Legends apart, the first set of people who left their footprints on the soil of Kerala can be identified at present only with reference to their burial practices. Though records are lacking, a reasonable assumption is that they spoke an archaic form of Tamil. They constructed strange burial monuments in granite, literate and pottery, most of which are strikingly similar to the megalithic monuments of West Europe and Asia. These monuments are, however, younger than their counterparts in the rest of Asia. Historians have postulated a time bracket between 10th century B.C. and 5th century A.D. for these people. It is clear from the grave relics, including iron tridents and daggers, that the megalithic builders had long emerged out of the stone age into the iron age without passing through a bronze age. In fact, there is very little evidence of the old and the new stone ages in Kerala. It is quite possible that the Mauryan invaders who reached the Mysore borders in their conquest southwards, encountered the megalith making tribes who lived in hill forts and controlled the surrounding countryside. Fortunately, a whole corpus of ancient Tamil literature known to scholars by the name of Sangham literature, has been preserved. It is believed that during the period of Asoka the Great, the southern most tribes were just emerging from the tribal status of civilization. Contacts with the more advanced Mauryan world could have accelerated the pace of political and social movement among the Cheras and the minor chieftains of Kerala.
Though the Cheras had their capital at Vanchi in the interior, they had the famous harbour towns of Tyndis and Muziris on the Arabian Sea coast for trade. The Cheras ruled over the central portion of the present day Kerala. They seemed to have attracted a good deal of Roman trade. There are vivid descriptions in Sangham literature of Yavana ships coming to Muziris, laden with gold and waiting for pepper, the black gold of the Romans, at some distance from the shore. The hoards of Roman gold coins unearthed from Kottayam and Eyyal in Kerala authenticity to such statements. There were a number of other minor chieftains who flourished in different parts of Kerala. The sage Agastya is the father of Tamil grammar and literature and the entire social world of Kerala, as part of Tamilakam (Tamil land) is reflected in the rich collection of secular poems which form the characteristic legacy of the Sangham age.
Contact with the Mauryan empire gave the first impulse for the transformation of tribal policy into civilized polity. The stimulus of overseas trade provided by the Roman empire in the first three centuries of the Christian era triggered off the next phase of development in Tamilakam. The geographical advantages i.e., the abundance of pepper and other spices, the navigability of the rivers connecting the high mountains with the seas and the discovery of favourable trade winds which carried sailing ships directly from the Arabian coast to Kerala in less than forty days, combined to produce a veritable boom in Kerala's foreign trade. The harbours of Naura near Kannur, Tyndis near Quilandy, Muziris near Kodungallor and Bacare near Alappuzha owed their existence primarily to the Roman trade. Roman contact with Kerala might have given rise to small colonies of Jews and Syrian Christians in the chief harbour towns of Kerala. The Jews of Kochi believe that their ancestors came to the west coast of India as refugees following the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century A.D. The Syrian Christians claim to be the descendants of the converts of St. Thomas, one of the Apostle of Jesus Christ. Arab contacts are also very ancient and Islam came to Kerala as far back as the 9th century A.D.
The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed the decline and fall of the western Roman empire. A shrivelling of the Roman sea trade followed, leading in its turn, to a decline of the harbour towns like Tyndis and Muziris. Further, political incursions from the north into Tamilakam took place. The traditions of Nambudiris (Kerala Brahmins) recorded in the Keralolpatti chronicle refer to Mayurvarman, the Kadamba king, as their patron during the period the after Parasurama. A Kadamba record of the 5th century at the Edakkal cave in Wayanad bears testament to the Kadamba presence in Kerala. The last phase of the Sangham age coincided with a silent revolution that was brewing within the social system in Kerala. By about the 8th century, a chain of thirty two Brahmin settlements had come up, which eventually paved the way for the social, cultural and political separation of Kerala from the Tamil country, in due course. These colonies were capable of producing a great philosopher, Sankaracharya. Shri Sankara was born in the village of Kaladi in central Kerala. He was an intellectual giant of the 9th century, who saved the Hindu orthodoxy through the synthesis of cults and who can well be ranked with St. Thomas of Aquinas in clarity of thought and understanding. He was a product of the post Sangham, new Aryan settlements of Kerala, who were far removed from the cradle - land of the Indo - Gangetic civilization. The whole of Kerala came to be covered by a network of temple centered Brahmin settlements. Under their control, these settlements had a large extend of land, number of tenants and the entailing privileges. With more advanced techniques of cultivation, socio-political organization and a strong sense of solidarity, the Brahmins gradually formed the elite of the society. They succeeded in raising a feudal fighting class and ordered the caste system with numerous graduations of upper, intermediate and lower classes. In due course, the consolidation of these settlements and the establishments of their ascendancy gradually led to the evolution of a new Malayalee language and a new Malayalee culture, the separate identity of Kerala was in the making.
The ninth century
The ninth century raised the curtain of a new epoch in Kerala history. The ancient capital of Vanchi fell into the hands of the Pandyas. The vanquished rulers founded a new capital near the old harbour city of Muciri (Muziri), now known as Kodungalloor. The new capital was called Makotai or Mahodayapura and was built around the great Siva temple of Tiruvanchikulam. No trace of the palace at Makotai remains today. The author of Kokasandesa found it in ruins even in the 16th century. He saw in the ruins yet another example of the fickle nature of the goddess of prosperity. The revival of the Chera kingdom was actually a by-product of the Aryan Brahmin settlements and assumption of the socio-political dominance they had established. The Perumal was the Lord of Mahodayapura and the overlord of Kerala (Keraladhinatha). But his sovereignty was constrained by the pre-existing power of the Brahmin settlements and the hereditary chieftains. Each Nadu or District had its own hereditary or nominated governor. Thus the great feudatories were the hereditary governors of Kolathunad, Purakizhanad, Kurumpanad, Eranad, Valluvanad, Kizhamalanad, Vempalanad and Venad.The northernmost district of Kolathunad was almost independent and was brought under Chera sovereignty by force towards the end of the 9th century. Venad, the southernmost district, was carved out of the ancient territory of the Vels. A new harbour city, named Kollam, was established here in A.D. 825. In the course of time, it became the second capital of the Cheras of Makotai. Kollam gradually gained in trade and prosperity under the leadership of Mar Sapir Iso, the Syrian Christian merchant prince. The founding of Kollam city marked the beginning of an era, which came into use all over Kerala and parts of the Pandyan kingdom and even in Ceylon by astronomers and officials, who tagged it on to the Saptarishi era. The Kollam era came to be known as the Malayalam era.
The 12th century
The beginning of the 12th century marked a period of troubled times for Kerala. The attack by the combined forces of the Cholas and the Pandyas and internal conflicts in the Chera kingdom made Rama Kulasekhara the Perumal, to leave the country in the company of some Arab Muslims. He is believed to have been converted into Islam and have died at a place called Sapher in Arabia. This event has been referred to as the partition of Kerala. In the absence of a central power, the divisions of the Chera kingdom soon emerged as principalities under separate chieftains. These were crucial events which shaped the destinies of Kerala, for many centuries to come. In this period, Kerala was chiefly a land of agricultural villages. Society had a feudal complexion with a graded hierarchy, hereditary occupations and well-defined duties and responsibilities for each class of people. Proprietorship of land was closely related to political power and administration. A peculiarity of the social system in Kerala which comes to notice in the epigraphic and literary records of this age is the matrilineal form of inheritance. In spite of the predominantly agrarian character of society, trade and commerce flourished. Hill products from the Western Ghats carried down, by the many rivers, to the natural harbours on the Arabian Sea secured an expanding market in West Asia and Europe. A number of Jewish and Christian traders exploited this situation with the help of the monsoon. The native chieftains overlooked the differences in faith and race and extended them religious tolerance as well as social equality. These merchants were not inclined to or capable of disturbing established order. In fact, Syrian Christian and Jewish leaders like Mar Sapir Iso and Joseph Rabban came to the rescue of Chera kings in times of war and thereby earned their gratitude in full measure.