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The Breast Tax

Humans are one of the species that invested a lot of their time and effort into building institutions that are meant to restrict, control, terrorize and suffocate other humans. Be it on the basis of privilege, race, class, gender, religious, economic, legal or political, oppression is the tyrant's or the authoritarian's flaming sword, used to ensure people are kept in line.

One such forgotten story, makes its way onto this platform: the story Nangeli: the story that was wiped out from the history text books and labelled as a myth, the woman's sacrifice that was termed as a propaganda, meant to hurt those of the Hindu faith.

Nonetheless, we are here to pay tribute to that one woman who single-handedly changed the course of history for her community and uplifted women from several other oppressed castes in her neighborhood.

The story begins in the Indian princely state of Travencore, Kerala. The kingdom established by Marthananda Verma in 1729, was now a princely state of the British colonial India. Upon colonization, the natives did face tremendous amounts of abuse and torture, however, there were several horrendous activities, India was already subjecting upon her citizens.

Taxes for example were designed to establish and maintain the socioeconomic caste differences among the ruling classes and the poverty-ridden subjects. In the Kingdom of Travencore, the Hindu Nairs (the ruling class) had put in place several taxes upon the Nadar, Ezhava and other lower caste communities, in order to regulate the adorning of clothing, jewelry, etc. to indicate their dominance over their subjects.

Samuel Mateer, in his book, accounts for 110 types of head taxes been enforced upon the lower-caste members. Some examples of these taxes included taxes being paid when one has to wear ornaments, keep a mustache, cover the head with a headdress, and the mullakaram. The mullakaram was a tax to be paid if a woman intended to cover her upper body with any piece of clothing, let alone a blouse.

This Breast Tax was determined by a male tax-collector (Brahmin/member of the upper class) who would drop by at the house of the woman, gauge the size and shape of her breasts by fondling it and determine the amount of material required to cover it and thus, the tax her husband must pay in order to buy the said material. Furthermore, even if a woman of the lower-caste was granted permission to cover her breast, in the presence of a male of the upper-caste (Brahmin), she had to bare her chest.

This horrendous law did not sit well with a village woman named Nangeli. In protest, she began covering her chest without paying the tax required. When word of her rebellion reached the ears of the ruling class, the Parvatyaar (one in charge of collecting the head tax from the tax collectors), made his way to Nangeli's village. Any woman who dared to defy the rules of the mullakaram was subjected to a humiliating public examination at her village at the behest of the Parvatyaar and the Brahmins who chose to accompany him.

It was decided that Nangeli was to pay double the tax for her defiance and the Parvatyaar would return the next morning to collect his dues. Nangeli's husband quickly set out to make the arrangements and was delayed the next morning when the Parvatyaar was at her house demanding his cash.

Now, there was a specific, elaborate ritual with which the tax was presented to the Parvatyaar: it included a plate laden with banana leaves with fresh, unbroken rice grains to indicate prosperity and good luck, followed by the cash being placed upon the rice.

Meanwhile, at Nangeli's courtyard the entire village had positioned itself to witness the proceedings. She excused herself, informing the Parvatyaar that she'd personally obtain the plate from her kitchen, place the tax upon it and deliver it to him. She returned and to the horror of the audience and the Parvatyaar, holding a plate bearing banana leaves soaked with blood and instead of cash, a pair of breasts, crudely cut out by Nangeli herself with a sickle. There wasn't a single grain of rice on the leaves.

She handed the plate to the Parvatyaar and within seconds bled to death on her porch. Her husband unfortunately, having managed to procure the money reached the house, to find his dead wife at his doorstep. Unable to control his grief and anguish, he later jumped into her funeral pyre.

When this tragic news reached the ears of the ruling family, King Sreemolam Thirunal, fearing that this protest would inspire several other Ezhava women to revolt against the throne, withdrew the policy of mullakaram.

Today, the land upon which Nangeli bled to death is called mulalchi parambu, the land of the breasted woman. Although, Nangeli's sacrifice ensured the freedom for Ezhava women, the Nadar women were still facing the regressive tax systems. This led to the conversion of the Nadar women to Christianity, where women were allowed to cover their breasts.

In 1813, John Munro, at the Travencore court gave permission to these women to convert so as to cover their breasts. However, this ruling did not sit well with the upper-class royal communities, for they had placed these tax systems to highlight the caste differences. Allowing the Nadar women to cover their upper bodies in the similar fashion as the upper-class women was an insult to the Royals.

John Munro further tweaked his grant by premising the women to wear a jacket. The Nadar women, unhappy by the ruling and demanding the right to cover their bodies in the similar fashion as the Nair women (upper-class), revolted. In response, schools were burnt down and the Nadar women were stripped naked in public. This went on till 1859. The violence continued till Governor Charles Trevelyan pressured the King into ruling in favor of the Nadar women.

Although, the ruling to cover their bodies, was passed in 1859, violence against the Nadar women continued till the 20th century. They never gave up their fight.

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