Traders have been drawn to Kerala’s spices for more than 3000 years. The coast was known to the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Chinese, and was a transit point for spices from the Moluccas (eastern Indonesia).

The Cheras ruled much of Kerala until the early Middle Ages, competing with kingdoms and small fiefdoms for territory and trade, but were defeated by the Cholas in the 12th century. St Thomas the Apostle is said to have landed in Kerala in AD 52, bringing Christianity to the subcontinent. Vasco da Gama’s arrival at Kappad, just north of Kozhikode (Calicut), in 1498 opened the floodgates to European colonialism as Portuguese, Dutch and English interests fought Arab traders, and then each other, for control of the lucrative spice trade.

The present-day state of Kerala was created in 1956 from the former states of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar (the first two remained independent during British rule). A tradition of valuing the arts and education resulted in a post-Independence state that is one of the most progressive in India, with the nation's highest literacy rate.

In 1957 Kerala voted in the first freely elected communist government in the world, which has gone on to hold power regularly since; the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) governed from 2006 to 2011, but was replaced by the Communist Party of India-led Left Democratic Front in 2016. Many Malayalis (speakers of Malayalam, the state’s official language) work in the Middle East and their remittances play a significant part in the economy. A big hope for the state's future is the relatively recent boom in tourism, with Kerala emerging in the past two decades as one of India’s most popular tourist hot spots. According to Kerala Tourism 15.7 million visitors arrived in 2017 – more than double the number of a decade ago – though only a million of these were foreign tourists.