Breast Cloth Struggles in Kerala: Nanjinad to Talapally

V Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) in 1952 at the time of the struggle and recently at 100.
V Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) in 1952 at the time of the breast cloth struggle in Velur, Thrissur and three years ago as she turned 100.

Women in Kerala especially Avarna  or dalitbahujan women were forced to uncover their breasts in public by the caste feudal lords for more than a millennium as a symbolic humiliating bodily practice reinstating caste and gender hierarchy.  This dehumanizing practice that followed genocidal violence came to currency around the 8th century when Brahmanic Hinduism was established here subverting Buddhism through a hegemonic nexus between patriarchal priestocracy and the militia clans and continued up to the 20th century. Brahmanic patriarchy and its Savarna subservient Sudra foot soldiers were maintaining this inhuman convention in the name of the Sanatana Hindu religion and its sacred purity tradition with bloody repression and violence for all these 1200 years at least with regional variations.

This heinous Hindu caste practice came to an end in Nanjinad in south Travancore in mid 19th century with the colonial missionary interventions that contributed to the Nadar rebellion that transformed Travancore challenging Savarna power and absolute hegemony for the first time in the modern times. The cultural ground work of Ayya Vaikuntan, Narayana Guru and Ayyankali was inseparable from this social protest and reform possibility. The people following the ethical and egalitarian traditions of Buddhism and Jainism were expelled as untouchables and slaves.  Humiliation was made ritualisticallypublic and a performative social practice in every day life through unimaginable shaming practices like exposing the breasts before the caste lords.  The Avarna in general were prohibited from wearing decent cloths and using decent language.  The caste system was inscribed deep into cultural codes through the manipulation of various domestic practices including food, ornaments, cloths and even sexuality and body.

Caste lords violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali
Caste lords specifically Nair Pattalam and Savarna goons violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali

It was a religious and partly ethnic conflict that infuriated the Bhudevas, the earthly gods or the Brahman and their menial mindless doggedly henchmen the Sudra who cheated their own brothers and women in search of the Vedic wisdom of Brahmanism.  The Avarnas who where thus expelled outside the Varna system because they adhered to their ancient Buddhist egalitarian anti caste values that date back to BC fourth century in Kerala, never accepted the caste ideology of Brahmanism and its purity-pollution riddles and never opened up their households for the high priests for inhuman Manipravala sexual slavery.  The local elites who provided sexual colonies and militia services to the priests were thus upgraded and reloaded as the Sudra, the fourth Varna.  These Sudra or Kanakar where protecting the Varna Dharma by killing and dying with the sword and spear till the Kerala renaissance social revolutions in late 19th and early 20th century changed society and polity following the western evangelical intervention.

Though this practice of systematic public shaming ended in Travancore in late 19th century and early 20th century in Cochin through the historic struggles of the subaltern; it continued even up to the second half of 20th century in Malabar.  In Thrissur district in Talapally taluk this caste practice sustained even after the Indian independence.  In 1952 Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) a brave Avarna woman belonging to the Ezhava community was instrumental in leading the agitation to end it.  In the Manimalarkavu temple in Velur just a few miles east of Kechery in Thrissur, Avarna women were forced to parade exposing their breasts as a religious festival ritual by the Nair caste lords of the Thazhekad petty kingdom who controlled the shrine that was originally a Buddhist shrine before the early middle ages.  The taluk now skewed as Talpilly was originally called Talapally the head Vihara or the leading Pally, that clearly distinguishes the region as Buddhist before Brahmanism was established in the 8th or 10th century here.

Lakshmikutty the defiant Avarna crusader against Brahmanic Patriarchy and its inhuman dictates on the gendered subaltern body, led a procession of Avarna women who were decently dressed and challenged the caste Nair lords and their Brahman paternal priests by breaking their one millennium old cultural taboos.  The Avarna renaissance organizations and the forming communist party workers mostly dalitbahujans, where there to resist the casteist aggression form the Savarna males.  This historic assertion of human rights and women dignity by Avarna women, organized and led and materialized by Avarna women and men is not yet textualized in Kerala history.  It is also a shocking fact for Kerala and its social history as it exposes the reality of caste humiliations continuing in constitutional India even after independence.  It also explodes the myth that caste feudalism and Brahmanic patriarchy ended in Malabar with the Mysore occupation in early 18th century.

Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) at 103.  Photo: The Hindu
Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) at 103. Photo: The Hindu

Such subversive trajectories of subaltern women movements are all the more important in the present where the same elite Manipravala forces the covert Savarna status quoists in the regime are corrupting and ruining democracy through the creation of a parallel government colonizing the secretariat with sexy sirens with caste tags and tails attached.  A Savarna caste tail would give any one access to the CM’s chamber or the cockpit of a flying passenger aircraft.  Brahmanism and Brahmanic ancestral claims are growing not just among the Savarna Hindus but among some of the OBCs and even Syrian Christians and elitist power groups within Muslims in Kerala.

Collective amnesia regarding key aspects of subaltern social struggle and protest that created modern Kerala and the Kerala renaissance or indigenous democratic model is proving to be fatal.  The ex caste lords are pepping up their dark age caste surnames to get into ‘key positions’ in the regime and the growing Hinduization discourses and Ramayana propaganda even in the official media especially on AIR and DD are enslaving the minds of the dalitbahujan and persuading them to imitate and follow their immediate caste superiors,  the Sudra  in the true Varnasrama Dharma fashion.  Only Gandhi who wrote and published a defense of the same would be happy with this and the neo Gandhians like Anna and Kejariwal; and neo Nationalists in the Siv, Sriram Senas who are presenting and remixing Na Mo as the new Rambo and neo Rama the savior of India, the Virat and Vikas Purush (cosmic developmental Man) would be happier soon.

Go to Hindu news on the demise of V Lakshmikutty

Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu

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

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

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. 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

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