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