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Thiruvananthapuram, India—Rarely does the Indian state of Kerala capture the world's attention. It did so in July when a Hindu temple in its state capital was found to contain a royal ransom of solid gold statues and coconuts, piled together in a sealed vault along with sacks of diamonds. The treasure's value is estimated at $22 billion, which likely makes the temple the richest in South Asia. Still, having recently visited Kerala, a splinter of land at India's southwestern tip, we wondered whether the excited accounts of the discovery obscured a more relevant and remarkable story.
Kerala's real treasure cannot be measured in dollars, pounds, or rupees. Its true gold is the example it sets—not just for India—of civilized coexistence among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Comity has been abetted by Kerala's developmental success, made possible in part by the empowerment of women and the export of its most lucrative commodity—its people. Moreover, its feats have been accomplished by democratic means, with the Communist Party often leading the way. Add a final twist: Kerala's progressive example owes much to its past hereditary rulers and British colonial policies, yet currently depends—perhaps too heavily—on remittances from its million-strong work force in the Arab Middle East. [End Page 61]
As it happens, we met recently with the incumbent head of the royal family in Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram, formerly known as Trivandrum. Now 90 years old, Sri Marthanda Varma still makes his daily visits to pray at Sri Padmanab-haswami Temple, where the treasure was sealed in a vault a century ago. His forebears governed this southernmost region from 1663 until 1948, retaining their hereditary titles until 1971, when that distinction was abolished. The ex-maharajah expresses no regrets over his fallen majesty. He recounts with relish his support for progressive reforms and his meetings with Kerala's chief ministers and visiting celebrities, among them Jackie Kennedy.
Kerala's multiple improbabilities are evident in its geography, along its roadsides, and in its spoken Malayalam language—a chorus of consonants and vowels that roll like the surf on its popular beaches. Consider its current slogan. When New Delhi's rulers decided in the 1990s to market their nation as "Incredible India," their counterparts in Kerala devised a rival brand name, "God's Own Country," now imprinted on tourist brochures. Yet for much of the past half-century, Kerala's ruling coalitions have been headed by the nominally infidel Communist Party. Today, a visitor riding a wobbly auto-rickshaw, adorned with decals depicting Vishnu and Shiva, is likely to glimpse scarlet posters emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. No less ubiquitous are images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, often intermingled with Islamic minarets. Thus the apostrophe in Kerala's slogan could justly be shifted one space. This is "Gods' Own Country."
Or so we concluded while traversing Kerala's narrow corridor in South India—wedged between the Arabian Sea and a nearly 1000-mile mountain range called the Western Ghats—seeking clues to the state's unusual achievements. Kerala is among India's poorer states, as measured by its gross domestic product, yet its citizens live longer (averaging 74 years for women, 68 for men) and lead all others in literacy (98 percent). Among Indian states, Kerala ranks first in the United Nations Educational Development Index and its broad Human Development Index, and is deemed "least corrupt" by Transparency International. All this has occurred in a territory of roughly 15,000 square miles (smaller than West Virginia) whose population of 32 million is roughly the same as Canada's, and a third larger than Australia's. Overall, Kerala is renowned for its vibrant yet nonviolent politics, and the absence of venom among its predominant faiths, Hindu (55 percent), Muslim (24 percent), and Christian (19 percent).
This contrasts with the ongoing bloodletting in Mumbai, India's largest city, where bomb blasts and interethnic riots recur like malevolent monsoons. Mumbai was still recovering from a seaborne attack in 2008...