Breast Tax- A Social Humiliation


Today I will let you know, how the caste system prevailed in the nation, and how it had contributed to crippled the lives of a certain class of people. How it played with the emotions of so-called lower caste people. The system forced a lady to chopped of her breast and present it to the taxpayers. She died immediately after the incident due to excessive blood loss. However, this incidence was enough to force the king to remove this inhuman and humiliating tax for the Ezhava caste.

Reinforcing caste structure

During 1729-1949 a story took place in Old Kerala, India under the reign of the Travancore Kingdom. In those times the law of dressing was such that, just by looking at a person’s attire you could figure out their caste. The caste system was deeply rooted, and the women from the lower caste were not allowed to cover their breasts. On violating the law they had to pay “Mulakaram” meaning “Breast Tax.” On violation, Travancore tax collectors would visit every house to collect this Breast Tax from any lower caste women who passed the age of puberty. To addon the insult, the tax money was evaluated by the tax collectors depending on the size of women’s breasts. The officials openly take a look at the shape and size of the breast, larger the breast higher were the taxes. The women were harassed sexually, were abused, eve-teasing, and most importantly the feeling of walking bare body when upper-class women were allowed to wear the upper garment was crippling the mental, social status of the lower caste. It was sticking on the dignity of women.

If these women cover their breasts, any men from the upper class have the right to tear down their upper garments at any public place. The lower caste men were also forced to pay a similar tax, called tala-karam, on their heads. The men were not allowed to cover their heads with any cloth, paguri, topi, or any such thing. If they wanted to wear the headcloth they need to pay “tala-karam.”

Lower people were mostly workers with very less income unable to pay the taxes. They have less social dignity, that their rights for self-respect were snatched from them. The administration was under the upper-class people, have all the right to make laws. They designed all the humiliating and oppressive laws to harass the lower class, just to maintain their hegemony, and to maintain the social order.

A one women protest

The story starts when a normal lower-class woman named “Nangeli” protested against this “Mulakaram.” She belonged to the Ezhava caste, required to pay the tax along with other lower castes like the Thia, Nadar, and other untouchables communities. She decided not to pay the “Breast Tax” and declared this is her right to wear upper garments and make herself walk with confidence. She started covering her chest without paying the breast tax. When the tax inspector heard the incident, they went to her house to ask her to stop breaking the law. She has spoken about her right to wear the upper garments, and refuse to pay the tax. The tax officers oppressed her and decided the tax money by taking the breast size, and ask to pay the money. In retaliation, she cut her breasts off in protest and offered her breast wrapped in banana leaf as breast tax.

The Nangeli died of excessive blood loss, while her distraught husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre. This was the first incidence of male sati in India. The couple had no children. Her relatives moved out of Mulachhipuram to nearby towns and hamlets. She is being worshiped even today or remembered equally as “Laxmibai” in north India. The village she lived in was now called Mulachhipuram or the land of the woman with breasts, named to remember Nangeli’s great sacrifice against the breast-tax,”.

Image of Nangeli

After her sacrifice, people protested against the tax, however, they faced the brunt of the upper class who harass women for not following the law, to maintain their hegemony. These humiliation and oppressions were considered valid even in the King’s court in order to defend culture. Although, the voice was so strong and led the king to remove this tax for the Ezhava community.

Brutality to maintain hegemony

The law resulted from Travancore’s tradition, in which the breast was bared as a symbol of respect to higher-status people. For example, the Nair women were not allowed to cover their bosoms while in front of the Namboodiri Brahmins or entering the temples, while the Brahmins women bared their breasts only to the images of the deities. With the spread of Christianity in the 19th century, the Christian converts among the Nadar women started covering their upper body, and gradually, even the Hindu Nadar women adopted this practice.

From 1813 to 1859 several laws were enacted by the Kingdom. On one such occasion, the members of the king’s council argued that this right would remove the caste differences and pollute the kingdom. The agitations and violence continued against the lower caste Christian and Hindu women on the right to cover their breasts, and several schools and churches were burned. The violence reached its peak in 1859 when two Nadar women were stripped of their upper clothes and hung on a tree in public for covering their breasts by Travancore officials. The Nadars revolted in ferocity and started to terrorize the upper caste neighborhoods and looted their shops. In the same year, under pressure from the Madras governor, the Nadar women were granted the right to cover their breasts in 1859.

The state of anonymity

Earlier the story was part of the NCERT syllabus, under the “Caste, Conflict and Dress Change” system in India. However, in 2016 CBSE decided to remove it in the wake of the sustained efforts made by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power to doctor the curriculum to suit its Hindutva ideology.

The villagers are upset that Nangeli’s story is not more widely known. “Her act was selfless, a sacrifice to benefit all the women of Travancore, and ultimately forced the King to roll back the breast-tax.” The story is missing from official archives. People are keen to make the story a part of this region’s history (told to BBC, during their examination, inquiry regarding the incident). Murali T’s hopes were so moved by Nangeli’s story and decided to paint a likeness of the violent act she brought upon herself. “I did not want to depict it as a bloody event; instead I aimed to glorify her act as an inspiration to humanity, a representation that would command respect,” he said. His three paintings of Nangeli have now been published in his book, Amana – The Hidden Pictures of History, this year.

Photo’s sourced from google.com

Published by Neel Kamal

My name is Neelkamal. Here, I will provide the content effective for everyone who want to learn more and more. And if you want, I am open for your suggestion to write on. I have done M.Sc in Biotechnology and also read about the Political, Social, Environmental issues. So, my blog will surrounds upon topics related to these subjects.

8 thoughts on “Breast Tax- A Social Humiliation

  1. A rare historical story on facts in travancore , I never heard such type of human humiliation , never heard the term breast tax from lower cast. Thanks for sharing such an crucial information prevailing in South India

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad to be the one who introduces that humiliating custom our ancestors followed. Thank you for coming here, and reading my blog. Every single word of my readers is a blessing, Thank you.

      Like

  2. I never heard this before.
    How pathetic their condition was.
    Can’t imagine this kind of taxes were present.
    Goddess Nangeli and her husband (I never heard male sati also existed) will be remembered.

    Liked by 1 person

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