Kerala’s Casteist Breast Tax And The Story Of Nangeli
Believe it or not, but there was a time in the early 19th century when women in Kerala had to pay a Mula karam or breast tax to be able to cover their chest with a cloth. Fast forward to 200 years later and the tussle between making a Muslim woman wear a burqa and trying to force her out of it is still on. It makes you wonder whether it is even about how much or how less a woman wears. Or is it just the context? The context being drawing the lines women can or cannot cross. Looking back into history, it becomes more and more obvious that it isn’t specifically about what women are being forced to do, but that laws and social norms always have a say over it more than women themselves.
Back in the early 1800s, both men and women of the lower caste – mainly the Nadar and Ezhava communities – weren’t allowed to cover their chests in front of members of the upper caste. This was considered a sign of modesty and it was important they complied. Clothing was considered a sign of wealth and prosperity and the poor and the lower-castes were simply not entitled to it. This was a time when the caste system in Kerala was at its oppressive peak. In his book, ‘Native Life in Travancore’, Samuel Mateer talks about a list of almost 110 extra taxes that only the members of the lower caste were burdened with. He describes its ‘miserable interference with trade and industry, social freedom and domestic comfort’. It was a system that ensured that the lower castes remained in a cycle of debt and poverty while the upper caste Brahmins and Nairs thrived. But the Nair women were not exempted from the purview of this oppressive system either, they too weren’t allowed to cover their chests in front of Brahmins and while entering temples, to induce modesty.
This period saw the emergence of the Roman Catholic and Syrian Christian community. As the system became increasingly oppressive, conversion into Christianity was seen as a ticket to a better life. Christian women were allowed to cover their breasts with a jacket-like blouse known as the kuppayam. Yet, they were barred from wearing the upper-cloth the way Nair women did, who wrapped the cloth around the torso in a specific style. This was to keep the hierarchy between the two distinct and obvious. The Christian Nadar women were not entirely happy with this proposition and demanded that they be allowed to wear the upper cloth the way Nair women did. As the influence of Christianity increased, the resentment that the upper caste held for them also grew. This culminated in a series of violent clashes in the Travancore region of Southern Kerala in what came to be known as the Channar Revolt or the Channar Lahala. Churches and houses were burnt down and women who wore blouses were stripped in public. However, the book titled Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia confirms that,
“After several years of rebellion on the part of the Nadars and violent repression on part of the caste Hindus, especially the Nairs, it was the direct intervention of the British governor of Madras that brought about the two proclamations from the kings of Travancore, one in 1859, by Maharaja Utram Thirunal and the other in 1865 by Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal, abolishing the restrictions concerning ‘uppercloths.’”
The Channar Mutiny (or revolt) sometimes also referred to as the Maaru Marakkal Samaram is said to have been one of the very first struggles for female liberation in Kerala. Historian Joy Balan Vlaathangara explains the impact of this rebellion in his book ‘Vaikuntaswamiyum Samoohika Navothanavum’.
“Cries for equality began to rise not just from various parts of Kerala, but from the whole of South India after the Channar Mutiny. The agitation to end ‘oozhiyam vela’ or work without pay, the agitation to secure entry into temples, the agitation to secure the right to walk on public roads, all these struggles that went on to change the face of Kerala were inspired by the success of the Upper Cloth Mutiny.”
Of all the forms of rebellion that formed part of the Maaru Marakkal Samaram, the story of a woman named Nangeli stands out; a story that has become symbolic of the struggle. Nangeli belonged to the central region of Kerala, in a place called Cherthala. The breast tax or the Mula Karam, which was one among the many oppressive taxes levied on the lower caste, meant that a woman was granted the right to cover her breasts only if she paid a fee to the government. In the year 1803, Nangeli was brave enough to unflinchingly defy the orders of the state. When news spread of her defiance, the parvathiyar or the tax collector arrived at her house to collect money. It is said that, instead of placing the money in a plantain leaf, she cut off her breasts with a sickle knife and presented it to him. Her body succumbed to the excessive bleeding and she died the same day.
Also in protest of the breast tax, her husband Chirukandan jumped into her funeral pyre out of grief, committing suicide. “Nangeli’s story is unique also for the fact that it is the first recorded instance of a man committing sati,” says Ajay S. Sekher to The Hindu, a teacher of English at the Tirur centre of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit. Following the death of Nangeli, the breast tax system was annulled in Travancore. The place she lived came to be known later as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman). Nangeli’s sacrifice came to be known throughout the state and is talked about to this day. Yet, the fact that this iconic hero has no mention in Kerala’s official history records is heartbreaking.
In light of the Channar Revolt, this Malayalam article published on the website Azhimukham, writes about the #ReadyToWait campaign by women in Kerala that opposes allowing their entry into the Sabarimala temple. The term azhinjadikal, which roughly translates into ‘loose women’ in English, is frequently being used to describe women who are opposed to the said campaign. In the article, the writer reminds us that the term was also used in the past to describe the Nadar women of Travancore who led the Channar revolt. They were never ‘blessed’ or approved of by society, but it was these ‘loose women’ who secured the right for women in Kerala to dress the way they want to. This is exactly why the role and the battles of these so called ‘loose women’ can never be downplayed.
It is also why it matters to keep fighting at every point. There will always be people who say ‘it isn’t as bad as it used to be’ and that modern feminists are fighting for causes that don’t really matter. But this isn’t true. The scale of the impact of these battles will only be put into perspective with the passage of time, when the bigger picture begins to form. Any fight that takes us even an inch closer to a society with gender equity is important. In a world that has oppressed women from the beginning of time, why should we stop at anything less than equality?