Vyazhavattom - The 12-year cycle in Kerala

 The Duodecennial concept of Malabar

Most youngsters from the present generation would hardly have come across these terms or their significance in their studies, though they may have heard it from elders. In the past, however, it was quite important and was implemented across diverse areas, such as determining the completion of a sovereign’s rule or even the duration of a legal contract such as a lease of property. It was (and is) commonly used in astrology, which the superstitious (if you wish to term them so) Malayalee was very particular about. Let’s take a look.

Simply put, a 12-year period of reckoning was used in many situations, and this was known as Vyazhavattom, Vyazham being Jupiter. As Jupiter was a representation of Guru Brhaspati (In Vedic philosophy, Jupiter equates to Brihaspati, the Guru or teacher of all gods) in North India, this cycle of Jupiter in the solar system, was termed the Brhaspati Chakra and in Malabar, as the Vyazha Vattom (Jupiter circle or Jupiter cycle). During these twelve years, Jupiter’s orbit traverses all twelve signs of the Zodiac. i.e., the Samvatsara or year begins when the Sun enters the Aries and concludes when it exits the Pisces (The entry of the Sun into every zodiac is called "Sankranti"). It typically starts on the 15th of April and marks one complete cycle of the Sun from Aries to Pisces. While it is like the Gregorian year, it differs in that it begins in the middle of April instead of January. Five such orbits or a Samavatsara Chakra equals 60 years and after 60 Samavatsaras, the cycle starts again.

Vedic astrologers, or simply said, ancient astronomers determined that while the earth takes a year to circle around the sun, Jupiter takes around 12 years to circle it (Actually Jupiter takes 4332.59 days or 11.862 years). Technically even that is not exactly right, for Jupiter does not orbit around the Sun’s center, it orbits a spot in empty space between it and the sun (called barycenter). As the huge Jupiter exerts its gravity on the Sun like the Sun exerts its gravity on Jupiter, the Sun also ends up in an orbit around its barycenter, taking the same 11.8 years to cover 1 million miles!). Check this to understand the concept in motion.  Bet nobody taught you that!

Note here that the Brhaspati Samvatsara Chakra based on the Surya Sidhanta was used mainly in N India. The sixty-year circle in S India is a lunisolar version and I must add here that there are many complications and corrections involved, as well as a mismatch between the N & S Indian computations, thus comparisons become difficult. Then again, Malabar used the Parasurama 1,000-year concept and later on, the Kollam era, about which we discussed earlier, see here for details,  but still continued with the 12-year or duodecennial concept in its legal arena.

Jupiter, named after the king of the Roman Gods, reigns supreme among the nine planets of our solar system, rivaling the Sun in its grandeur. This giant and dynamic planet, more like a small star, contains two-thirds of the planetary mass of the solar system. As a giant planet, its influence on Earth could always be considerable. This giant planet with 63 moons, is also known as Jovian (Jove is the Roman god of the Sky and thunder or counterpart of Zeus), and thus came about the usage of the jovian cycle of 12 years, in the Western world.

Since Jupiter takes a year to move through each zodiac, and astrologers felt its influence to be quite strong during that period in comparison to other planets, this was made the base for a form of calendar. One could now ask why 60 years itself became important. To get an understanding, you should take note that the three most important bodies i.e., the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn are aligned to the same point once every 60 years, thus making it all nicely cyclic. Of course, today this is used only by astrologers and Panchaga followers, but it is interesting to understand the basis and the thought process of our ancestors. The stories and interplay between the many gods, such as the story of an older Brhaspati (Jupiter), his young wife Tara and how she gets seduced by the Chandra - Moon to beget Mercury, with the Moon backed by a powerful Venus (Shukra) is yet another of those interesting tales from our mythology.

From an astrological angle, a Jupiter return happens when the planet Jupiter makes its way back to its origin. In astrology, a return of any nature is when a planet returns to its “home base” in our personal charts. In lay terms, if you know the time, place, and date of birth of a person, and work out which samvatsara he belongs to, astrologers can predict a lot of things and foretell or give you some ideas about his or her future, primarily based on the characteristics of repeating samvatsaras.  The place occupied by Jupiter determined, according to popular belief and from the astrological point of view, the fortunes of men and women, when correlated to the star on which they were born. How a science or concept based on the influences and patterns of celestial bodies became astrology and how this influences our day-to-day life and helps foretelling the future, is a topic best left to astrology buffs.

Historical astrology explains - Some astro-historians feel that Jupiter exerts an even more powerful

influence than Saturn. Jupiter is four astronomical units closer to the Earth than Saturn, and it has a much greater percentage of mass of the solar system (about .10%) than does Saturn. Jupiter’s average period of revolution around the Sun takes 11.86 years. This period is of much shorter duration than is Saturn’s (29.46 years), which means that Jupiter’s influence comes and goes at a swifter rate of time. Perhaps its influence, when the equation of size and speed is balanced, tends to be equal with that of the slower-moving Saturn.

Before we get into the specifics of the vyazhavattom use in Malabar, it would be even more interesting to note that this 12-year cycle was also prevalent, or at least considered so, in China. The Chinese Lunar calendar follows a 12-year cycle and each of the 12 years is represented by 12 Animals which form the Chinese Zodiac. After every 12 years, the Chinese Calendar repeats itself. Pere souciet propounded this idea, thus it is clear, that in the Sung-dynasty, the 12-year cycle of Jupiter was known to the Chinese. During the "time of the Hia dynasty, the year was called Souy; "The character, Souy, means the planet Jupiter. "It was believed at that time that the revolution "of one year, is called Souy. This interpretation "is of the time of the Tsin." No doubt the appropriation of the tradition about Jupiter to the Hia dynasty was modern, like other events assigned by the Chinese, to that supposed period of their history, "The author of the Kwei Yu, whoever he is, but who lived about "Confucius's time, supposed that Jupiter made the "twelfth part of his course through the equator, or the "zodiac, in one solar year." The statement of Dr. Chalmers, and of Pere Souciet, go a long way to prove, that the Chinese had the Jupiter cycle of 12 years, as the basis of their 60-year cycle, just as the Hindoos had it.

This may be the case, if notice be only taken of the names, or order of each year, in the cycle; but it seems clear that the Chinese and Indian cycles are both founded on a certain period of the planet Jupiter's motion, and an examination of how the different insignificant ways in which the two nations worked out, or indicated their cycles, each according to their own peculiar system, may probably show that the cycle of 12 years, which is the common foundation of both of them, belonged originally to the system of some other more primitive nation, from which they both derived it; either directly and independently, or indirectly, through one of the two having first known it, and then communicated it to the other.

The cycle of Jupiter or Vyazhavattom governed the lives of many institutions and usages in ancient Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar. For example, the Mamankam or Mahamagam was held once every 12 years, along with it the meeting of the Kootams of various naduvazhis. Similarly, the re-election of a Perumal by the Brahmins of the 63 villages as ordained by Parasurama was conducted once every 12 years. It may also interest readers that the Vanavasam stipulated in the Mahabharata, which the Pandavas endured was for a Vyazhavattom, and the Shashtabdapurti (Shashtipurti) celebration when one turns 60 is after a full Samvatsara. Similarly, the imprisonment terms in mythology for Rama, Sita, Ravana by Bali (per teyyam ballads), and of course events such as the Kumbh Mela, Gomateswara’s Mahamastabhisheka etc. were all for 12 years.

Padmanabha Menon (Vissciher) mentions - The Kūṭṭam of all Kerala or Malabar, under ordinary circumstances, assembled only once in 12 years, and when the whole Keralam assembled, it did so at Tirunavaye, on the banks of the Ponnani river, on the occasion of the Maha-Makham festival. Going to the Chera Perumal era, he states - Around and close by the (Allal Perumkovilakom – Tiruvanchikulam) palace were situated the Ţalies (Mēl Ţali, KiÏ Tali, Chingapurat Tali, and Nețiya Tali) or the assembly halls of the representatives of the Brahman aristocracy, by whom the Perumals were elected to rule over Malabar for a term of 12 years. He adds further that the 12-year concept had other examples – Nambuthiri priests had to be registered at the Sukapuram temple, during a formal event once every 12 years. 

He concludes - "all offices were held only for that period; all tenures of land subsisted only for that period; all transactions, appointments, contracts, and tenures had to be renewed at the end of twelve years; all feudal ties were broken at the end of that period”, The Mamankam was according to him, an occasion when all parties assembled in solemn conclave at Tirunavaya and readjusted all existing relations among themselves including the change of the over-lordship of all Malabar' which in old Malabar had a period of twelve years' duration.

Thus, the Perumals of the Chera kingdom held their tenures for 12 years and retired with some exceptions, and it is narrated by some foreign travelers though not corroborated by any local record, that the Zamorins had a strange practice of handing over power to the next in line, after getting ceremoniously killed, or as events transpired become subject of Valluvanad chaver attacks every 12 years (though no chaver succeeded).

Achuytha Menon tells us in his book ‘Ancient Kerala’ about its application in other spheres- The existence in ancient Kerala. of a twelve years' term for all contracts, undertakings, and tenures is an established fact, as can be gathered from the existence even now in Kerala, of such a term as incidental to Kanoms and even mortgages. The origin of the duo-decimal period is however obscure. It can fairly be presumed that the twelve years cycle represented in Malabar, a Vyazhavattom or Jupiter’s cycle as pointed out above. The place occupied by Jupiter determined, according to popular belief and from the astrological point of view, the fortunes of men and women, when correlated to the star on which they were born.

The Malayalee landlord, when he gave his lands for cultivation did not want them to be taken at a disadvantage. He allowed them to have a whole Vyazhavattan for their enjoyment, so that the misfortunes of any one year may be set off or compensated by the good fortune of another year, This insistence on a twelve years' period in connection with some practices and observances, agricultural and otherwise, is met with in other countries, in distant Africa and among some American Indian tribes (See 'Science in Africa', Dr. Worthington). It is said, for instance, that every twelve years, at the great feast of the dead, all the bodies of the members of Iroquois who had died during the intervening period were removed from their original scaffolds by their relatives.

During the 1940 tenancy discussions - CT. Gopala Menon was quite mystified and scoffed at connecting Vyazhavattom and Strange’s 12-year tenancy rule: he said - The 12 years rule was introduced by Mr. Strange. I am not willing to hazard any opinion on Kunhikuttan Tampuran’s view that the period was Vyazhavatta, the cycle of Jupiter and that on each Mahamagam the title to land was renewed. You have to consult astrologers to explain why ancient documents are assigned the date with reference to the motion of Vyazham.

Now there must be a good reason, so, let’s see how it got mixed up.

The prevailing concept was - The jenmi continued the kanam tenant by means of a system known as renewing the kanom deed. Originally Nambuthiri landlords or temples transferred them to Nairs and Nambiars as a token of allegiance or respect, on a kanam or 12-year fixed rent lease, with a provision to increase the rate after 12 years. The holder of Kanam right in the course of time acquired superior powers as against the real owner who had granted the kanam right.

This practice of renewing, paying a periodical fine, was a succession duty payable at the death of the jenmi and at the death of the tenant or once in 12 years usually at the feast of Mahamagam at Tirunavayi when the parties having met together, the old document was torn up and the new one substituted (Polichezuthu). The meaning of the term Kanam is not quite clear, it probably meant ‘money’ and is a combination of lease and mortgage, whereas verum patton is a simple lease. It makes one thing clear, the Mahamagham or Mamankam was thus a very important ceremony and date, and lots of things got done on that day.

The new Nairs and Nambiars kanam holders sublet these as well as their janm lands, to cultivators belonging to other castes as pattom lands with differing and tougher rules. Over time, the old 12-year rules were no longer followed correctly and especially in the case of land leases, many of the landlords who returned after the Mysore Sultan’s invasion, became vengeful and stricter, leading to communal turbulence. In fact, the 12-year rule was no longer considered common practice till many revolts and outrages took place between Moplah lessees and Hindu landlords, i.e., during HV Conolly’s tenure.

Adv KM Mathew explains - Kanam entrustment was renewable at the option of the tenant after the expiry of 12 years The holder was free to make any improvement in the Kanam property and enjoy the fruits of the same by paying a comparatively small amount as yearly rent and a nominal share of the crops. If the landlord desired to resume the land at the expiry of the lease period, he had to pay the full value of all the improvements made by the holder of Kanam. It was also a transferable right. The net result was that in most cases landlords were totally incapable of resuming the land after paying the value of improvements to the Kanamdar (lessee) and the Kanamdar in most cases became richer and more powerful than the landlords and “Kanam” right became more valuable than the Jenm right itself. For, the Jenmi (landlord) could claim right over the ‘land’ only while the Kanamdar had the full right over the trees, structures, buildings, etc. on the Kanam land. It was very easy to purchase the Jenm right of a land while very many could not afford to purchase the improvements that belonged to the Kanamdar.

Logan adds – Indeed it originated with Mr. Holloway who taking Kanom as equivalent to the Roman Emphyteusis is said to have substituted Vyalavattam or Jubilee and then argued that under Kanom demise, the tenant was to hold for a Vyalavattam or twelve years.

How it got reintroduced legally in Malabar is explained below and is fully attributable to TL Strange, as extracted from Malabar Law - One of the earliest effects of judicial decisions was the engrafting of the 12 years term on kanom tenure which was not regarded as part of the common law of Malabar up to 1853. A. D. In A. S. 36 of 1854, Mr. Cook as Sub-Judge of Calicut observed that " unless the kanomdar fails in his engagement either to pay rent or unnecessarily damages, alters, or otherwise destroys the mortgaged land he has a right to expect he shall not be removed before the expiration of 12 years." The Sudder Court also held that a tenant's right for a term should be upheld such term may not have been expressed in the lease deed. Mr Strange as Special Commissioner (investigating Moplah disturbances) wrote in 1852 " that if he (tenant) should have paid fine for his lease, it should endure for twelve years under certain reservations “; thence forward the custom was established and on the 5th of August 1856, the Sudder Court recorded its proceedings defining the various tenures in Malabar and the conditions attaching to them.

And that is how an Englishmen named TL Strange, dealing with Moplah disturbances got connected to a strange concept called Vyazhavattom!

There is one more 12-year event which people recall, that of the Neela kurinji flower (on the Shola, Chikmangalur, Kodai, Idukki and Munnar hills) which flowers once in 12 years. It is believed that the first settlers of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu - the tribes of Paliyan and Puliyan, used the Neelakurinji flowering cycle to calculate their age. Every new bloom would account for an addition of 12 years by the members of the tribe to their age. But then again, this has nothing to do with Jupiter.

Chinese chronology & cycles. (Chin. researches)- Thomas Fergusson (M.R.A.S.)
The Indian Calendar – Robert Sewell, AB Dikshit
Book of Indian Eras: With Tables for Calculating Indian Dates - Sir Alexander Cunningham
Malabar Manual – Logan
Ancient Kerala – C Achyutha Menon
History of Kerala (Visscher’s letters) – Padmanabha Menon

Guruvayur – A peep into its history

Most people have only a vague concept of the temple’s history. I thought it would be a good idea to provide a brief overview based on the perusal of historic records, primarily the many papers and books authored by an early Malabar chronicler, KV Krishna Ayyar. Some years ago, I had written about the involvement of the Dutch and Hydrose Kutty Moplah, in the temple’s history. This will overlap and cover earlier aspects and take you through a few of the changes after Malabar came under the British administration. So, this article will take you through some early surmises, the Dutch and Mysore periods, and eventually the golden days under the Zamorins of Calicut, who incidentally are still the main trustees. We will also quickly check out what Ayyar termed the Guruvayur Cult.

The older temples

In the old Sangam times, the biggest of the temple sankethams in the region was Thrikannamathilakam (the Kunavayilkottam of the ancient Tamil writers, the Gunaka of the medieval Sandesas, and the Trkkunamatilakam or Matilakam of the English and Dutch records) near Tiruvanchikulam, the capital of the Cheras. Mathilakam as it was popularly known, was supposedly a Jain center of learning, but later morphed into housing a Siva shrine of great importance. Located near today's Irinjalakkuda, it was also the place where a Jain scribe composed the epic Silappadikaram (Tamil epic dating to around the 9th Century). Kunavayilkottam (Thirukkana vayil kottam) is according to MGS Narayanan a pseudonym for Mathilakam, a place which in antiquity hosted some 6-7 Jain temples (Sreedhara Menon in the Trichur Gazetteer mentions that Kunavayil is situated to the north of Tiruvanchikulam and on the eastern side of the old capital shoring the Arabian Sea).

Trikkana Mathilakam thus became home to the large Siva temple, to which many other local temples such as the Guruvayur and Koodalmanikam temples are supposed to have become subordinates. As the story goes, the uralers or temple custodians, the Tekkedath and Vadakedath Nairs, were responsible for the building of many walls at Mathilakam which however served to alienate the various occupants of the principality. The main dissenters were the Nambuthiris who left the temple area after a tiff, and the temple town fell into disuse. By the end of the 14th century, Mathilakam had come into the possession of the Zamorin of Calicut with whom it remained for some centuries till the Dutch came along and battled over the Cranganore and Cochin areas in the 17th century.

Historic references - Guruvayur

In ancient texts, the reference to the temple goes by the terms Kuruveyur or Kuruvayur, (a Tamil  invocation, mentions kuruvayurampumumparperumale, the 16th century Chakravakasandesa mentions a place beyond Mamiyur as kuruvayuren ruperam pradesam, and in temple records as late as 1637 as Kuruveyur Tevar) and Ayyar guesses that it could be connected to Kuruvai (meaning Sea) signifying its proximity to the sea and also believes that the Koreoura of Ptolemy is Guruvayur. The prosperity of the region, especially the temple is owed to the Zamorin’s arrival in the area and his assumption of overlordship over the area.

He then explains that the association of the temple with Guru and Vayu could perhaps be attributed to the Melpathur who authored Narayaneeyam and the trend to Sanskritize place names, who for some reason, by lengthening the short vowel in Va to Vaa, associated the temple to Guru and Vaayu. Ayyar explains that it was not an ancient shrine, since Nammalavar and Tirumangaialawar had praised Tirunavaya but never mentioned Guruvayur.  Per the legend or myth– It starts with the death of King Parikshit who because of a curse, meets his death from a snake bite. His son Janamejaya performs a sarpa Yajna to avenge his father’s death, but because of this sin, gets afflicted by leprosy. He was advised to seek the blessings of Lord Krishna. Going on, he finds the lord’s idol submerged in Dwaraka, which he understands must be reinstalled in a suitable place. The King prays to Guru, the preceptor of the devas, and to Vayu, the lord of wind. They decide to help the king and flying on, he sees the charming land of Kerala and the lovely lake of lotuses, fringed by coconut trees. Lord Shiva who had his abode at Mammiyur, invites them to install and consecrate the idol at a location close to Mammiyur and this thus becomes Guru-Vaayur. The king stays long, prays to the lord, and bathes at the holy waters in the pond nearby called Rudratheertham, to get cured of his leprosy affliction. The legend grows, and the temple becomes a popular one for devotees and pilgrims. I must mention here that there is another legend as well, of the idol being consecrated Vasudeva, being brought by Uddhava and Brihaspati from Dwaraka to the present location, upon Parasurama’s advice, after Lord Krishna’s ascent to Vaikunta. Supposedly, Viswakarma provided the architectural plans.

That said, others attribute the construction of the temple itself to the Pandyas (by a king who was cured of leprosy after praying there), and was maintained by the Nambuthiris of the region. It is said that the idol with antiquity of over 5,000 years is made of Pathala-anjana-sila (black bismuth), rarely used for making idols.

According to tradition, there were seventy-two Nambuthiri illams in the vicinity in the past. Though the exact details are unclear they were quite many and required four Otikkans (Vedic priests), to minister to their religious needs. The old temple records mention Guruvayur Sanketam comprising five Desams – namely Guruvayur, Tiruvenkatam, Mammiyur, Tamarayur, and Anjiyur. Guruvayur over time became a subordinate to the powerful Trikkukkunavayi.

The Talapilli kingdom & the Zamorin

The kur matsara (see linked article) and the war between the Zamorin and the Valluvanda Raja would go on to popularize Guruvayur and hastened the decline in popularity of the famous Tirunavaya temple. The war for Tirunavaya dragged on for years, and the devotees on the southern side of the river started going to Guruvayur. After the Zamorin expelled the Vellatri from Tirunavayi, he marched on southwards as far as Cochin and became the Melkoyma or sovereign protector of both Trkkunavayi and Guruvayur. Over time, he also became a devotee of Guruvayur, and his subjects also started visiting Guruvayur in large numbers.

As his accessions grew, the Zamorin became the suzerain of Kakkad or Talappilli now within the Cochin state. The chieftain, originally a Nambutiri had been degraded to a Nambiti for committing manslaughter (the slaying of the Bhutaraya Perumal). The Brahmans in their gratitude conferred upon him the lordship of the lands in Talapilli with the title of Kakkad Karanavappad (another legend states that he had killed Choy, the general of the Chola king, who invaded the country). Over time, this family split into four tavazhis - Kakkad, Punnathur, Ayinikur, and Manakulam. While the Kakkad, Ayinkur, and Manakulam factions moved to the side of the Cochin Raja, the Punnathur side aligned itself with the Zamorin as early as the 15th century. Initially at loggerheads with them, Punnatur signed a peace treaty with the Dutch in 1717, but things went awry and he collaborated again with the Zamorin and the British, resulting in the Dutch attack at Guruvayur. The major portion of Chavakkad, Kunnamkulam, Kakkad, and Chittilappilli formed part of the domain of Punnathur (Kottappadi near Guruvayur was the seat of the Punnathur family, today home to the elephants of Guruvayur). After some centuries the Ayinikur and Manakulam factions too defected and joined the powerful Zamorin.

The Zamorin rewarded the Punnathur branch for its services by giving its members large areas of territory that he had conquered from Cochin. The Punnathur enjoyed the unique privilege of taking part in the Zamorin’s Ariyittuvazcha and dining with him. Guruvayur which became the Zamorin’s favorite temple from then on, rose in esteem after he took over the urayma rights over it from the Punnathur chief.

Cochin claims (translation by VKR Menon)

After the treaty of Seringapatam in 1792, Tippu Sultan ceded Malabar to the English East India Company. The Duncan Commission was appointed to study and settle the rival claims of the many Rajas and Chiefs of Malabar. The Cochin Raja laid claims on Guruvayur, stating thus - Cavakkat Desom-This Desom had been gifted away to Kanippayyur Nambutiripad, the hereditary preceptor of the Cochin ruling family. This also has been overrun by the Zamorin and the Nambutiripad was compelled to surrender his rights to the former. The famous temple of Guruvayur in that Desom originally belonged to me…It did not impress Duncan and the British verdict favored the Zamorin.

Rice for the devotees and the increase in fame

The connection between Kunisseri near Pallavur and Guruvayur is quite interesting. It deals with the rice requirements at Guruvayur. As Guruvayur was in a rice-deficit region, it became a huge issue to feed the thousands of pilgrims who started to visit the now-popular temple. Ayyar explains that the chief priest, Cennamangalam Namputiri, was also the domestic chaplain of the Zamorin. In the course of his conquests, the Zamorin had driven a wedge through the center of the fertile Palghat District as far as Pollachi, namely Naduvattom. At the instance of Cennamangalam, the Zamorin secured the Vermamlr (Perumanur) Devasvam in the present Parakkulam near Kunisseri and the Cerikkal of Vallappanad sometime in the fifteenth century. The temple records show that every year some 300 to 500 Potis of paddy were taken to Guruvayur from Kunissery at the astoundingly low transportation cost of one Fanam or 28 nya paisa per Poti as head load.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Guruvayur had become the most famous pilgrimage center in Kerala. The 16th century witnessed the five foremost devotees of Guruvayurappan - Puntanam (1547-1640), Melputtur (1559-1625), Vilvamangalam II (1575-1660), Kururamma (1570-1640), and Prince (afterward the Zamorin) Manavedan (1595-1658).

The Dutch debacles

The Zamorin after his march into Valluvanad and Naduvattom, continued to the Guruvayur area and supposedly constructed the Sreekovil, the gold-covered flag mast, and the North and West gates of the temple. The Dutch meanwhile obtained sovereignty over Pappinivattom (Paponnetty) in 1715 and built Fort Williams. This was later seized by the Zamorin and the British, and they held it through 1716. In 1716, during the war with the Zamorin, the Dutch raided Guruvayur. The friction between the Dutch and Punnathur-Zamorin combo must have resulted in the plunder of Guruvayur around 1717. The temple was plundered by wayward Javanese mercenary forces of the Dutch, who in 1716-17, attacked the temple, stripping off the gold from the main flag mast. They then took away some of the treasures from the underground vaults and set fire to the western gateway (Padinjare Gopuram). Interestingly while the Javanese soldiers plundered the temple and took away silver, gold, and gems, Rev Visscher admits to pocketing many idols, which he kept as relics! 18 ½ villages around Guruvayur were granted to the Dutch after the war, as compensation, by the Zamorin.

But thanks to the robust devotee donations and collections, the losses were soon recouped, and the Patinjare Gopuram was rebuilt in 1747 by Panikka Veettil lttiraricca Menon. In the 1730’s there used to be a Dutch customs station at Guruvayur, a busy trade traffic junction.

Mysorean invasion

After a new Zamorin came into power in 1746, the situation changed again and the Zamorin supported by his Moplah and Nair troops, reestablished control over most of these areas during the 1755-58 period. Again, the Dutch, reinforced with Javanese support from Batavia defeated him in 1758 and ransacked the Mathilakam area where the Zamorin’s forces were headquartered. The Zamorin who was involved in the Dutch wars, passed away in 1758. Trouble was looming, for the Mysore forces which had made three sporadic forays into Malabar previously were now poised to attack again and a new Zamorin was viewing all this pensively. Haider was soon at the fore, Calicut was invaded and the Zamorin perished in the palace fire and attack of 1766, apparently immolating himself, a subject which we had covered earlier. Haider’s first task was to make sure that his primary objective – i.e., organized, and unorganized collection of revenues for his other war efforts- was quickly put into effect. For the role of Hydrose Kutty, the tax collector, please refer to the linked article, where I have gone into his story in detail.

In 1766 after Haider Ali occupied Calicut, his forces established their camps at Chavakkad. Guruvayur as a rich temple was in Hyder’s sights for a looting mission, but thanks to the intervention of Venkata Narayana Ayyar his military Governor of Tiruvannamalai, the temple was spared. It was not as straightforward as it sounds and a large ransom of 10,000 fanams had to be paid to Haider on the Zamorin’s behalf by the Vadakkepat Warrier. Nevertheless, the arrival of pilgrims and collections at the temple rapidly declined and it was only after Srinivasa Rao’s (another administrator of Haider Ali) Devadaya or Brahmodayam, i.e., gift of lands for the temple’s upkeep (354 acres) that the temple administrators got some respite.

Later, due to monetary deficits, Tipu first stopped the Devadaya granted by Srinivasa Rao and later ordered the plunder of the temple. Assuming that Venkata Narayana Rao might not promptly execute his order, he also sent the order to his Muslim Governor at Calicut, but both of them delayed the order execution. Meanwhile, the Malliserri Namboothiri and the Kakad Othikan managed to conceal the main image in a well full of water and escape with the Utsava vigraha and all valuables to Ambalapuzha in Travancore. Tipu’s soldiers meanwhile, destroyed the smaller shrines all around (1789-90) and set fire to the temple according to KV K Ayyar’s notes, but a timely rain saved the shrine from destruction.

You may have noted a comment about the underground cellar and the purported shift of the Guruvayur treasures to Travancore, upon Tipu’s arrival. Tipu was convinced (per Dutch records) that a large amount of treasure was moved by the Zamorin family (from Guruvayur and Calicut) to Travancore and this was one of the main reasons he was desperate to cross the Travancore lines and subdue the ruler of Travancore (perhaps they were then stored at Padmanabhapuram vaults), something he failed to achieve.

The British period

After Tipu ceded Malabar to the British, the idol was reinstated at Guruvayur. Subsequently, the British authorities accepted this (devadaya) obligation, exempting certain temple lands from assessment and authorizing the use of the proceeds from them for the affairs of the temple, but only in principle.

Though worship in the temple was resumed in A.D. 1792, it was difficult to manage. The tenants (many of the old landowners had fled), most of whom were now Muslims, would not pay rent. The Devadaya stopped by Tipu could not be easily reinstated by the English. The Zamorin’s position also remained uncertain till A.D. 1805, for he too had lost authority after the Mysorean turmoil.

The Ulanad Panikkars became the unofficial advisers of the Zamorin and looked after his interests in the temple between 1825 to 1900 (They began their management with a small-scale Astabandha kalasa or refixing of the image). The Dipastambha or pillar of lights, under the flagstaff, was erected and in 1841 the Government of Madras restored the Devadaya formally. The Kizhakke Gopuram, or eastern gateway, was rebuilt in 1842.

The temple authorities embarked upon an extensive building program by 1859, the central shrine and the Mantapam, facing it, were covered with copper sheets, and a permanent flagstaff with a bell-metal covering, was erected. The Chuttampalam or the colonnaded hall all around the central shrine, the Vilakkumuttam, or the gallery of lights, and the Koottampalam, or the dancing hall, were all completed. The Sastha shrine was roofed with copper sheets, and the eastern courtyard was covered with a tiled roof around 1892.

Sri Konthi Menon, who became Manager in A.D. 1900, divided the work of the Devasvam into several departments to increase efficiency and evicted many land usurpers. The Kizh Santis, or subordinate priests, had to give up their right to a perpetual service tenure. He reconstructed the Pattayapura or granary and set up the big bell to ring the hour as the clock strikes. In 1911 a grand Astabandha kalasa or refixing of the loose image was performed.

Court of Wards, Ettan Thampuran

Following the British takeover, the Zamorins were reduced to the level of mere landlords and were at the mercy of the British. The Swarupams and royal houses had declined, and the vast estate was beset with maladministration. Claimants walked away with property, and there was hardly any collection to beset expenses.  The pension grant to the family by the British was temporarily stopped on the grounds of the Zamorin having failed to assist the British troops who were employed in quelling an early Moplah outbreak. Meanwhile, the Dharma Rakshana Sabha sought to oust the reigning Zamorin from his trusteeship of the Guruvayur temple, on grounds of gross mismanagement of the temple funds. That Zamorin passed away in 1912.

His successor, Manavikrama Ettan Raja, (Ettan Thampuran, my great grandfather) was thrust into this mighty and disastrous mess but realized quickly that estate management was not his forte. More at home with Sanskrit grammar and Sanskrit poetry than with rent rolls and account books, he realized the futility of his efforts and wisely decided to abdicate. UB Nair writes that in taking this unusual step, which was beset with many difficulties, Ettan Thampuran showed rare prudence and moral courage if only to ensure professional management of these lands. In a final desperate effort, the ruler freed himself from the shackles imposed by custom and prejudice. The Madras Government, at his urgent request, agreed to take over, with effect from Oct 1915, the Zamorin’s estates, to be managed for the family by the Court of Wards for the following 12 years.

The despair of losing Guruvayur is said to have weighed on his mind, hastening his death the following year. The estates were wisely administered by Mr. JA Thorne. Ayyar, who knew Thorne well, explains - Uniformly courteous and considerate, its representative J. A. Throne, I.C.S., continued and completed the work of Konthi Menon. With the rendition of the Estate in A.D. 1928, the Zamorin once again became responsible for Guruvayur. Two years afterwards the High Court of Madras framed a scheme for the temple and the rights of the Zamorin were more clearly defined.

Punnathur Kotta & the Zamorin’s palace.

The many elephants gracing Guruvayur ceremonies are housed in the grounds surrounding Punnathur Kotta, a small palace about two kilometers away from the temple, where the Punnathur Raja once resided. The area around the Nalukettu is now the 'Palace for Elephants’. In addition, there used to be a small kovilakom built by the Zamorin a little distance away from the temple, sometime around 1351, a place to stop on his way to Kodungallur. The Krishnattam troupe used to reside and perform here as well as at the temple, facing the stone slab to the South, the spot which is believed (and often disputed) to be the place where Manaveda was cremated.

Temple entry movement

Commotion on temple entry for all devotees started in the 30’s. The Avarnas or low castes were admitted into the temple to make their obeisance directly in front of the Lord's image, only once a year. After the last worship at night of the Ekadasi festival, generally in December, the temple was thrown open to them. In Nov 1931, Kelappan started a Satyagraha to secure this privilege for them on all days for all worship. After 12 days and Gandhiji’s intervention, he broke the fast, but the temple had been closed down though the required ceremonies continued at the Otikkan Matam. The High Court upheld the rights of the temple; the Satyagrahis withdrew; and worship was resumed in the temple on January 28, 1932. On June 1st, 1947, all Avarnas were allowed free entry which till then the Savarnas or caste Hindus alone had enjoyed.

The Guruvayur Cult

Prevalent in Kerala, it is defined as an offshoot of the Vaishnava Bhakti cult, originally founded by Puntanam and Melpathur Bhattathiri. While the former composed the Jnanapana in Malayalam, the latter wrote the Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit, basing it on Patanjali yoga and the Bhagavatham. As Mathur explains - A quintessential expression of this history, the Sri Krishna cult of the Zamorin of Calicut found its lasting manifestation in the monumental Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayur. The Guruvayur cult has been hailed for visvapapahatya, removal of earthly sufferings, and the bestowal of saukhyam and avesam, earthly well-being and pleasure, leading to anandam, or heavenly bliss.

Sacred Complex of the Guruvayur Temple - PRG Mathur
The Guruvayur Cult – JOKS Vol 6, 1979 KV Krishna Ayyar
The Voice of Guruvayur – Historical background - CN Menokki
Guruvayur – JOIH 1962 KV Krishna Ayyar
The History of Guruvayoor – KV Krishan Ayyar
Heaven on Earth - The Universe of Kerala's Guruvayur Temple - Pepita Seth
Zamorins of Calicut – UB Nair

Pics - Wkimedia, thanks

Kurt Tank – The legendary test pilot and aircraft designer

 And the Marut HF 24 project at Bangalore

Prof. Dr. Dipl.-Ing. Kurt Waldemar Tank was not only a brilliant German engineer and designer of many successful aircraft that flew in the Second World War but was also a competent test pilot. Responsible for the designs of the Fw 190 fighter, the Ta 152 fighter interceptor, and the Fw 200 long-distance Condor, Kurt led the design department at Focke-Wulf which manufactured these aircraft. While the Fw 190 fighter (over 20,000 were produced) was considered one of the finest flying fighters of its time, Tank also pioneered nonstop transatlantic air travel with his Condor aircraft. After the war, he moved to Argentina, building their first fighter jet, the Pulqui II.

Following the fall of Peron, Tank took up an offer to lead a design team at the fledgling Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Bangalore, working on an ambitious project developing a Mach 2 fighter – the Marut HF-24. Kurt Tank, who focused on trying to get things going under incredibly difficult circumstances, and supported by a primitive industrial infrastructure, maintained a low profile and talked little. Perhaps he had his demons to face. This is his story.

Though there is plenty of material out there on the German planes he helped design, and quite a bit on the Marut HF 24, much of the HF-24 information out there comes from one or two templates which are somewhat incomplete and at times erroneous, with most of them disregarding the geopolitical pressures faced by not only the developers at HAL but also the politicians at Delhi, walking a tight rope in a cold war era, pressured by the Russians on one side and a combination of America, France and Britain on the other.

The initial part of Tank’s life, until the conclusion of WW-II is well documented, so I will quickly gloss over them. Born in Bromberg, Germany in Feb 1898 to Willi and Anna, Tank was keen to join the air services, but his father, an army grenadier forced him to join the cavalry, and Tank dropped out of school and volunteered for the army aged 17, did well, earning several medals, eventually de-mobbing as a Captain. Picking up his education Tank graduated in Electrical Engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin, in 1923 (he was a regular listener to Einstein’s lectures at Berlin on Relativity!), meanwhile qualifying as a pilot as well (flying solo after just three tutored flights) and formed a gliding club. It was his professor Moritz Weber who suggested he look at aircraft design as a future career when he saw Tank was considering Siemens. With his professor’s recommendation, he soon joined the design team designing flying boats at Rohrbach Metall-Flugzeugbau, and later a stint at supplying planes to Turkey and meeting Ataturk. This was followed by a troubling year with Willi Messerschmitt as director of the Projects Department at Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, eventually moving on to work for a small aircraft manufacturer, Focke-Wulf at Bremen, as the manager of tests and design in 1931. Tank’s involvement in engineering and aircraft designs led them to fame, and he rose to become its technical director. In Sept 1924, he got married to Charlotte Teufel, his first wife.

It was at FW that he designed the long-distance Fw-200 Condor and the feared Fw-190 fighter. Most importantly, he was not just a designer, but also an able test pilot and eventually rose to become its managing director. As a test pilot, he did have his share of mishaps, but it was his flying skill that added to his drawing board knowledge of designing planes. Tank’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190, according to Robert Grinsell was “considered by many aviation experts and enthusiasts to be the most beautifully proportioned and aerodynamically designed aircraft of World War II”. Interestingly, he was always known as Professor Kurt Tank (per some accounts - awarded by the Braunschweig Technical School), though he became a teacher only much later, while in India.

Fw 190A-3
Though he was a Nazi pilot and worked for Nazi-controlled factories employing Jewish slaves, it is apparent from various biographies that he was not too involved with or interested in the politics of his country (Nevertheless, Goering had appointed him as one of his military economy leaders, sworn to be faithful to the Nazi regime) but was driven by aviation and engineering. There are interesting accounts of Tank’s arguments about the production and design of new fighter bombers with Goering and how Tank stood his ground. We also see that he had four meetings with Hitler. Tank became quite famous by now and was allowed to use the Ta monogram for his planes. The last of his designs, the Ta 183 was the forerunner to the Russian Mig-15, for the Russians obtained all the aircraft design and research files following the war. The Russians also obtained two prototypes, which they used to jump-start their MIG project. Still, Tank had also secreted the blueprints of the Ta 183 swept-wing fighter plane, which was in his possession.

After the war ended, and the British control of Focke-Wulf, interrogations were completed, Tank, like many other German engineers were looking out for work and living the life of a refugee, in 1946. During this period, Tank lived in an ancient castle situated in the Weser hills and had to forage for food and subsistence! While there is a brief mention of Tank consulting for General Electric on aero engines much later in life circa 1952, there is nothing on record about any discussions with the Americans, immediately after the war. However, the Soviets, the British, China, France, Sweden, Mexico, and Brazil all investigated the possibility of Tank emigrating to help develop their aircraft industries. Tank commenced further discussions with the British for a job with Handley Page, which never reached fruition. The discussions with China were interesting, and they almost reached a contract stage, but Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution and nationalist China’s decline put paid to that.

Fw 200C 
Pushed by the Soviets, Tank slipped out to Berlin and was interviewed by the Russians who proposed that he move to the Eastern zone, and work for them, but the eventual Russian offer was too vague. A trip to Russia to meet Stalin did not work out when Tank caught the flu and was sent back home. Tank had realized that he would never be a free man in Russia, and his fears were confirmed when a few years later the go between Col Tokaev defected to Britain. Another report mentions that Tank took 10,000 Marks, after agreeing to go to Russia with 8-10 followers, but that he failed to appear. Tank continued work on the Ta 183 and a futuristic long-distance plane, the Ta 500.

A rumor that he would be tried under the war trials and a physical summons to travel to Britain late in 1947, got Tank searching for an escape route to where hundreds of thousands of Germans, mostly Nazis had fled, namely Juan Peron’s Argentina. Their exit route was through Denmark, which had not closed its borders. The go-between, an Argentine SS officer Fultner was involved in the secreting out of Kurt Tank to Argentina. SS officer Karl Nicolussi-Leck, the escape agent of the chimeral ODESSA organization, was perhaps the person who delivered Kurt Tank and later his engineering team to Fultner who then took over and spirited them across to Argentine. Tank had a hair-raising transit through Britain and managed the escape to the Southern Hemisphere with his papers and the microfilms bulging in his pocket, under a false Argentinian passport, bearing the name Pedro Matties.

Argentina was very rich at this point, the 7th largest economy, and had the funds to get the people they wanted and the money to further Juan Peron’s dreams. Several of Tank’s former colleagues, around 62 of them, joined him in Cordoba and together they created something like a Focke-Wulf Lite unit.  Soon after he arrived in Argentina, Tank’s wife Charlotte passed away and Tank later got married to a girl 30 years his junior, a girl he knew from her childhood, Sigrid Güldennage. Meanwhile, his two daughters and a son from his first wife were growing up.

These engineers and their families lived on the mountain slopes near Cordoba. The intent was to use the Ta183 designs and make a new fighter for the Argentine Air Force. They took over the Pulqui project which until then had been managed not too well by the French Nazi designer Emile Dewoitine. The Institutio Aerotechnico was formed and by 1950, the advanced IAe-33 Pulqui II had been modelled using the basic TA 183 airframe, and a glider version had been tested. Interestingly it had no hydraulic controls. In 1951, a test flight was conducted by Tank in front of Peron. But it all went south, thereafter.

One of the reasons for Tank’s fall from Peron’s grace, was the failure of the man behind the ill-fated nuclear fusion project, the infamous Ronald Richter, whom Tank had recommended to Peron. Tank had been fascinated by Richter’s ideas, especially the one concerning a lightweight fusion engine for a futuristic aircraft that Tank had envisioned. But Richter turned out to be a dud (the word is divided, some call him a crackpot, some even say his work on nuclear fusion, the Huemul project was sabotaged), following which Tank also fell from grace. It is also said that the Pulqui II touted to become the foremost fighter jet in the world, turned out to be a pipe dream, with its airframe weight and many aerodynamic problems due to manufacturing difficulties (the frames had to be hand fabricated). Three prototypes were constructed by 1953 and finally, the fourth one passed tests, but at a much-reduced speed, and with no reliable large-scale manufacturing program, export buyers backed out.


Meanwhile, the Argentine economy had nosedived and in 1955, Tank’s contract expired. Rumors swirled around of Tank’s request to double his salary which infuriated Peron, of his being arrested for possessing a forged passport (strange since he used to travel to Europe with his German passport). In a coup that followed, Peron was kicked out of Argentina and Kurt Tank was soon in limbo. Strangely the only Pulqui II ever manufactured was used against Peron, in its sole engagement, during the coup!! The new regime could only offer basic jobs and previous contracts were not honored. According to the Kurt Tank biographer – Heinz Conradis, Tank returned to Germany in 1954, faced with a difficult future with no aircraft industry in post-war Germany to work for, and still in contract with Argentina.

That was when Kurt Tank was approached by the Indian government through Dr. Taupisch, the German trade attaché in Delhi. Tank met Mahavir Tyagi the defense minister (1953-57) in Bonn, at the behest of Air Marshal S Mukerji, and was later flown around various facilities in India including the HAL. While most of his team went to the American firm's Republic Aviation and Glen Martin, Tank evaluated the Indian offer and negotiated at length, after which he met Krause, the new minister for Aviation in Argentina, and obtained a release.

As always, he insisted on his team to accompany him and so in Feb 1956, Tank arrived in India with a smaller team of eighteen German engineers and technicians, which number later dwindled to thirteen (most of the others went back to Germany, remained in Argentina, or moved to the USA). The HAL team which worked on the new aircraft was led by the Project manager Ludwig Mittelhuber, three Indian senior design engineers, and about 22 other Indian engineers with some design experience. Tank was paid a princely sum of Rs 6,000 per month (in today’s terms this is many lakhs of Rs in buying power) but faced a tall demand of designing a Mach 2 fighter with a 500-mile range and flying at 60,000 feet, using an organization which had thus far built simpler trainer planes from kits and serviced US and British WWII planes. It is not clear if he had program management responsibility, i.e., production, supply chain, etc. Perhaps not, but people saw him as the head and tail of the project.

Sadly, the complete details of Tank’s stay in Bangalore, especially personal details, are not available anywhere, only the HF-24 development work at HAL is known to some extent. All we know are a few details of his meetings with Nehru and VK Krishna Menon, and the fact that he lived in a nice house with a terrace, nestling among the scarlet blossoms of the cassias. It had a covered gallery with a balustrade, leading to a timber outhouse which was perhaps his office, with 49 pillars supporting a roof! Now I cannot fathom where in Bangalore such a house existed, perhaps somewhere in the Indira Nagar area, and anybody who can dispel this mystery may comment. It is also not clear if Sigrid and Tank’s four children (His fourth child Diana must have been 4-5 years old then) stayed in Bangalore or studied there, for he lived there for close to a decade.

Marut HF 24

To cut the long story short, he and his team, which had swelled to some 100 plus Indian engineers, designed, and built the HF-24 Marut, a sleek and sharp high-nosed, twin-engine jet, perhaps the aerodynamically cleanest fighter airframe of its time. One of the first glider prototype test pilots, incidentally, was a Malayali - Oyitti Manakkadan Kunhiraman, flying together with Kapil Bhargava. The Marut was intended to be capable of Mach 2(~ 1,500 miles per hour), but the British Bristol Olympus afterburning engines around which it was designed never materialized, so other engines had to be tried.

The engine fiasco resulted from the need for a Bristol BOr.12 SR Orpheus after-burning turbojet that could produce 8,150 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, India did not have or were unwilling (and lots of geopolitics) to invest 13 million pounds for Bristol to develop the engine after NATO dropped its need, so the HAL team spent years shopping for an alternative in the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States, only for shifting political winds to nix the deal at every turn. In the end, HAL was forced to make do with non-afterburning Orpheus 703 turbojets used by the Folland Gnat, which generated just 4,850 pounds of thrust. As a result, what was intended to be a Mach 2 fighter could barely attain Mach 1, that too at higher altitudes.

The first powered prototype of the HF-24 powered by two Orpheus 703 engines made its successful flight in June 1961 and the second prototype in October 1962. An initial batch of these aircraft was handed over to the Indian Air Force in 1964. Only 147 HF-24s were procured, (including eighteen two-seat trainers), all inducted by 1968 and these formed the IAF No. 10 Flying Dagger, No. 31 Lions, and No. 220 Desert Tigers squadrons. By then, it had cost more to produce the Marut in India with very many imported parts, than it did to fully import more advanced & capable fighters from other countries.

Various other engines were then looked at, the Russian RD-9F and VK-7, and afterburning Orpheus, the Egyptian Brandner E-300, the RR RB.153, the P&W J52, and the GE1/JO-1 but they did not quite work out. There is some talk of the DRDO/GTRE attempts in 1966 for a reheat system to make an HF 24 Mk II, but Tank does not seem to have supported the idea for design reasons. Later audit reports on the project mention large cost overruns, tooling issues, and lack of a production engineering department at HAL, that the new reheat version performed worse than the original, and that the base drag was considerable. Eventually, IAF did not support the reheat system idea, and HF 24 manufacture ended in 1977.

Wagner’s book on Tank, edited and verified by Tank, explains that Menon had to intervene to get the RD-9F engines from Russia and the HAL team found the bench tests were quite satisfactory. However, the Russians suddenly became disinterested in the project and did not want to proceed further.  Tank realized that the HF24 + RD-9F combination would perform better than the MIG21 and would therefore jeopardize the larger ongoing MIG21 deal between India and Russia. Russia then informed the Indian team that the RD-9F would have a service life of just 50 hours compared to international standards between 500-2000 hours. All said, India finally decided not to buy these Russian engines. America stepped in and offered the RB 153 engines, but on condition that India abandon the MIG 21 deal, which was not possible since the MIG contract had been signed. These aspects never found their way into any media reports thus far!!

The Egyptian collaboration - Nasser’s aircraft program to develop the HA 300 had started with Messerschmitt’s guidance. A new engine was designed by the Germans using a French Mirage model in 1961 and this was the Brandner E 300, and still a prototype, but then the HA 300 airframe was not ready. Tank knew of all this after his visit to Helwan in 1963. Remember that these were the Nehru-Nasser-Tito days, and well, fortuitously India had a perfect airframe but no engine. So, a plan was floated to gift an HF 24 to Egypt and test it with an E 300 engine in flight and if it worked, both the involved countries would buy the missing parts from one another. A test flight was conducted in 1966, with Tank present. While Indian media stated that the Egyptians only needed the HF 24 airframe for testing, Wagner writes that the Egyptians informed India that they could not supply any E 300 engines. Whether it was because of Egypt’s loss in the 6-day war or due to the political turbulence in Egypt, is not clear.

Grp Captain Kapil Bhargava who was Marut’s chief test pilot since 1957, opines (Marut fans blog) that Tank was quite rigid and a bit old-fashioned when it came to the Marut design - While Prof. KW Tank was a very good designer, he did not know much about production technology to minimize manufacturing time, costs and time or to ensure maintainability. Kurt Tank belonged to the old school, suspicious of new technology such as powered controls. Rather reluctantly he decided to power the controls but only with a single hydraulic system, including the services such as wheel brakes, undercarriage, flaps, and airbrakes. Tank’s well-advertised boast was that his aircraft would be so strong that if the wing hit a tree, the tree would get sliced off with the aircraft capable of flying back home. There is also a funny mention of how the cockpit was designed for a much larger man. Bhargava found the seat too big for his small bottom (Tank was a large man) and the controls too far, and thus a redesign was needed for the Indian. There are also interesting mentions of the Tank’s chat with Nehru and the test flight with Krishna Menon as a witness.

Perhaps age had caught up, but it is quite clear that after the engine issues, the HAL production team had many changes to grapple with and difficulties with large-scale production planning, all of which were not in Tank’s hands. Perhaps it was the bureaucracy, squabbles with the IAF, and the lack of advanced facilities. However, all said, many disagree that the HF 24 was a failure, for this aircraft did enter a production stage, served in the IAF for over two decades, and proved itself in a war. Moreover, its accident rate was very low—just one accident and around three aircraft lost in combat. From a lofty performance goal, which it tried to meet, and a cost overrun, the HF 24 was indeed a failure, but that was all because it could not get the engine it was designed for, and the nonexistent large-scale manufacturing and production engineering facilities, which were not factored for during budgeting.

As the MIG 21 local assembly project was finding difficulties getting off the ground, Tank completed his HF 24 project with the OR 703 engines, though not meeting the original lofty Mach 2 speed objective, and was ready with deliveries to the IAF. He finished his contract with the Indian government in April 1967 and decided to hang up his boots, for good.

During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Marut acquired a sterling record for rugged reliability as a low-altitude fighter bomber. This was one of the planes that saved the day in the 1971 Longewala battle – remember the famous scene pictured in the film Border, where Jackie Shroff and his planes finally take off at dawn and blow away the bogged-down Pakistani tank unit with a small Indian contingent led by Brigadier Kuldip Singh Chandpuri desperately trying to hold on? If the Pakistanis broke through, Jaisalmer would fall. The planes could not operate during that sleepless night, since they were not equipped for night fighting, but they took off at the break of dawn, with the Maruts and Hunters decimating the Pakistani tank unit. As a Marut pilot recorded - the Marut remained in the thick of the action throughout the thirteen-day war, strafing airfields, bombing ammunition dumps, hitting tanks and artillery on the frontlines, flying over two hundred sorties, and suffering three losses to ground fire. Nonetheless, the HF-24s boasted a high serviceability rate and proved quite tough, with several of the jets managing to return to base on just one engine after the other was shot up.

Back to Kurt Tank - there is this mention that he taught initially at the Madras Institute of Technology MIT at Madras.  After Tank arrived in India, funding approval by the Indian government proved to be very slow, so Tank was parked at the Madras Institute of Technology for a while, moving to HAL only later in 1956. There is little detail of his time at MIT, but we can see a mention by the late Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam in his book that he had been Prof Kurt Tank’s student. Kurt Tank worked under Austrian Prof Walter Repenthein who headed the aeronautical department at MIT. Who knows if Tank taught Kalam Bernoulli’s principle, the foundation for all aeronautical engineers and aviators! Kalam as you all know grew up to become the nation’s foremost rocket and missile engineer, and eventually the head of the armed forces and the President of India. I am sure Kurt Tank would have been proud to hear that, but it all happened after Tank’s demise!

He was indeed an interesting man with clear ideas- for example, he believed that one could if required, communicate with extra-terrestrials through geometry, simply because, to design a spaceship, one had to know the Pythagoras theorem! According to a senior airman, he had this dictum - "A plane should not be a racehorse, that can turn in a wonderful performance on the track only at certain times and in just the right conditions: a plane should be a cavalry horse, that can run and fight in all conditions, good or bad, and that does not need to be pampered or spoilt – a plane should be like a Dienstpferd, a cavalry horse." This was the Tank Dienstpferd design policy.

Tank spent the rest of his life in Munich and briefly consulted for MBB. He did not forget India, In 1967, he tried to convince the West German government to manufacture the HF 24 under license in Germany, but after Nehru died in 1964, there were no takers in India. He suggested in 1972 that HAL cooperate with MBB when a new spec for the ASA design came up, that the new HF 73 design could potentially use the RB.199 34R engine, and beat the MIG 25 performance, but the project was dropped again due to non-availability of the engine. Kurt Tank fell seriously ill and passed away in Munich, on June 5, 1983, aged 85. Air Marshal LM Kartre visited Munich to pay his condolences to Tank’s bereaved wife Sigrid and upon her request, donated an HF 24 to the Deutsches Museum, where it is displayed proudly, to this day.

The MIG 21, French Mirage, the MIG 29, The British Jaguar, etc. were inducted afterwards, so also the locally built Tejas (with US-GE engines), and India is now talking about buying even more advanced planes such as the Rafale. As usual, the world spends billions on deterrence, be it traditional armaments or nuclear technology, with the increase in threat perceptions and the resulting cost of defense and deterrence.

Strange, that the modern world continues to move ahead on a road built upon mistrust. If we went ahead however on a road built upon trust, all this money could have been used for better purposes, but that everybody is going to tell me, is impractical and utopian thinking.

Design for Flight: The Kurt Tank Story - Heinz Conradis
Designer-Pilot Kurt Tank - by Stephan Wilkinson (history-net)
Self-reliance and Self-sufficiency: Experience of the Indian aircraft industry, Thesis 1983 - Ravindra Tomar
A man with a wide horizon Nicolussi Leck - Gerald Steinacher (A Nazi Past: Recasting German Identity in Postwar Europe - edited by David A. Messenger, Katrin Paehler)
Why India is not a great power yet – Bharat Karnad
Operation Damocles – Roger Howard
Hunting Evil – Guy Walters
Kurt Tank: Konstrukteur und Testpilot bei Focke - Wulf– Wagner W, English, Trans 1998: Don Cox
Conversations With: Reimar Horten - David Myhra
A Technological History of Cold-War India, 1947–⁠1969 - William A.T. Logan


Note: I admire Kurt Tank as an engineer, also due to my interest in flight, and Tank’s work for India. This does not mean I condone his previous relations with the Nazi regime or the Fw use of slave labor, I abhor those actions, emphatically.  


HAPPY ONAM to all readers


Col. Manakampat Kesavan Unni Nayar (1911-50)

A Revered War Correspondent

This young daredevil from Parli, near Ottapalam, charmed men and women alike, hobnobbed with royalty, prime ministers, presidents, Nobel prize winners, and generals, was articulate and not only spoke well, but was also a popular writer, a journalist, and a news reporter before ending up with the Indian army. A dapper and handsome, young man, he was liked by everybody he came across. Courting death, he was present in every war zone, be it in Africa, Europe, Kashmir, Burma, Indonesia, China, or Korea, reporting fearlessly. He was none other than the Col Unni Nayar, Unni to many, Baby to his friends, Kesavan to some, and Nayar to others. He was the lone Indian who lost his life during the Korean War of 1950 when his luck ran out.

During those British Raj days, many of the educated lads from Ottapalam and nearby towns such as Parli (where Unni hailed from) were well positioned at all important offices, not only in Delhi and Bombay but also in Madras. Some traveled farther, to Malaya, Singapore, and of course Rangoon. M Sivaram the eminent journalist once said – People from Kerala were dominant among Burma’s white-collar workers, governmental and commercial. It was a common joke that every other man in this category came from Ottapalam!! So many from that era, personalities such as VP Menon, KPS Menon, the Chetturs, Shivshankar Menon, MGK Menon, Lt Gen Candeth, etc., just to mention a few, hailed from this little town near Palghat.

Unni’s life was incredibly busy, and left him little time to write a diary, though he did publish a few accounts and short stories early on, revolving around his younger days in Malabar. It was in his mind to pen a slightly more detailed account of his village, their customs, and times, but he finished only four chapters published in a small book titled ‘My Malabar’, which I perused. The book was completed posthumously, together with some of his short stories, and is quite a charming read. His hurried life was to take him for studies to Madras and propel him into a journalism career at Madras, Calcutta, and Delhi. Joining the army, he became a war reporter during WW II, present at Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Indonesia, Egypt, North Africa, Germany, and Italy. Later he was a roving journalist and the Armed Forces information officer in Delhi and troubled Kashmir, working hand in hand with VP Menon, Mountbatten, and Nehru during the partition months, and later across the Atlantic as the Public relations officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, before taking a final challenge as the UN delegate and observer at the Korean war front. As it was destined, he met his end there. That was his life in a nutshell, for those who have no time to read this sketch. But for those who want to go on, let me try to paint the story of this man in flesh and blood, who as I learned from my aunt just last week, came from a family connected to ours, like most Nair families, through marriage.

Unni’s ‘Manakampat Tharavad’ was originally at Ponnani, it branched off (a very colorful and filmi story by itself) and relocated to their 1920s home some 2 miles from Parli RS. His father’s (an affluent Appan Namboothiri (Unni says they had elephants at home)) abode was a three-story house at Tadukasseri, near Mankara. Unni’s book provides a fascinating study of life in the 20s, his experiences during the 1921 Moplah rebellion, and ends well before he goes to college. All reminiscent of other Tharavad stories which Malayalees are used to, is narrated in a style of writing similar to that of his contemporary SK Chettur.

KS Thampan, the headmaster of the Ottapalam school where Unni studied remembers the day Kochunni Nayar, Unni’s uncle brought him to join the school, in 1921. Not outstanding in any way, the boy was self-confident and outgoing, and after six years of schooling, moved on to the Madras Christian College, to major in English Honors. Dr. AJ Boyd, the MCC principal recalls him as the skinny fella with a long tongue, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a gruff voice, who eagerly participated in the University training corps and was called ‘Corporal’. He noticed at the outset that Unni had two likes – reading and writing on the one hand, and soldiering, on the other. Five years later in 1934, after graduation, he launched himself into a journalistic career, continuing to hobnob with his college mates at the Parrys’ corner college house, cheroot dangling from his lips and sipping a drink, talking sense and nonsense, as Boyd recalls. It was in the college magazine that Unni started writing little articles covering his day-to-day life.

Though he worked with the Merry Magazine for a while, the Madras Mail (highly rated in those days) was the newspaper he chose to start his career (Rs 50/- per month). Before long, his counterparts, many of them native Englishmen, noticed his fluency and skill with English, world history, as well as English literature. His days at the Mail where he became an exemplary reporter are brought to life in R (Mail) Parthasarathy’s memoirs. RP mentions that it was Unni a family friend and the Mail’s sub-editor who asked him to apply for an apprentice’s post, in 1936. RS mentions him as an outgoing, westernized man with a soldierly attitude and bearing, who was frequently sent out on special assignments, a favor typically reserved for white men! PJ Joseph, of the Malaya tribune, his MMC classmate, was his colleague at the Mail.

Interestingly, Unni was to write one of the first film reviews for the then-fledgling Tamil film industry, and the story itself is quite amusing, for the film was bad and the costumes and makeup preposterous compared to Western standards. Unni ridiculed the film and many film producers teaming up took umbrage and refused to advertise in the newspaper. The newspaper then decided to stop reviewing films and stopped giving just the brief particulars of the films, from then on!! His sports reports were well-read, and soon he headed the newsroom as the senior sub-editor. In 1938, he moved on to the Statesman in Calcutta, and Parthasarathy took his place as the Sub in the Madras Mail. 

His days at Calcutta do not seem to be quite detailed anywhere, but we know that he joined the Indian army reserve officers when chance presented itself, in 1940. In 1941, Capt Unni Nayar was sent to Malaya, to report on the defenses and the troops, with WWII around the corner. Another matter was foremost in his mind, and that was his courtship with the lovely Dr. Vimala Nayar from Thekkekurupath. I would assume here that it was all arranged by the family, and his colleagues mention his numerous letters to the lady. As destined, they would get married only after the war, in Jan 1947.

In Dec 1941, the Japanese took Burma, and Unni was off to Burma, to cover the British Army’s abject trek back to India. He was seen to take care of the sick and dying, and not afraid of providing armed cover to the retreating columns. His acts of bravery, courage, and risk-taking, his brilliant reports, and meticulous report filing were noted by so many officers and reporters, and soon, he was known as a fearless war correspondent. Eve Curie (daughter of Nobel Prize-winning scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and the sister of another, Irene Joliot-Curie) and Maurice Ford, mention him in their reports.

When the Duke of Gloucester toured India in 1942, Unni was asked to cover the tour and drafted many speeches for the Duke. Pretty soon, he was commissioned to the Mahratta light infantry, then moved to Delhi and was quickly posted to Singapore as an observer. Here he had an interesting task, to interview and clear his old friend PJ Joseph of collusion with the Japanese.

His travels with the army to the Middle East and Europe are legendary, though not too well known to India. Replacing another gallant officer Motilal Katju, Sarojini Naidu’s nephew, and well-respected for his reporting skills, was Unni Nayar. Capt Nair did not want to warm the chair in Cairo, but wanted to go to El- Alamein where the action was, a region where Rommel and his panzers were wreaking havoc. For a while, he had nothing much to report on, and he spent his time living with the Indian troops, namely the 4/16 Punjab Regiment, and the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles. He accompanied them to Tunisia when the action started, bucketing happily across in his jeep. His reports were precise, terse, colorful, and always truthful. Pretty soon, Nayar was hit, a close brush with death, when a round passed through his mouth! Red as a pumpkin, with a hole in his cheek, and a monstrously swollen head (as reported by his boss Lt Col Stevens), Unni refused evacuation to Cairo and pleaded with his boss to let him get back to the battlefront. As the Indians arrived at Djebel Garci, Nayar was with them, with a bandaged head. Unni’s African reports were considered brilliant, especially his report on the breakthrough at Medjez el Bab.

His next stop was Italy, with the 8th Indian - If I were to say that the saving of some of the finest paintings and artwork in Italy included Unni’s efforts, you will be astounded. When it was decided to move the Uffizi paintings so that they could be hidden at the Montegufoni castle, Unni Nayar arranged extra personnel from the army for their guard, recalling Vimala’s love for paintings. He proved to be incredibly popular with the troops, who considered him their biggest morale booster and it was here that he escaped from death once again, when his jeep received a direct hit and had to be written off. The unhurt Unni had no difficulty in securing a replacement when the supply corps heard it was for ‘The Unni Nayar.’

Stevens says that Unni was a special type, for he only wanted to be at the front lines and anything else was undignified. As I mentioned before, his actions had been noticed by many and recorded, for some months later after the fact, Field Marshal Auchinleck chanced upon Stevens who had by then completed a book on Wavell with Unni’s support (on the last chapter), and asked ‘what has become of that fine little chap Nayar?’ Unni Nayar received an MBE for his Middle East war efforts.

Promoted to Major and later to Lt Col, Unni Nayar was now back in Burma, in the thick of the battle, sporting a red beret jauntily and wearing his khakis (while others wore the jungle greens). Can you believe it, he decided to undertake two parachute jumps with hardly any training and did them with aplomb at Burma and Rangoon, to earn the para badge (he later said the jumps were heavenly!)! As a correspondent, he made notes on the run, listened carefully to the chatter in the mess, and was always on the move, dodging mortars, bullets, and mines. It was, as another observer thought, he possessed a charmed life. Cheerful, adventurous, and unassuming, he went about his business.

Sadly, it was in Burma that the illustrious correspondent Katju met his death. 29th April 1943 - Captain Motilal Katju volunteered to venture into a native village to look for boats. For several days he had a premonition that he would not get out alive and had asked Major Jefferies to carry his diary, which contained a day-by-day account of the campaign. He did not return, killed by the Japanese. Unfortunately, only a small part of his diary survived the war, a huge loss!

When the war was over, Unni was much sought after by various newspapers, but he rejoined the Statesman who sent him to New Delhi as a special representative. Stevens advised him that he should position himself well, as India would soon be independent. Reporting on political affairs was however, a different cup of tea, but it is said that he took to it seriously and was very popular in the political circuit, especially among foreign correspondents.

The disturbing days of 1946-1947 were tough. When the army created a public relations office, Unni rejoined the army as an armed forces information officer. Handling refugee news, troops used to quell disturbances, Hindu-Muslim riots, etc. daily must have disturbed him a lot. A poignant story is that of Tayyeb Hussain and his family, Muslim friends of Morris-Jones, who were forced to flee their home on Lodi Road, how they took refuge at their friend Unni’s house. In 1946, we see a mention of his visiting his old alma mater at Ottapalam and presiding over the school day functions.

In Jan 1947, he got married to Dr. Vimala Nayar but was back in action soon, when fighting flared up in Kashmir. Though disallowed from joining the front line with the first wave of soldiers, Unni went in later and reported reality to the world (many had believed India to be the aggressor, until then). It was at this juncture that we see his participation in trying to quell the mobs, wielding a megaphone riding his jeep, exhorting peace, and doing the very work others should have done (Some writers even mention that Unni did what Sheikh Abdullah should have done).

All this was being noticed by the bigwigs. Nehru who came across him many a time, makes it clear – The very first time I met him, he produced a vivid impression in my mind., That impression deepened as I saw more of him. He was a type, rather uncommon in the present-day world, bubbling over with enthusiasm and vitality, always showing an eagerness for the work at hand., able and generally bringing in a breath of fresh air wherever he went. To all those qualities he added real courage to the point of daring, which is also not very common. It is not surprising that he was liked by all who knew him….

As the situation became unbearable in the post-partition period, Unni, Campbell Johnson, and BL Sharma, as agreed with Mountbatten, manned the ‘Public Relations Committee ‘to provide daily reports, bulletin boards, and press conferences, though it was all in no way sufficient. VP Menon, his compatriot from Ottapalam, felt that Unni had the potential to go to any height he desired, knowing him well from the cabinet deliberation days, and confesses that he had far more affection for Kesavan than many of his near relatives. Interestingly, Unni and VP were in regular touch through letters, for Unni wanted to write an article about VP, but could not as VP had not provided him with the requested background information. 

Before long, in May 1948, he was deputed to the Indian embassy in Washington DC as its Attaché – more formally, the press and public relations officer. Within no time, he had established a large circle of friends, as many Americans were to later mention, and became a lynchpin for Indian news, which in America until that time, was not too flattering for India. Unni tried his best to get the right tilt, but geopolitics and the Cold War made it quite difficult. For many Americans in the DC press and diplomatic circuit, Unni was India and as the PRO for the Indian delegation at the UN, Unni proved to be a great asset.

Even in the middle of all this, Unni had yet another brush with death, narrowly escaping a shootout at Sunset Boulevard in Los Angles, he had taken an Indian dignitary to show him a bit of the Hollywood nightlife.

A big event to work on was Nehru’s visit to the US, which Nehru himself has written about, in the form of a book. Unni arranged the trip, took him around, and was present with Nehru during most events. He also arranged for Nehru to meet Albert Einstein, and the picture of the event though mentioning him, has him fully covered by Nehru & the great scientist! A mention in Nehru’s memoirs tells us that Unni used to write directly to him, and when someone in the external affairs ministry tried to suppress those letters from the PM, much to Nehru’s annoyance, Nehru forbade it.

It was a heady period in the US, all of five years, Unni and Vimala became proud parents to their daughter Parvathy – Ammu, but as one can imagine from all the words read so far, Unni was itching for action. It came in the form of the Korean War, a matter we had covered in past articles. Vijayalakshmi Pandit the Ambassador, who was quite close to Nayar family, eventually permitted him to go as an alternate UN delegate to Korea. While many sources mention that Unni volunteered for the post, it becomes clear from the reminiscences of Y D Gundevia that it was due to the latter’s inability to travel that Unni was chosen as the ‘alternate’ delegate.

July 1950 - Unni took leave, after eating a lunch of his favorite Rice and Sambar at Gopala Menon’s house and left for Seoul. Something was not right this time though, for Unni called Menon’s wife from the airport and asked her to keep an eye on and look after his wife Vimala since she would be lonely in Washington and call her often.

Col Unni Nayar’s three weeks in Taegu Korea again show him as a charmer, be it giving away his accommodation to another military dignitary, with an offer to sleep on the floor, or his diplomatic skills and the handling of Korean prisoners. At Taegu, he had a routine, visiting the press billets, 8th Army HQ, Korean ministry, and the battlefront during the afternoon. By August the battles were raging. MacArthur was around and some Americans wanted to know when India would send its vaunted Gurkhas. On 5th August, Unni mentioned to his friend Kondapi that he was itching to end the tour and get back to Delhi to join his wife in N Delhi on the 25th.

Watch a video of Unni Nayar in action in Korea  

12th August 1950 - Unni woke up late, quite uncharacteristic for him. At breakfast, he heard about the execution of some Korean political prisoners and was furious. Later that day, Unni’s friends Ian Morrison and Christopher Buckley were to accompany him later to the Waegwan front. His friend Sivaram had flown to Japan for R&R. Coming back, he slipped into his white dhoti, had a curry rice lunch, and took a quick siesta. As it was time to get to the Nakdong river front, he rushed out but came tearing back as he had forgotten his camera, picked it up, and ran out again to his jeep.

Unni was accompanied by his journalist friends and a South Korean lieutenant, and they headed to the North of Waegwan, 9 miles from the front. The jeep had to edge through six separate swathes of land mines and cleared five, only to hit a landmine on the sixth. Morrison (37) and Unni Nayar were killed instantly. Buckley (45) survived for a few more hours in the American field hospital before succumbing to his injuries.

Three young and brilliant journalists and revered war correspondents had met their death doing what they liked. Unni was just 39 years old, the only Indian causality in the Korean War. His body never came back home, and his remains were cremated at the Juil Valley. The governor of Kyung Buk collected funds and erected a monument in his honor in Dec 1950. The Unni Nayar memorial pillar and monument is today, a S Korean National monument.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit took a personal interest in caring for the young widow during the next few days. Nehru spared no efforts in ensuring that all support and a pension was provided to Vimala. Vimala Nayar returned to India to continue her neglected profession and became a well-known gynecologist & obstetrician. Their daughter Dr. Parvathy Mohan and her children continue the lineage as doctors in America. Vimala on her death aged 94 in 2011, had desired to be reunited with her late husband and so her ashes were taken to the memorial in Taegu and scattered around the memorial, the two of them thus finally resting together, for eternity.

Han Suyin’s acclaimed Cold War novel ‘The Mountain is Young’ published in 1958 has the protagonist Unni Menon cast in the mold of Unni Nayar (Han and Ian Morrison were together those days) and covers the tale of a writer Anne Ford falling in love with an Unni Menon, a charismatic engineer in Calcutta.

A portrait of Unni by Maree Beck hangs in the library of the Indian embassy in Australia. The US national press club established a memorial fund in his name to bring Indian journalists to the US for training and study.

Many of his Indian contemporaries mention the short shrift they received from the white Anglo-Saxon, be it European, British, or American. But studying the life of Unni Nayar, I could not come across a single adverse comment about him from any officer or soldier, bureaucrat, or journalist who came across or worked with him. Likewise, there is not a single mention of prejudice from Unni. The sheer number of accolades tells me how popular he was, and how quickly he made a name for himself. It makes it clear that Unni transcended any discrimination, with his simple demeanor, his professional go-get open attitude, his devotion, his smiling face, and his desire to learn and keep himself well informed. He needed only 12 years, to make an everlasting name for himself.

Unni has this to say to all of us, in his little book, ‘My Malabar’. Though a little dated, his words are something every Indian must note and is a dictum I have always followed, in my own life, thus far – The India to which I belong, I know, has her problems, but they matter less to me than the people. To Europeans and Americans, we are Orientals or inhabitants of a country mysterious, romantic, or filthy and diseased (according to temperament). Our way of living is different in externals; but having had some acquaintance with both Europe and America, I cannot see how an Indian is vastly different in essentials from a European or an American.

From being constantly derided, many Indians have gone on the defensive, and become almost apologetic about Indian institutions or thought. The type of British poseur who has curtly dismissed the Hindu way of living as semi-barbarous or has lampooned it for the diversion of shallow-minded bright youths is legend in India; the species wandered through Government houses to Residency and Yacht Clubs as late as the forties. We Indians would be foolish if we cared for their stings.

Talking to another writer, Eric Linklater, Unni added – Make fun of us, but write of the people, not the problems. Several articles in international newspapers these days are written by Indians working at back offices in India. I hope this little advice from a man long gone, will be read, and heeded to by these young journalists and writers.

Unni Nayar, leading by example, proved in just 12 years that he could be a good Indian, a great newsman, and a fearless soldier, second to none.


Colonel Unni Nayar Commemoration volume Aug 12, 1951

My Malabar – Col Unni Nayar

Memories of a news editor – R Parthasarathy

Visit to America – Jawaharlal Nehru

Various other accounts & Newspaper clips


Pics – Courtesy UN, Nehru book, Youtube video, Korean War Memorials in Pictures – acknowledged with thanks.