Kollam prides in a rich socio-cultural history from ancient times. It had been a hub of royal administration while being the capital of the ancient Venad province during 9th to 12th centuries C.E. Its proximity to the sea and the presence of the natural harbour at Neendakara had occasioned commercial transactions with foreigners from ancient times. References to Kollam can be found in Roman and Phoenecian accounts from the first century C.E. In later times, it finds mention in the travel writings of the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans like Muhammad Ibn Battuta, Sulaiman Al- Tajir and Marco Polo dating from 9th century onwards. The oldest name of Kollam is “Desinganadu” after the king Jayasimha from whom the Venad dynasty is supposed to have originated. The name Kollam has a long etymology bearing the marks of the place’s history spanning centuries. One theory has it that the name Kollam derives from the Sanskrit “kollam,” which means pepper, because the place had been an ancient trading and exporting centre for pepper. “Kollam” is also supposed have formed from “koyillam”, a telescoping of kovilakam (palace) and illam (brahmin house). Some believe that “Kollam” comes from the Chinese word “kolasam” meaning a big market. Yet another theory proposes that the Sanskrit “kollam” also meant a boat, and the place got its name owing to is being a port town where boats were harboured.
The term “Kollavarsham” designating the indigenous calendar of Kerala (Malayalam Era) owes its origin to the historical fact that the calendar was commenced by the royal decree passed at Kollam by the Travancore king Udayamarthanda Varma in 825 C.E. The calendar was the outcome of the joint effort of scholars under royal patronage during that year. Kollavarsham was brought into effect in the whole of Travancore and also at the provinces of the Chera kingdom which were then under the rule of the Travancore king.
In 1503, the queen of Travancore invited the Portuguese, who had reached Kerala in 1498, to conduct trade with Kollam. In due course of time, the Portuguese managed to construct a fort and settlement there inaugurating the colonial history of Kollam. In the following years, the forces of the Dutch East India Company defeated the Portuguese and established their hegemony over the place in 1661. The Dutch power continued until the Travancore king Marthanda Varma defeated them in the battle of Culachel in 1741. Till this point of time, Kollam had been the capital of the Travancore kingdom. The British arrived during this juncture and in later years the East India Company established its sway over Travancore.
The first notable struggles against British supremacy was the one led by Veluthambi Dalawa, the prime minister of Travancore in the early nineteenth century. Forging an alliance with Paliathachan of Kochi, he fought several wars against the British. The historical Kundara Proclamation refers to the famous address he made to the crowd gathered at Kundara in Kollam on 16 January 1809 declaring the British to be the enemy of the people and calling upon them to fight for the land’s independence from the foreign power. The Dalawa killed himself when the British surrounded him shortly after. Since his death, Travancore came fully under British control.
Kollam had been the ground for several events of historical importance during the early half of the twentieth century. The great heroes of Kerala’s social renaissance Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had found Kollam a congenial place to work among the communally marginalized people of those times. In 1918, a meeting of the Ezhava community was held at Mulamkadakom in Kollam to demand entry for the lower castes to Hindu temples. On 17 December1932, Kollam witnessed a meeting of the members of the Ezhava, Muslim and Christian communities to demand for adequate representation for their members in the legislature. This movement later developed into the historic “Nivarthana Agitation” of which some of the frontline leaders came from Kollam namely C. Kesavan, P.K. Kunju and N.V. Joseph. One of the tense chapters in India’s freedom struggle, the Kadakkal Revolt of 1938, took place here. It was a farmers’ agitation against unjust taxes and tolls which later grew into an armed struggle against government forces. Consequently, five men were sentenced to death and many others to life imprisonment by the authorities.
Kollam got its first ever post and telegraph office in 1864 and the first school in 1867. The Punalur suspension bridge, the only one of its kind in India other than the Howrah bridge of Kolkota, is situated in Kollam district. A living marvel of British engineering, the bridge was commissioned in 1877 upon the initiative of Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal of Travancore. The first government hospital at Kollam, Victoria Hospital, started functioning during the reign of Maharaja Sreemoolam Thirunal. Electricity came in 1924. Kollam also holds the unique position of having been the first airport in Kerala until the commissioning of the Trivandrum airport in 1932. Located in the open spaces of the Ashramam maidan at the heart of the city, its runway could accommodate the traffic of light aircrafts. The first railway in Travancore was the meter gauge track between Kollam and Shenkottai in Tamil Nadu commissioned in 1902 during the reign of Maharaja Uthram Thirunal.