The tale of Nangeli is symbolic of a woman’s lone resistance against an authority, bringing about an entire change in the system of governance. To the people of her village, she became the epitome of protest against the outward humiliation by the authority; and to the outer world, she symbolised the aversion of a lower caste woman to the might of a kingdom.
Analysing literally, Sati had always been a popular practice in the eyes of the orthodox Indian customs and rituals. Whether it be the valiant Rajputs or the mighty Bundelas, the womenfolk, in an endeavour to escape from the ravishing enemies, threw themselves (were often in fact thrown) into the funeral pyre to be burnt alive.
Although such an incident is more talked about for being the protection of the upright honour of the women, it has also had an extensively drastic effect on the not so influential young brides in the medieval aeon of the Indian history.
Coincidentally, child marriage was another widely prevalent system back then. Brides were often married off to rich, old men that belonged to the upper classes of the societal hierarchy at a very young age, without even an affirmative consent of theirs.
Sati came into play when the groom passed away. Villagers, taking Sati to be a ritualistic custom, forced the bride on fire and set her alight, alongside the dead corpse of her husband.
Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the greatest of the imperial Mughal Emperors in India had been one of the earliest to manoeuvre the century old system or at-least attempt to do so. In decree, the Shahenshah legalised sati only for women who desired it and not a mandatory procedure for those who weren’t willing to.
This decree was one of the earliest progenitors that ultimately led the later British into legally abolishing this cruel ritualistic tradition.
Talking about the opposite gender however, the tradition of a male setting himself (or being forcefully set) on fire alive, alongside the corpse of his dead wife has taken place on only one single instance of the whole Indian history, if that too be history and not a folklore!
In a patriarchal society, forcing men to domination wasn’t a very natural sight, except that be for slaves. Men were usually free about their wills and even about whom they would wed.
To contradict, while a woman had to burn herself alive after her husband’s demise, a man would be free to choose another bride for himself, after he would have turned into a widower!
References have often been directed to one Nangeli, believed to have been a lower caste woman (Ezhava) who lived during the times of the Brahmin kings of Travancore.
Although historical sources for this particular feminine character are inadequate and much about her has been passed on through folklore, she has always been portrayed as an intrepid character in the annals of the Deccan.
During the days talked about, the Brahmins considered uncovering a woman’s breasts before an upper class elite, to be an honorific symbol and a way of paying their homage to the aristocracy.
The victims were usually the fiefs and the lower class cultivators who were forced into obeying the illogical regulations imposed upon them by the suzerain.
In a 2016 interview with the BBC News, Dr Sheeba KM, an associate Professor of gender ecology and Dalit studies at the Shri Shankaracharya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Kerala straightaway quoted, “The purpose of the breast-tax was to maintain the caste structure”.
Nangeli was one such woman who faced this humiliating abuse. She had decided to keep her breasts covered, whatever be the consequences of the violation.
To discourage other women from joining Nangeli, the aristocracy of Travancore specified an unusually high tax on women who willed to keep their breasts covered in public. This tax, sometimes known by the name ‘Mulakkaram’, was assessed on the basis of the size of their breasts.
Howbeit, considering the authenticity of the patriarchal term used, Kerala had a difference. It was a comparatively matriarchal and liberal state, as per views documented by author and historian, Manu S. Pillai.
But, Nangeli was someone who had made up her mind to stand up and raise her voice against this unlawful doctrine of the suzerain that prevailed. She decided neither to uncover her breasts, nor to pay taxes for the same and this served a direct blow to the authority of the aristocracy.
A determined pravathiyar (synonymous to a tax collector for the Travancore state), reached Nangeli’s residence and demanded the tax to be paid.
Legends say, when Nangeli refused the tax collector and turned him down, the proud aristocrat sexually abused her and threatened to rape Nangeli.
However, Nangeli, as brave and determined she could ever be, rushed into the inner courtyard of her house, and brought with herself, a sharp knife, with which, as a demand for taxes, she cut off her exposed breasts, leading to excessive blood loss and ultimately her demise.
Now, Nangeli was married to an equivalent lower caste man called Chirukandan, someone who loved her deeply.
On his return, finding the mutilated body of his beloved and the chopped breasts lying on the plantain leaf, he was so overcome with grief, that inspite of leading a rebellion, which people had expected him to do, he is said to have jumped into the altar of his wife and burnt himself alive, the first and the ultimate instance of a male sati, also referred to as ‘Pati Sahagamanam’!
Following Nangeli and her husband’s demise, various movements and rebellions broke out against the authority.
People, especially those belonging to the lower classes, refused to expose their breasts or to pay taxes to the princely state
As a consequence of this violent upsurge, the breast tax system was annulled in Travancore, soon afterwards and the place Nangeli lived, had come to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning ‘land of the breasted woman’).
The tale of Nangeli is symbolic of a woman’s lone resistance against an authority, bringing about an entire change in the system of governance. On the other hand, it also signified an upsurge of the lower caste people against the orthodox group of Brahmins and acquiring a favourable satisfaction with the ball in their court!
Decades later, the Victorian standards of rectitude impregnated into the societal customs through the British invasions and this resulted in subsequent class-struggles for the right to wear upper cloth for the women.
Also, as has been observed in various works including in ‘The encyclopaedia of Dravidian tribes’ by the International School of Dravidian Linguistics (1996), there were lots of discriminations and opposition to temple entries across Travancore soon after, but the incident that took place with Nangeli and the outrage it caused, helped result in the Maharaja acting against his aristocrat nobles, thus restoring what were the virtous ideals of the state.
Manu Pillai, although disregarding the origins of the tax (often said to be collected as decided by the authority, after an inspection of the woman’s breasts) does consider Nangeli to have risen up against a particular woman specific tax, that had been prevalent in the state to humiliate the women belonging to the lower strata of the society.
Despite this narrative not being officially recognised in any of India’s historical accounts and its historical authenticity being still speculative, Nangeli had to become a legend, her place forever reserved in folklores and cultural prattles.
To the people of her village, she became the epitome of protest against the outward humiliation by the authority and to the outer world, she symbolised the aversion of a lower caste woman to the might of an empire, the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore.
It would be conclusively apt to document Manu’s lines from a column for The Hindu, that quote, “Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, a watery alcove on the Kerala coast. We do not know when she was born or who sired her. But we know she died in 1803, her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed.”
Author and Fellow at The Royal Asiatic Society of London