A royal decree from The Queen of Trivandrum

The Christian Science Monitor takes an inspiring look at the state of literacy in Kerala. Why are our Mallu friends so damn into their books and education?


At the Janaranjini preschool in the state of Kerala in rural southern India, children aren’t building castles in the sand. Instead, as they sit cross-legged in front of a thin layer of sand, they are learning the fundamentals of reading and math.

Three-year old V. S. Madhav twirls letters of his native Malayalam - the language of Kerala – into the sand with his left forefinger while his classmate, 4-year old Neethu Saji, writes Arabic numerals more quickly than her teacher can call them out.

“I also learned like this. My father also like this,” says N. Revindhran. Mr. Revindhran is a volunteer at the public library that runs this preschool, locally referred to as a kalari. “This is the ancient model [of schooling],” Revindhran explains.

Education in Kerala represents a success story that many nations might wish to emulate.

I had always learned that the high literacy rate in Kerala was directly related to the emphasis that Christian missionaries there had placed on reading. The messages of the Bible are best spread by reading of course. This article cured me of some of my misconceptions.

In Kerala, commitment to education pervades society. About 37 percent of the state’s annual budget goes to education. The state supports 12,271 schools. There’s an elementary school within two miles of every settlement.

Even when times are tough, education is the last item the Kerala government will cut. “Traditionally, we’ve always been funding education. The social demand is there. If we make budget cuts now, there’ll be agitation from the people,” says A. Ajith Kumar, director of public instruction in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala.

The roots of Kerala’s literacy culture can be traced back at least to the Hindu rulers of the 19th century. The Queen of Trivandrum issued a royal decree in 1817 that said, “The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment.” She hoped education would make her people “better subjects and public servants.”

Education is the “last item to be cut.” That is sick! Who do these people think they are? Just go type in “education cuts” at Yahoo News and see what turns up.

Despite Kerala’s education successes, the region has not yet been able to provide its literate population with enough work. Kerala has a rural employment rate of 11.6 percent and an urban employment rate of 12.2 percent, according to an economic review published by the Kerala government in 2003.

Ninety percent of the people go out of Kerala to find jobs,” says K. Deepa, a computer-science teacher at a college in the town of Muvattupuzha.

But education allows many from Kerala to find work elsewhere – in other Indian states, the Middle East, and the US. The money they send back home forms the backbone of Kerala’s economy. Literacy has become the state’s chief asset.

And there you have it. A cynic would say that Kerala should spend less money on education and more money on business development by reallocating its education budget. Isn’t that what economically liberal countries end up doing? Maybe then Kerala would have jobs for its people. If this cynical view is true (and I hope it isn’t), then its kind of sad (but perhaps necessary) to think that quality of education, and the creation of the job market in which you apply that education, play against each other.

27 thoughts on “A royal decree from The Queen of Trivandrum

  1. In Arundhati Roy’s novel, God of Small Things, she linked the high literacy of the state to the advent of communism, though the emphasis on education had always been a tradition in the state.

  2. It’s nice to see how as varied forces as the Queen of Travancore, the kings of Cochin, christian missionaries and “social reformers” (don’t they mean communists ?; they mention the “land-reform measures” of the 50s but don’t use the C-word) all contributed to literacy in Kerala. My grandfather used to say that the specific encouragement of women’s education had a lot to do with sustaining the literacy gains over generations; perhaps the existing women-friendly cultural tendencies helped also.

    I know the question of the Kerala model is complicated and the situation is not completely rosy. Bill McKibben had an interesting, related article from some years ago. Here’s an excerpt :

    Kerala suggests a way out of two problems simultaneously–not only the classic development goal of more food in bellies and more shoes on feet, but also the emerging, equally essential task of living lightly on the earth, using fewer resources, creating less waste. Kerala demonstrates that a low-level economy can create a decent life, abundant in the things–health, education, community–that are most necessary for us all. Gross national product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods. One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly more successful society. Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they do–or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly somewhere in between.
  3. abhi, GREAT post.

    My personal opinion: You have the highest quality posts on sepiamutiny

    Though I am not from kerala, I always admired the “Gods own country”

  4. I concur, very interesting post abhi. Being mallu myself, I always took pride in Kerala’s literacy rate. I just wished that with that ability to read, Kerala would have a greater academic tradition, that more uncles/aunties were actual intellectuals and more open-minded. But i guess, like you touched upon, putting food in your kid’s belly is more of a priority and intellectual ruminations are a luxury that kerala’s literate population generally dont have the time for. Rather, escaping poverty and emigrating to the wealthier nations became the trend. I have mixed feelings about this. As a product of such cavalier parents, I completely enjoy the benefits of their decision to bounce from Kerala, and at the same time I, while fully having and enjoying the benefit of not having to work as hard as they did, sort of regret and are saddened by their single-minded materialism and inability to see beyond the dollar, to some degree.

  5. Awesome post. The only thing remaining now is for Kerala to generate local jobs. I don’t think its so much a bad thing to immigrate, but it sure would be nice for the educated to find fulfilling life in their native land.

    And Joe, even though they may not aspire to be intellectuals, I think you’ll agree that education even when ‘unused’ does raise the society’s baseline. It provides a platform for change and justice. Intellectual or not, I’d take education for no apparant purpose than no education at all.

  6. i always attributed kerala’s success to the values that the lefties came into government with (west bengal also has a high literacy compared to other states and had different cultural and religious influences but similarly rooted politics).

    That said, i have an on-and-off pen pal in kerala and he complains about the lefties, including lack of jobs, etc. Admittedly anecdotal (i.e. a sample of one), but he is there, unlike me.

  7. Oops.. CSM forgot to mention that Kerala has the most number of alcoholics! (anecdotal) More than leftist governance, I think the educational achievement is because of vast presense of Christian missionaries.

    One should also consider that the Kerala is a much smaller state (population and area) than other states. It gives an added advantage in getting to “most educated” ppl. Number wise, Andhra, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat may be leading.

  8. Keralites are well-known in the south for their longstanding (way before C.E.) history of literacy and arts patronage. As pertains to Vedic culture and traditions, a few pockets of Kerala house the oldest practises of Hinduism, passed down the ages through word of mouth (i.e. sheer memory). Their knowledge of proper Sanskrit form trumps a lot of other Indian states, too.

    So, I would attribute their high literacy rate not only to the availability of a quality education but also to their receptiveness, brain power and desire to learn.

    Us mere Tam-Brahms bow our heads in shame, despite our “defender of the faith” motions to the contrary.

  9. hammer_sickle, I donÂ’t think itÂ’s fair to use anecdotal evidence to claim that Kerala has the highest number of alcoholics. On the issue of Christian missionaries; Christianity has been present in Kerala since 52 C.E. There might be a small number of missionaries who work in Kerala, but the majority of Christians in Kerala can trace back their ties to Christianity for almost two thousand years. So that means that Christian missionaries have a small impact on boosting the literacy rate, if any influence at all. Also, even though Kerala is a small state, it has the has the second highest density (819/km2 ), ranked behind West Bengal (904/ km2 ). So the title of “most educated” is still not easy to get. If you want to learn more about Kerala, just look it up on Wikipedia


  10. Kerala has been supplanted by Northeastern state Mizoram, which has “nearly cent per cent” literacy….(but alas not so many jobs). Interesting thing about that state is that most of the progress has been achieved in the last 10-15 years.

  11. that was a great post abhs. i found it very interesting…i wish more nations promoted education.

  12. The article is actually pretty lame. I don’t believe many kids write in sand or go to kalaries in Kerala anymore.

    Actually the rural and urban employment rates here make no sense at all. Almost every young person in the state is registered for “unemployment benefits” and hence the employment rate shows up as this low.

    Last time I checked 50% of Govt expenses are spent on education in Kerala (including higher education).

  13. If this cynical view is true (and I hope it isnÂ’t), then its kind of sad (but perhaps necessary) to think that quality of education, and the creation of the job market in which you apply that education, play against each other.

    This isn’t cynical (although it sad to me too). Even a good socialist (perhaps especially a good socialist) would agree that there’s always a tradeoff in how resources get allocated. In places with few resources, that tradeoff is depressing.

  14. I believe Christian missionaries had little impact in Kerala. They might have had more impact in other places (in India), Goa for instance. But the Christian tradition in Kerala is almost as old as the faith itself and Keralite Christians trace their roots (in the faith) to St. Thomas the apostle and not to the European missionaries that came much later. Just thought I’d point out this little known fact (which is often met with a not-so-small measure of indignation from Christians in the US:).

  15. I believe Christian missionaries had little impact in Kerala.

    I get as much pleasure telling people about Kerala’s double-millenial history of christianity as you do, but european missionaries did have a significant impact on christianity in Kerala. A look at the numbers in Kerala says a lot. According to this page, “Catholics together constitute about 61.4%, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Jacobites together about 21.4%, the Marthoma Syrians about 5.7%, the Church of South India 5.2% and others about 6.3% of Christian in the state.”

    So the pre-european orthodox christians make up only a fifth of the state’s christian population. The portuguese and the british left their mark on church architecture and theology (i believe they even built a seminary).

  16. There are all sorts of Catholics in Kerala. There are Anglo-Indian Latin Catholics, Roman (Latin) Catholics, Syrian Catholics (who were formerly Brahmins or Jews before converting) and Knanaya Syrian Catholics. The latter group traces their lineage to St. Thomas and claims to have Syrian blood. The Knanaya community has rigidly maintained its distinct ethnic identity to the present day, vehemently prohibiting intermarriage with non-Knanaya even within their own religious jurisdiction while freely permitting Knanaya marriage between Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

    There is an unspoken “caste” system amongst Christians in Kerala that can be evidenced by just browsing matrimonial ads. Syrian Christians will not marry Latin Christians generally. Many Latin Christians are known as “Rice Christians” because they were converted by missionaries in exchange for rice. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Indian Christians tend to embrace Western culture more so than Indian culture as in the case of Goans. Anglo-Indians have their own communities in Kerala also.

  17. …but european missionaries did have a significant impact on christianity in Kerala…

    I suppose I should rephrase, what I meant. I think that Christianity was introduced in Kerala way before the European missionaries are said to have bought it to the sub-continent. If I am not mistaken I read some accounts where the European missionaries – when they arrived on the shores of Kerala – were surprised to find Churches in Kerala. So if not bought over by the European missionaries, then I am guessing the theory that St. Thomas introduced Christianity in India holds,

  18. Catholics together constitute about 61.4%, but european missionaries did have a significant impact on christianity in Kerala.

    That’s not correct dude … Most of the Catholics from kerala have been converted from the Orthodox and other traditions. I would know since i have descended from one of those converts. Also, the catholic and orthodox traditions have become very similar in the ideology and beliefs so much that their is a great deal of intermarriage

  19. “Say What!?”, Snake and ANNA: I agree with you. I’m not sure what you think I said was incorrect (Snake). But to clarify : Yes, I am aware that the majority of catholics in Kerala are of the “Eastern Rite” and that there is widespread intermarriage. All I was saying is that simply by convincing such a large proportion of Kerala’s christians to come under the jurisdiction of the Pope, the portuguese had a significant impact on Christianity in Kerala.

    As far as I can gather, the history of christianity in kerala is as follows. It’s been around since the first couple of centuries (maybe starting with St.Thomas in AD52, maybe not). Until the arrival of the portuguese, kerala christians were affiliated with the persian (a.k.a Nestorian) church. The portuguese saw them as heretics. They convinced many to come under the authority of the Pope (i.e. the eastern rite catholics). Some of those who resisted tried to reconnect with the mother church in the middle east. Only, by this time the persian church was weak so they instead connected with the syriac church (a.k.a Jacobites, Monophysites or East Syrians) instead. And a much smaller number remained with the Nestorian church. Even if they didn’t convince everybody to become catholic, the portuguese left their mark on church architecture. The arrival of the british resulted in more bifurcations (Mar Thoma, CSI etc). I think it is fair to say that all this constitutes a ‘significant impact’ :) .

    Peace, ashvin

  20. Good thread… and relevant to an identity crisis Im facing as a Mallu Xtian in a swarm of North-Indians…. Anyone north of the Ktaka think all Xtians are “Goans” – ie, they speak Konkani, dress western style, and all girls are Mona Darlings. The sterotyping of Xtians by Bollywood hasnt helped much. (think “Bobby”, “Julie”, and ugh – Neha Dhupia’s “Julie”. – Most of Ajit’s molls were Rosys or Marys or Lillys. If anyone remembers a Xtian woman in a Hindi movie who wasnt a moll or a nun or “poor girl who has to work to support drunkard dad”, holla.

  21. to an identity crisis Im facing as a Mallu Xtian in a swarm of North-Indians

    mmmmyeah….try being a Mallu NON-Xtian. As my favorite SM’er knows, I’ve started saying, “I’m Malayalee…and I’m not Christian.” EVERYONE thinks Mallu = Christian.

    I’ve found more than one source (i.e. not just my parents) that says Kerala is about 60% Hindu, 20% Christian, and 20% Muslim. I think everyone assumes Christian because more Mallu Christians than non-Christians migrated.


  22. I am a mallu Christian and consequently (or due to general ignorance) am unaware of a lot of the finer(and sometimes the major) aspects of Hinduism. So I had a question, aren’t Sikhs originally Hindus?

    Anyways I just thought I might add in an anecdote as well. Going in for a haircut at a Supercuts in LA, I was asked how I wanted it done. And I go blah-blah… and she rolls her eyes and says, “Where are you from?”. And I say I am from India. And she says, “Well most of the Hindus that come in here have it this way…yada-yada…and not how you want it”. So I say I am not Hindu, I am actually Catholic (but I am thinking inwardly what does religion have to do with a haircut, unless of course if you are Sikh:). So finally she asks me if I am sure, ‘cuz you know all the Hindus get their hair cut differently. Finally it dawns on me that she means Indians, and I go with the Hinduism-is-a-religion-and-not-a-national-identity speech until she looks all confused. Well she then goes on to tell me that there are Indians in the US too, so calling Indians from India, Hindu and I am guessing native Americans, Indian was her way of sorting out Columbus’s mess.

  23. i can’t believe you let that half-wit touch your head, 2cs. i would’ve left. after the speech, of course. ;)


    hear ye, hear ye– on behalf of two other vexed mallus, one of whom i’m excessively fond of:

    not every christian girl is a “mona darling” and not every malayalee is christian, got that?



    you’re lucky. many moons ago, when i was at my punjabi-saturated college, they thought i was guju “or something”, since “everything south of punjab is south india”. suuuure. b/c there are ass-loads of christians in gujurat, right?

    i’ve never run into someone who assumes i’m goan, though the vast majority of people i met in college had no idea where kerala was, nor how to pronounce it (“ka-re-la”? no. you make sabji out of that. idiot. “karla?” sigh.) i also don’t watch bollywood, so i’m not familiar with the fascinating stereotypes you mentioned.

    chin up, if i could be the only mallu at a major american university, you can survive your identity crisis too. :)

  24. mmmmyeah….try being a Mallu NON-Xtian. As my favorite SM’er knows, I’ve started saying, “I’m Malayalee…and I’m not Christian.” EVERYONE thinks Mallu = Christian.

    I think I can empathize, ‘cuz for half the nanosecond in between reading “I’m Malayalee…” and then going on to read “…and I’m not Christian.”, I assumed you were Christian, :) .

    I’ve found more than one source (i.e. not just my parents) that says Kerala is about 60% Hindu, 20% Christian, and 20% Muslim. I think everyone assumes Christian because more Mallu Christians than non-Christians migrated.

    Even I have read/heard it, but having studied there for around 2 years and having visited Kerala on innumerable occassions, I have always come away with the feeling of a majority Christian presence. Anyways I do know a number of Hindus from Kerala and if I might add I find the Keralites far more genteel and erudite. Ok, now I gotta scram before I get pummeled by the likes of him.

  25. i can’t believe you let that half-wit touch your head, 2cs. i would’ve left. after the speech, of course. ;)

    I wish I could. But being one of them PIGS(Poor Indian Graduate Students), Supercuts is all I can afford right now. :(

  26. Brahmins were the last people to even learn English in kerala. Its so embarrassing to read that they were converted to Christians by St. Thomas. There are only claims and this claim has a genuine reason. Even though Jews had been given a elite statute in the soil of kerala(from ages keralites have a passion for foreign people and their soil – still continuing), they were actually worse than stray dogs in the eyes of the world. Some countries even believed killing a Jew is a sacred act.

    Many historians also believe that St. Thomas came to kerala in search of some Jews. This was the time when they were converted to Christianity. There were also local conversions, but some one from the higher class was unlikely to follow suite, since caste system at that time was the back born of even the local governance.

    Hence to keep them self secure the so called conversions needed a shadow (during which namboothiries were an elite class in the governing mechanism)which started as a whistle blowing. It has been argued that as an Apostle of the ‘Circumcision’ St. Thomas’s first converts would have been Jews who were settled there, and that the possibility of him converting Hindus into Christianity is unlikely. Those who adhere to this argument assert that some St Thomas Christians believe that hyper orthodox Brahmins like Namboodhiries were converted by Saint Thomas into Christianity based upon attempts by the St Thomas Christians to enter the caste system of India. As they were Jewish by heritage, they remained outside the Indian caste system while at the same time unable to return to their home nation of Israel because of strong political and religious reasons. These Saint Thomas Christians also grew through integration of Jewish Christian immigrants of the 4th century AD led by Thomas of Cana and later by Mar Sapro in the 8th century AD. As Judeo-Christian communities are said not to have integrated with other faith communities, especially those of the hyper orthodox Namboodhiri Brahmins of Malabar, it has been argued that this tradition is unlikely. It has been further argued that there is a strong case for the St Thomas Christians to have taken Hindu women in marriage, as this may explain why St Thomas Christian men are called “Mappilai”, meaning “bride groom”, by the Hindus.