Nangeli – The AD1840 Door Opener Of Freedom For Women In Kerala

July 12, 2011 at 1:48 am | Posted in ANCIENT INDIA, BULLY, Issues, Kerala | 1 Comment
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A contribution by C. Radhakrishnan

The date March 8 every year is exclusively dedicated to women. At an International level, feminists and feminist organizations have arranged several functions regarding it. All types of ceremonial functions are also held in Kerala. But a lady, who must not be forgotten is completely forgotten by feminists and feminist organizations in Kerala. There were several women who sacrificed their lives in world history. Right from Joan of Arc of France to Rani Jhansi of India – they devoted their own lives for the freedom of their motherland. They lost their lives by rival’s hand.

This is an entirely different story about a lady who made sacrifices in history. The story of Nangeli was written with blood not gold. She was the first woman who dared to challenge the social injustice by giving her own life. In fact, she was the one who lit fire of struggles in Kerala against social circumstances based on caste system. Nangeli opened the doors of freedom for woman, especially those belonging to low castes. Unfortunately, her great sacrifice went into oblivion in history. Today, if anyone remembers her sacrifice, it is only vocally transmuted to the next generation. Some of her relatives have only vague memories of her and that too is becoming thinned in the passage of generations and time. Only Leela (61) belonging to the fourth generation of Nangeli has kept alive the memories her courageous ancestor.

All of us have heard about taxes related with land, house, commerce, income etc. Think of a time when tax was imposed on human organs. Such a time prevailed in erstwhile Travancore. Women belonging to lower castes were not allowed to cover their breast. If any one cherished to do it, she should have to pay a high amount as tax. This tax was called “Mulakkaram” (Breast Tax). Those ladies who violated the rule were brutally harassed and penalties were imposed on them. No lady was bold enough to challenge this injustice. Beautiful ladies hesitated to go out of the house without covering their chest. Beauty and elegance of the body became a curse for them. Lives of so many beautiful ladies was stranded in the dark room by this cruel law.

During this time a lady called Nangeli challenged this situation. This bloody incident took place almost a century ago. Physically very attractive and at the same time stocky and healthy, Nangeli was a resident of the Cherthala town. Thirty-five years old Nangeli was not ready to see her beauty as a curse. She had long curls which reached out to her knees and she was very fair and attractive. “During that time, she was the symbol of beauty. Those who saw her said that she was like an “Apsara” depicted in mythologies like Mahabharatha.” – Leela remembered these words, which were orally transmuted from generation to generation.

Nangeli’s mind was throbbing with hopes of living a life of freedom. She was determined to wear a cloth on her chest. The news immediately spread like wild fire. People who were equivocal of her beauty and youth and always meditated her figure in their minds were mutually exchanging words of violation of the prevailing law. The village officer who was entitled to collect breast tax came to know about this. He rushed to Nangeli’s house. Her husband Kandappan was not there. The Village Officer demanded tax for covering her breast. During that time, the custom was to serve money as breast tax on a plantain leaf, which was put behind a lighted lamp. Nangeli had followed all rituals. She wanted some time to bring the money and entered her room. Within seconds she came back – she had cut herself and brought it on plantain leaf. The Village officer shivered with fear. Suddenly Nangeli became unconscious and died within a few seconds before the lamp. Blood flowed around her body. By evening her body was brought to the pyre for cremation. As fire began to swallow Nangeli, Kandappan rushed to the spot. He failed to suppress his sorrow. He gave his life by jumping into the pyre of his beloved Nangeli. The place where their house is situated is still known as “Mulachiparambu” in Cherthala town.

On the next day itself, the King of Travancore Sreemolam Thirunal issued a royal proclamation banning breast tax and allowed all lower caste women to cover their chest.

The sole of Nangeli might been smiled and enjoyed this proclamation since her sacrifice did not go in vain, though she and her memory have disappeared from the history of Kerala as well as female liberation struggle.

C. Radhakrishnan (Saju Chelangad) is an English Journalist and writes articles in National Dailies. He writes articles on topics such as history, politics, business, environment and tourism in Kerala.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Is there any historical record or evidence of this incident? Could you please share? The story lacks sensible realism to be true.


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