Some time between the third and fifth century AD, a king – one of the Cheraman Perumals of Kerala – slipped out of his capital of Kodungallur to go to Mecca. Sailing boats carrying search parties went after him from Kerala. One of these got shipwrecked after a storm on an island that’s now called Bangaram. The men on the boat spotted another island nearby, Agatti. When the weather cleared and they returned to the mainland they saw even more islands, all of which now come under Lakshadweep, the smallest group of islands in India.
The story of the shipwrecked search party in Lakshadweep is one the legends circling the early history of the islands. Without enough written material, no proper history is documented except the fragments referred to in early records. The official page of Lakshadweep gives an account of these legends, including the story of the missing king.
History and myths tell you of the old connection that began between Kerala and Lakshadweep centuries ago. Little wonder then that when a string of controversial reforms by the Administrator troubled the islanders, people of Kerala protested for them in loud, injured voices.
“The little I have heard suggests that a Muslim population spread through the islands between the eighth and ninth centuries. The Portuguese then tried to capture the island in 1498 (the same year Vasco de Gama landed on the shores of Kozhikode). The rule ended in 1545 when there was an uprising by the islanders,” says writer NS Madhavan.
After the Portuguese, the islands came under the Kannur Arakkal royal family, ruled by the bibis (women rulers), he says. “Then there was the Malabar attack of Tipu Sultan and Lakshadweep passed onto him. By 1799, Tipu was defeated by the British. The English rule was ambiguously continuing till 1907 when it became part of the Malabar district of the Madras presidency, which is Kozhikode. At the time of independence and thereafter, it was a part of the Malabar district. Apparently communist leader AK Gopalan brought to Jawaharlal Nehru’s notice that this place should be declared a Union Territory. So on the same day that Kerala was born – November 1, 1956 – Lakshadweep was also declared a Union Territory,” Madhavan adds.
His account agrees with the Britannica Encyclopedia entry on the history of Lakshadweep. It goes further behind. "The islands of present-day Lakshadweep were first mentioned by a Greek sailor in the 1st century CE as a source of tortoise shell. Muslim missionary activity in the 7th century and continued contact with Arab traders eventually led to the conversion of all the islanders to Islam."
The Britannica says it is possible that the Italian explorer Marco Polo was the first European to visit the islands since he mentions in his 13th century travelogues about a "female island". Some have speculated this to be Minicoy, one of the inhabited islands of Lakshadweep.
The entry also fills the centuries before the Portuguese invasion. It says that a small Hindu kingdom called the Kulashekhara dynasty of Kerala annexed the islands around 1100 AD. It then passed onto another dynasty called the Kolathiris. In the 12th century, a Kolathiri princess married a Muslim convert and a "separate kingdom was set up in Kannur of Kerala to protect the Keralan tradition of matrilineal descent."
The matrimonial ways continue to this day. Anitha Sharma, an environmentalist who stayed in the Dweep on and off between 1994 and 2008, says that it gave its women a lot of confidence. “They do not have to leave the house when they get married. The woman lives in the same house she was born in and the man comes to spend the night with her and then goes to his place. In the morning he might take the children with him. Property-wise too, the woman is strong. She is the matriarch. It also helps that men do not drink (alcohol has so far been banned in Lakshadweep) and alcohol-induced abuse is not there.”
Anitha says that Lakshadeep is connected to Kerala because for the islands, the nearest and most accessible mainland is either Kerala or the Maldives. "There have been trading routes for hundreds of years. Even before there was human inhabitation on the islands, sailors would seek refuge when the weather was bad (like in the legend above)."
When trade routes opened, coconut got sent to Kerala; rice and sugar were brought back, Anitha says. Women also make a living selling cowries. They tell the tradesmen to bring them back small things like chains and earrings.
Then of course there are the many, many students who travel to Kerala after finishing high school. Kerala has a quota reserved for the islanders for the various university courses. The Higher Education Department lists these in its website.
"We just don't have the space here to build universities. The islands are small and very far away from each other. So most of us who finish plus 2 go to Kerala for higher studies. We are dependent on Kerala in many different ways. It is only during the monsoon that we are cut off," says Dilbaseer, a marine biologist in Lakshadweep.
There was also an exodus of skilled people including doctors and teachers from Kerala to the islands in the 1950s.
The problem, Anitha says, is that the students pick up bad habits from Kerala – such as drinking. Despite the deep connection between the two places, it is a very different experience living in both, she says. “For one, there is no over politicised atmosphere in Lakshadweep. Their primary relationship is to the ocean whereas it is a rapidly urbanising setup in Kerala. The interpersonal relationship is also very strong in Lakshadweep.”
Anitha remembers the time she first came to the islands and within an hour everyone came to know of it. "They are all so friendly and you have no fear. Someone will make sure you are ok, and you have food. It was a golden period of my life, living there."