Remembering Nangeli, Who Challenged the Caste System by Refusing to Pay Inhumane ‘Breast Tax’


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This article is part of a series called “Heroes And Sheroes Of Plural India” under #AnHourForCommunalHramony campaign to celebrate the Heroes and Sheroes who struggled to shape modern India in all its plurality.  Today we celebrate Nangeli, who challenged the caste system by refusing to pay the inhumane ‘breast tax’. All are welcome to contribute an hour of your day, in celebrating these Heroes and Sheroes of plural India. This article first appeared on Countercurrents.

Nangeli is a great unsung martyr who sacrificed her life to defend the dignity that was denied to her and her fellow low caste women. Her lone fight against a treacherous Kingdom, its treacherous Prime Minister Velu Thampi Dalawa and its treacherous King Avittom Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Patriarchy, and the Brahmanical caste system and thus set a ground to abolish one of the World’s most inhumane tax system called as The Breast Tax.

Over 220 years ago in the British Indian princely state of Travancore, which is currently part of the Indian State of Kerala, Nangeli and her husband Chirukandan lived. They belonged to the Ezhava caste which was one of the many lower castes of Kerala.  The Travancore Kingdom treated all lower castes as subhuman animals, but still most of the state revenue was indeed collected from them. The upper castes paid nominal tax or in most cases no tax at all. There were numerous hefty taxes to ensure that the lower castes were always kept in debt.

In the caste hierarchy, Ezhava caste was below Shudra Nairs and thus outside Varna System but above Pulayar and Parayar castes who were agricultural slaves sold along with the land they reside.

The place where Nangeli and her husband lived is currently known as Cherthala, a small town in the Alappuzha District. Their mere income was from the toddy tapping which was their main caste profession. Like most of their fellow lower caste people of the Travancore, their daily income wasn’t even sufficient enough to buy food for themselves. Over-the-top, they had to pay numerous inhumane taxes such as the Breast Tax, Head Tax, Mustache Tax, Ladder Tax, Death Tax, Adoption Tax, etc.

The Breast Tax or ‘Mulakkaram’ as the name implies was the Tax for the right to have breasts in the body. By Law, every lower caste women were required to pay the Breast Tax since their early breast development days. Depending upon the size and shape of the breasts, the tax increased.

Likewise, Head Tax or ‘Thalakkaram’ was the tax for the right to have one’s head not cut down and Mustache Tax ‘Meeshakkaram’ was the tax for the right to keep a moustache.

One day when Nangeli’s husband was away for work, the Travancore King’s Tax Collector known as  parvathiyar, equivalent to current village officer, came to their home and demanded the payment of the Breast Tax. She protested against the collection of the Breast Tax without giving her the right to cover the breasts in public. She also advised the Tax Collector that she is not willing to pay the Breast Tax and retreated to the safety of her home. The tax collector was so enraged that this lower caste woman Nangeli showed courage to challenge an upper caste man like him and his authority, the authority of the King and the Kingdom.

He sent in his savarna mob which was assisting him in the Tax collection into Nangeli’s house. They brutally raped her and chopped off both her breasts using their swords, and thus killed her in the process. Her both breasts were then presented in a plantain leaf to the Tax Collector who then took it to the minister Veluthampi Dalwa and to the Travancore King. When came to know about the Nangeli, poor and helpless Chirukandan committed suicide as he was unable to control his grief.

The treacherous King’s Capital City was named as Ananthapuri, and it was  Lakshman who manifest 25% Mahavishnu (Ananthashayanan) that chopped off Dravidian Princess Surpanakha’s breasts by branding her as Rakshasi. Even though the Brahmanical Establishment was able to defend the Lakshmana’s inhumane act of severing a women’s breasts by terming her as Rakshasi, the Travancore King who was a powerless protectorate of the British Raj was not in a position to justify the act of the Tax Collector and the Savarna Mob.

First reason being that the would-be public outrage of the low castes disrupting Kingdom’s economy and the Kingdom being unable to deliver the hefty amount of tribute to the British.  Second reason being the British sympathetic reaction to public outrage, and chances of utilizing public outrage as an opportunity to take over the Kingdom’s administration.  Third reason being that, such public outrage may result in would-be accelerated rate of lower castes converting to Christianity and thus resulting in loss of revenue.

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Therefore, the circumstances presented the treacherous Minister Veluthampi Dalwa and the treacherous King with no other option than to make up a lie that the Nangeli herself chopped off her breasts in protest, and that the brave act made the King to abolish the Breast Tax system. Nobody questioned the Minister and the King about the veracity of the story of one person severing both their breasts using a domestic cooking knife or the agricultural sickle.

New Brahmanical writers who got inspired from the Kingdom’s first lie further attempted to white wash the story by lying that the Breast Tax was for the right to cover the breasts and later that it was the Veluthampi Dalawa who introduced the Breast Tax.

Nangeli died in 1803 AD, but the Channar revolt which was fought for the lower caste women’s right to cover their breasts started 10 years later in 1813 AD.

However, even after the Indian Independence in 1947, the lower caste women were still not allowed to cover the breasts in public on various parts of the Kerala especially in the Talapally Taluk of Thrissur district. In 1952, another lower caste Ezhava women named Velathu Lakshmikutty led the Velur Breast Cloth agitation against it. However, the practice continued till 1956 when the last King of Travancore Sree Chithira Thirunal was removed from the positions of Rajapramukh (Governor equivalent) and Supreme commander of the Travancore military.

Veluthampi Dalawa has been the most brutal Dalit prosecutor ever in the history of Travancore. And it was with the blessing and understanding of the Sree Chithira Thirunal who reigned as Rajapramukh and supreme commander of the Travancore Army till 1956, that the Savarna mob had courage to disallow lower caste women from covering their breasts in public, in many parts of Kerala, till 1956. Sree Chithira Thirunal was well known for his brutality towards Keralites of which the best example is the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising of 1946 where Travancore Army killed over a 1000 people.

Some of the Historians suggest that the Nangeli perhaps may be one of the many victims of this inhumane Tax System which were vigorously enforced to maintain the Caste System.

However, it is beyond any doubt it was the brave ‘Nangeli’ who was instrumental in abolishing the Breast Tax. Her lone fight and victory over a Kingdom, Patriarchy, and Brahmanical establishments requires recognition. However, it is a shame that seven decades since Indian Independence, she still is not remembered.

It is only when we analyse the reason as to why the Nangeli is not having a single memorial, a single commemorating stamp or even at least a Remembrance Day, we will recognize how deeply has the Brahmanical evil virus has penetrated into this Secular Democratic Republic called the Indian Union. We should bend our heads on shame when knowing that the Indian Union has issued commemorating stamps in the name of Veluthampi Dalawa and Sree Chithira Thirunal, and that the local Tahsildar still escorts the Travancore King’s family as an obedient servant in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple procession.

Every society builds memorials for the journey they had been through to motivate their young ones. They build Memorials and Monuments for the Great Wars so as to remind them of the price they had to pay for peace, monuments for their achievements to remind them that the sky is not the limit, memorials for their failures to remind them to be careful and gentle.

Nangeli’s sacrifice is something that Kerala should never forget. Her courageousness and martyrdom should help our young ones to understand the path with which Kerala and India has been through, so that they feel inspired from her, to rise up as little rebels themselves to challenge against the inequality and the exploitation.

We do not require memorials, statues, and commemorating stamps for the traitors and treacherous Ministers and Kings like Veluthampi Dalawa, Sethu Lakshmi Bhai, and Sree Chithira Thirunal. Their’s should be placed in the recycle bins of History, and their memorials and memory to be destroyed so as to avoid nightmares for the young ones that they cannot trust this country. More than making national anthems compulsory at the cinema halls, offices, schools and elsewhere, these symbolic revolutions are required to build their trust in the country.

A memorial, a Breast Cancer Institute or a Remembrance Day whatever it be, can be a tribute to the memory of Nangeli. It will be a memorial of resistance against Brahmanism and the Sangh Parivar, so we shouldn’t hesitate to remember Nangeli.

A. Mahishasuran is an independent researcher

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  1. 1
    Dr A K Biswas

    Under caption, “An open letter to Sashi Tharoor”, the Tiruvanantapuram MP who created quite a sensation by his speech in Oxford University Union where he demanded the British to pay reparations for loot and exploitation of India.
    In my article I have countered him arguing the Hindus were responsible for exploitation of the untouchables and underprivileged for ten of thousands years for which they deserve to compensated before India raise voice on such issue. In this context I had pointed out to the Tiruvantapuram MP to consider joining the dalit and demanding the reparations first for their unbridled exploitation.
    My article was published by English weekly Mainstream, New Delhi.
    I am happy to reproduce some part of it along with the link. If any of Velivada readers like to read he may please glance at:

    http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article5956.html

    An open letter to Sashi Tharoor

    Sacrifice of an untouchable Ezhava girl over Mulakkaram, breast tax

    Nangeli was a Ezhava woman lived in the early 18th century at Cherthala in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore which levied obnoxious tax on untouchable women for covering their breast. In Malayali, this tax was called Mulakkaram, which the Travancore king-dom made compulsory. It mandated untou-chable women to go before upper caste men without any shred of cloth over their upper part of the body. To cover their bosom was considered as immodesty. A tax was levied from the untouchable women if they covered their breasts. Nangeli challenged the royal law of mulakkaram during Maharaja Avittom Thirunal Balarama Varma (1798—1810). She refused to uncover her bosom as well as to pay the tax. When a shameless pravathiyar (village officer) of the Travancore raj asked her to pay tax, she chopped off her breasts and presented them in a plantain leaf to him. This tax was ritualistically paid on plantain leaf. Profuse blood loss led her to death soon. This occurred in 1803. Nangeli’s husband Chirukandan jumped into his wife’s pyre and committed suicide with her on her pyre. Terrified and apprehensive of widespread adverse public reaction and consequences, Maharaja of Travancore abolished the breast tax the next day by a royal proclamation after Nangeli’s death. The shame of the wicked dynasty could be glossed only by a soulful name of Malabar as God’s own country. According to The Hindu, October 21, 2013 “the heavy taxes ensured that the lower castes were kept eternally in debt, while members of the upper castes flourished”. The lower castes, therefore, paid for their own exploitation, degradation, dehumanization at the hands of the upper castes as you accused the colonial rulers that “We literally paid for our own oppression.”
    Didn’t The Hindu assertion sound that the Malabari upper-caste Hindus’ biggest “cash cow” were the untouchables and low castes exactly as you alluded to India as “Britain’s biggest cash cow”? Their impoverishment was the cause of upper-caste nourishment and prosperity through systematic exploitation—physical, financial and moral—of the lower castes of India in the same way, as you expounded your thesis that “Britain’s Industrial Revolution was based on the systematic de-industrialization of India”?
    In 1897 Vivekanada accused that “……….Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums and they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed.” Oppression of the low and untouchable castes, though common all over India, Kerala marched ahead over others.
    What the Brahminical religion, culture and norms or rituals did was more than enslavement of the lower castes. They were subjugated physically, crippled morally, corrupted ethically, and stunted psychologically by drilling a sense of perpetual inferiority into their psyche. Religion became a heinous weapon for blackmailing and inflicting trauma. See how a coat of religiosity was applied to brutal exploitation for the benefit of the upper castes by a man Indians worship as Mahatma: “The Sudra, who only serves (the higher castes) as a matter of religious duty and who will never own any property, who indeed has not even ambition to own anything, is deserving of thousands obeisance. The very Gods will shower down flowers on him.”
    What an attempt to inculcate a belief that “God will shower down flowers on him” if he remained a slave all through the ages. The ancient lawgiver Manu by saying that “A priest may with confidence take away any possession from a servant (Sudra); for since nothing at all belongs to him as his own, his property can be taken away by his master” (Manu 8.417) could not match Gandhi. His dose further runs: “Those who educate Sudras and women will go to hell.” (Manu 3.156). Hindus are mortally afraid of hell. Since childhood, tens of thousands of children in Bengal must have seen imaginative photos of hell showing men and women being diabolically tortured for misdeeds and mischief. Nevertheless, the vile lawgiver Manu looks a like lamb before the Mahatma in wolf’s clothing. Nobody calls Manu a friend of the untouchables. Gandhi went to London and made the grotesque declaration in the Round Table Conference that he alone represented the interests of the untouchables!
    Hindus lack Conscience
    Historians note that Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the USA (March 4, 1801-March 4, 1809) oddly was ‘the first to suggest making reparations to black slaves’. He owned hundreds of slaves and freed only a few of them. Jefferson inherited approximately 5000 acres (2000 ha; 7.8 sqmi) of land at the age at 21. As a wealthy slave owner, he used slave labour to run his household, plantation, tobacco fields, and various shops. Over the course of his life Jefferson owned some 600 slaves, buying and selling them as necessary for the management of his affairs, and maintaining about 130 at any one time. Nevertheless, he displayed a wonderful streak of human warmth and magnanimity towards the Negros. In fact, he was referred as “Negros President” who on March 2, 1807, signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law effective from January 1, 1808. Import and export of slaves were made a federal crime, the first step towards their ultimate emancipation some 54 years later.

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