A charming myth explains the creation of Kerala, the narrow state running 560 km (350 miles) along India's western coast. Parashurama, an avatar of Vishnu, performed a series of penances to atone for a grievous sin, and the god of the sea rewarded his devotion by reclaiming Kerala from the deep.
The reality is no less charming. From pristine beaches and backwaters to extensive stretches
of tea and spice plantations and rolling hills, Kerala is a land of diverse natural beauty, added to which is the opportunity to spot unique species of birds and wildlife. The landscape changes across the breadth of the state, and is dotted with waterfalls, fresh springs, and forests. It is also rich in history, with Hindu temples dating back thousands of years and a culture that include dance, martial arts, and age-old ayurvedic treatments. From the more recent past, coastal cities like Kochi preserve colonial mansions and 19th-century godowns (warehouses) used to store spices and teas from the plantations.
In 1956 the Malayalam-speaking states of Kochi and Travancore joined with the district of Malabar to form Kerala. The new Indian state became the first place in the world to adopt a communist government in a free election, an event that caused global speculation. Today this tropical enclave between the western mountains and the Arabian Sea is one of India's most progressive states, with a literacy rate of well over 90% and a life expectancy far higher than the Indian average. Even in the shabbiest backwater "toddy shop," where locals knock back glasses of potent coconut liquor, you'll find a copy of the day's newspaper. However, despite Kerala's very real accomplishments, unemployment remains endemic. Its citizens depend to a large degree on remittances (money sent from abroad). To be able to provide for their families back home, many Keralan men must leave to work in the Persian Gulf.
The Malayalis make up India's most highly educated population; many are conversant in English, Hindi, and Tamil, as well as Malayalam. In the nearly three millennia before the 1795 establishment of British rule, Phoenicians, Arabs, Jews, Chinese, and Europeans came in droves, attracted by the region's valuable cash crops: tea, rubber, cashews, teak, and spices—notably black pepper (Kerala's black gold) and cardamom.
Kerala's diversity is a testament to all those who passed by during the last few centuries. This state is unique in that its population is almost equally divided into Christians, Hindus, and Muslims (India's three largest religious communities).
Since Independence, people have begun using the place names that were used prior to British colonization. The strong British presence here makes name changes particularly germane; hence, Alleppey/Alappuzha, Calicut/Kozhikode, Cochin/Kochi, Quilon/Kollam, Trichur/Thrissur, and Trivandrum/Thiruvananthapuram. Official maps and tourist brochures reflect these changes but both versions are still commonly used.