Why A 19th Century Dalit Woman’s Sacrifice Is Important Even Today - Homegrown

Why A 19th Century Dalit Woman’s Sacrifice Is Important Even Today

Very few deserve to be heroes. It is, after all, an opulence not everyone merits, and certainly not the ones who do not have the qualities we have come to associate with heroism. In a very chaotic India, where hero-worshipping is rampant (case in point—our political narrative of the past year itself has been fraught with god-like statuses for the men who have been elected to power) these lessons are frequently lost on us. Quite often, the loudest walks away with attention. Unfortunate as these instances are, there are moments when silence makes its presence felt. In the story of Nangeli, drenched in blood as it is, we find a hero whose courage might have lasted a bare few minutes, but it echoes till today, much like a substantial piece of history. One which exists to inspire and not provoke.

The Travancore of the 19th century holds within itself the vestiges of Nangeli’s youthful sacrifice. Popular notions hold the state of Kerala in the years before independence as one where caste and its allied issues had found little ground to blossom. Yet this view, one from outside the fringes of society seems hazy. To the unknown eye, the words of Dr. T.K. Ravindran, a Historian might confirm suspicions, “of all the territorial divisions in India. Kerala particularly Travancore took the sin of pride in the matter of extending the limits of social inequality (Dr. M.S. Jaya Prakash).”

It is here in this land of Travancore whose vast riches were founded on the shoulders of the ever growing and tax-paying backward classes that one finds monetary compensation levied on body parts, particularly those of women. From taxes on the right to wear jewellery to growing a moustache, a value seemed to have been placed on every aspect of their lives. Ludicrous as it may seem; a tax given the term mulakkaram was levied on breasts. 

Unlike upper caste women, Avarna women, colloquially understood as Dalit, were not allowed to cover their bosom in public unless they paid taxes. This could be seen as an extension of untouchability, a method so sadistic, ensuring that the dignity of women belonging to the backward classes were taken away, leaving them with a glaring sense of loss of self. It is mortifying to think that the said tax differed according to the size of the breast.

It was during this time that Nangeli, a beautiful woman living in Cherthala belonging to the Ezhava community decided to deny the pravathiyar, the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. Despite the humiliation and brutality that followed such antics, alarms against such taxes had been sporadic and muted. Women ridden with shame and having lost the battle stayed away from the world, preferring to spend their days within the four corners of their homes, away from the voyeuristic eyes of men.

Caste lords, specifically Nair Pattalam and Savarna goons violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali.
Caste lords, specifically Nair Pattalam and Savarna goons violating the honour of Avarna women in public: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran T Murali.

It is during these times that Nangeli decided to stand up for herself. At thirty-five, Nangeli was a known beauty of the community. Fiercely independent, she was determined to cover herself and venture outside. Once the news of her defiance spread around the village of Cherthala, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli, followed rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home, drenched in her own blood having cut her breasts which she summarily placed in front of the officer much to his horror. A few minutes took away the last shreds of life from within her and by that evening Nangeli was cremated. By then her husband Chirukandan, unable to bear a life without her, sacrificed himself on the same pyre, one of the first recorded instances of a man known to have committed sati.

The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation. Women from lower backgrounds were now allowed to cover their breasts. The home of Nangeli and Chirukandan where the incidence took place became known as mulalchi parambu, the land of the breasted woman.

Digital painting by Ajay Sekhar, representative of Nangeli's sacrifice.
Digital painting by Ajay Sekhar, representative of Nangeli's sacrifice.

Today however, this sacrifice, responsible for giving basic dignity to women in the community seems to have lost itself to communal embarrassment. The land which witnessed the event now stands shared between several owners, bereft of any representation of Nangeli and her courage. Moreover, in the many texts which articulates the caste struggles of men and women in Kerala or the liberation movement undertaken by women, Nangeli’s story is missing. Her courage however has found a place in the autobiographies of local leaders like C. Kesavan and K.R. Gowri Amma. Prejudiced as it may be, history must be constantly rewritten and revised so as to take us away from what Gayatri Spivak terms as sanctioned amnesia and ignorance. 

Nangeli’s story, amongst many others which speak of the silent strength of true heroes, are suppressed due to the overwhelming narrative of the local Brahmanical history. Excavation of stories, forgotten, known but unwritten, and those which remain unknown due to lack of an audience, must benefit from the light of awareness. Nangeli’s story still hunts for pages to be written on but percolation of her story will make her an actor in our present. This road that we trudge on today, has benefitted from the trail blazing gestures of Nangeli and the likes. And though the concrete under us might have replaced the rustic, it will not bode well for us to forget that our present is still founded on the shoulders of a faulty, often injustice laden past. It is thus wise to look back, towards Nangeli and women like her as we march ahead for a better future for our true heroes, ones who truly deserve the opulence of being hero-worshipped.

Feature image illustrated by Taarika John

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