What a catchphrase! It would be hard to for a traveller to hear the pithy slogan “God’s Own Country” and not imagine a heavenly land. Kerala certainly has varied, ethereal destinations and experiences squeezed into a small region; from stretches of tropical beaches to cool mountains to wildlife reserves to historic sites; the CGH Earth properties give a fairly comprehensive taste of the state. Basically, the phrase creates an expectation and we like to think that we deliver. On the lighter side, in Kerala we say, if you have a bone to pick with God, just pick up the phone, after all it’s only a local call!
The slogan God’s Own Country was first used in the context of Kerala by Dr. Vipin Gopal when he created the first webpage on the state in 1993. Later, the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), a government agency, that conducts and regulates the tourism prospects of the state, began using the brand God’s Own Country for its campaigns. The slogan now holds global Superbrand status.
But Kerala is apparently not God’s only country. New Zealanders used the God’s Own Country phrase to describe their homeland for more than 100 years. There they use abbreviated versions of this slogan like Godzone or sometimes Godzown. It was also used occasionally by other countries like Australia. But none of them could give that feel of connect to the land as it does to Kerala.
So how is Kerala justified in its image as God’s Own Country? Is it the land or the people that makes it “paradise”. Most travellers feel the people, with their hospitality, cheerful demeanour and helpfulness, make the destination. Maybe it is the fact that the Malayali has been receiving visitors on his shore for centuries.
From as early as 3000 BC, Kerala established itself as a major spice trade centre. The region had direct contact across the Arabian Sea with all the major Red Sea and the Mediterranean ports, as well as with ports in the Far East. The spice trade between Kerala and much of the world was one of the main drivers of the world economy, and ultimately led to the colonialisation of India by European powers. For much of history, ports in Kerala, such as Muziris which traded with ancient Rome in the 5th century BC, were the busiest among all trade and travel routes in the history of the world.
If you think of it, in a way, with trade came the first winds of tourism. The traders used the monsoon currents to reach Kerala coast from the African coast. This prevalent ocean current enabled traders to sail from the African coast to the Kerala coast in a matter of just four weeks in June and July. If one tried to go back during the same time it would take six months and a lot of causalities (as Vasco da Gama experienced this when he sailed back immediately after his visit to Kerala. He lost 60 per cent of his crew and took six months). This necessitated travellers to wait for the north east monsoon which comes in September before they could head back. This meant traders stayed back in Kerala for three to four months.
Imagine life in Kerala for these traders in those days. They might have blended well into the fabric of Kerala, celebrating their festivals, exchanging cultures, may be even marrying from the local populace. This explains the presence of so many different neo religions and cultures in Kerala during that time. One of the first converts into Christian religion outside the Arab world was in Kerala (Nazranis or Mar Thoma Christians) and the first converts into Muslim religion too was in Kerala.
There is an interesting incident that happened in 2004 when Mel Gibson came out with his brilliant movie on the life of Jesus Christ called The Passion of Jesus Christ which was filmed in Aramiac language, spoken in Jerusalem at that time. This movie was taken by Christian organizations and was shown all over the world with subtitles in respective languages. In Kerala, this movie was shown with Malayalam subtitles. It was quite surprising that even though most of the elderly viewers could not read the subtitles, they could understand the movie because all the proper nouns, place and people names were pronounced almost in the same way it was in Aramiac. Jesus was called Yeshvah in Aramiac; it is Yeshu in Malayalam. This was a striking example that showed the connection with the oldest and original form of Christianity in the world. This also was the fertile land where religions like Buddhism and Jainism thrived before Hinduism took over. There are still Buddha road junctions with statue of the Buddha in some places.
Persian traveller Ibn Battuta who travelled and lived extensively in Kerala during the time between 1342 and 1347 talks about 16 various trading communities from different parts of the world living harmoniously with privileged status as traders from the ruling kings. This was a land of friendly trade, where various religions and gods lived in harmony, so why shouldn’t Kerala be called God’s own Country.