“Mulakaram”, Tax for Breast If Never Paid, Let Them Bare: Believe it or not, during the early 1800’s, in the area over, a “mulakaram” or “breast tax” was imposed on women in the state of Travancore. The area was one of the 550 states in India controlled by Britain.
The magnitude of British demanded for local kings in the plains of India forced the kings to rack their brains to find a way to fulfil the colonialist’s wishes, even if they had to make it difficult for their people again. The main victims targeted woman from Sudra caste as the lowest caste in India.
They were prohibited from covering their own breasts if they did never practice mulakaram or breast tax. The women of the Sudra caste were forced to be bare chested (without any clothes). Royal officials would go to each home to collect this tax from any lower caste woman that had passed puberty. The tax collector determined the amount based on the size of the breasts by touching them with bare hands.
Upper class women did not fall under these restrictions
This tax was created with the sole purpose of humiliating lower caste residents. Upper- class women did not fall under these restrictions of this tax and were allowed to cover their breasts. At that time, the social status of a person was determined by their caste, which required clear identification in correspondence with how they dressed.
Apart from seeking additional income through commodity taxes, mulakaram was intended to insult the lowest caste with a further split in the fabric of local Indian society. How were women from other castes allowed to cover their breasts without being burdened with mulakaram?
Poor and other lowest castes were never entitled to garment
The purpose of the breast tax was to maintain the caste structure and nothing else. Clothing was considered as a sign of wealth and prosperity, so that the poor and other lowest castes were never entitled to garment.
This period saw the emergence of the Roman Catholic and Syrian Christian community. As the system became increasingly oppressive, conversion into Christianity was seen as a ticket to a better life. Christian women were allowed to cover their breasts with a jacket- like blouse known as the “Kuppayam”. Yet, they were barred from wearing the upper-cloth the way Nair women did, who wrapped the cloth around the torso in a specific style. This was to keep the hierarchy between the two distinct and obvious. The Christian Nadar women were not entirely happy with this proposition and demanded that they be allowed to wear the upper cloth the way Nair women did.
As the influence of Christianity increased, the resentment that the upper caste held for them also grew. This culminated in a series of violent clashes in the Travancore region of Southern Kerala in what came to be known as the Channar Revott or the the Channar Lahala. Churches and houses were burnt down and women who wore blouses were stripped in public.
Nangeli, a name that means ‘The Beautiful One’, later succeeded in changing the story of the rebellion by sending a shock signal throughout Southern India, not only in the Travancore Kingdom.
Nangeli was a woman who came from a lower caste. She lived in harmony with her husband in the chertala area, a quiet town far from the center of the crowd like in Kerala at that time. She worked as a labourer in a farm. Nangeli was a woman who fused with the rare combination of beauty and brain. With her boldness, she was a class apart among the lowest castes.
However her beauty became a source of disaster through the treatment of lewd people from the upper caste. Harassment, both verbal and nonverbal, was often experience by Nangeli. This sort of treatment never made her inferior from protecting young women in her own environment and community from being exploited by the upper caste.
Enough is enough
Nangeli decided that,”Enough is enough”, and attempted to stop injustice. In 1803, Nangeli challenged state rules on mulakaram. She demonstrated in public how she started wearing a top to protect her breasts. Her attitude made a great stimulation among members of the upper class. Nangeli was then summoned to face to be forced to publicly remove her own robe.
The story of Nangeli’s resistence spread by word of mouth, until Parvathiyar or tax collector came to her house accompanied by royal soldiers. They informed the total amount of taxes that must be imposed on Nangeli. The only option was to pay or face more severe consequences. She looked calm and entered into the room to prepare what was forced. Instead of placing the money in a plantain leaf, she cut off her breasts with a sickle knife and presented it to him. Her body succumbed to the excessive bleeding because she sliced one of the breasts. She fell unconsciously and died.
In protest of the breast tax, her husband Chirukandan jumped into her cremation fire out of grief, committing suicide.
“Nangeli’s story is unique also for the fact that it is the first recorded instance of a man committing Sati”
Her death ignited the rage in people, eventually resulting in huge protests against the king. In 1924, fearing for his life and Madras Presidency pressure, the king allowed all women to cover their breasts. The sacrifice of Nangeli destroyed heinous tradition. The place where she cut off her breasts is called Mulachiparambu.