200 years of Channar Revolt: How Dalit women struggled for right to cover upper body

On March 6, Kanyakumari is set to observe the 200th year of the Upper Cloth Revolt, a cultural war fought predominantly by the Nadar community women for the right to cover their breasts

Upper Cloth Revolt
'Channar Woman,' a painting by Chitrakaran T. Murali, portrays Dalit women's struggle to cover their upper body.

On March 6, the Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu is set to observe the 200th year of Thol Seelai Porattam (Upper Cloth Revolt), a cultural war taken forward predominantly by Nadar community women for the right to cover their breasts. It should be noted that till 1956, Kanyakumari was part of the then Travancore (today’s Kerala) province. Hence, in this commemorative function, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will share the dais with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin.

A lot has been written about the Upper Cloth Revolt, also known as Maru Marakkal Samaram or Channar Revolt. There is a general perception among many that the upper cloth revolt, like any other form of protest adopted during the British colonial period, was also a precursor to anti-colonial struggle. Most of the historical records show that the struggle was essentially a rebellion against cultural oppression by the dominant caste Nair over the Depressed Class (Scheduled Caste), Shanars, later known as Nadars. The women of the Nadar community led the revolt from 1822-1859 to fight for their right to wear upper-body garment.

However, of late, their struggle is being linked with “breast tax”, imposed on women belonging to Nadar and other lower caste communities by the Kingdom of Travancore. Claiming that it is a “fake story” cooked up by the Christian missionaries to espouse their cause, the Hindu right-wing groups in Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts are making rigorous efforts to disprove the historical fact in order to woo the Nadar vote bank.

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Some say that while the Upper Cloth Revolt happened in reality, the breast tax was apocryphal. Some argue that the revolt was Nadar women’s fight for the right to wear a cloth above the brassiere or jacket, like the women of the dominant caste. Some reject the story of a woman named Nangeli, who had apparently chopped off her breasts and given it to a tax collector as an act of defiance against breast tax. Some believe the theory that breast tax was nothing but the collection of tax according to the breast size of women. There are many such oral and written stories doing the rounds on social media for the last few years.

It is in this contested background that Kanyakumari is holding the anniversary function and the preparations are going on in full swing. Tamil Nadu Minister for Information Technology Mano Thangaraj is trying to organise the event in a grand manner. But what is the true story behind the historical revolt?

A forced atrocity?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, castes like Namboodiris, Nairs, Vellalars were considered to be dominant communities and others such as Shanars, Ezhavas, Pulayas were classified into depressed classes. In those times, the men and women, irrespective of caste and class, wore mundu (dhotis) to cover their lower bodies. It was an ordinary sight for both genders being bare-chested.

Historical records, like the accounts of Italian traveller Pietro della Valle (1586-1652), suggest that the argument that the depressed-class women alone were “forced” not to cover their breasts seems to be a false narrative. A painting by Johan Nieuhof (1618-1672), the Dutch traveller who visited the Queen of Quilon in the 17th century at her court, shows that her upper body was not covered with any cloth.

Though the women of privilege covered their breasts with a light upper cloth when they were at home, they were expected to remove the cloth when they came in front of Namboodiris. However, wearing a light upper cloth does not mean they did it because of modesty. The term “modesty” itself had a different meaning altogether and the notion that “no respectable woman covers her breast” was prevalent. Kerala, not to forget, was once a land of polyandry.

The tax that was not

If that was the case, how about the breast tax? Historian Manu S. Pillai has often answered such questions on his Twitter handle. “The breast tax was not about covering breasts — which not even high castes did. It was a poll tax. For men, it was called talakkaram or head tax and for women mulakkaram or breast tax. Nothing to do with ‘right to cover’ or ‘modesty’,” he tweeted once. He added that the idea that women ‘must’ cover breasts was largely a Victorian innovation in Kerala.

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“The upper castes wore a shawl loosely, not as such to cover breasts as a caste privilege,” he wrote. He also shared a black and white photo of one of his own ancestors and explained the difference between the two generations. “She wears the shawl loosely on one shoulder but not as such to cover her torso. Her younger attendant however wears a blouse because she is from a later generation and blouses had become the norm. The idea that women’s bodies must be covered a certain way for their own dignity is so ingrained that cultures that did not have the same worldview now seem difficult to believe,” the historian tweeted.

He also busts the myth of Nangeli, who chopped off her breasts, in his book The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History (2019).

The three-stage struggle

It should be noted that the view that women not covering their breasts was seen as a “sin” and “shame” gained ground locally after the arrival of Christianity in Kerala. They wanted this “social evil” to be done away with and made a representation to Colonel Munroe, who was a Resident of the British East India Company in Travancore. He took it to Rani Lakshmi Bhai, the Maharani of Travancore.

Following this, a decree was sent out in 1812 that allowed the depressed class women who converted to Christianity to wear a blouse. But it did not allow them to wear an upper cloth over the blouse like the upper caste women did. This led to the first stage of ‘Upper Cloth Revolt’ between 1822-1823.

The second stage of the revolt happened between 1827-1829; now, lower-caste Hindu women were also allowed to wear the blouse like lower-caste Christian women did, but both Hindu and Christian women from lower castes were still not allowed to wear a shoulder cloth above the jacket.

It was during the third stage of revolt held between 1958-1859 that the women, irrespective of class, caste and religion, were allowed to wear the upper cloth. In every stage of the revolt, the upper-caste Hindu men continued the atrocities over the lower-caste women who covered their breasts, firstly for converting to Christianity, secondly for wearing blouses and thirdly for wearing saris like upper-caste women.

Tamil reading of the revolt

It is interesting to note how Kerala and Tamil Nadu read this slice of history differently. While Kerala’s reading of the revolt does not consider that women being bare-breasted was anything to be ashamed about because of the everydayness of the act, the Tamil reading shows women not covering their breasts as a form of atrocity. It can be argued that in a land where the onus of protecting the chastity has been entrusted with women, the Tamil view cannot be seen as a wrong one.

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Further, though both Kerala and Tamil Nadu historians converge on the idea that it was religious conversion that allowed Nadar women to cover their upper bodies, the latter puts more focus on Protestant Christianity. “It was after the arrival of Protestants that the Nadar women started to wear blouses, after they were converted to Christianity. In the struggle for upper cloth, Catholics did not participate. Syrian Christian women already had the right of wearing a blouse, which was known as Kuppayam, like the one worn by Muslim women. So, this can be seen only as a struggle for and by a particular faction of Chrisitians,” said a historian in Tamil Nadu, who requested anonymity.

Tamil historians also gave enough importance to personalities like Reverend Charles Mead, a Protestant missionary from London Mission Society and Ayya Vaikundar, a saint-reformist.

The oppression from inside

A. Sivasubramanian, another well-known historian from Tamil Nadu, said that the women having the right to cover their breasts was seen more commonly in the west of Nagercoil (a place in today’s Kanyakumari) than south and east.

“It was because the women, including the Nadar women in the west, had rights to property. Even the British gave voting rights to women who had property rights. While enjoying such privileges, they did not want lower-class Nadar women to have the right of covering their breasts. So, the oppression came not from outside, but from within the community. The reason why the upper cloth struggle is seen mainly as Nadar struggle is because they led the struggle from the forefront,” he said.

He added that the Nadar community today refuses to admit that they once faced such atrocities because they are trying to create a new narrative that they belonged to the ruling community in the past. It is for the same reason that the Vellalar community in Tamil Nadu continues to see Nadars as lesser beings. “People should get angry over the caste system that implemented traditions like these, but instead they get angry over historians for stating the facts,” he added.