Kerala, the South-western State of India is bordered on the north by Karnataka State, on the east by Tamil Nadu State, and on the south and west by the Arabian Sea. Kerala is one of the smallest of Indian states, having an area of 38,863 Sq km, and also one of the most populous (population 31.8 million; 2000). A belt of lowlands about 16 to 19 km wide lies along the coast. Inland are alluvial plains about 48 to 64 km in width. In the eastern section of the state rise the Western Ghats, a highland area with elevations of some 2,134 m. The principal agricultural products of the state are rice, tapioca, coconut, areca nuts, oilseeds, pepper, sugar cane, rubber, tea, coffee, and cardamom; almost all Indian black pepper and Indian rubber products come from Kerala. The capital of Kerala is Thiruvananthapuram. Kochi is an important port.
Kerala State was formed in 1956 from portions of the former Travancore-Cochin State and the former Madras State, including much of the Malabar Coast.
With trading links with the Mediterranean and even the Far East stretching back many centuries, Kerala has developed a diverse population and culture. Trade in spices with Greece and Rome, in particular, flourished during the early centuries B.C. There is an ancient Jewish community, and a sect of Syrian Christians who trace their roots back to a visit by St Thomas, the apostle, in the 1st century A.D. Arab traders brought Islam around the 8th century, and Vasco da Gama landed near Kozhikode (Calicut) in 1498. Since independence, Kerala has, along with West Bengal, been a stronghold of Indian Communism, and it acquired the first democratically elected Communist State assembly in India (and the world) in 1957.
The language spoken in Kerala is Malayalam, a Dravidian language deriving from Tamil but incorporating a considerable number of Sanskrit words. It has a rich literature. In the performing arts, Kerala is especially known as the home of the dance-drama, Kathakali. The ancient martial art of Kalari also originated here.
Although one of the smallest states, Kerala is remarkable for several reasons. Though predominantly Hindu, the state contains significant minorities of Muslims and Christians, and is known for its good record of harmonious relations between the communities. Women have traditionally held a high social status in Kerala and some communities, such as the Nairs, have followed a matrilineal system. This aspect, leading to a high level of education among women as well as general empowerment in all aspects of life, is probably a key factor in the remarkably high literacy rate (above 90 per cent), the low rate of child mortality, and the highly effective family planning campaigns, which have slowed down population growth considerably in this populous state. Levels of health services, particularly primary health care, are relatively high, in many cases providing free medical treatment. Primary education is compulsory and there are a number of professional colleges and training centres, and five universities. The high level of unemployment, however, remains a serious problem.