Every historical event has a controversy added to it, so does this. Something that existed and was quite prevalent till the 19th century. “Breast Tax” as it was called or more commonly or locally “Mulakkaram”.
There are two schools of thought; one believing in its existence while the other stating it to be a myth. However, another proportion of people believe that the existence of ‘Breast Tax’ has been much intensified today than it was back then.
But the intention behind penning this down is not to prove whether it existed or not but to bring about discrimination and segregation towards the lower castes, especially the women.
The story as it is known has its origin in the then kingdom of Travancore (a princely state of the 1800s) and what is present-day Kerala. A kind of tax called the Breast Tax or Mulakkaram (in Malayalam) was imposed on the lower caste untouchable Hindu women by the kingdom of Travancore if they wanted to cover their breasts in public.
The tax collectors used to visit every household where a girl just reached puberty and evaluated the tax depending on the size of their breasts. According to professionals, such tax was levied in order to maintain the caste hierarchy. This enhanced the ground of caste discrimination to be more firm.
Interestingly the upper caste women were also in the clutches of gender discrimination because they too had to bare their breasts in front of the deity.
However, few historians and authors believe that such a tax has been misinterpreted and is more far-stretched in terms of its working. Moreover, there has been written proofs that before the establishment of Victorian morality, “covering the torso was not seen as a mark of modesty or virtue for men and women”.
A 17th Century Dutch visitor William Van Nieuhoff writes about the attire of Ashwathi Thirunal Umayamma Rani, then Queen of Travancore, in the following manner:
“… 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 Queen’s attire being no more than a piece of callicoe wrapt around her middle, the upper part of her body appearing for the most part naked, with a piece of callicoe hanging carelessly around her shoulders.”
One might ask, what was the folklore associated with chopping off breasts by a woman named Nangeli? Nangeli was a termed as a lower caste, untouchable woman belonging to the Ezhava caste who was a victim of Mulakkaram and protested for her right to cover her breasts. Few women from the Nadar caste got converted into Christianity in order to fulfil their wish of covering their torso.
On the other hand, as legend says, Nangeli agreed to pay the breast tax, but when the tax collectors demanded the tax, she chopped off her breasts and handed them to the tax collector. She died of excessive bleeding and her husband, unable to bear the pain, jumped into the burning pyre of his wife.
With this, the state of Travancore had to end the levying of this tax and officially abolished it in 1924.
Setting this as the background, keeping aside whether this is a revolutionary reform action or a legendary event, we can well understand the state of the so-called lower castes in our society, whom we called the untouchables and besides these, being a woman at the same time. From time immemorial, women are subjugated, objectified, dominated, suppressed and oppressed, and we are in the 21st century now.