Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu
// August 28th, 2012 // Cultural Politics
Mulachiparambu is a northern suburb of Cherthala town in Alapuzha district of Kerala. It means the plot of the Mulachi, where Mulachi signifies a woman of breasts. We may also call her the woman of brave breasts. At the beginning of the 19th century there lived a brave woman called Nangeli or Nancheli (the beautiful one) in Cherthala. She sacrificed not only her breasts but her precious life itself in protest against the inhuman breast-tax of Travancore that formed the southern part of Kerala in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The princely state of Travancore established by Marthanda Varma in the mid 18th century with the bloody expansion into the neighboring kingdoms as in the pogrom at Kayamkulam, was thriving with various barbaric taxes like Mulakaram and Talakaram. There were more than 100 infamous taxes imposed on the Avarna or former untouchable people in particular. Most of that went into the vaults of Padmanabha temple along with the tax on pepper and other spice trade. It is very important to remember that the loot from the neighboring kingdoms and revenue from heinous taxes on the Avarna population constitute the chunk of Padmanabha “treasure” today. Avarnas were casted away and humiliating untouchability practices were imposed on them because of their Buddhist genealogy and resistance to Brahmanic Hinduism.
Avarna women were not allowed to cover their bosom in public. It was part of the humiliating, dehumanizing and degrading practices associated with untouchability and caste that were targeted specifically against the former Buddhist population of Avarnas in Kerala. There were protests against such Brahmanical casteist social suppression in nineteenth century itself in places like Kayamkulam in the south under the leadership of pioneering champions of human rights in Kerala like Aratupuzha Velayudha Panikar who founded schools, libraries and temples for the untouchables, even before Narayana Guru.
In Cherthala it required a woman martyr like Nancheli/Nangeli to stop the Breast-tax altogether, all of a sudden at the wake of the 19th century. Ezhava women like Nancheli used to suffer this public shame in the name of brutal laws in a barbaric feudal state. It was also enforced in the name of Brahmanic religion and caste system. But Nancheli cut both her breasts off and presented it to the Pravarthiar, the ‘revenue’ collecting village officer of the Travancore state as he rushed to her house to collect the breast-tax on hearing that she was covering her bosom in public.
The very next day the tax was withdrawn by the Maharajah of Travancore fearing public agitations following the death of Nancheli. She literally bled to death after seriously suffering from the open wounds. Her husband Mr Kandappan who was away during the gruesome incident, after returning killed himself on her pyre . It is the only instance of a man ascending the pyre of a dead wife in the whole of human history. This overwhelming self sacrifice by the Avarna Ezhava couple gripped the land and its regime forever. The place became known as Mulachiparambu ever since.
This kind of a self sacrifice and furious protest are unique in the world regarding women’s liberation movements any where in the world. Gayatri Spivak talks about the suicide of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in her periods as an act to rewrite the text of Sati or widow sacrifice in “Can the Subaltern Speak”. Here you have the sacrifice of a woman and the equally selfless and valorous response by her husband that literally rewrote the patriarchal elitist textuality and practice of Sati in early 20th century Kerala.
Further studies are required to theorize this unparalleled event in the history of human liberation especially in the context of Brahmanic patriarchies in India and Kerala. Gender and caste readings of this event from various subject positions are inevitable. It is really unfortunate that even local people are forgetting this illuminating episode in the long fight for human rights, dignity and equality in Kerala.
On Sunday, 26 August 2012 I talked to various people in Cherthala town and market but unfortunately none of them remembered the incident and the place. After hours of searching an auto driver reminded me to contact the S N D P Union office near the X-ray Junction. The president of Cherthala Union gave me the details of the place. Now it is divided into five or six plots and the topography has changed entirely. Now the place is known as Manorama Kavala. The old S N D P Union office and Maruti outlet stand near the spot.
It is a serious instance of public amnesia and collective repression of vital public history and memory. Savarna (elitist and upper caste/Brahmanical) media culture, pedagogy and academia play an important role in this conscious erasure of recent vital incidents in Kerala history that happened just a century ago. It is also an instance of sanctioned ignorance if you use the vocabulary of Spivak. Instead of such crucial moments of protest and struggle that democratized Kerala society at the grass roots the state and its textbooks are creating hagiographies and monuments for the fabricated feudal champions of patriotism and pseudo nationalism.
The government and the new vocal women’s organizations in particular must take immediate steps to record and rehabilitate the memory of the great sacrifice by the Avarna woman Nangeli at the earliest. Such glorious episodes of subaltern speech and resistance must be taught in schools itself and not just in universities to the upcoming and growing minds in Kerala. That could be an apt check to the Savarna elite pedagogy and mainstream media culture in Kerala today. Let the people, women, students and children in particular know about their land, culture, real struggles and real histories.