The “Breast Tax” Myth

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In recent times, it is a matter of individual freedom to decide on personal dress and dress, and any attempt to map do’s and don’ts are fiercely criticized and attacked. The idea of ​​”contempt for individual freedom to dress up” is a product of the western world, that is, of the society of so-called progressive mentalities and, at first glance, our educated minds, roar in castigating any pursuit, reducing our sense of band-aid. Bharat, being a nation with plurality, in culture as well as differences in climatic conditions, the clothes worn by people in various regions varied.

The southern state of Kerala, located on the Hind Mahasagar coast, has a tropical climate. On the same coastline was the state of Travancore, ruled by the Hindu king Raja Marthanda Verma and other Hindu dynasties. It was the only Hindu kingdom, other than Nepal, which remained independent of Muslim rule.

A story of Kerala folklore has captured people’s attention recently and there has been a lot of buzz about it, along with a few movies shot on the subject. The tale tells of the custom in force in previous centuries, about the tax on the chest, imposed on women of lower castes, if they covered their breasts !!!

The tax was known as Mulakkaram.

The story of a woman, from the Ezhava community of Kerala, named Nangeli, cutting off her breast and offering it to the tax collector, accused of covering them up, has recently gained popularity. Nangeli’s story further describes her death from heavy bleeding and her husband Kandappan committing suicide during an aftershock.

To imagine such a vicious custom, prohibiting lower caste women from having their breasts covered by the upper caste, and levying a “breast tax” if they dared disobey, is a horrifying proposition in itself. According to the saga, these Ezhava women, who could no longer bear the humiliating exploitation, cut off their breasts and attained martyrdom.

Of the many cases of brutality against the lower castes documented in history, this may be one of the most shameful occurrences. Shaming the lower castes and exasperating the modesty of women is surely the worst form of oppression one can imagine.

As we take in the story, the image floats in our minds, that of a nobleman dressed in exemplary rich garments and the women seated beside it on an ornate throne, draped in the finest silks from head to toe.

Now we need to pause in our imagination and ask a necessary question:

Just because history speaks of horrific atrocities on lower class women, does it become valid and the truth of the gospel? Let us check the dress style and standards before the 19th century in the tropical climate of Kerala.

It is a widely observed pattern, that traditional clothing in their daily lives, largely depended on the earth’s climate. It was just a piece of cotton fabric draped around the center (belly) and was the usual practice for both men and women, per se, due to the humidity. Another cloth slung over the shoulder (uttarayin) was sometimes worn by upper caste women, occasionally but not used to cover the breast.

Portrait of the Dutch traveler Johan Nieuhof, visiting the Queen of Quilon and showing her bare chest. Pietro Della Valle and John Hanry Grose, the 17th and 18th century travelogue, reported that the attire of men and women of Kerala did not wear upper garments.

Another traveller, Abbé Dubois noted in his manual “Mœurs, customs et ceremonies Hindus” in 1815, that among all the women, the courtesans covered their breasts to attract customers!!! Covering the chest was considered an act of seduction.

Keralian society has been largely matrilineal. Their choice of dress was a harsh shock, for the followers of the Abrahamic religion, Muslims and Christians because they were the only ones who preferred to wear blouses.

Anthropologist Fred Fawcett noted that none of the Malabar natives felt like wearing blouses or covering their chests, but later, as people exposed themselves to the outdoors, their habits changed. Initially, the English nurses were rebuffed by the indigenous Tiyya women, when they were asked to cover their breasts with a piece of cloth, as they were not prostitutes!!!

Also, in the autobiography of C. Keshvan, the story of a young girl rebelling against her mother, for wearing a blouse was mentioned. (very similar to contemporary girls revolting against dorn revealing evaluation).

With all these observations contradicting the existence of the so-called humiliating custom of “chest tax” prevalent in Kerala; it was essential to trace the origin of these accounts.

NR Krishna, spoke of the “brave woman” in his tome, “Ezhava: Than and Today” in 1957, but he did not mention any names of Nangeli or her husband. Later, C. Vasava Pannikar wrote in more detail using NR Krishna’s two-line anecdote but with certainty on the matter, in his biography, ‘S. Padmanabhan Pannikar’ in 1976.

Then, in the year 2000 CE, SN Sadasivan described the problem at length in “Social History of India” and specified the period around 1840 CE.

Eventually, journalist C. Radhakrishnan named the characters Nangeli and Kadappan and added the story of the husband’s suicide to add spice to it. The story was first published in Pioneer on March 8, 2007. Its Malayalam translation was published the same day in Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama. Later in 2012, it was published in the SBD Kaviyoor newsletter and then in the web of Murali T.

Around the same time he appeared in Vagabond, BBC and Times of India.

Now let us dwell on what is meant by Mullakaram and Thallakaram.

“Mula” means chest in Malayalam. Thallakaram is poll tax, head tax or head tax. The polls are allocated per capita, which means that it is a tax given to an individual, male or female, as is generally done around the world. Generally, women paid less tax than men. To delineate the differentiated tax structure on the basis of gender, the Thallakaram (tax in Malayalam) has been called Mullakaram (tax on woman, and she is illustrated as the one with Mula (breast).

As the story of the rooster and the bull shows, the false narrative, if repeated over and over again, would turn into popular truth. Bafflingly, the unfortunate anecdotal fake was swallowed around the world as a principle and deepened caste differences.

Recently, a painting by Murali T. on the subject, followed by a film by Yogesh Pagare and a few other films on the subject, titled Stan Tax, which highlighted the Dalit-Adivasi and Pichda section of the targeted society and undoubtedly the villain among them was the Hindu priest. The easiest target, of course.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is an authoritative Western notion to uphold each ideologue with ethics, according to their beliefs. In earlier eras, the “uncovered breast” was an exasperated blow to Victorian morality, hence the very natural norm, was used as a tool to widen the gap between upper castes and lower castes and ultimately, poison the spirit of the Dalits and pursue them in religious conversion.

Similar to this, it is also believed that Tipu Sultan, the king of Mysore, attacked the king of Travancore, to stand in solidarity with the lower castes, who were subjected to the brutal atrocity of the “Breast Tax”.

This is again a false account, as Tipu Sultan’s attack was to devastate one of the only Hindu kingdoms, which had remained independent and refrained from being under Islamic rule. Moreover, the colossal wealth of the Padmanabh temple was a nudge in the eyes of other kingdoms and a matter of envy. Again, demeaning Hindus and creating a chasm between castes would promote conversion.

For centuries, Bharat suffered not only political imprisonment, but also social devastation, caused by the toxicity of castism.

I’m not suggesting that caste differences were non-existent, but unfortunately the tales relating to it were fabricated with the least amount of historical evidence and resulted in terribly damaging the social fabric.

(Disclaimer: The views of the author do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. WION or ZMCL also does not endorse the views of the author.)

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