A mammoth assemblage of people on the banks of a river flowing by the side of a temple, a grand feast for all, a frenzy of festivity, a king standing on a raised platform cutting his throat as the whole crowd watch and cheer — indeed, a macabre spectacle of unimaginable barbarity; but this was a religio-political event styled as a festival, occurring every 12 years till the middle of the 18th Century on the sands of Tirunavaya on the northern bank of Bharathapuzha in the Malappuram district of northern Kerala. While it is not recorded with authenticity when exactly the event — called Mamankam — started, the last Mamankam chronicled was in 1755. Before the next was due, the central character in the saga, the Zamorin (Samoothiri, the Malabar monarch), vanquished by Mysore’s Tippu Sultan, had to flee from his territory.
Apparently, the idea of an aged and senile Zamorin was abhorrent to his own people, who wanted their ruler to be perpetually young.
Writings of foreign scholars like Sir James Frazer, Hamilton and William Logan (author of Malabar Manual), as also of local historians like K P Padmanabha Menon and K V Krishna Aiyar, give adequate hints that no Zamorin was allowed to be in power for more than 12 years continuously. If the incumbent died before the sands thus ran out, well and good; if not, he had to cut his own throat and court death at a public function on completion of the twelfth year of his rulership. It is said that there was many a king who made this supreme sacrifice, treating his subjects and nobles to a grand feast just before the self-execution. Immediately after the solemn ceremony, the people would choose their successor.
Later on, there appears to have been a change in the procedure. The periodicity of 12 years stipulated, of course, remained unchanged.
There would, as was the practice, be magnificent celebrations lasting for about four weeks, for the success of which no pains would be spared by the king and his officers. Chiefs of small principalities under the suzerainty of the Zamorin could, during the festival, challenge the king for a fight, and if successful in killing him, would be entitled to assume power. For this, on the last day of the festival, four of the bravest of the lot could, if they so desired, fight their way through phalanges of thousands of Nayar soldiers (suicide squad) forming a security cordon around the king, and try to cut his throat, the successful one being crowned the king. (Relics of a deep well in the temple precincts into which the dead bodies of the suicide squad were dumped in their hundreds were reportedly still in existence in the vicinity till recent times.)
Some hold that Mamankam represents incipient signs of people having their say in governance matters. The citizens who assembled for the festival also discussed and decided on important public issues. Regarding transfer of power, as opposed to hereditary succession, an election of sorts took place, though it was the outcome of a show of force.
We try to change our rulers now (though superannuation is not a criterion) every five years; ancient Malabar perhaps showed a way of effecting a change every 12 years after a bloodbath, on the need for which the people were all agreed.