The Breast Tax and the Upper Cloth Movement

Nangeli’s story, is it true?

A considerable furor seems to have been created by news reports detailing the legend of a lady named Nangeli who once lived at Chertala in Travancore. Some based their stories on the oral testimony of descendants of this hapless woman following which a few of my friends contacted me for its authenticity, but I must admit that my research did not prove conclusive. The story as I could see, spread in the last two years and seems to have formed an impression that Travancore and Cochin in the 18th and 19th century was going through a terrible period of casteism, an opinion which is not wrong, for it was indeed a troubling period. But what happened is that most newspapers who re-publicized the issue combined two subjects into one, the two subjects being the so called ‘Breast tax’ and the ‘upper cloth revolts’. These were two different issues relating to Travancore, with differing origins and backgrounds.

So it is perhaps the right time to revisit the topic in some detail so as to understand what it was about and how matters took the course they did. The story as published and oft repeated mentions an incident concerning an Ezhava lady in Chertalai named Nangeli, who it seems sliced off her breasts to protest against two things, the oppressive breast tax and secondly the fact that she could not hide her modesty by wearing an upper cloth. Some reports mentioned as well that the tax was to be paid if a lower caste woman wanted to cover their breasts. There were apparently some descendants who remembered the event.

Most of you who have studied Malabar, Cochin and Travancore history to some degree would have come across what they call ‘peculiar’ customs existing in those days. They relate to matrimonial customs, dressing (or lack thereof), matriliny, matrimonial fidelity, methods of justice etc. to name a few. I had over many articles covered just some of these issues over the past few years.

First and foremost, let us get to the so called oppressive taxes which were in out into place in the Travancore Kingdom ruled (1729-1758) by Marthanda Varma (MV) and administered by Ramayyan Dalawa. During the course of many studies and topics we perused thus far, we saw that MV had a huge difficulty in raising money, all through his reign. He had to beg and borrow, he had to plead and pledge with the rich and he even had to usurp wealth from others to keep his kingdom in control and pay the thousands of Nair and Muslim troops as well as his Marwa mercenaries fighting for him. To tide over these crises, he was instrumental in introducing and enforcing many of these downright silly taxes. In all, this category covered some 120 ‘minor taxes’ which hit the downtrodden masses quite hard. This is not to say that he did not collect monies from the rich landowners, which he certainly did. These so called minor taxes netted small amounts for the ‘sircar’ treasury, but they were oppressive for the virtually enslaved Nadar and Ezhava communities, who were paid just a pittance for their hard work or sometimes not at all.

For example they had to pay Kuppakazcha (taxes for living in a hut), talakkaram (head tax), meniponnu (ornament tax), Ezhaputchi (toddy tapping tax), meeshakarram (moustache tax), Tariyira (cess on handloom), Mechikkaram (cattle rearing), Meenpattam (fishing tax), Mulakkaram (breast tax), chakkira (oil pressing tax), Kusakkaram (earthenware making tax), vivahakkaram (marriage tax). The list goes on and covers as I mentioned earlier, some 120 categories. Oozhium service incidentally was adhoc ordering of these communities to do manual work and supply goods without pay. In addition, they were also not allowed to wear gold or silver ornaments, only bead/stone necklaces.

Of the 120 taxes, some 110 were particularly applicable and extortionary to the poorer communities. They bore through it for centuries, considering it their fate till somebody came by to tell them there was a way out. Changes occurred when some of these communities found willing ears which would listen to their difficulties, namely the LMS Christian missionaries. Much of the criticism of age old practices and conventions started with the arrival of these missionaries in Travancore. The British administrators at Travancore and Cochin also abetted these missionaries in their attempts to increase conversions from these depressed classes. Starting with Munro, then Cullen (Cullen was briefly not in support, though) and forward, they pushed and prodded the rulers of Travancore and Cochin in obtaining permissions for establishment of schools, churches as well as management of large communities of Christian converts. One of the earliest conversions if you recall, was effected by De Lannoy, an event involving Vedamanickam which perhaps spoiled his relationship with the king Rama Varma, as some allude. As you read the many accounts of Augur, Ringeltaube, Mead, Mateer and later writers such as RN Yesudasan, Ibrahim Kunju etc, you will come across a mention that it was easier for them to find willing converts from amongst the Nadars of Tinnevelly and South East Travancore, not so much from the Ezhava community, who even if they did convert would not easily adopt new and ‘decent’ ways or throw aside old ones.

Nevertheless, the missionaries introduced Western morality, the concept of Christian marriage, Western methods of personal conduct such as ‘decency in clothing and manners’ and created a sense of equality amongst their fold. In this new community, there were no barriers of caste and nobility and so it was in a sense, uplifting of these downtrodden masses and their emancipation. Others started to see the effects of these evangelization efforts and reacted differently. The Hindus, especially the powerful Brahmins and Nairs, as you can very well imagine, did not like it at all and took to violence even, at times. We will soon get to the details, but what was important was that these early missionaries made detailed records of what they saw and heard, the ills practiced in the pagan or heathen communities they met, during their attempts to show them the light. I bring this up because, their records as far as I can see, make only a single mention of a mutilation on account of the terrible breast tax.

Before we get to the event, let us try to understand what the Breast tax levy was all about, keeping in mind that this was a period when nobody really knew or bothered about their exact age. The head tax or ‘thalakkaram’ was charged when a lower caste boy attained puberty (age>14) and became a wage earning adult. Similarly, a lower caste woman had to pay a ‘mulakkaram’ when she joined the working class (age>14) of women. It certainly had nothing to do with the size or shape or attractiveness of her breasts, as SN Sadasivan had wrongly mentioned, nor did it have anything to do with covering of a woman’s breasts. The Thalakkaram and Mulakkaram were basically one and the same thing and was a revenue term only differentiated with gender.

It was certainly a nuisance and we shall now see a story related to a protest. This documented record relates to a hill tribe in Poonjar, namely the Malai Arayans. It was substantiated by the well-known anthropologist L Ananthakrishna Iyer and earlier by Thurston, so let us see what they had to say, verbatim (Travancore tribes and castes Vol 1, page 165)

The Malayarayans appear to have suffered from heavy disabilities in former times. “The Puniat Raja, who ruled over those at Mundapalli, made them pay head money - two chuckrams a head monthly as soon as they were able to work and a similar sum as 'presence money' besides certain quotas of fruits and vegetables and feudal service. They were also forced to lend money if they possessed any, and to bring leaves and other articles without any pretext of paying them, and that for days. The men these villages were placed in were in a worse position than the slaves. The petty Raja used to give a silver headed cane to the principal headman, who was then called ‘Perumban or 'cane man’. The head money was popularly known as ‘thalakaram’ in the case of males and ‘mulakaram’ in the case of females. It is said that these exactions came to an end under very tragic circumstances. Once, when the agent of the Raja went to recover talakaram, the Malayarayan pleaded inability to pay the amount, but the agent insisted on payment. The Arayans were so enraged that they cut off the head of the man and placed it before the Agent saying ‘here is your ‘thalakaram.’ Similarly, inability was pleaded in the case of an Arayan woman from payment of mulakaram, but the Agent again persisted. One breast of the woman was cut off and placed before him saying ‘here is your mulakaram.’ On hearing this incident, the Raja was so enraged at the indiscretion of the agent that he forthwith ordered the discontinuance of this system of receiving payment.

Tracking this incident back is not difficult and this observation could be attributed to Rev Henry Baker. We know that he was the one who preached the gospel at Kombukuthy near Mundakkayam in 1847-49 and converted a few of the local inhabitants into Christianity. But we can also see from Baker’s records that his work slackened after 1860 and that the Punnattu Raja maintained that if Baker or his successors converted anybody, they had to leave his kingdom. The situation changed only much later after the Raja’s tone mellowed. So the last sentence in LAK’s quote above has to be dated later than 1847-49 and before 1865 when the tax was formally abolished in Travancore, of which kingdom, Poonjar was a suzerainty. We also observe that the tax was a flat 2 chakrams per month per working head, and this was an income tax of sorts.

Nangeli’s case dates farther back to 1840 according to SN Sadasivan and if that was certain, should have been gleefully reported by these missionaries, in my opinion. The LMS missionaries who stirred things up in the name of social awakening, during that period, had not pounced on that story when it happened and had never reported it though they highlighted many macabre events of the period. A case from the 1840’s Chertalai would have had reporting precedence over an Arayan hill tribe near Munnar, being nearer and accessible. Reading the histories of Nadars, missionaries, the LMS etc,, we do not come across any such case in Chertalai during 1840, but that is not to say it never happened, only that it is unlikely. RN Yesudasan also reports this mutilation on the strength of a retelling from NR Krishnan’s account in his book ‘Ezhavar Annum Innum’. It is possible that Sadasivan too picked this information up from Krishnan, a bureaucrat who published his work in 1960. That is the source of Nangeli’s self-mutilation event.

While we see that the Poonjar Raja abolished these head taxes sometime between 1845 and 1865, the government of Travancore abolished these 110 minor taxes under pressure from the British vide an order dated 22nd karkidagom 1040 ME (1864-1865). These stupid taxes were not applied or mentioned from then on.

But there was still an unresolved issue, that was the so called ‘upper cloth issue’.

The upper cloth controversies relate to something else. Again reporters and writers have described the whole story in a wrong light, stating that only the lower classes went about with uncovered bosoms and that they were expected to do so as subservient slaves. It was certainly not the case and most castes of that time dressed in a similar fashion, willingly so, for it was the norm, custom and practice in Travancore. In reality, there was no shame attached to it till they saw their converted sisters doing so and till those women berated them for not doing so. I was also surprised to note Yesudasan mentioning that Nambudri woman (I think he confused the Nambudri with the few Tamil Brahmin women of Travancore) always wore a smart colored jacket fastened in front and an upper cloth over it (also mentioning that they wore silk dresses, and were adorned with many gold ornaments and diamonds), Nair women wore a chela and that only Ezhava, Nadar and other lower caste girls had to go about bare bosomed. This I believe is not quite factual and will be refuted by anybody who has studied these communities. The only womenfolk who covered their bosoms were Muslim and Christian woman (Syrian Catholics and early Portuguese converts). The Christians wore what is known as ’Ethapu’ and the Muslims the ‘Kuppayam’. It is true however that upper caste women of repute did wear a chela or upper cloth loosely slung about their chests, but one should note that they usually removed it while at home or while visiting temples.

As conversions increased, the Nadar women (Shanars of Channatikal) took to wearing the kuppayam (Converts were loosely termed Kuppayakar) or a loose upper garment as they were advised to, in the interest of modesty and decency. The non-converts were prevented from robing themselves by the upper castes of Travancore.

But the first upper cloth issue was picked up even earlier, around 1750.The first reported ‘upper cloth’ related mutilation is connected to Grose, Forbes and the Attingal Rani. This dates all the way back to the time when Grose visited Travancore and Cochin. He wrote about the incident thus, in his travelogue. Forbes who visited later checked out the story, and confirmed that such an account did take place.

The women of those countries are not allowed to cover any part of their breasts, to the naked display of which they annex no idea of immodesty, which in fact ceases by the familiarity of it to the eye. Most Europeans at their first arrival experience the force of temptation from such a nudity on the foot of the ideas, to which their education and customs have habituated them: but it is not long before those impressions by their frequency entirely wear off, and they view it with as little emotion as the natives themselves, or as any of the most obvious parts of the body, the face, or hands. In some parts of the Malabar, this custom is however more rigorously observed than in others.  A Queen of Attinga, on a woman of her country coming into her presence, who having been some time in an European settlement, where she had conformed to the fashion there, had continued the concealment of her breasts, ordered them to be cut off, for daring to appear before her with such a mark of disrespect to the established manners of the country….

I will now provide you with a brief overview of the well documented ‘upper cloth movement’, connected mainly with the Channatikal (the Nadar or the Shanar women) in South Travancore. The first uprising happened in 1822-23 when converts started wearing the kuppayam (according to an order dated 1814) and the upper caste Hindus would not tolerate it. The courts intervened at Fr Mead’s behest and agreed not to fine the ladies covering themselves. The friction between the converts and the Hindus continued and in 1829-30 erupted into more troubles. The Ranee of Travancore now intervened and stated that nobody, not even the Shanar converts were allowed to wear upper clothes. The Nadars did not quite heed to the order and continued to wear the kuppayam. In 1858-59, the dewan reiterated the Ranee’s order and of course troubles erupted again. This order also incensed the missionaries who petitioned the Raja of Travancore first and later Sir Charles Trevelyan, the new Governor of Madras following the establishment of British governance of India w.e.f. 1858. The governor contacted the resident Cullen and asked him to take up the matter with the Raja.

The raja finally issued a proclamation in 1859 permitting converts to wear the kuppayam, but not an upper cloth in the same fashion as caste Hindus of Travancore. This was also not acceptable to the missionaries as the Shanars wanted to wear the same upper cloth to signify parity with Hindu upper castes. They continued the pressure through the British administrators, forcing the Raja to issue a new proclamation in 1865 granting full ‘freedom in dressing’ for the Nadars. There are also papers (Chandramohan) which imply that British economic interests slanted the upper cloth issue such that it had a positive impact on imported cloth sales.

But if the Nangeli case occurred, why did the missionaries or historians not document it? One could always argue that the missionaries did not report Nangeli’s case because it was unrelated to them, for Nangeli was an Ezhava who did not convert. The point I am getting to is that regardless of its authenticity, the breast tax issue and upper cloth issues were unrelated and that combining them to create a sensational story does not seem right. In the reported cases at Attingal and Poonjar, the punishment or mutilation was put into effect by another, upon the victim. There is also another aspect to be borne in mind. Self-mutilation is probably easy to write about, but not the easiest thing done, especially slicing off one’s own breasts. As for Nangeli’s story, I could find no factual evidence, maybe it is true, maybe not, but it has nothing to do with the upper cloth. Perhaps there is something more out there on the event, if so, please do let me know and I will add a para to this article, gladly.
I should also make it clear that I profess no disrespect to any caste or religion and totally agree that all these communities were oppressed at that time, pushed down by the so called upper castes. I do not condone any of these actions, nor am I in support of any kind of caste segregation, but I am just being objective in this analysis as an observer and student of Kerala’s history.

So much for the story of the taxes and modesty, all matters which have since been corrected in the progressive state which we now know as Kerala.

Before we leave the topic, let me mention something seemingly related. You will be surprised to note that women around the world still pay a certain amount of ‘breast tax’ and men pay an ‘underwear tax’ annually. Surprised, right? I chanced on this information while perusing Gresser’s interesting work which expands on the premise that the highest tariffs of most countries are on the items most important to low income families and on the produce imported from the world’s poorest countries. Taking the example the USA and records from the early years of the 21st century, he records that tariffs generated an amount of 560M$ (2.4%) on imported steel worth 23B$.

There was uproar about it in various exporting countries, but they failed to notice that USA also imported about 10B$ worth of underwear and this generated an even higher tariff of 786M$ (8%). In this category was included brassieres, panties, garter belts, negligees and men’s underwear. To summarize, brassieres worth 2B$ generated the highest tariff, 270M$ or 12.9% (5 times higher than steel in %) while men’s underwear worth 2B$ generated 116M$ or 6%!! Spread over approximately 140 million women in America, this ‘breast tax’ amounts to roughly 70 cents per breast, per year! This Gresser explains, is still only the tariff. Add the markup of the retailer, other sales and administration costs and overheads, state taxes etc., and you can see that it works out to so much more! Have somebody run the same calculations in India and compare it to the historical past.  Regrettably this is how it is, even today, only you don’t see it.

A Social History of India – SN Sadasivan
Travancore tribes and castes Vol 1, L. Aanatha Krishna Ayyar
A Voyage to the East Indies – John Henry Grose
Protestant Christianity and people's movements in Kerala - J W Gladstone
A People's Revolt in Travancore – R N Yesudasan
The History of the London Missionary Society in Travancore - R N Yesudasan
Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: the British in India – BS Cohen
Freedom from want -Edward Gresser
Let the hills rejoice: the conversion of the Hill Arrians of Kerala and its effect on evangelism – K G Daniel
The Nadars of Tamilnad; the political culture of a community in change - Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.
Colonial connections of Protestant missionaries in Travancore – P Chandrmohan
The Breast-Cloth Controversy: Caste Consciousness and Social Change in Southern Travancore Robert L Hardgrave


Pradeep Kumar said…
Dear Maddy,

I would like to differ with you.Kindly note that history is created by People and not by the Muscle-flexing Virulent (MV) types.Whether the tax levied in terms of employability or upper cloth permit is not the issue. The fact that the down-trodden Maiayarayas had to submit their breasts and heads to the tax-collector is the tell-tale event. Cherthala or any other place is immaterial. The event turn into a myth and is engraved in the collective psyche. The myth energizes umpteen generations.In short, a ruler is remembered by the "Gross Happiness Index" of his/her subjects and not by the imposition of taxes to tide over economic crisis.
Maddy said…
Hi Pradeep,
Essentially we are in agreement. As you rightly stated, the Hill Arayans were the people who rebelled and made a point and should have remained in focus. What I was getting to was the alteration of the story and blurring of the thin line between legend and fact, in the interest of populism. The cause and effect of events that took place, is quite clear to most people and its impact as you will agree, has been positive on Kerala society. The ruler MV and his taxes from the past was not really the core subject discussed, but the blending of two issues today, to make a new storyline.
balaji said…
Dear Maddy
Issue is only high taxes collected from Travancore Raja by British. To recover that money, Raja had to collect from people. Then advice to Raja is also given by British. So British were virtually lootin our money, gave impression that Raja were doing oppressive regime and created the divide among communities to serve their regime. Missionaries aided in amplifying divisions.

The fact that all communities were having money clearly shows that India was rich, and everyone was happy.