Nangeli's Sacrifice & Channar Revolt: A Legacy of Resistance Against Caste-Based Oppression in Kerala

Moved by Nangeli's story, famous painter T Murali created a series of paintings on her sacrifice.
Moved by Nangeli's story, famous painter T Murali created a series of paintings on her sacrifice.
  • First Dalit President of India K.R Narayanan was from Kerala

  • First Dalit Chief Justice of Indian Supreme court K.G Balakrishnan was from Kerala

While some dismiss her tale as a legend due to the lack of historical evidence about her birth and life events, we cannot celebrate Dalit History Month without recognizing the remarkable courage of Nangeli. An illiterate Bahujan woman from the Ezhava community in Kerala, she sacrificed her life to assert women's right to cover their bodies, a powerful statement against oppression. The Mooknayak takes you to on a trip to the southernmost coastal land of India, described by Swami Vivekananda as a "Lunatic's Asylum", perhaps, due to its complicated caste system. Nangeli's story is an essential part of Avarna history and serves as an inspiration to generations. As we honor her legacy, we are reminded of the ongoing struggle against caste-based oppression in India.

The 'bare-chest' tradition 

In Kerala, over 200 years ago, i.e. in the 19th century Travancore, it was customary for individuals to bare their chest in the presence of those of a higher status. This practice was observed by both men and women, with lower caste individuals like the Nadar climbers and Ezhavas having to bare their chests in the presence of members of the higher-ranked Nair caste. In turn, the Nair caste had to do the same in the presence of the even higher-ranked Nambudiri Brahmins. The Brahmins, who were at the pinnacle of the Hindu ritual ranking system (varna), only bared their chest in the presence of a deity.

Mulakkaram or the Breast Tax

According to some subaltern beliefs, the breast tax was imposed on lower-class women if they covered their breasts. Those who defied the custom, had to pay tax. 

Women who belonged to lower-caste communities, such as Dalits and backward classes, were required to pay a tax called "Mulakkaram" or "Breast tax" to upper-caste landlords. This tax required women to pay a certain amount of money based on the size of their breasts. This humiliating and unjust system forced many women to live in poverty and deprivation.

The breast tax was a clear example of the oppressive power dynamics that existed within the caste system and the gender norms of the time. 

Exhibitions on Nangeli paintings have been held in many places.
Exhibitions on Nangeli paintings have been held in many places.

The Fearless Nangeli

It was during this time that a courageous woman named Nangeli from the Ezhava community in Cherthala, decided to resist the inhumane practice. In 1803, when the British East India Company had started imposing a land tax and collecting revenue, the king's representative ordered all women in the region to pay the breast tax.

Nangeli, who was angered and disturbed by this practice, decided to resist  the unjust tax. When the 'Thukadis', i.e. revenue collectors, went to her home to receive the tax, usually paid in form of rice, rather than submitting to the demand for payment, Nangeli chopped off her breasts and presented them to the tax collectors, stating "I don’t need it, give it to your Maharaja." She bled to death and sacrificed herself to resist the oppressive caste system and the unjust tax. The story goes that Nangeli's husband Kandappan supported his wife's decision and jumped into her pyre, sacrificing himself.

Their home is known as 'MulachiParambu' .Mulachiparambu is a compound word in Malayalam, where "Mula" means 'breast', and "Parambu" means land or settlement'. So, Mulachiparambu can be roughly translated to mean 'the settlement of breasts'. Because of its association with Nangeli, who protested against the breast tax, the name Mulachiparambu has come to represent the struggle of Dalit women in India against oppression and discrimination.

Her sacrifice sparked a wave of protests which later on inspired the much known Channar Lahala (movement) also known as Samaram. 

Murali's art series on Nangeli has been widely appreciated across the country.
Murali's art series on Nangeli has been widely appreciated across the country.

BBC report & Nangeli paintings

The Nangeli legend related to the 'breast tax' gained wider attention in 2016 when BBC Reporter Divya Arya reported on a series of paintings by artist Murali T depicting the legend. The painting has also inspired a short film by Yogesh Pagare on the same subject.

The Channar Revolt (1813-1859)

The Channar Lahala (revolt), which took place in the early 19th century in the present-day state of Kerala, is known by other names as well. It is also known as the Maru Marakkal Samaram. Maru Marakkal is a Tamil word that means 'covering the breasts.' The name Samaram means 'struggle' or 'fight. The revolt highlights the primary demand of the women from Nadar community for wearing 'Mel-mundu' or the upper body clothes. 

Women of higher castes, unless in the presence of people of even higher-ranked communities, covered both their breasts and shoulders with an upper-cloth. Nadar climber women, however, were not allowed to cover their bosoms, as it was seen as a sign of their low status in society. Many Nadar climbers, feeling uneasy with their social status, embraced Christianity and started to wear "long cloths," which offered equal rights to both men and women.

As more Nadars turned to Christianity, many Nadar women began wearing the breast cloth traditionally worn by Brahmin women. This was a significant change, as it demonstrated their desire to improve their status and assert their rights in a society that traditionally repressed lower castes and women.

The Nadar women's assertiveness for the right to cover their breasts was met with opposition from the highest levels of the Travancore government. Despite their initial success in getting permission to wear upper cloth from the British Dewan in 1813, the order was later withdrawn due to resistance from members of Raja's council who believed it would lead to the "obliteration of caste differences" and "pollution" in society. 

The women continued their protest despite harassment and opposition from the feudal lords. This led to increasing violence against Nadar women in the 1820s, with schools and churches being burned down in protest.

In 1829, the Travancore queen issued a proclamation that denied the Nadar women the right to wear upper cloth. The struggle of the Nadar women for the right to cover their breasts continued until it was finally resolved in their favor in 1859. The violent unrest that had erupted in several places in Travancore in 1858 resulted in the issuing of a proclamation by the king of Travancore on 26 July 1859. Under pressure from Charles Trevelyan, the Madras Governor, the proclamation granted all Nadar women the right to cover their breasts either by wearing jackets like the Christian Nadars or by tying coarse cloth around their upper body like Mukkavattigal (fisherwomen). However, they were still not allowed to cover their breasts in the style of higher-class Nair women.

This solution was not satisfactory to the missionaries, who believed in gender equality and viewed all men and women as equal. Despite restrictions, Nadar women continued to assert their rights and developed their own upper wear style that resembled the style of the higher-class Hindu women, which some Hindus viewed as a provocation by the missionaries.

Although the proclamation was a significant victory for the Nadar women, the code was still discriminatory until 1915-1916, and the challenge was supported by Ayyankali, a social reformer and Dalit leader who played a significant role in the fight for Dalit and women's rights in Kerala. The struggle of the Nadar women for their right to cover their breasts was a significant milestone in the history of Kerala, marking a crucial moment in the fight for gender equality and social justice.

Channar Revolt removed from CBSE curriculum 

In December 2016, the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) issued a circular to all 19,000 affiliated schools, directing them to omit a section on the Channar revolt from the history curriculum from 2017 onwards. The section in question was titled 'Caste Conflict and Dress Change' and included information about the Nadar women's struggle for the right to cover their breasts and the Channar revolt.

The move was met with criticism from various quarters, with many arguing that it was an attempt to erase the marginalized communities' history and cultural struggles from the curriculum. The decision was seen as a deliberate attempt to silence the voices of the Dalit communities and to whitewash the history of oppression and resistance.

Today, Dalits in mainstream Kerala generally, enjoy the same status as any other community. They have access to proper education and well paying government and private jobs. The inclusive Kerala model of development with onus on education and a strict reservation policy for colleges and jobs have helped the backward downtrodden community raise its standards to be at par with the other sections. 

Historians Perspectives on the Breast Tax

Historian Manu Pillai believes that the concept of the 'breast tax' is a misnomer, and that covering the breasts was not the norm in Kerala's matrilineal society during Nangeli's lifetime. He says, in the olden days, capitation due from men was the talakkaram — head tax — and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram — breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli’s storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax.

Senior Profesor in History, Dr. P. K. Michael Tharakan - "The 'Mulakkaram' or Breast Tax imposed on lower-caste women was a heinous system of exploitation. It is appalling that such a practice existed in our society, and it remains a blot on our history." (Source: The Hindu, 2016)

Renowned historian Dr. V. Raman Kutty - "The breast tax was an instrument of humiliation and degradation that was imposed by the upper castes on lower-caste women. This not only enforced the caste-based hierarchy but also perpetuated gender and sex discrimination." (Source: DNA India, 2020)

Poet and critic Dr. K. Satchidanandan - "The breast tax was a regressive and barbaric practice that highlights the extreme injustices of our caste system. It is important to remember the struggles of the lower castes and their continuing fight for social justice and equality." (Source: The New Indian Express, 2018)

Renowned Journalist P. Sainath - "The breast tax was a manifestation of the deep-seated prejudice and discrimination that existed in Kerala society. This unjust and brutal practice was used to control and subjugate the lower castes and reinforce the caste hierarchy." (Source: The Times of India, 2018)

The tradition in temples

It is worth noting that the tradition of not having a stitched cloth on one's body while visiting certain temples in South India still continues. In the past, women were not allowed to wear stitched clothing in public, as it was seen as a mark of impurity. This norm also applied to temple visits, where women had to wear unstitched saris and no more, especially while cooking and worshipping. Men, on the other hand, still have to remain stitch-less while gaining entry to certain temples.

Over time, these norms have been challenged and relaxed, and women have been granted concessions in their dress codes during temple visits. However, the continued existence of these norms and their historical roots serve as a reminder of the ways in which patriarchal norms and customs have contributed to the marginalization and oppressions of women across India.

Nangeli's story represented in a comic book for kids.
Nangeli's story represented in a comic book for kids.

The social hierarchy in Kerala

The social hierarchy that prevailed in Kerala in the 18th-19th century was nothing less than theocratic feudalism, resembling the system of slavery present in America or apartheid in Africa. Poet and social reformer Kumaran Asan notably highlighted that the atrocities inflicted upon the lower castes by the upper castes were comparable to the cruelty imposed upon the aborigines of America by the Spanish settlers. Such was the repression imposed upon the lower castes in Kerala that they may have even considered abandoning their homes and living in forests like wild animals, an ironic reversal of the evolutionary process proposed by Darwin. The extent of oppression was so deeply institutionalized that it was challenging to recognize it as a form of oppression.

The caste system in Kerala was different from that found in other parts of India, the Varna system was present in Kerala as well, although with some variations.

The Malayali Namboothiri Brahmins formed the highest caste or the priestly class, and they considered themselves to be above the other castes. Apart from the Brahmins, there were other castes such as the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras, but the divisions were not as strictly defined as in other parts of India.

In addition to the castes mentioned above, there were also some other communities known as Avarnas, who were considered to be outside the caste system. These communities were engaged in activities such as manual labor, and they were discriminated against by the higher castes. The Ezhavas, who formed one of the largest communities in Kerala, were classified as Avarnas, which means they were excluded from the caste system.

The Caste Restrictions 

The ancient caste system in Kerala imposed severe restrictions on the lower castes, forcing them to use separate paths and live in areas hidden from sight. Lower-caste individuals had to maintain a certain distance from the Brahmins or Nairs, as they were deemed polluting, and it was believed that simply coming near them could lead to pollution. The Pulayar community, in particular, was at the receiving end of such atrocities, with Nairs being permitted to kill them on sight if they met with one of them on the highway. The Nambudhri Brahmins held the highest position in the caste hierarchy, while the Pulayar community was relegated to the lowest rung. The Nairs were considered inferior to the Brahmins, but above the other castes, including the Ambalavasis. 

Lower-caste individuals were often referred to as "tintal jati," which means "castes that pollute from a distance." The upper castes enjoyed the privilege of consuming "Amruthathu" or elixir-like food, while the food of the lower castes was referred to as "karikadi" or black brew. The dwelling places of the higher castes were called the "royal abode," while the thatched huts of the lower castes were described as "the field of rubbish." Lower-caste individuals were not even permitted to breathe the same air as those from higher castes, and if they saw an approaching Nair or Brahmin, they were required to make a loud howling sound to warn them and wait for them to pass by. If a Nair met with a Pulayar on the highway, they would cut them down like wild animal. According to Buchanan, the Nairs didn't just attack the Pulayars, but anyone from the lower castes, including the Ezhavas. The punishment for disobeying caste rules regarding pollution was to be cast out from the caste, sold into slavery, or even facing death.

Moved by Nangeli's story, famous painter T Murali created a series of paintings on her sacrifice.
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