Nangeli gained her place in history as the woman who cut off her breasts to protest against an inhuman tax and oppression imposed in erstwhile Travancore
Many books and histories have been written about caste oppression in Kerala and the men and women who fought the injustice. Yet the story of one woman’s protest has almost faded away from the collective memory of the State and we want to bring it back to the yore.
Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, close to Kochi along the Kerala coast. Nangeli and her man, Chirukandan, were Ezhavas — toddy tappers — who laboured in that awkward gap that society fashions for those who are low but not the lowest. They had a little hut where they lived, and they had no children. Life for Nangeli and Chirukandan was as hard as it was for their neighbours. They toiled hard to make their ends meet and lived bowing to the pretensions and taxes of the superiors. There was nothing remarkable about them to make Nangeli stand up to the oppression that the lower castes met in their day to day life . It is such that the situation , like it normally does , made Nangeli a Rebel and a Rebel with a cause.
The Kerala that they lived and knew was not the Kerala that is celebrated for literacy , for healthy children and so called emancipated women folk. It was very very difficult times when casteism was at its highest peak . Add on to that the oppressive ruler who had imposed so many taxes on the folk that it was literally not possible to live. If you are a fisherman you had a tax on fishing net . If you had mustache you had mustache tax . And in case of Nangeli she had to pay what was called the “mulakaram” or breast tax which was a tax for allowing the lower cast to cover their breasts.
Cleaved her place in history
The story goes that Nangeli didn’t pay the breast tax and the tax collectors came one morning , to tax her breasts by measuring the shape and dimensions to calculate the figure owned. That’s when she did the act that cleaved her part in the history of Kerala and India. She went in calmly while they waited outside , and it is said , returned with the tax offering on a plantain leaf as it was normally the custom then. They had come for the breast tax and they got Nangeli’s breasts itself. She had cleaved them with a sickle and placed the bleeding lump on the plantain leaf. She collapsed and died on the same day because of the blood loss, cradled in the hands of Chirukandan.
Chirukandan too protesting the breast tax jumped in to the pyre and burned himself. Nangeli’s story is unique also for the fact that it is the first recorded instance of a man committing sati,” says Ajay S. Sekher, a teacher of English at the Tirur centre of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit.
The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. Women of low caste, they will tell you, couldn’t cover their bodies if they didn’t pay the breast tax. They silently wept and lamented their fate, shame building upon shame under the gaze of lewd old men for whom the right to dignity came with a price. But Nangeli was a woman of virtue — she would not barter money for honour. And so she chose death.
It was start of the mutiny which culminated in the Channar mutiny which was also called the “maru marakkal samaram ” meaning mutiny for covering the breast. This led to the proclamation by the rulers in 1859 and in 1865 which abolished the inhuman practice and gave the woman the right to cover her breasts. This was the first struggle for woman liberation in Kerala .
But isnt it so that we as a society is forgetting about Nangeli and the history is repeating again. What’s happening in Kerala now? . Isn’t oppression still happening ?. About what she can wear and what she cannot . About where she can go and where she cannot . About when she can get out and when she cannot. OK, there is no tax but there is the tax of prying eyes which you pay with your modesty and honour. It isn’t only about Kerala , but is happening elsewhere too. But I have to pick on Kerala because it has the maximum number of pseudo liberalists and pseudo woman emancipators. I want to see them do something rather than just rant on TV or post on social media. Will they do it ? . We all know the answer.