Tag Archives: kerala history

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

 

Mamankam and Changampally Kalari: Ancient Practices of Healthcare and Martial Arts in Kerala

Mamankam memorial: Changampally Kalari near Thirunavaya

The healthcare and self defense practices  of Ayurveda and Kalari in Kerala are of Buddhist origin.  They are lasting legacies of Buddhism in Kerala as literacy and the general  intellectual culture. The Avarna communities like Ezhavas constitute the chunk of its practitioners traditionally and even in the present.  Vagbhata and Nagarjuna who developed this indigenous practice of medicine were Buddhist monks who did missionary work in south India.

Pazhuka Mandapam near Navamukunda temple, Thirunavaya on the banks of Nila

Even in 18th century, at the peak of Brahmanical untouchability and exclusion on caste lines, the Dutch appointed an Ezhava medic, Itty Achuthan of Kadakarapally near Cherthala to write the famous Hortus Malabaricus.  Even today one of the ancient Kalaris surviving in Kerala like Cheerapanchira in Alapuzha district, that trained the legendary Ayyappan of Sabarimala, belongs to an Avarna  Ezhava household.

Manikinar: well used to dump the Chaver, Thirunavaya

Changampally Kalari in Thirunavaya in Malapuram district is associated with Mamankam, the martial carnival that settled the succession disputes in ancient Kerala once in every 12 years.  Historians like Velayudhan Panikasery argue that the festival is of Buddhist origin.   Initially it was a great cultural and trade festival of human interaction on the banks of the great Perar or Bharathapuzha just above the ancient port city of Ponnani where trade and passenger ships from across the world anchored in the calm waters of the inland port.

Nilapadu Thara: vantage used by the Konathiries and Zamorins

Anyway the Changampally household was appointed in charge of the Kalari here by the Zamorin of Calicut in the middle ages according to local legends.  The family has converted to Islam in the 18thcentury during the Mysore occupation.  When I visited the Kalari in early February 2012, Mr Jaffar Gurukal who is running an Ayurvedic centre near the ancient Kalari told me that before conversion they were Tulu Brahmans.  This could be an elitist assimilation or fabrication done later under the hegemony of Brahmanical values; as Tulu Brahmans are never identified as traditionally having martial Kalari practice or institutions in Tulunadu or down south. Almost all Kalari households in Tulunadu and Malabar belonged to Sudra and Avarna communities.

Carving in Changampally Kalari

The Changam and Pally words in their house name are marked key words associated with Buddhism.  Changam or Chingam represent Chamana or Amana or Sramana culture as in Chinga Vanam or Changanassery (place names in Kottayam district).  As Sramana culture is inseparable from the month of Chingam and the great secular egalitarian festival of Onam in Kerala, the words Changam/Chingam and Pally/Pilly are also inextricably linked to the Buddhist past of Kerala  that is the foundation of egalitarian culture here, that was erased by Brahmanism after the 8th century.

It is great to see the ancient Kalari shrine and surroundings and the Mamankam sites being preserved by the Government and the people.  An apt museum and interpretation centre that could educate the people on their rich cultural traditions can be an added attraction here.  The road from Thirunavaya to Kuttipuram is also in good condition.  The Nila Park just below the Kuttipuram bridge about which poets like Idassery have written is also luring visitors.  I found a large group of Small Pratincoles on the sandy flats of the river near the park as the sun was setting beyond the river and into the trees.