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