Every state in India is home to traditions that are a dark part of their own history, and relatively unknown to the rest of the country. Kerala, in the early 1800s, was home to one such practice called “Mulakkaram.”
The Practice of Breast Tax
Mulakkaram literally means “breast tax,” and was imposed on lower-caste or “avarna” women by the “savarnas” or upper castes. The amount of tax to be paid was calculated on the size of the breasts. Nair and Namboothiri women- the warrior and priestly classes respectively- were allowed to cover their upper bodies, but their lower-caste counterparts were not.
Taxes were also levied on other “privileges” such a growing a moustache or wearing ornaments. Basically, it was an extensive and deeply entrenched system of casteism, where avarnas were treated as sub-human and were taxed even for their basic bodily rights.
Subjugation Through Humiliation
Leaving the chest naked was not seen as a sign of vulgarity, it was seen as a sign of humility and deference to one’s “superiors”. Many avarna women attempted to cover their chests but were forcefully humiliated and punished for doing so.
This repulsive and perverse custom not only brought in money to the royal coffers, but it also left avarna women vulnerable to the eyes of many hypocritical savarna men. However, in the early 1800s, one brave woman from Cherthala, Alappuzha decided to protest.
The Fiery Woman From Cherthala
Nangeli, a member of Kerala’s Ezhava community, lit the lamp and laid out the banana leaf in anticipation of the visit of the tax-collectors. However, instead of paying the tax, she cut off her own breasts and offered them on the banana leaf.
Nangeli’s shocking death did not lead to the reversal of the breast tax: on the contrary, her husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre, and the rest of her family was forced to vacate the area to avoid getting persecuted.
Mulakkaram In Later Years
The disgusting practice of Mulakkaram was opposed by several women, but it was only in the mid-twentieth century that Kerala’s avarna women gained the right to “cover their chests in a manner similar to their savarna counterparts.”
However, protests against such terrible methods of caste discrimination didn’t go very far. The Nadar community, for example, were told that they would be allowed their rights only if they converted to Christianity. And even after securing the right to cover their chests, they were instructed: “not to cover themselves in a manner similar to Nairs and Namboothiris.”
The Situation In Modern Times
The rise of Communism in Kerala in the mid-to-late twentieth century has, to a large extent, quelled caste discrimination and created more platforms for equal opportunities, but there are still times where casteism bubbles beneath the surface.
Over two hundred years later, we are still in the throes of the Feminist movement, fighting the good fight against misogyny, and for equality. However, the situation of the avarna women in Kerala has improved drastically since the days of Mulakkaram, and there is hope of achieving complete equality, one step at a time.
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