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.
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