The "breast tax" (or Mulakkaram in Malayalam) was a head tax imposed on women belonging to Nadar, Ezhava and other lower caste communities by the Kingdom of Tranvancore (in present-day Kerala state of India).[1][web 1][web 2][note 1] The term "breast tax" had nothing to do with breasts, instead, the term refers to a gender-specific tax levied from women.[2][3]

According to subaltern beliefs[web 3][web 4][web 5] the breast tax was imposed on lower class women if they covered their breasts.[web 3][4][5][6][note 2] This belief has been questioned,[web 6][web 1][web 2][web 5] as lower class women "were not allowed to wear upper garments in public"[7] at all until 1859.[note 3][note 4]

Head tax

The "breast tax" (mulakkaram or mula-karam in Malayalam) was a head tax imposed on the Nadars, Ezhavars and lower caste communities by the Kingdom of Kingdom of Tranvancore (in present-day Kerala state of India).[1][web 1][web 2][note 1] They were expected to pay the tax when they became laborers, about the age of fourteen.[8][note 5] The lower caste men had to pay a similar tax, called tala-karam, "moustache tax," independent from their wealth or income.[7]

'Breast-cover tax'

The "breast tax" caught wider attention in 2016, when BBC reporter Divya Arya reported on a series of paintings by artist Murali T on the legend of Nangeli.[web 3] The village legend of Nangeli is about a woman who lived in the early 19th century in Cherthala in the state of Travancore, and supposedly cut off her breasts in an effort to protest against the caste-based "breast tax."[web 3][4][9] According to the legend, she cut off her breasts and presented them to the tax collector in a plantain leaf, then died of blood loss.[9][web 7]

According to local beliefs,[web 3][web 4][web 5] the "breast tax" was imposed on lower class women if they covered their breasts in public, to disencourage them from doing so.[web 3][4][5][web 4][note 2]

These beliefs have been questioned,[web 6][web 1][web 2][web 5] as lower class women "were not allowed to wear upper garments in public"[7] at all until 1859, after the Channar revolt.[note 4] Historian Manu Pillai treats the concept of "breast tax" to be a misnomer which "had nothing to do with breasts"[2] and notes that covering the breasts was not the norm in Kerala's matrilineal society during Nangeli's life-span. Victorian standards of morality penetrated into the society decades later under British colonial influence, which led to subsequent class-struggles for the right to wear upper-body clothing.[web 6] He believes Nangeli to have protested against an oppressive tax regime that was imposed upon all lower castes, which got appropriated with the passage of time, in pursuit of a different patriarchal fight for the preservation of female dignity.[web 6][web 1] In Jain's account, the "breast tax" is presented as a fine imposed by "Travancore's State's council of "upper" caste Nair's" to maintain caste boundaries.[6][note 6]


[note 4][note 2][note 1][note 3]

  1. ^ a b c Headtax:
    • Nair 1986, p. 45: "The Pooja Raja in Travancore made the Malarayans pay money at the rate of one anna, two pies (8 pies) a head monthly as soon as they were able to work, and a similar sum of presence money besides certain quotas of fruits and vegetables and feudal service [....] The head money was called Thalakaram in the case of males and Mulakaram (breast money) in the case of females.
    • Pillai 2019: "Nangeli too was recast. When Nangeli offered her breasts on a plantain leaf to the rajah's men, she demanded not the right to cover her breasts, for she would not have cared about this 'right' that meant nothing in her day. Indeed, the mulakkaram had little to do with breasts other than the tenuous connection of nomenclature. It was a poll tax charged from low-caste communities, as well as other minorities. Capitation due from men was the talakkaram—head tax—and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram—breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli's storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax."[web 1]
    • Pillai, as quoted by Sabin Iqbal (13 aug. 2020): ""The Nangeli story, as it is related popularly today, is somewhat misunderstood. There was a poll-tax chargeable on avarnas by the state or the feudal lord, depending on where in Kerala we are speaking of, and this, for men, was called talakkaram, and for women, mulakkaram. Sometimes, it was simply called talappanam for everyone. But beyond nomenclature, it had no connection to the breasts, or to covering the breasts," says Pillai.
      "She was not fighting for the right to cover herself, 'protect her modesty', or anything like that. She was resisting an oppressive, caste-based tax. The battle is about caste, not about virtue or the 'right' to cover up. That was not a 'right' in local eyes at all till the late 19th and early 20th centuries," he adds."[web 2]
  2. ^ a b c Tax to cover the breasts:
    • Divya Arya, BBC (2016): "Women from lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, and were taxed heavily if they did so."[web 3]
    • Allen 2018: "By the start of the 19th century the ordinary people of Travancore were being required to pay as many as 100 petty taxes, ranging from head tax, hut tax, marriage tax and taxes on the tools of one's trade to taxes on the family cow, goat or dog, wearing jewellery, staging festivals, growing moustaches, and above all what became known as the breast tax, mulakkaram, by which the women of lower social groups had to expose their breasts or pay a tax. The Brahmins, naturally, paid no tax at all."
    • Jain 2021: "In the early nineteenth century, Travancore's State's council of "upper" caste Nair's imposed a "breast tax," or mulakkaram, that fined Nadar (formerly Shanar) men and women who covered their upper bodies like the "higher" castes.."
  3. ^ a b Not allowed to wear upper cloth:
    • Kattackal 1990, p. 144: "In South India, until the 19th century, the 'low caste' men had to pay the 'head tax', and the 'low caste' women had to pay a 'breast tax' ('tala-karam' and 'mula-karam') to the government treasury. The still more shameful truth is that these women were not allowed to wear upper garments in public."
    • Pillai, as quoted by Gautam (2021): "...even royal women, including queens, did not cover their breasts in those days. "Not until the 1860s," says Manu Pillai, historian and author. What the upper castes carried instead was a shoulder cloth denoting their exalted stature.[web 5]
  4. ^ a b c During the time of Travancore, uncovering one's breasts was revered as a symbolic token of homage from the lower castes towards the upper castes. A state-law prevented this covering, which served to demarcate the caste hierarchy in a prominent manner, and often served as the core locus of spontaneous rebellions by lower castes.[10][11] Lower-caste women who covered their chest broke the caste-regulations, and could be fined by a Nair-council.[6] Higher-class women, including Nair women, covered both shoulders and parts of the chesy with a shawl.[web 8][web 9] With the spread of Christianity in the 19th century, the Christian converts among the Nadar women started covering their upper body with long cloths, and gradually the Hindu Nadar women also started to wear the Nair breast cloth.[12][13][web 9] which led to violence between the upper caste and lower castes.[web 10] From 1813 to 1859, several laws were enacted and removed by Travancore regarding the upper cloth issue.[10][14] Several waves of violence continued for four decades.[web 10] In 1859, under pressure from the Madras governor, the king issued a decree giving all Nadar women the right to cover their breasts,[15][16][17] though they were still not allowed to follow the style of the higher-class women.[18][19][20]
  5. ^ Age fourteen:
    • Manilal 2012, p. 3-4: "One such infamous law that was in force in Travancore until as late as the first quarter of the 20th century was known as Mulakkaram, i.e., the law of breast tax. According to this law the avarna women, were to pay tax to the government for their breasts from the very time of their girlhood, when they start developing breasts.
  6. ^ Jain 2021: "In the early nineteenth century, Travancore's State's council of "upper" caste Nair's imposed a "breast tax," or mulakkaram, that fined Nadar (formerly Shanar) men and women who covered their upper bodies like the "higher" castes.."
    Compare Kent 2004, p. 207-211: "Rulers in Travancore had, in fact, previously bestowed on select members of the elite class of Shanars (the Nadars proper) the privilege of wearing the breast cloth [...] [i]n Travancore, a council of "Sudra" (probably Nayar) leaders called the Pidagaikarars was responsible for enforcing [caste rules], as well as for adjudicating disputes that arose over the transgression of caste rules. Each year villages would send two or three delegates to an annual meeting of the body in Sucindram. This council would discuss whether individuals of their own and other castes "had adopted the costume, food, speech (provincialism or brogue) and general habits of the other class," and would mete out sanctions to transgressors."


  1. ^ a b Nair 1986, p. 45.
  2. ^ a b Gautam, Swati (14 January 2021). "The breast tax that wasn't". Telegraph India. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  3. ^ "BBC makes news of a forgotten woman army from Murali's paintings". English Archives. 2 August 2016. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  4. ^ a b c Allen 2017, p. 285.
  5. ^ a b Allen 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Jain 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Kattackal 1990, p. 144.
  8. ^ Manilal 2012, p. 3-4.
  9. ^ a b Pillai 2019.
  10. ^ a b Cohn 1996, p. 140.
  11. ^ Hardgrave 1969, p. 55-70.
  12. ^ Hardgrave 1969, p. 59–62.
  13. ^ Hardgrave 1968.
  14. ^ Ponnumuthan 1996, p. 109.
  15. ^ Cohn 1996, p. 141.
  16. ^ Ross 2008, p. 78.
  17. ^ Jones 1989, p. 159.
  18. ^ Ponnumuthan 1996, p. 110.
  19. ^ Cohn 1996, p. 141-142.
  20. ^ Kertzer 1988, p. 113.


Printed sources

Web sources

  1. ^ a b c d e f "Revisiting Nangeli, the Woman with No Breasts". NewsClick. 3 November 2019. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e Sabin Iqbal (13 Aug, 2020), The Legend of Nangeli, Open
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "The woman who cut off her breasts to protest a tax". BBC News. 28 July 2016. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  4. ^ a b c "The CBSE Just Removed an Entire History of Women's Caste Struggle". The Wire. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d e Swati Gautam (14.01.21), The breast tax that wasn't, The Telegraph Online
  6. ^ a b c d Manu Pillai (February 18, 2017), The woman who cut off her breasts, The Hindu
  7. ^ Surendranath, Nidhi (21 October 2013). "200 years on, Nangeli's sacrifice only a fading memory". The Hindu. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
  8. ^ ICF-team (19 March 2019). "Re-writing History, Saffronising Education: Remembering Nangeli Lest Government Makes Us Forget". NewsClick. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  9. ^ a b Amrith Lal (18 October 2018). "Travancore parallel: the fight to wear an upper garment". The Indian Express. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  10. ^ a b unknown. "A struggle for decent dress". The New Indian Express. Retrieved 15 November 2019.