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".
Many historians have registered this incident and India's Central Board of Secondary Education has treated this incident in a syllabus intended for class IX students in social sciences, in a section entitled Caste, Conflict and Dress Change. This was later removed on account of an order by the Madras High Court judging it "objectionable content" as it was perceived as a sign of respect towards the upper castes.
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 kingdom of Travancore (wherein the relatively fluid caste hierarchies prevalent in South India was reified by the rulers) and a state-law prevented any covering of breasts since it demarcated the caste hierarchy in a prominent manner. This had often been the focal point of multiple rebellions by lower castes.
A breast tax (mulakkaram) was also allegedly imposed by the-then Brahmin king on lower caste Hindu women, which was to be paid if they wished to cover their breasts in public; the tax was supposedly assessed in proportion to the size of their breasts. However, historical documentation of the conditionality of this tax and its linkage with breast size is scarce, despite ample primary literature covering the spans — Manu S. Pillai and other scholars reject a rigid interpretation of the etymological connection and instead assert it to be a generic woman-specific tax that was charged from all lower caste communities.
According to the popular narrative, in the early years of the 19th century, the pravathiyar (village officer) of Travancore came to Nangeli's 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 and her 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.
Following the death of Nangeli, a series of people's movements apparently set off and similar folk-lores have been noted. The breast tax system was supposedly annulled in Travancore, soon afterwards and the place she lived had came to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman).
The tale is not recognized in any of India's historical accounts.
Pillai rejects the narrative in entirety and argues that covering breasts was not a fashion in Kerala's radically liberal and matriarchal society during Nangeli's life-span. Victorian standards of morality penetrated into the society decades later via the British invaders, which led to subsequent class-struggles for the right to wear upper cloth. He believes Nangeli to have protested against an oppressive tax regime that was imposed upon all lower castes, which got appropriated with the passage of time, in pursuit of a different patriarchal fight for the preservation of female dignity.
Comic strips have been designed to infuse the story into the current struggles by Dalits against Brahminism. A film on her has been proposed by Vinayan. In 2019 Tamil film Aadai showed a pictorial depiction of the tale of Nangeli.
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