Kerala's Breast-tax

Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu

breast-tax Kerala
Kerala’s Breast-tax. 2012. Bitmap image/Digital Painting by Ajay Sekher

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.

Cherthala Angadi or market. 26 August 2012
Cherthala Angadi or market. 26 August 2012

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.

Cherthala market. 26 August 2012
Cherthala market. 26 August 2012

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.

Location of Mulachiparambu.
Location of Mulachiparambu. Now known as Manorama Kavala in Cherthala, Alapuzha district of Kerala.

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.

Mulachiparambu is now divided into more than five plots near the current Manorma Kavala in Cherthala
Mulachiparambu is now divided into more than five plots near the current Manorma Kavala in Cherthala

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.

Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali
Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali

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.

T Murali's another painting on Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas
T Murali’s another painting on Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas

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.

ajay sekher

23 thoughts on “Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu”

  1. Very informative. May your writings on such unsung heroes of our history serve as an anitdote to the public amnesia propagated by elitist media and academia . All the very best…..

  2. During last decade of 19th century ie during 1890’s a man called C.V.raman pillai who was living kerala wrote a novel,a historical was one of the first novels in Malayalam.the novels name is marthanda varma-the famous king of travancore who enlarged travancore to a bigger country and made it strong with new revenue administration .he also weakened the feudal system there which was slowly emerged and formed from 14th century.C.V.Raman was very high caste spirited person (as was like many at the time.even now its said that nairs are the most caste spirited persons in kerala ).so he named all the important characters of the novel with surname pillai, some of the characters were real historical figures .they too were christian-ed with pillai surname.this novel was very popular and was taught in schools and colleges(even now) .many thought foolishly that it was the real history.but actually many characters were his creation which he thought needed for a love story.he knew many folk songs and from that he formed his own story.some parts of these songs are including at the start of each chapter.

    Many after reading this novel tried to read the history accordingly ,doing so they corrupted the real all know kerala people is very caste spirited specially the upper castes and christians.the caste organizations of kerala also tried to make profit from this novel.and thus when the real social history surfaces many people find it difficult to believe and accept.

     The author C.V.Raman was a learned man .but at his time travancore state government jobs were mainly given to tamil educated malayalees wanted to have jobs in government and they organised and started demanding this need.a memorandum was submitted to king which was signed by thousands demanding appointment of malayalees in administrative jobs of travancore.but it was rejected.later some relaxation was given.many ezhavars awere also signed in that memorandum including Doctor Pulpu ,one of the great reformation personalities of kerala,along with the nairs and others.when government began to accept malayalee youngsters to service,ezhavar and other castes were denied this was like a 100% reservation for the upper class,mainly benefited by aroused a new hate and separation between nairs and ezhavars who were now in obc list and were untouchables at the time. but ezhavars were already organised and actively taking part with the reform movements of sndp .nairs and bhrahmins lagged back and were clinging tight to the old customs.many learned persons from upper class including nairs and bhrahmins were actually part of the reform movements and were working even with sndp .eventually removements started in upper class and new organisations were formed.nairs were so few in many small castes , sects and groups joined together and took the umbrella name nairs and formed the organistion named nair service society(nss).after the formation of nss many sects were included in it.eventhough it was a organization meant for the modernization or civilizisation as explained by its leaders at that time ,it eventually became involved in politics after independance and is the most benefited caste organization in kerala.

  3. that book stired confidence in nairs and helped to feel pride.the reasons are many.nairs were called as malayala sudras or the most downward caste in the varna system ,by the bhrahmins of kerala .ealier it was like a pride for the nairs as they were considered in side the varna system and some what part of hindus as they were allowed to enter the temple eventhough with some restrictions.these restriction include denial of ringing bell which was considered sacred,were never allowed to touch or come near the priest,nor were allowed to touch the offerings ,not allowed to enter the place were cooking of dishes meant for offerings.they were also had to move away when the priest come with things for worship.still it was considered as good as many other castes who forms now the majority of hindu religion now were not allowed even to enter the temple.also the bhrahims considered nairs as their servents who were obliged work for them sometimes even without wages.anything given to them were mere the great kindness of the bhrahmins.nair womens were the main maid servents doing house hold works in bhrahmin familes.the nair women were also had to submit to bhrahmins for sex if he desired so.if a bhrahmin comes to a nair house ,he can mate with any women he was the custom and considered as sacred and blessing.nairs also practiced polygamy ie having more number of husbands(i dont know the correct word in english .the word used popularly with somewhat nicely is sumbandakar meaning men in relation).anyone from bhrahims to nairs can have relation with a nair woman if he desires so.even an order of proclaimation from a travancore king declairing that those nair women who does not submit to wishes (sextual) of men from bharahmins to nairs shall be considered leading an unholy life which is is difficult for a nair lady to live alone or with her lover or single husband.if an influencial person desires ,there is nothing she can do.out of the childrens born ladies will get more importance as the children of that girls shall be the next rightful heir of the family.this was because with this system no nair man can declaire strongly that he is the father of a kid for the kids mother had many men mating with her.but the mother of a kid can be identified much more easily as she delivers a kid which have witnesses and there by proof .because of this practise ,which was practiced mainly by nairs,the childrens doesnot know who their father was not a problem till the 20th century.but after that due to reform movements and spread of education this custome began considering to be a shame to them.many great reformers fought against this system .this system does not exists now and is even unlawful.

    the customs ,practices and even the houses were built according to these needs.those who were wealthy were able to built bigger houses.these big houses built by the nairs have some specialty.the steps leading to the second floor starts right from the veranda.this was to help those visitors or sambandakars.they dont have to enter the house ,they can easily go to the second floor and enter their favourite woman’s room.these type of houses can be seen still in many parts of kerala.the namboothiri houses too have some peculiarity.that part where homas are done doesnot have second floor that was to avoid filling of smoke into the second floor.nairs where the main servants of the namboothiri families without them it was difficult for the bhrahmins to maintain their houses.namoothiris called nairs valyakkar(servents),adiyars(slaved like servants) ,sudras(lowest in varna system) etc.this was also considered by the nairs as a great thing they have pride in telling others that they were the adiyars of that or this mana(house of naboothiri).

    further the customs followed by the namboothiri families were so ridiculus and now it seems unbelivable and nowadays they too feel shame to tell all that.but it is the true past and nothing to gain from concealing and covering it.reformation movements which started in india has changed the most degraded society of india and also it has helped to better the lives of all ,also the indian independence too was the result of such movements.that all movements helped people to come together ,meet and discuss the problems in the talking was the base thing for the progress.but there were practices of untouchability.if a bhrahmin touches a nair it was taught he gets poluted and have to do penance and bathing .there were others such as ezhavar,thiyyar,pulayas etc whom if the namboothiri come closer beyond some limit then the namboothiri had to bath before he enter his house or temple.these namboothiris were commonly the priests of the temples belonging to the ruling family and other savarnas.there were worshiping systems and places for the ezhavars and thiyyas ,it was some sort of small temples ,but there all the poojas and worships were conducted by the persons from amoung them.pulayar and parayar were also had some form of worshiping .their main worshipping figure was goddess nowadays considered as kali(kali was a common name amoung them from very early period).they too perfomed poojas may be interesting to point out here that kali was the cheif goddess worshipped by the warriors of india.eventhough pulayar and parayar were considered to the most downward caste earlier,actually they had a golden past.the words pulayar and parayar were in use in early times of sangam age when these were the names associated people who were the main men nearer to the then kings.sangam literature depicts of pictures of possessions of kings accompanied by pulayar and parayar.also modern researches shows that many places in kerala had kingsor rulers belonging to this caste.even today in second decade of 21st century they are the ones who raise the pride of kerala by winning medals in athletics and other strenious sports.

  4. ജനങ്ങളുടെ മനസ്സില്‍ നിന്നും ചരിത്ര സത്യങ്ങള്‍ മായ്ച്ചു കളയാന്‍ നമ്മുടെ സവര്‍ണ്ണ പൊതു ബോധത്തിന്റെ കാവല്‍ക്കാരായ മീഡിയ വളരെ ജാഗ്രത പുലര്‍ത്തുന്നുണ്ട്. അതിന്റെ ശക്തമായ ഒരു തെളിവാണ്‌ കേരളത്തിലെ ധീരോജ്ജ്വല ചരിത്രമായി വാഴ്ത്തപ്പെടേണ്ടിയിരുന്ന നങ്ങേലി യുടെ രക്തസാക്ഷിത്വം ഒരു നൂറ്റാണ്ടുകൊണ്ട് വിസ്മ്ര്‍^തമായി എന്നത്. ചിത്രകാരന്‍ മുലച്ചിപ്പരമ്പിനെക്കുരിച്ച് നേരത്തെ കേട്ടിരുന്നെങ്കിലും നേരില്‍ കാണാനായി എത്തിയത് 2012 ഒക്ടോബര്‍ മാസത്തിലായിരുന്നെണ്ണ്‍ തോന്നുന്നു. ചിത്രകാരനെ കൂടാതെ, കൊച്ചിയിലെ സുഹൃത്തുക്കളായ സുദേഷും പ്രഭാകരേട്ടനും കൂടുയുണ്ടായിരുന്നു. ഹൈവേയില്‍ നിന്നും മുലച്ചിപ്പരമ്പിലേക്കുള്ള വഴി ചോദിച്ചപ്പോള്‍ വഴിപോക്കന്‍ ചമ്മലും നാണവും വകഞ്ഞു മാറ്റിക്കൊണ്ട് “മനോരമ കവലയിലേക്ക് ഇവിടന്ന് കുരച്ചു പോയാല്‍ മതി.” ചരിത്ര ജ്ഞാനം വെറും മുല മാത്രമായി ചുരുങ്ങിയത്തിന്റെ പ്രശ്നങ്ങള്‍ !!! ഇതോടൊപ്പം ചിത്രകാരന്‍ മുലച്ചിപ്പരമ്പിനെക്കുരിച്ചു വരച്ചു കൊണ്ടിരിക്കുന്നരണ്ടു ചിത്രങ്ങളില്‍ നിന്നുള്ള ഒരു ദീടില്‍ സ്നാപും ഈ വിഷയത്തില്‍ ആഗസ്ത് മാസമാദ്യം പോസ്റ്റു ചെയ്യപ്പെട്ട മുത്തപ്പന്‍ ബ്ലോഗിലെ പോസ്റ്റിലേക്കുള്ള ലിങ്കുകളും ചേര്‍ക്കുന്നു. ഈ ചരത്ര സത്യം കൂടുതല്‌ ആളുകളിലേക്ക് ന്യൂ മീഡിയയിലൂടെയെങ്കിലും പരക്കേണ്ടത് സാംസ്ക്കാരികതയുടേയും സത്യസന്ധതയുടേയും ധാര്‌മ്മികതയുടേയും വളര്‍ച്ചക്ക് അത്യാവശ്യമാണ്‌.

  5. I am from Cherthala. i am surprised! I never knew that such an event happened here. I am proud to be from Cherthala where Nangeli lived. I regret that I didnt know about this before.

  6. while taking class on women empowerment, review of status of women in society is inevitable.Among this history is most significant.I used to talk about nangeli to my students while i discuss the topic.used to get vibrant & emotional about her!!!!!!! we should speak & write about her & create awareness about the stressful past & brave protests.Thank you for the valuable information! i pay my tribute to Nangeli, she is our mother, sister & daughter forever. Nangeli the Saviour of women!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Thanks for the informative post. I am ashamed of the Brahmanical system which had corrupted the society. I salute Ms. Nangeli for here brave act which had saved many women’s self respect.

  8. afsos ki bharat me maanavta ko sharmshar kar dene wala ye tex lagoo raha aur lambe kaal tak lagoo raha. is se bhi badi baat ye hai ki isko khatm karne ke ek mahila ko apni jaan tak ki qurbani deni pari.
    Nancheli ko mera salaam.

  9. afsos ki bharat me maanavta ko sharmshar kar dene wala ye tex lagoo raha aur lambe kaal tak lagoo raha. is se bhi badi baat ye hai ki isko khatm karne ke ek mahila ko apni jaan tak ki qurbani deni pari.
    Nancheli ko mera salaam. salaam , salaam.

  10. A statue is to be erected to honor Nangeli.Women, including teen girls, were not allowed to cover their breasts. Every atrocity was committed in the name of religion. Varnashrama dharma was cited for social fascism. Women were not merely prevented from covering their breasts, tax was also imposed on the basis of the size of breasts. In South Travancore Ezhava and Chanar women were not allowed to cover their breasts. Wives of missionaries were shocked to see young girls going to work in the fields of Brahmins topless. So they stitched blouses for girls and taught them how to wear them. When upper caste men saw those girls wearing blouses, they forcibly tore them. But more and more women began to wear blouses. They were all attacked by Nairs and Brahmins., and in several cases their breasts were cut off.. This led to bloody riots in South Travancore. The Maharajah supported the upper castes. There was police brutality against the rioters. Finally the Governor of Madras asked the British Resident in Trivandrum to order the Maharajah to permit women to cover their breasts. The Maharajah issued a proclamation and women were given permission to cover their breasts. So just 150 years ago, women in Travancore could not cover their breasts. Long before Narayana Guru and Ayyankali were born, social revolution was started by Nancheli of Cherthalai and innumerable women South Travancore. Nancheli’s sacrifice of her breasts is a heroic act in those dark ages of Maharajahs and Nair oppression.

  11. I am not shocked that i learned about Marthanda Varma and all the Travancore kings from my government sponsored texts. How skewed the stories we hear and learn from, what shapes us. thank you for this story that widens and enriches us. Only insecure people want to keep his-her/story to their own.

  12. Really my heart aches. Unable to bear the heaviness of the incident. I will share it in my Kavikkuyil- monthly Journal and pay homage to the heroine and the hero.Hats off to their courage and revolution.

  13. Pingback: Quora
  14. Being a follower of sndp yogam, I heard about Nangeli and cherthalamukku, but didnot hear about the death of her husband. Nangeli is a symbol of brave woman who boldly sacrificed her life before the hindu imperialism. This historical truth should have been brought to the young generation who bear the torch light for secularism under the banner of political parties of communist ideas who says that they are the real transfermers of the new Kerala. Thanks for your effort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.