The modern state of Kerala consists of the western part of the southern tip of India. It is divided from the state of Tamil Nadu by the high ranges of the Nilgiri hills, and thus forms a natural unit, including the coastal towns that were traditionally active in the spice trade.
The state of Kerala was formed in two phases. In 1949 - two years after independence - the princely states of Travancore and Cochin were merged to form the state of Thirucochi. Later in 1956 parts of Malabar, formerly under the Madras Presidency were merged to form the modern state of Kerala. It is one of the smallest states of modern India, covering an area of about 15000 square kilometres, but has among the highest population density of any state.
The famous backwaters of Kerala are a series of inland lakes linked by canals, and surrounded by coconuts.
Kerala consists of two parts. The coastal region is lush and fertile, with a strong tradition of fishing and maritime trade. Just behind the coastal strip, the land rises dramatically to form high hill ranges that are used, at lower levels, to grow plantation and other cash crops; while at higher levels the hills still remain largely forested. A number of India's best known forest and wildlife reserves straddle the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Culturally and ethnically Kerala is a rich mixture of traditions that reflect its maritime past. Though Malayalam is the state language, and is spoken and used by all communities, the strategic location of the region has brought a wide variety of people to its shores. Ptolemaic Egypt, Rome and Greece are known to have traded with the region, largely drawn by the spice trade (mainly pepper) and the fact that the ports of Kerala were a transfer point for spices from further east.
These were followed by large Arab and Muslim migrations over the centuries, which also led to the establishment of settlements throughout the region and extending into Sri Lanka. One of Jesus' disciples, the Apostle Thomas, is said to have visited Kerala and South India from AD 54, where he started a community of Christians, perhaps one of the oldest such communities in the world. Kerala is also home to a tiny Jewish community, which is believed to have been accorded protection by local rulers.
Further influxes, and influences, came with the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British (effectively from 1791), which brought still more varieties of Christianity and peoples to Kerala's shores.
Historically Kerala was one of the principal trading stations on the spice route for more than 1500 years, which perhaps explains why it was so attractive to so many visitors.
Kerala was at the forefront of movements for political, religious and social reform in the 19th century, which explains its high literacy rates and sophisticated political environment. It was the first state in independent India to elect a communist government, and the level of political consciousness still remains high.