Nangeli – the woman who stood firm against the oppression of women even before we knew the meaning of feminism, back in the 19th century.
Even though the sacrifice of this woman is courageous and something that triggered the revolution, Nangeli is forgotten today. Her story needs to be known and is important as any other story in history. Why? You’ll know that after reading what she did and what she went through.
Nangeli was a woman who lived in the 19th century in the princely state of Travancore, India – which is now the state of Kerala. She belonged to Ezhava caste, which was considered to be a ‘lower caste’. We have learnt in history that the caste system was very strongly woven in to the fabric of society 200 years ago.
The kings back then made sure that the people who belonged to the lower caste had to pay heavy taxes on various things like wealth, property, jewellery etc. There were outrageous things included in the list of these things on which the lower caste people had to pay taxes. Things like, tax on growing a moustache, wearing footwear for women – covering their breasts!
This kind of tax was known as mulakkaram which the poor Ezhava women from Cherthala, Travancore had to pay. If they did not pay it, they could not cover their breasts in public! Outrageous isn’t it?
Nangeli, who decided to raise her voice against this disgusting system, did something that etched her name in history forever.
One day, when pravathiyar or the village officer came to her home once again to ask for breast tax, she is known to have chopped off her breasts and gave them to him on a plantain leaf. She died the same day due to excessive loss of blood.
It is also said that Nangeli’s husband, Chirukandan jumped into her funeral pyre overcome with grief on seeing his wife’s mutilated body.
In the 19th century, the lower caste women revolted against this practice in huge numbers, known as the Channar revolt. As a result of this uprising, the lower caste women were allowed to cover themselves with a jacket – kuppayam– which was worn by Syrian Christians but were not allowed to cover their breasts like the higher caste women. The movement got violent with several proclamations prohibited the lower caste women to cover themselves like the higher caste ones.
After around 30 years, in 1859, their revolt bore fruits. According to a book titled ‘Socio-religious reform movements in India’ written by Kenneth Jones, “On 26 July 1859, under pressure from Charles Trevelyan, the Madras Governor, the king of Travancore issued a proclamation proclaiming the right for all Nadar women to cover their breasts, either by wearing jackets, like the Christian Nadars, or tie coarse-cloth around their upper-body, like the Mukkavattigal (low-caste fisher-women).”
Nangeli is an unsung heroine of history. She is one of those women who laid down the very first bricks to build the foundation for equality.
Preview Photo: thelogicalindian.com