Udayavni Special

Breast tax in Kerala: Story of Nangeli, woman who cut her breast off in protest


Team Udayavani, Jul 28, 2021, 12:01 PM IST

Source: beyondpinkworld

The story of Nangeli is a chance discovery by artist Murali T, as he was flipping through an in-house magazine of a local bank, he stumbled upon a small report about Nangeli, written by a native from her area, Cherthala.

The breast tax was imposed by the king of the erstwhile State of Travancore.

Under this, women from lower castes weren’t allowed to cover their breasts and were taxed heavily if they did so.
Dr. Sheeba KM, an associate Professor of gender ecology and Dalit studies at the Shri Shankaracharya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Kerala told BBC that the purpose of the breast tax was to maintain the caste structure.

Back then, social customs on clothing were tailored to a person’s caste, and that way people were identified by the way they dressed.

Nangeli belonged to the Ezhava caste, who along with women from other communities like the Thia, Hadar, and Dalit communities, was forced to the breast tax.

The legend goes that she decided to protest by covering her chest without paying the breast tax, which went on to becoming a brave move in the early 1900s. It is said when the tax inspector heard about Nangeli not paying the tax, she went to her house asking her not to break the law.

Nangeli replied by cutting off her breasts in protest. Villagers assert that she died of excessive blood loss, while her husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre.

Murali T saddened by the absence of any visual documentation that he decided to paint a likeness of the violent act she brought upon herself. BBC reports that his three paintings of Nangeli have now been published in his book, Amana – The Hidden Pictures of History.

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