When the Subaltern Spoke: Nangeli’s Fight Against Oppressive “Breast Tax”

By Arpita Paul

The kaleidoscopic patterns of community-based beliefs, practices, and lifestyles have given India a vibrant collective identity, yet, this multiculturalism remains missing from the historical canon.[1] Suppressed beneath the overwhelming patriarchal and Brahmanical popular narratives of history in India today is the nineteenth-century story of Nangeli. Her story is one of solo defiance against the repressive social apparatus of the southern Indian Kingdom of Travancore (fig.1) and her courageous sacrifice for her Ezhava community people.

Fig.1 Map showing the kingdom of Travancore. The Travancore kingdom existed from 1729-1947.

Historically, Ezhavas worked chiefly as agricultural laborers, martial arts trainers for kings, Ayurveda practitioners, and were also involved in works like ship construction and weaving.[2] Ezhava constituted 12.12% of the total population according to a document submitted to the Mahārāja (King) Sri Moolam Tirunal (1857-1924) in 1891.[3] Yet, the Ezhava did not hold a single government position, signifying their systematic exclusion from the higher grades of services. Ezhavas were one of the “backward communities” under avarna, which had faced a long history of caste-based oppression by the upper castes. The subjugation of knowledge, restrictions on walking through all the public roads[4] and entering temples, and exclusion from politics, sciences, and defense, accentuated their marginalized position in most of India’s recorded history. Treatment towards the low castes by the upper caste people was like that of enslaved people who “could be let on hire or transferred at the choice of the owner, offered as presents to friends or as gifts to temples, and bought, sold, or mortgaged in the same manner as the land on which they dwelt or as the cattle and other property of their owners.”[5] And worst yet was the condition of Ezhava women, for whom patriarchy defined their role in society and value as individuals. From facing untouchability to restrictions on carrying an umbrella and even wearing shoes, Ezhava women experienced sexual violence, exploitation, and deprivation of any social status, dignity, or acknowledgment.[6]

As Maitrayee Chaudhuri put it, “[c]ultural practices often chosen as emblematic of community identity pertain to women’s mobility and control of sexuality.” The caste difference for Ezhava women was made prominent through the enforcement of sartorial norms, which were pivotal in subverting the structures of their identity and social position. The upper castes disallowed Ezhava women from wearing the mookkuthi (nose-stud)—a mandate which, in case unfollowed, led to ripping out of the mookkuthi by upper castes, maiming the person and even leading to their social ostracism.[7] Coercion was also witnessed by those who pierced their ears. Moreover, Ezhava women were restricted to wearing kallumala (stone necklaces) as a mark of their subjugation, unlike the upper caste women, who wore ornaments of gold or silver. Refusing to wear kallumala was met with consequences of brutal assaults such as rapes, chopping of breasts, and clipping of ears. The outburst against these interdictions was finally seen in the Mookkuthi Samaram (Nose Stud Agitation)[8] of 1860 and Kallumala Samaram (Stone Necklace Agitation) of 1915, which were protests staged by the lower caste women against the social disenfranchisement, which was a warning of their non-complacent nature. Ezhava women were experts in weaving a typical variety of cloth, often referred to as melmundu (upper fabric to cover torso): smooth cotton with beautiful golden bordering, especially worn by upper caste Nair women. However, the weavers were not allowed to emulate the clothing style of the privileged upper-caste women.[10]

One of the exemplary figures is Nangeli, who initiated Achippudava Samaram (the Breast Tax Agitation), a protest against breast tax that revolutionized the course of Indian history.[9] To fulfill personal and colonial revenue demands, royal officials coercively extracted a horrendous “breast tax” from non-dominant caste Ezhava women according to the size of their breasts once they had passed puberty, a system known as Mulakaram, which flourished under the regime of the Kingdom of Travancore. (Women of all castes, except Brahmins, were supposed to stand half-naked to shower flowers upon the king and his convoy when they would pass through the streets of the city.) Nangeli, who lived in Cherthala, endured the humiliation of paying the “general” breast tax just like any other Ezhava woman until she was done with it. She started wearing melmundu as a mark of her protest, which many upper-caste men did not appreciate. One day, when the parvarthiyar (a tax collector official) was doing his door-to-door rounds collecting taxes for breasts, Nangeli stood waiting in her house with a sickle in hand that she had used to cut fresh plantain leaves[11]that morning, determined with rage that she will not pay the tax that day or ever again. As the official knocked and asked for the payment, Nangeli’s response to the long endurance of this undignified practice was chopping off her breasts, which then fell on the plantain leaf—her offering to the royal officials as her “final settlement of the tax.”[12]

Spurring a furious uprising, Nangeli’s death resulted in agitations on the streets that popularly came to be known as the Channar Revolt of 1859, which continued from 1813 to 1859. The agitations finally resulted in the Proclamation on July 26, 1859, which annulled the tax for covering the upper body. The home of Nangeli, where the incident took place, became known as Mulachi Parambu, the land of breasted women.

Women’s bodies have served as powerful symbols of protest in national and transnational discourse. The “Mother’s Protest” staged by naked Meitei women, or the semi-nude walk of Pooja Chauhan through the streets of Rajkot, are some substantial pieces on the contemporary social canvas where Indian women transgressed conventional sexual and social standards to project their nude or semi-stripped bodies as an embodiment of resistance against patriarchal violence, gendered inequality, and injustice. However, the travesty of contemporary discourse is that it has repeatedly hijacked stories of women’s rebellion and either muted them forever or molded them according to the “comfort” of the time. The nude protest of Meitei women represented a stand against the misuse of power by the Indian Army’s Assam Rifles Battalion, who had tortured, raped, and murdered 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama, a daughter of their community. The semi-nude protest of Pooja was against the inaction of police in response to her repeated complaints against her in-laws, who physically abused her to gain dowry and pressured her to produce a male child. Their bold acts of defiance—unabashed and unapologetic expressions of sexuality, feminine energy, and power—has been deliberately raised in academic scholarship to the sacred position of godly figures, much like ancient Indian statues and stupas that symbolize feminine glory.

As historian Manu S. Pillai has argued, Nangeli, too, has succumbed to this revision. Drenched in blood, the “offering of breasts” by Nangeli has been reduced to the artful shackles of “honor” of a woman who wanted to cover her breasts. However, her rebellious defiance is not an archetype of sacrifice to protect “woman’s dignity” against “disgrace” or “shame”—ideas imported from Victorian patriarchy and reinforced by missionaries who aimed to protect the “dignity” of lower caste women if they converted. Rather, their rebellion, sacrifice of modesty, and martyrdom more so signify their stand against the system than the celebration of feminine glory. Truth has become ever more elusive in the ceaseless interplay of power and politics. Nangeli’s “audacity” to raise an ultimatum to the authority demanding equal rights to use melmundu of upper castes, especially Namboothiri Brahmin women,is difficult to acknowledge in a society enmeshed in a complex political structure wherein an interpretation of the past could lead to an overwhelming response. Hence, rather than resurrecting Nangeli today as a low-caste, tribal woman who stood up to the high caste and ruling authorities, it is prudent to let her sleep—her rebellion carefully understudied and her death “safe” in the possession of those who write history.

The twelve Meitei women, Pooja, and Nangeli, represent the gendered subaltern subject who subverts the physicality of her body from vulnerability to powerful defiance.  However, the question remains whether their voices were enough to mute the combined patriarchal voices that denied them agency. The answer can be overwhelming as the imperishable achievements struggle to be acknowledged as an official historical state record.  The Central Board of Secondary Education, as per the directive of Madras High Court, removed the section of the Class IX Social Science textbook entitled “Caste, Conflict and Dress Change” that dealt with subalterns—Nadar and Ezhava women who were forced to keep their upper bodies open by the caste council of the Nairs in 1800. The removed section was said to contain factual “inaccuracies.” Hence, without opting to research deeper into a significant part of the region’s cultural history to improve its accuracy, the entire section was deemed “objectionable” and was ordered to be removed by the court.

Perhaps, this is the answer to the question “what prevents the “‘”fact-respecting, secular historian”’” in India from gaining the attention of the public while wanting to adjudicate on disputes about the past which have a vibrant, everyday presence in contemporary India?”[13] As the dictum goes, the one who controls the past controls the future. Many of the voices of marginalized women have remained silent behind “an unprecedented enthusiasm for history between the demands of the colonial administrators and the needs of nationalist intellectuals that took shape long before the establishment of history as an academic discipline in India.”[14] The combined endeavors of the Christian missionaries and social reformers who pushed the subaltern women out of their prescribed identities were acknowledged in Article 15, adopted on November 29, 1948, and the applause raised for the “real known” heroes was loud enough to enfeeble those who could not speak for themselves.

Nangeli is a subaltern’s voice against the unjust dominant social order, painfully eager to be narrated. It is a voice laden with an unfed hope of an equitable future that is more inclusive. Though her voice might seem to have faded over time, this cannot nullify the echo of her revolutionary sacrifice, which continued to resonate in the steps of Draupadi Murmu as she walked into the parliament on July 25, 2022, for her Oath as the 15th President, and 2nd woman President, of India, who is also the first woman hailing from a tribal community to occupy the highest constitutional post in the nation.

Dr. Arpita Paul is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies, Visva-Bharati University, India. A former visiting fellow at Kansai International Exchange Institute at Osaka and Senior Research Fellow at Tokyo Gakugei University, she holds a Ph.D. in the history of Japanese literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her ongoing research is a comparative study of the history of intellectual trends in India and Japan (1868-1912), and her forthcoming publication is on the influence of Vedanta, the Wang Yang Ming School of Philosophy, and Emerson on Meiji intelligentsia.

Title Image courtesy of Indus Scrolls

Further Readings:

Jeffrey, Robin. The Decline of Nayar Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore 1847-1908. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1976.

Devika, J. “The Aesthetic Woman: Re-Forming Female Bodies and Minds in Early Twentieth-Century Keralam.” Modern Asian Studies 39, no. 2 (2005): 461-87.

Menon, P. S. The Breast Tax, WorditCDE, 2019.

Kurien, Prema. “Colonialism and Ethnogenesis: A Study of Kerala, India.” Theory and Society 23, no. 3 (1994): 385-417.

Hardgrave, Robert. “The Breast Cloth Controversy: Caste Consciousness and Social Change in Southern Travancore.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 5, no. 2 (1968): 171-87.

Nair, Janaki. “Textbook Controversies and the Demand for a Past: Public Lives of Indian History.” History Workshop Journal 82 (2016): 235-54.

Sarvesh, Tarushikha, Rama Shanker Singh, and Tehzeeb Alam. “Dalit Women in History: Struggles, Voices, and Counterpublics,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 22, no. 10 (October 2021): 91-105.


[1] In India people are who are socially, economically, politically, and legally ignored and excluded in Indian society such as women, children, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, persons with disabilities, migrants and the aged are regarded as marginalized or vulnerable groups.

[2]  M. D. Subash Chandran, “From the shadows of legitimacy: Problems and prospects of folk healing in India,” Traditional and Folk Practices 02, 03, 04, no. 1 (2016): 74-95.

[3] T.P. Sankarankutty Nair, “Dr.Paplu-The Pioneer Ezhava Social Reformer of Kerala (1863-1950),” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40 (1979): 841-48.

[4] The high castes used the term “po, po” while arriving on the road which was a warning to low castes to move away from their sight to avoid pollution through seeing each other.

[5] E.T. Mathew, “Growth of Literacy in Kerala: State Intervention, Missionary Initiatives and Social Movements,” Economic and Political Weekly 34 (1999): 2811-20.

[6] Tomila Lankina and Lullit Getachew, “Competitive Religious Entrepreneurs: Christian Missionaries and Female Education in Colonial and Post-Colonial India,” British Journal of Political Science 43 (2013): 103-31.

[7] Meera Velayudhan, “Changing Roles and Women’s Narratives,” Social Scientist 22 (1994): 64-79.

[8] In the Mookkuthi Samaram of 1860, an Ezhava woman in Pandalam marked her protest against this interdiction by wearing a mookkuthi (nose stud). Enraged by this act of defiance, the men of upper castes ripped off the mookkuthi, maiming her. Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker (1825-1874), who is associated with this incident as the unsung rebel and hero who fought for the justice of ezhava and all avarna women, was furious on hearing this, and supported them by making gold nose-studs in hundreds, and asking them to wear it. No one dared to challenge Panicker as he was immensely rich and had a reputation for being ruthless with those who opposed him.

[9] There were even taxes on men called Thalakkaram, or “Head tax,” which was the tax for the right to have one’s head not cut down; the Meeshakkaram, “Mustache Tax,” to have the right to have mustache; and even taxes on fishermen’s nets.

[10] M.A. Valsa. “Dalit Women Empowerment Struggles in Pre-Independent Kerala,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 79 (2019).

[11] Plantain leaves were generally used to offer money or other forms of payment of tax to the officials.

[12] Vichitra Gupta, “Breast Tax: Social Oppression of Dalit Women,” Contemporary Social Sciences 26 (2017): 17-26.

[13] It is the question with which Dipesh Chakrabarty began his argument in his article titled “The Public Life of History: An Argument Out of India,” published in Post-Colonial Studies in 2008.

[14] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Public Life of History: An Argument Out of India,” Postcolonial Studies 11, no. 2, (2008): 169-90.

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