Breast Tax In Ancient India

The area near Manorama Kavala, Cherthala, was once known as Mulachiparambu and was the site where Nangeli, in 1803, cut off her breasts to protests against the breast tax imposed on the lower caste women of Travancore. Photo: H. Vibhu

The area near Manorama Kavala, Cherthala, was once known as Mulachiparambu and was the site where Nangeli, in 1803, cut off her breasts to protests against the breast tax imposed on the lower caste women of Travancore. Photo: H. Vibhu

India has always had its fair share of cultural and ethnic eccentricities. Right from worshipping a God’s phallus to constructing a temple for an actor, Indians have a knack of hero-worshipping at the drop of a dime. And yet, they have found themselves completely oblivious of few that paved way for gender and social equality.

Ancient India was known to be a cherished land, with philosophies amalgamating flawlessly to form various Utopian empires to rule the common man. India came to be known as the land of the free and the holy. Unfortunately though, time distorts history and the lessons it induces. By 19th century, Southern India, especially the princely state of Travancore, showed barely any resemblance to the supreme and idealistic India that was once considered to be the torchbearer of human race.

Brahmins, the higher class of the time, were considered to be the messengers of God, and were given the responsibility to run the temples and to contribute in the King’s constitution. Greed having been stuck across their rusted minds through centuries, especially after amassing all the gold offerings in the temple, the decayed mentality of the Brahmins soon lusted for more wealth than they could ever comprehend. They manipulated the King’s constitution and brought forth an array of taxes to be levied, albeit, solely to the lower classes. The documented taxes run into hundreds, with the lower class being taxed for trading in pepper and other spices, for wearing jewellery, even for men to flaunt a moustache since a moustache was a symbol of prestige! The upper classes were perpetually exempted from paying these taxes, as the primary motive was to create the lower caste’s subjugation by keeping them in an eternal debt; a trend that today’s world seems to reflect with perfect proficiency.

While these taxes were practiced vehemently in Travancore, one tax that stood out in particular was the breast tax for the lower castes. A rather dehumanizing and humiliating gesture, the women of lower castes were barred from covering their breasts in public or pay a hefty tax to do the same. These taxes were specifically put into practice to enunciate untouchability and caste suppression.

While the lower castes were left systematically dominated, there was one woman in the province of Cherthala, Travancore, named Nangeli or Nancheli ‘the beautiful one’ showed a monumental feat of courage. As a gesture of rebellion, Nangeli covered herself with pride and faced the world with complete disregard of the consequences. The news reached the tax collectors, or the parvathiyar, almost instantaneously and they decided to show up at her doorstep and collect tax. Nangeli diligently complied. Albeit, what ensued was a bloodied Nangeli chopping off her breasts and offering them to the pravathiyar in a Plantain leaf, dripping with blood. The loss of blood drained the last bit of might that was left in her and Nangeli lost her life almost instantaneously. Her husband, upon arrival, could not cope with the demise of his wife and valiantly jumped into her funeral pyre that very evening.

This resulted in the King of Travancore withdrawing the tax fearing public outcry. The sacrifice made by Nangeli stood as a testament for the oppression against the lower castes amidst the princely states. It definitely shook the very foundation on which the Brahmin patriarchy stood on. The vicinity where Nangeli resided, and sacrificed herself for a greater good soon came to be known as Mulachiparambu – the plot of the breasted woman.

Another astonishing and commendable feat that cannot go unnoticed in this chapter is Nangeli’s husband’s sacrifice. The process of jumping into a husband’s pyre has always been practiced in ancient India. Although it has always been the wife jumping into her husband’s burning pyre, and has been referred to as Sati. Nangeli’s husband, committing this supposedly holistic ritual in itself, broke barriers in the stigmatized and male-dominated India of the 19th century.

While Nangeli’s bravery was commendable and liberating, there is barely any documented history of this very incident, and no mention of this heroic gesture is imparted to the masses. Such a humiliating repression of a vivacious chapter in Indian history can be blamed on the dominating Brahmins in the Indian society, coupled with education board’s efforts at keeping any and every carnal reference away from academic literature. The wave of repression has swept to the extent where the plot, Mulachiparambu, where Nangeli sacrificed herself has been renamed to Manorama. Current locals, too, are completely oblivious of the martyr that Nangeli was for their predecessors. Nangeli is a hero that time forgot and the Indians chose to forget.

by Tejas Morey

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