Ink & Papyrus - BLOG

The Anatomy of Caste

India has witnessed many atrocious customs and traditions over the years; sati, slavery, animal sacrifice to name a few. Some of these traditions got the much needed limelight and were abolished over the years, while some haven’t been documented well and are unknown to the masses, even today. It becomes utterly important to write and publish these and their significances on the people over the years, to understand the Indian history in a raw manner. The Indian history is not just about the courageous kings and leaders and glorious wars but also about people who contributed at the ground levels to take the country to a place which it has reached now. There is a great scope for improvement still. The youth should understand the history in an unfiltered way, which will enable them to revolutionize the current issues to build a better India.
One of the horrifying, oppressive and insensitive customs that was marked in the Indian history is the ‘Mulakkaram’ or ‘The Breast Tax’. Imposed by the monarch of the State of Travencore, modern- day Kerala in the 1800s, Mulakkaram was levied on the lower caste and untouchable women to cover their breasts. The tax collectors visited every house and collected the tax from any women who passed the age of puberty and started developing breasts; and the amount of tax was assessed in proportion to their breasts.
The bizarre law evolved from a Travencore tradition where breasts were considered a symbol of respect and covering them was a privilege allowed only to higher class women. Bare breasts became an identifier towards separating the women of lower castes from the higher-class women.
The Nair community women were not allowed to cover their breasts in front of women from Namboodri Brahmin community or in temples. The Namboodri women bared their bosoms only in front of the deities in the temples. While the lower castes like Nadar and Ezhava women could not cover their breasts at all, without paying mulakkaram. This practice continued up to the mid of 18 th century. Many women belonging to the Nadar community converted to Christianity and started covering their breasts. This attracted violence against Nadar women and the Christian institutions. The period from 1813 to 1859 witnessed many protests, which was known as the ‘Channar revolt’. In 1859, the revolt reached its peak when two Nadar women were stripped by the Travencore officers and hung to a tree in public because they had covered their breasts. This act attracted great ambush and the Nadars revolted ferociously against the upper class by looting their properties. In order to bring in peace and harmony in the kingdom, the law had to be amended. In 1859, the Madras Governor, Charles Trevelyan, pressurized the State of Travancore to grant Nadar women the right to cover their breasts by abolishing the law.
The Ezhava continued to be oppressed, until the time when Nangeli of Cherthala started a revolt. When a collection officer came to Nangeli’s door, with a determination of not getting humiliated, harassed and victimized, Nangeli cut off her breasts and presented them to the collector. This caused her to bleed to death and her husband threw himself in her flaming pyre. This story of Nangeli’s revolt can be one of fiction as there is lack of enough documentation for it. But if the episode holds true, the act of bravery by Nangeli should reach the books and also become a part of curriculum for students.
CBSC has removed a section from their curriculum entitled ‘Caste, Conflict and Dress Change’ , following an order to remove any ‘objectionable content’ from the curriculum. J. Devika, a historian at the centre for development studies in Thiruvananthapuram, explained that the Nadar women’s revolt is important primarily because the issue was about castes which are deep-rooted in the country. “Taking this lesson out of the curriculum is a ridiculous move aimed at perverting education and erasing the anti-caste struggle,” she highlights.
| 16-Aug-2021