The general trend followed by the educated elite class which controls the narrative of history writing in Bharat has been to give class conflicts and the resulting economic compulsions, a central position in the course of events that happened in the past.
Since it’s hard to define Bharat’s society along the lines of western culture, some rearrangements became necessary to maintain the Marxist narrative of emphasizing class-struggles as a constant element in all history. Thus, in several areas, the Leftists and liberals had to resort to creating false stories, discover conflicts along the fault lines in society, and at times blackout specific events from the narrative.
One such latest invention is the story of a woman who ‘cut off her breasts’ as a revolt against ‘patriarchy’ and ‘oppressive feudalism’.
The Kingdom of Travancore in Kerala had maintained a tax called the ‘breast tax’ in the 19th century. According to the general perception sustained by the leftist-liberals, the ‘Breast Tax’ was a fine raised from lower caste women for covering their breasts. But, Mulakkaram (Breast Tax) and Thalakkaram (Head -Tax) were not charge/collected for Breasts and Head as propagated by the liberals.
The landlords had to pay an annual tax for the laborers who worked in the fields to the government. Tax paid by women workers was recognized as Breast tax, and that by male laborers as Head tax. The terminologies, Mula (Breast) and Thala (Head) were nothing but two general terms meant to distinguish between the male and female laborers.
So if the breast tax was 10, it was supposed to be ten women workers and head tax as 10 meant ten male laborers in the particular land lord’s agricultural field. Just because the name of the tax had ‘Breast’ and ‘Head’ in it, our eminent historians and mainstream media created a gut-wrenching story of oppression and misogyny. They did not even try to check if these two taxes were the only source of income of the Travancore kingdom, before bringing caste oppression guilt trips on the upper caste communities of Travancore.
Looks like, to talk or write about the history of Bharatiya society, one just has to know good English and use the terminologies of feudalism, patriarchy, caste oppression and revolution.
However, Breast tax has been depicted by the liberals and leftist intelligentsia as a penalty charged from lower caste women for covering their breasts. This ‘Breast Tax’ is being used to narrate the oppressive and regressive caste society of Travancore which prevented women of lower caste from covering their upper body. The fact is that many of the upper caste women themselves did not cover their breasts even in early 20th century as is evident from historical photographs and documents.
Dutch representative Johan Nieuhoff in 17th century writes about the attire of Ashwathi Thirunal Umayamma Rani, then Queen of Travancore:
“… I was introduced into her majesty’s presence. She had a guard of above 700 Nair soldiers about her, all clad after the Malabar fashion; the Queens attire being no more than a piece of calico wrapt around her middle, the upper part of her body appearing for the most part naked, with a piece of calico hanging carelessly round her shoulders.”
In the above image of the 17th-century sketch of Dutch traveler Johan Nieuhoff before Umayamma Rani, we can see her along with her topless women attendants. Like the soldiers of the Queen seen in the image, men of Kerala still feel free to remain bare chested in public.
On the other hand, we find many women of lower castes who covered their breasts during the same period as well.
So, it was a free choice: those who wanted to cover themselves covered, and the others went topless. If we look further back, none of the women in Kerala, except for perhaps Muslims and Christians, covered their breasts.
17th century French traveler François Pyrard de Laval describes royal women of Kerala as follows:
“But to return to the queen: in her dress and attire she differs in no respect from the other Nair wives and ladies, or even from the princesses and great ladies, except that their ornaments are a little more charged with pearls and jewels. The mark of the greatest honour and grandeur with them is to have their ears large, as already described, and this queen had them so large that they reached the nipples.
She is nude from the waist upwards, like all the other women, but covered all over with divers trinkets, pearls, and jewels, as are all other women of every rank, as I have frequently remarked in speaking of them.”
With a humid tropical climate, there is no need for covering up with too many clothing in Kerala. Traditional attire of Keralites was mundu or white unstitched cloth. Islands of Bali and Sri Lanka, which had similar climate, also had similar clothing practices until recently. Islamic invasions and enforcement of Victorian morals transformed the society into “covering the body more” as the symbol of modesty.
By the 19th century, few ladies in Kerala belonging to elite ranks adopted covering their bosoms influenced by the European contacts. But many remained uncovered.
Also, there were clashes between Hindus and Christian converts who covered themselves after conversion. The church used their usual tactic of divide and convert during the 19th century.
Despite all these facts, many liberals and leftists still peddle the propaganda based on a random local myth centered around a lady named Nangeli who supposedly chopped off her breasts when she couldn’t pay the ‘breast tax’. Further, it is said that her husband also committed suicide. This story, of course, has no historical basis, and the origin itself is unknown.
The revolutionary ‘saviors’ of the oppressed castes have managed to appropriate the Channar revolt as a fight of avarna women for the right to wear upper cloth, ignoring all the associated facts.
Ayya Vaikundar, a social reformer, led the Channar revolt against the British colonial state of Travancore. He gathered people from 18 different communities – from Barbers to Brahmins – against the zealous missionary activity of the British imperial power. He dared to call the British as “White demons” who ignited differences in society and extorted high amount of taxes from the public.
The brutality and greed of the British in forcing massive taxes from the ordinary Bharatiyas is a well-documented phase of our history. Yet, the left-liberals who drool on class conflicts and the legendary revolutions of ordinary people against the ruling class, forget Ayya Vaikuntar and the revolt led by him which united the entire society cutting across caste lines. Instead, they strive to invent new icons of the downtrodden from nowhere and keep repeating the lies which their predecessors, the evangelist missionaries, pushed for in the expansion of “God’s Kingdom” during the colonial era.
(Special thanks to our dear sister @Kuvalayamala for helping us to write this)
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