The village-legend of Nangeli is about an Ezhava woman who lived in the early 19th century at Cherthala in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore in India and supposedly, cut off her breasts in an effort to protest against a caste-based "breast tax".
Multiple historians have documented that uncovering one's breasts was revered as a symbolic token of homage from the lower castes towards the upper castes in the state of Travancore and a state-law prevented this covering which served to demarcate the caste hierarchy in a prominent manner and often served as the core locus of spontaneous rebellions by lower castes.
A breast tax or mulakkaram was supposedly imposed by the landowning Brahmin king on lower caste Hindu women, which was to be paid if they wished to cover their breasts in public and was further assessed in proportion to the size of their breasts. But, historical documentation of the conditionality of this tax and its linkage with breast size is scarce, despite ample primary literature covering the spans. Thus, Manu S. Pillai and some other scholar rejects a rigid interpretation of the etymological-connection and asserts it to be a generic woman-specific tax that was charged from all lower caste communities.
According to the story, in the early years of the 19th century, the pravathiyar (village officer) of Travancore, came to her home to survey her breasts and collect the breast tax. Nangeli revolted against the harassment; chopping off her breasts and presenting them to him in a plantain leaf. She died soon from loss of blood. Nangeli's husband, Chirukandan, seeing her mutilated body was overcome by grief and jumped into her funeral pyre - in what was supposedly the first male sati. The couple was childless.
Pillai though rejects this narrative and argues that back in her days, covering breasts was not a fashion in Kerala's radically liberal and matriarchal society where Victorian standards of morality penetrated into the society decades later, via the British invaders and led to subsequent class-struggles for the right to wear upper cloth. He thus questions the authenticity of the narrative and believes it to be a protest against the oppressive tax regime against the lower castes, which got appropriated with the passage of time, in pursuit of a different patriarchal fight for the preservation of female dignity.
Following the death of Nangeli, a series of people's movements were set off and other similar folk-lores have been noted. The breast tax system was ultimately annulled in Travancore, soon afterwards and the place she lived had came to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman).
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