Church has the largest Christian community in Kerala, the Syro Malabar Church, as well as the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and Malabar Independent Syrian church follows Orthodox beliefs. The Syrians among Protestants belong either to the Marthoma Syrian Church or the Church of South India.[citation needed]

There is also an endogamous Syriac community in Kerala known as the Knanaites. Some of them belong to the Syro Malabar Church and the rest to the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church (Knanaya Archdiocese).[citation needed]

The non Syriacs were converted from different indigenous faiths of Kerala during the colonial era. Large numbers of lower castes converted into the Christian fold during these years to mark their Protest against the hegemony of the caste system. Those who were converted by the Catholic missionaries belong to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Verapoly (Varappuzha). The rest were converted by the Protestant missionaries in the later periods belong either to the Marthoma Church or the Church of South India.


Main article: Mappila

Local Muslims(malabar muslims) are generally referred to as Mappilas. They share a common language, Malayalam, and culture with the rest of the population.[9] The malayali muslims have a unique culture which is a mix of the local traditions as well as Islamic practices.Several unique practices which are not found in the broader muslim world like martilinear system of inheritance marumakkathayam system (which was originally practised by the Hindus in Malabar) was dominant mainly among muslims of malabar region.Art forms like Oppana(inspired by the local Kaikottikkalli), Daffmuttu, Mappla pattu, Arabana muttu are unique to malayali muslims and are the product of the intermixing with the local culture.

The majority of the orthodox Muslims in Kerala follow the Shafi'i madhab (School of Law) under Sunni Islam. Muslims following Islamic movements such as Salafi (which falls within Sunni Islam, but outside any of the madhabs) and Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami Hind are also present in the community.[citation needed]



The mythological legends regarding origin of Kerala are essentially Hindu in nature.[citation needed] Kerala produced several saints and movements. Adi Shankara was a Brahmin philosopher who contributed to Hinduism and propagated philosophy of Advaita. He was instrumental in establishing four mathas at Sringeri, Dvaraka, Puri and Jyotirmath. Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri was another Brahmin religious figure who composed Narayaniyam, a collection of verses in praise of Krishna. Another philosopher and reformer was Narayana Guru. His movement for social reform and eradication of caste based discrimination helped to establish Kerala as one of the most socially progressive states in India.[citation needed] Hindus in Kerala are divided into various castes such as Nambudiris, Nairs, Ezhavas, and Dalits. Kerala was the first region in India which allowed Hindus of any caste to enter and worship in temples (Temple Entry Proclamation).[citation needed]


Buddhism probably flourished for 200 years (650-850) in Kerala. The Paliyam Copper Plate of the Ay King, Varaguna (885-925 AD)[10] shows that the Buddhists enjoyed some royal patronage even in the tenth century. The Buddha idol, at Mavelikkara, shows the clear roots and importance of Buddhist religion in Kerala. The idol of Buddha at Mavelikara is four feet tall, and is perhaps the biggest such statue in Kerala. The statues is in seated posture, resembling Padmasana. A feature common to the idols is that hair has not been engraved on the head.

The decline of Buddhism started in the eighth century with the revival of the Brahminical religion. Buddhism faded away gradually and completely disappeared during the reign of the Vaishnavite Kulasekharas in the 11th century.

What actually happened was that Buddhism was reabsorbed into Hinduism, from which it broke away. Many Keralites, like the Ezhavas, who were once supposed to be Buddhists immigrants from Sri Lanka and local converts, gradually embraced Hinduism.

Buddhism has left its impact on Kerala. Kerala temples show traces of Buddhist art and architecture. Amarasimha, the author of the popular Sanskrit text-book used in Kerala schools until recently, was a Buddhist. Kumaran Asan, the great Kerala poet, was influenced by the great Buddhist religion and wrote the famous, Buddhist poems: Karuna. Chandala Bhikshuki, and Sri Buddha Charitam.


Main article: Jainism in Kerala
Marwari Jain Temple in Kochi

Jainism, which arrived in Kerala around the 3rd century BC, has a significant population in the Wayanad district bordering the Karnataka state. The Jain religion was brought to the South in the third century BC by Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) and the Jain saint Bhadrabahu, according to Jain traditions. They came to Sravanabelgola in Mysore. The Jains came to Kerala with the rest of the Chera immigrants starting in the sixth century. Amongst the existing original Jain temple in Kerala, the most prominent is popularly known as Jainmedu is in Vadakkanthara village, which is about 3 km from Palakkad. This temple was reportedly built by Inchanna Satur. This indicates significant population of Jains lived in Palaghat during the 15th century. Later various members of Marwari business community have built Jain temple in Kochi. Remnants of Jain temple known as Chathurmukha Basti is a popular destination in Manjeshwaram, Kasaragod.[11] Some historians claim many Hindu temples might have been once Jain temples. Several places in Wyanad have Jain temples -an indication that North Malabar was once a flourishing center of Jainism. Historians believe that the decline of Jainism started about the eighth century. Jainism seems to have completely disappeared from Kerala by the sixteenth century; the foreign visitors from Europe do not mention the Jains at all.


Judaism arrived in Kerala with spice traders, possibly as early as the 7th century BC.[12] There is no consensus of opinion on the date of the arrival of the first Jews in India. The tradition of the Cochin Jews maintains that after 72 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, 10,000 Jews migrated to Kerala.[12]

The only verifiable historical evidence about the Kerala Jews goes back only to the Jewish Copper Plate Grant of Bhaskara Ravi Varman in 1000 AD.[13] This document records the royal gift of rights and privileges to the Jewish Chief of Anjuvannam Joseph Rabban. According to some historians, St. Thomas found first converts in Kerala to his new religion amongst many of the Cochin Jews. However these Jews who accepted Christianity retained the Aramaic language once spoken by Jews in Middle East. Their descendants form the core of Syrian Christian (Syrian Malabar Nasrani) community in Kerala. Later in the 16th century many Jews from Portugal and Spain settled in Cochin. These Jews were called white Jews as opposed to the native black Jews.

The Portuguese did not look favorably on the Jews. They destroyed the Jewish settlement in Cranganore and sacked the Jewish town in Cochin and partially destroyed the famous Cochin Synagogue in 1661. However, the Dutch were more tolerant and allowed the Jews to pursue their normal life and trade in Cochin. According to the testimony of the Dutch Jew, Mosss Pereya De Paiva, in 1686 there were 10 synagogues and nearly 500 Jewish families in Cochin. Later Britishers too were tolerant, and the Jews enjoyed peace and protection. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, most Jews decided to emigrate to Israel. Most of the emigrants to Israel between 1948 and 1955 were from the community of black Jews and brown Jews; they are known as Cochini in Israel. Since the 1960s only few hundred Jews (mostly white Jews) remained in Kerala with only two synagogues open for service: the Pardesi Synagogue in Matancherry built in 1567 and the synagogue in Parur.


Jacobite Syrian Knanaya Major Church (Valiyapalli) Kottayam

Syrian Christians in Kerala are also called Nasranis. The works of scholars and Eastern Christian writings say that Thomas the Apostle visited Muziris in Kerala in 52 AD to proselytize amongst Kerala's Jewish settlements and from this came Thomasine Christianity.[14][15] The 3rd and 4th centuries saw an influx of Jewish Christians from the Middle East. Knanaya communities arrived during this time.[16] Syrian Christians remained as an independent group, and they got their bishops from Assyrian Church of the East until the advent of Portuguese and British colonialists.

Relationship of the Nasrani groups.

The arrival of Europeans in the 15th century and discontent with Portuguese interference in religious matters fomented schism into Catholic and Orthodox communities. Further schism and rearrangements led to the formation of the other Indian Churches. Latin Rite Christians were those baptised by the Portuguese in the 16th and 19th centuries mainly from the fisher folk. Anglo-Indian Christian communities formed around this time as Europeans and local Malayalis intermarried. Protestantism arrived a few centuries later with missionary activity during British rule.


Main article: Mappila

The general consensus among the Muslims is that Islam arrived in Kerala through Arab sailors either during the time of Prophet Muhammad himself (7th century AD) or in the following few decades.[17][18]

After the 12th century, the Zamorin of Kozhikode allowed the Arab Muslim traders to settle and form a community in Kozhikode. The religion gradually spread in the following centuries. Populations of Muslims live in Calicut, and the Malapuram districts in the Malabar region. Historian A. Sreedhara Menon states that the policy followed by the Zamorins of encouraging Muslim traders to settle in his kingdom, to encourage maritime trade, perhaps accounts for the relatively high proportion of Muslims in Malabar. The Muslims also staffed the Zamorin's navy. They were so intensely pro-Zamorin that one of them issued an order to bring up one male in every fishermen family in his kingdom as a Muslim so as to get sufficient numbers in his navy.[19] There is also a significant Muslim population living in the coastal regions of central and southern Kerala.[citation needed]

Historians also believe that during the invasion of North Kerala by Tipu Sultan, he forcefully converted many Hindus to Islam.[20] Tipu in a letter to Badroos Saman Khan (dated January 19, 1790) states I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam. I am now determined to march against the cursed Raman Nair (Dharma Raja Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma). However, this figure can only be seen as an exaggeration on part of Tipu, who obviously wanted to pose as a champion of his faith, since the Malabar Manual of William Logan, written a century later, lists the population of Malabar as less than five lakhs.

Religious tensions[edit]

Kerala has a reputation of being one of the most tolerant states of India.[citation needed] Nevertheless, there have been religious conflicts. In the Mappila riots of 1921, Muslim Mappilas forcibly converted many Hindus and killed or drove away all Hindus who would not apostatise, totalling to one lakh (100,000).[21] The worst since 1980 was the Marad massacre in Kozhikode district in 2003, where eight Hindus were killed by an armed Muslim mob.[22][23] The 1992 Ayodhya-Babri Masjid incident also had repercussions in Kerala.[24] In 1983 there was an incident in Nilackal near Sabarimala[25] over discovery of a Cross. However during Nilackal incident no major violence was reported.

In the 21st century various extreme religious groups have become influential in Kerala.[26][27]

In 2008 there was tension in the streets of Kerala over the introduction of a seventh standard textbook in the government schools. The controversy was mainly focussed around a chapter in the book titled Mathamillaatha Jeevan (Jeevan without religion).[clarification needed] The material was about a boy Jeevan's parents, whose names suggest different religions, refusing to name any religion (or caste) for him at the time of his admission to school, and in fact, instructing the headmaster to write 'no religion' in the required place.[28] This and many other sections throughout the book and the associated teacher's guide prompted most religious groups to allege that this book was part of the atheistic anti-religious propaganda of the ruling Left Front government.[29][30] The government finally had to withdraw all the distributed books and make changes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Census of India". Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  2. ^ "Increase in Muslim population in the State". The Hindu (Chennai, India). September 23, 2004. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "Population Research and Policy Review, Volume 22, Numbers 5-6". SpringerLink. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  5. ^ Zachariah, Kunniparampil Curien; Mathew, Elangikal Thomas; Rajan, Sebastian Irudaya (2003). Dynamics of migration in Kerala: dimensions, differentials, and consequences. Orient Longman. p. 90. ISBN 978-81-250-2504-7. 
  6. ^ [2][dead link]
  7. ^ "Vidyarambham celebrated in Kerala - India News - IBNLive". Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  8. ^ Idukki - People and culture - Tribes
  9. ^ Pg 461, Roland Miller, The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol VI , Brill 1988
  10. ^ A social history of India S. N. Sadasivan APH Publishing, 2000
  11. ^ Chathurmukha Basti, Kasaragod Malayala Manorama: Tuesday, November 29, 2005
  12. ^ a b Katz 2000; Koder 1973; Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973; David de Beth Hillel, 1832; Lord, James Henry 1977.
  13. ^ "Sharon delighted with gift from Kochi". The Hindu (Chennai, India). September 11, 2003. 
  14. ^ Medlycott, A E. 1905 "India and the Apostle Thomas"; Gorgias Press LLC; ISBN
  15. ^ Thomas Puthiakunnel, (1973) "Jewish colonies of India paved the way for St. Thomas", The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, ed. George Menachery, Vol. II.
  16. ^ Mundadan AM (1984). Volume I: From the Beginning up to the Sixteenth Century (up to 1542). History of Christianity in India. Church History Association of India. Bangalore: Theological Publications. 
  17. ^ V.D.Kulshreshtha's Landmarks in Indian Legal And Constitutional History, Pg 18
  18. ^
  19. ^ Pg 112, A short survey of Kerala History, A. Sreedhara Menon, Vishwanathan Publishers 2006
  20. ^ Tipu Sultan: villain or hero? : an anthology(Page 38)by Sita Ram Goel
  21. ^ Besant, Annie. The Future Of Indian Politics: A Contribution To The Understanding Of Present-Day Problems P252. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 1-4286-2605-0. "They murdered and plundered abundantly, and killed or drove away all Hindus who would not apostatize. Somewhere about a lakh of people were driven from their homes with nothing but the clothes they had on, stripped of everything. Malabar has taught us what Islamic rule still means, and we do not want to see another specimen of the Khilafat Raj in India." 
  22. ^ "Welcome to Frontline : Vol. 28 :: No. 18". Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  23. ^ By M.G. Radhakrishnan (October 16, 2006). "Not So Godly". INDIA TODAY. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  24. ^ "Communal tension high in Kerala". BBC News. December 10, 2001. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  25. ^ [3][dead link]
  26. ^ "The Hindu : Ravi defends Antony from VS tirade". 2002-02-04. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  27. ^ "Welcome to Frontline : Vol. 28 :: No. 18". Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  28. ^ "Losing their religion, in Kerala - How the World Works". 2008-06-25. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  29. ^ "Opposition demands withdrawal of textbook in Kerala - Chennaionline News". 2008-07-16. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  30. ^ "Welcome to Frontline : Vol. 28 :: No. 18". Retrieved 2011-08-24.