Tamil Nadu CM invokes memory of 19th-century Malayali icon who chopped off breasts to protest horrendous tax

Paintings on the sacrifice of Nangeli by T Murali. Sourced from a Manorama Online article

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on Monday invoked the legend of Nangeli, a 19th-century Malayali woman who chopped off her breasts protesting the 'breast tax' imposed on members of the lower caste in the princely state of Travancore.

Stalin was speaking at Nagercoil on the 200th anniversary of the 'Thol Seelai Porattam', also known as the 'Maaru Marakkal Samaram' or the Channar Revolt, a piece of history shared by Kerala and Tamil Nadu from the pre-Independence era.

Nagercoil in the Kanyakumari district along with a few other southern regions of Tamil Nadu was part of the Travancore Kingdom that ruled most parts of southern Kerala. The commemorative event was attended by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

During his address, Stalin recalled the various 'injustices' from the past, notably the 'breast tax', which he remarked was extremely vile. "In Thiruvithamkoor (Travancore), lower caste women were not allowed to cover their breasts. Those who dared were tortured. A breast tax was imposed on them. Can there be any worst form of injustice?" Stalin said.

It was then that he paid tribute to Nangeli, without naming her. "There was a woman who chopped off her breasts protesting the taxation."

The history books say that Nangeli's protest that claimed her life sparked an uprising in Travancore leading to the Channar Revolt that ended with King Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma's 1859 proclamation allowing lower caste women to cover their breasts.

The forgotten legend
Nangeli was a lower-caste woman who lived in Cherthala in the Alappuzha district. Back then, women of lower castes in Travancore were prohibited from covering their breasts.

The authorities extracted a 'breast tax' from women according to the size of their breasts.

According to the legend, Nangeli dared to oppose the 'breast tax' and wore a 'melmundu' (upper cloth) that angered the upper-caste men.

One day the tax collectors knocked on her door. Freshly-cut plantain leaves had been laid out in front of the house for the tax to be placed upon as an offering. But Nangeli confronted them with a sickle.

To the horror of the authorities, she chopped off her breasts and they fell on the plantain leaves. She bled to death, but her sacrifice infuriated the lower-caste women who rose in protest.

The place Nangeli lived was later called 'Mulachi Parambu' (place of woman with breasts).

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