The foundation of the economic system of any nation is the taxes imposed on its people. The tax collected from the people is paid back in the form of the development and progress of the state. Taxes are generally imposed on a person's income, luxurious belongings, etc. However, just a couple of centuries back an unbelievably bizarre and inhumane tax was imposed on the covering of breasts by the lower caste women in the princely state of Travancore district.
Mulakkaram (Breast Tax)
Back in those days, the oppression of the Dalit people especially the Ezhava or Nadar community members in the name of the so-called caste system was at its peak. Some 110 kinds of taxes were levied on fishermen's nets, ornaments worn, moustaches kept by the man, and so on. But the limits were crossed when Maharaja Sreemohan Thirunal imposed MULAKKARAM (Breast tax) on the women.
Every tax was to be paid in the form of rice grains presented in a piece of banana leaf.
Anyone of Ezhava or Nadar castes was accepted to appear bare torso before Brahmins and royalty. Covering of breasts was meant only for upper caste women and this system was created to upkeep the so-called prestige of the royal women and differentiate them from the lower caste women.
Imagine the plight of a Dalit woman belonging to the Ezhava or Nadar community who needs to live bare-chested in front of the world throughout her life. Wherever she goes those creepy eyes will always be on her. She's assaulted and humiliated daily by upper-caste males. This is one side of the problem.
Now imagine the plight of another woman who wishes to walk on the streets covering her breast. Can she just pay the breast tax and do so? Well, it's not that simple. An authorised man known as Parvatiyaar would come to her doorstep and strip her off and run his coarse fingers across her breasts with literally no shame or regret in his eyes.
This was done to check the size and shape of the breasts as it was the sole determining factor of the amount of tax to be paid by the lady. The Parvatiyaar would be accompanied by other officials to check and discuss the same.
A Fire Was Ignited
An ordinary Ezhava woman with an extraordinary blaze in her heart, Nangeli lived with her husband Chirukandan in a coastal village called Chirthala. She was a toddy tapper by profession and worked extremely hard to make ends meet. She was always against this humiliating tax ever since she gained puberty. A brave Nangeli decided to cover her breasts and walk with pride on the streets of chirthala. Nangeli believed that it's a human right to cover our bodies in public and nobody can impose a tax on it.
It was pretty obvious that the eyes of the upper caste males fell on this extraordinary woman with a covered torso. Nangeli was humiliated publicly with a lot of verbal aggression and insults but she hardly paid any heed to it and continued to hold her opinions firmly.
"Shameless woman !! Aren't you ashamed of your attempts to equate yourself with the upper-caste ladies? This is a violation of the law. Remove that cloth!!" said the society.
"Law!! A law that snatches away human rights in the name of caste? I spit on such laws!!" replied Nangeli.
The news that an Ezhava woman has dared to cover her upper body in public spread far and wide in the kingdom.
The Goddess Was Ready To Be Unleashed
The sun above the horizon was a little brighter than usual and there was an unusual silence just like one before a destructive storm. A mob of upper-caste males led by the Parvatiyaar arrives at the doorstep of Nangeli. As expected by the brave woman, the males ruthlessly humiliated her and ordered her to pay the Mulakkaram. As usual, the shameless males examined her breast size and estimated the amount of Mulakkaram.
Amidst all these injustices Nangeli stood still and calm because the Goddess who resides in every woman was ready to be unleashed to end all the atrocities that she has been facing since time immemorial.
When ordered to pay the tax, Nangeli went indoors without uttering a word and shut the door behind her. A fresh banana leaf lies before her.
Only the Almighty knows from where she mustered such an incredible amount of courage that she went ahead to pick up a sharp sickle.
Nangeli sharpened the sickle and closed her eyes. And then with a smooth motion of the sharp tool, she sliced off one of her breasts and then the other. An integral part of the female body was detached and such a scene is quite rare in the pages of the history of any indigenous community. Nangeli moved with her mutilated body dripped in blood and placed the two pieces of flesh on the banana leaf and presented them before the Parvatiyaar.
Meanwhile, the Parvatiyaar who was expecting to receive rice grains was extremely shocked to see a green Banana leaf turned red with human blood.
"The entire problem was with my breasts…..here they are !!"
The entire mob was speechless. They simply couldn't believe their eyes. Nangeli was in terrible and unimaginable pain. Her entire torso was covered with blood and she died within a fraction of a minute due to excessive bleeding. However, the view of the terror-stricken faces of the upper-class males gave her a sense of satisfaction before death.
Meanwhile, Nangeli's beloved husband Chirukandan who was at work then rushed to his dead wife and took her in his arms. The intensity of his plight cannot be expressed in words. The atrocities of society had snatched his wife from him.
Apart from the breast-cutting episode, another sensational incident took place in the village on that day. When the dead body of the brave woman was carried to the shamshan ghaat for the last rituals, Chirukandan had an emotional outburst. This extraordinary man cried and screamed aloud and before anybody could make out his next move, he jumped into the funeral pyre of his wife and sacrificed his life too. This could be visualized as a reverse SATI PRATHA
No More Mulakkaram
The sacrifice of Nangeli and her husband shook the royal kingdom from its roots. The women of the Nadar and Ezhava communities started the Channar Revolt also known as Maaru Marakkal Samaram which is a revolt against the breast tax. Finally, the king was bound to remove Mulakkaram once and forever. The ladies could now cover their breasts and walk with pride on the streets without any taxation.
It was just because of the extraordinary and divine courage of this brave lady that brought justice to all the women of her community. She dared to raise a voice against injustice and didn't choose to keep quiet. She is the epitome of power, strength, courage and true feminism and shall always remain alive in our hearts.
Some other sources are opposing this story as a work of fiction as the story lacks sufficient historical documentation. Therefore the actual and exact happenings of the event are still uncertain. Some of the videos opposing the existence of this story links have been provided below for the reference of the readers
The Print: https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/nangeli-the-forgotten-dalit-woman-who-stood-up-against-travancores-breast-tax/862452/
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