Debtor’s circle

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

Settlement of unpaid debts – an old tradition in Malabar

Today you have enforcers who are wandering round, looking for debtors on the run. There are collection agents who come and seize cars which are not being paid for with agreed regularity, and we see musclemen on the prowl these days, as depicted in the movies, to provide some firm persuasion. You also see ad’s like the one below in newspapers for debt collection executives, promising a handsome salary.

Needed – executive to help collect over-dues and discuss with customers on best possible payment plans, should possess strong and firm verbal communication and negotiation Skills, a good amount of Intelligence, be persistent and Firm, and persuasive in reasoning. Unsaid requirement – be of muscular build and capable of depicting an aggressive demeanor

But things were a little different some 500 -900 years ago and this peculiar custom in Malabar was first brought to light by Al Idrisi in 1154AD. He explained – If one man owes another some money and the creditor locates him, he draws a circle around him. The creditor also enters the ring and the debtor cannot go outside the ring till the creditor is satisfied or forgives him.

From this arose an old Malayalam idiom ‘vattathil akkuka’ (being put into a circle) which is somewhat colloquial for harassment. Whether ‘vattam chutti’ (going in circles) also falls in the same category is not clear, but I hope you get the idea.

Varthema wrote of a custom he found in the Malabar ports by which the administration of civil justice was considerably simplified. The king had 100 scribes, and in case of debts evidenced by deeds in the handwriting of these scribes, the law provided a summary remedy. "If the debtor promising many times, fails to pay, the creditor not willing to wait any longer nor give him any indulgence, takes a green branch (of a palm) in his hand, goes softly behind the debtor, and with the said branch draws a circle on the ground surrounding him, and if he encloses the debtor within the circle, says to him these words three times ' Brahmananane rajavinane purath pokalle, i.e., I command you in the name of the Brahmins and in the name of the king, not to leave the circle (until you have paid the debt). If the debtor left the circle without paying the debt, he was liable to the penalty of death."

Archibald Williams adds a twist in his memoir - In order to secure payment from a persistent debtor, the creditor tries to draw a circle round him on the ground, saying three times, “ By the head of the Brahmins and of the King, you shall pay me what you owe before you quit the circle.” The debtor thus encircled must either pay or die of starvation; for nobody may give him food; and death is the penalty for crossing the line without payment.

The green branch of a palm, says Ibn Batuta, was also used by the officers of the king to help the collection of the royal dues from the merchants. If the merchants did not pay the royal dues, an officer of the king came with the green branch of a palm and suspended it in front of the shop. No person could buy or sell from the merchant until the branch was removed.

The rule was applicable both to nobility as well as to the common man and Marco Polo visiting Ma’abar emphatically claims he was an eye witness where the king was harassed so. Marco Polo states (Cordier -Yule)-  They have the following rule about debts. If a debtor shall have been several times asked by his creditor for payment, and shall have put him off from day to day with promises, then if the creditor can once meet the debtor and succeed in drawing a circle round him, the latter must not pass out of this circle until he shall have satisfied the claim, or given security for its discharge. If he in any other case presume to pass the circle he is punished with death as a transgressor against right and justice. And the said Messer Marco, when in this kingdom on his return home, did himself witness a case of this. It was the King, who owed a foreign merchant a certain sum of money, and though the claim had often been presented, he always put it off with promises. Now, one day when the King was riding through the city, the merchant found his opportunity, and drew a circle round both King and horse. The King, on seeing this, halted, and would ride no further; nor did he stir from the spot until the merchant was satisfied. And when the bystanders saw this they marveled greatly, saying that the King was a most just King indeed, having thus submitted to justice

Yule adds as a foot note - This custom is described in much the same way by the Arabo-Persian Zakariah Kazwini, by Ludovico Varthema, and by Alexander Hamilton. Kazwini ascribes it to Ceylon. "If a debtor does not pay, the King sends to him a person who draws a line round him, wheresoever he chance to be; and beyond that circle he dares not to move until he shall have paid what he owes, or come to an agreement with his creditor. For if he should pass the circle the King fines him three times the amount of his debt; one-third of this tine goes to the creditor and two-thirds to the King." Pere Bouchet describes the strict regard paid to the arrest, but does not notice the symbolic circle. (Gildem. 197; Varthema, 147; Ham. I. 318; Lett. Edif. XIV. 370.)

Rev. Dr. Caldwell adds a footnote "The custom undoubtedly prevailed in this part of India at a former time. It is said that it still survives amongst the poorer classes in out-of-the-way parts of the country, but it is kept up by schoolboys in a serio-comic spirit as vigorously as ever. Marco does not mention a very essential part of the ceremony. The person who draws a circle round another imprecates upon him the name of a particular divinity, whose curse is to fall upon him if he breaks through the circle without satisfying the claim."

Forbes wiring his oriental memoirs provides details of a version that has become stringent as times went by - For debts, and non-payment of fines, inflicted as a punishment, they are confined by the caricar (Kariakar), or-chief of the district; who draws a circle round the prisoner, from which he dare not move; then, gently laying a sharp stone on the crown of his head, demands payment of the sum required: on a refusal, he places a large flat stone over the other, and ties it firmly on; additional weights are gradually accumulated, with a repetition of the demand, until the sharp stone-penetrating the head, either insures payment, or causes a painful death.

Vissicher provides details of differing methods from Dutch Cochin - For laying the property of another in arrest, the warrant of a magistrate is not required ; any private individual may do it ; so that a man of low caste has it in his power to harass and annoy a Brahmin or a Caimal, through his lands and properties. The Rajahs possess the same power over each other. However, although license is not required for the performance of this embargo, the Rajah’s authority is necessary to settle the affair; both parties must appear before him, and after duly weighing the merits of the case, and receiving a sum of money, he gives judgment. When Rajahs thus arrest each other’s property, it is a fruitful ground for wars and dissensions: mediators are sometimes called in to arrange the matter.

The token of this embargo or arrest, is the leaf of a cashew nut or other tree which is tied on the article thus arrested, or if it be land, it is stuck up on a stick, the party exercising this privilege announcing, “this is the Rama, or arrest of the Rajah.” After this no one may gather the fruits off the lands or remove the token; such act would be considered crimes of lese majesty. The East India Company exercises the same right, and on such occasions they plant their flag on the spot: but this is only done by order of the Commandant or the proper authorities. In the lands subject to the Company, the Commandant may remove any rama, placed by a native. The residents in the small outlying stations, are obliged to suffer the ramas of the Malabars, and are allowed to exercise the same privilege on their side.

The Resident of Porcad told me an entertaining anecdote on this subject. He had once caused a rafter to be brought to the station for the repair of the factory; when it was close to the building, a Nair came and fastened a rama, to it, upon which the coolies who were carrying it, ran away, as it was illegal for them to touch it any longer. The Resident being informed of what had occurred immediately planted the Company’s rama on the spot, so that the parties who were so ready with their arrest, were themselves arrested; and compelled to stand without stirring a foot in the heat of the sun, until such time as the first rama was removed by order of the Rajah, then the Resident released them.

In a similar manner, when the Rajah owes money to a Brahmin who can adduce satisfactory proof of the debt, the creditor can demand the money of the Rajah, three distinct times, and if the Rajah still delays payment, the Brahmin brings a rama from a pagoda, when the Rajah may neither eat, sleep or bathe till the dispute is settled and the rama removed. Such cases however do not often happen, for the people know that monarchs have long arms.

I am however not sure what this ‘rama’ is – perhaps some kind of flag…

Hamilton writing in 1723 continues in the previous vein…They have a good way of arresting people for Debt, viz. There is a proper person with small stick from the Judge, who is generally a Brahman and when that person finds the debtor, he draws a circle round him with that stick, and charges him, in the King and Judge's Name, not to stir out of it till the creditor is satisfied either by Payment or Surety; and it is no less than death for the debtor to break Prison by going out of the circle.
Now that we have talked about the Debtor’s circle, let us take a look at another system that is still practiced by protesters in India, called the Dharna. What was that? We hear about the Dharna method as early as 1615 from Roger Hawkes. In fact he says he had to use the method himself to get his debt with the Zamorin settled.

The 20th December, a Malabar captain brought in a prize he had taken from the Portuguese, and would have traded with us; but we could not get in any of our money, due long before. We also heard that day of four English ships being at Surat. The governor and people continued their wonted perfidiousness; the former being more careful in taking and the latter in giving bribes, than in paying our debts. We used a strange contrivance of policy to get in some of these; for, when we went to their houses, demanding payment, and could get none, we threatened not to leave their house till they paid us. We had heard it reported, that, according to their customs, they could neither eat nor wash while we were in their houses; and by this device we sometimes got fifty fanos from one, and an hundred from another. They would on no account permit us to sleep in their houses, except one person, with whom we remained three days and nights, with three or four nayres.

So as we can generalize, it is the medieval and modern practice of sitting in dharna, once used against debtors, by literally 'holding up' a defaulting debtor with a threat to commit suicide at his door by starvation. This ‘door sitting’ practice has its origins from the laws of Manu and we also note a looser form of dharna, called takaza, which permits the creditor to institute by proxy, a regular siege of the debtor's house.

Westlky details it - The creditor would sit dharna at the debtor's door or gate, until some arrangement or instalment was extorted by his importunity. Lord Teignmouth gives us an interesting description of the process of sitting dharna, and the principle involved. The Brahmin creditor proceeds to the door of his debtor and there squats himself, holding in his hand some poison, a dagger, or other instrument of suicide, which he threatens to use if his debtor should attempt to molest him or pass by him; and as the inviolability of a Brahmin is a fixed principle with the Hindoos, and to deprive him of life, either by direct violence or by causing his death in any way, is a crime which admits of no expiation, it will readily be seen that the debtor is practically under arrest in his own house. "In this situation," concludes Lord Teignmouth, "the Brahmin fasts, and by the rigor of etiquette the unfortunate object of his arrest ought to fast also, and thus they both remain till the institutor of the dharna obtains satisfaction. In this, as he seldom makes the attempt without the resolution to persevere, he rarely fails; for if the party thus arrested were to suffer the Brahmin sitting in dharna to perish by hunger, the sin would forever lie upon his head." It became a popular tool for Gandhi during the independence movement and is sadly used to date in India for various protests.

To lend much higher gravity, a Brahmin was employed as proxy to execute the dharna at the debtor’s house.

Fink summarizes - A faint trace of the origin of the practice will be found in the fact that the creditor who resorted to dharna, often found it necessary to hire a Brahmin to starve himself vicariously… At this juncture, it is more than probable that the creditor arrested the arm of the debtor by hiring a Brahmin whose person was always held sacred, and who could not be resisted with violence. The Brahmin thus retained, adopted his own peculiar method of fasting at the door, and even put the debtor under immediate fear by providing himself with some instrument of suicide…To permit a man to starve or fast at your door without relieving his wants, was always looked upon as an act which, in the next world, placed the beggar in enjoyment of heaven, and reversed the condition of the rich man to that of deplorable misery. It was a dread of this supernatural retribution which, in India, made fasting at the door such a powerful instrument in extorting charitable donations to the Brahminical priesthood. And it will be observed that sitting dharna was always undertaken where the debtor was a man of wealth or of superior caste to the creditor.

Was this kind of circle drawing noticed elsewhere in the world? William Ian Miller explains - The Talmud tells of a certain Honi HaMe'aggel (Honi the Circle Drawer) 1st century CE who was asked to pray for rain to relieve the community from drought. In an incident that could have been lifted from an Irish saint's life or from Hindu debt-collection rituals, he drew a circle around himself.

The Chinese practiced a much more sensible variety of dharna than the Hindoos. Instead of starving themselves to death, and broiling in the sun or shivering in the rain, creditors simply quartered themselves and their families upon their debtors, and the latter were generally glad to get rid of their unwelcome guests by scraping together and paying off the amount due. A debtor who was unable to meet his obligations could be compelled to wear a yoke round his neck in public, the hope of the creditors being that the man's friends or relatives would pay off his debt in order to save him from a prolongation of this terrible disgrace.

Sitting dharna was said to be practiced in Persia as well in those days. A man intending to enforce payment of a demand by fasting, begins by sowing some barley at his debtor's door, and sitting down in the middle. The idea that the creditor means to convey to his debtor by this is, that he will stay where he is without food, either until he is paid, or until the barley-seed grows up and gives him bread to eat. Something similar to this dharna was known in ancient Ireland. One of the Brehon laws enacted that a notice of five days was to be served on a debtor of inferior grade, and then distress was to be taken from him. But if the defendant was a chieftain, a flaith, a bard, or a bishop, the plaintiff was obliged to "fast upon him" in addition. The Troscead, or fasting upon one, consisted in going to the debtor's house and waiting at his door a certain time without food. The law ran: "He who refuses to cede what should be accorded to fasting, the judgment on him is that he pay double the thing for which he was fasted upon." If, however, the debtor offered a pledge or security for his debt, and the creditor stubbornly refused to accept it, he, the creditor, forfeited his entire claim.

But well, these kind of things are no longer workable methods to collect debt, life has changed, crooks care not a hoot, though Dharna is still a popular method of protest in India. Humorous scenes of the starving politician sipping lemonade under cover can be seen in movies. So also can be seen movies where the Chinese method of moving into the debtors home are practiced in Kerala, exemplified by Mohanlal’s and Priyadarshan’s great movie of yesteryears – Sanmanassulavarkku Samadhanam.

Essays from Travancore – Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer
The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition: By Marco Polo
Oriental Memoirs – James Forbes
The Romance of Early Exploration - Archibald Williams
A New Account of the East Indies – Alexander Hamilton
Letters from Malabar - Jacob Canter Visscher, Heber Drur


  1. Gwen

    I love how you expressed your depth in topics in these topics. I'm also following "Simone Says by Simone Klugman" and would love for you to feature some history and women topics there that we, your audience, may find insightful too. Cheers!