A struggle for decent dress

It was exactly 150 years ago, lower caste women in the then Travancore were granted the right to cover their breasts.

Published: 27th July 2009 12:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2012 10:48 PM   |  A+A-

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Exactly 150 years ago, on July 26 of 1859, Travancore witnessed the first major triumph of the nationwide struggle for female liberation. On that day, Travancore Maharaja Aayilyam Thirunal made an official declaration granting lower caste Nadar/Channar women the right to cover their breasts.

The victory of the Channar Lahala or the Upper Cloth Mutiny (Maaru Marakkal Samaram), after half-a-century of violent struggle, is widely seen as the transformative event that triggered a wave of renaissance movements that shaped modern Kerala.

“Cries for equality began to rise not just from various parts of Kerala, but from the whole of South India after the Channar Mutiny. The agitation to end ‘oozhiyam vela’ or work without pay, the agitation to secure entry into temples, the agitation to secure the right to walk on public roads, all these struggles that went on to change the face of Kerala were inspired by the success of the Upper Cloth Mutiny,’’ writes historian Joy Balan Vlaathangara in his book ‘Vaikuntaswamiyum Samoohika Navothanavum’.

The book, incidentally, has been brought out by Chintha Publishers this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Upper Cloth Mutiny.

Interestingly, the success of the Nadar women inspired higher caste women to adopt a dignified dress code. If Nadar women were comprehensively barred from covering their breasts, the upper caste women did not fare much better.

“Namboodiri ladies could not wear upper body cloth while at home. Though they were allowed to cover their breasts while venturing out, they had to remove it in the temple, in front of the idol. In the case of Nair women, they could not cover their breasts in front of Brahmins,’’ Joy writes in his book.

Ezhava women secured the right to cover their breasts in 1865. Nair women stopped exposing their breasts in front of Brahmins even later. Further late, the Brahmin community too did away with the demeaning condition they had imposed on their women.

It was western influence and the work of Christian missionaries like Charles Meed and Malt during the early part of the 19th century that revealed to the Nadars the indignity of their existence.

There are historical accounts of labourers who had migrated to Sri Lanka to work in colonial tea plantations returning with enough money to lead European lifestyles. Converted Nadars, too, started wearing upper clothes and saw it as a sign of social progress.

The upper castes, including the royalty, did not take kindly to these progressive thoughts. An account says that a lower caste lady who went to the palace of the Attingal Rani wearing an upper cloth had her breasts chopped off by royal decree. Out on the streets, the upper castes unleashed violence on Christian Nadar women who had their breasts covered.

In 1814, Travancore Resident and Diwan Colonel Munro issued an order to the effect that Christian Nadars could wear upper clothes. Unmindful, the upper castes continued with their attacks.

Eight years later, in 1822, Munro issued yet another order which once again gave Nadar Christian women the right to cover their breasts. The order sparked a mighty backlash. D. Daniel, in his book ‘Travancore Tamils Struggle for Identity’, notes: “Covered Christian Nadar women were attacked in markets and other public places and their jackets torn by upper caste men in places like Eraniyal, Kalkulam, Vilavancode, Agastheeswaram and Thovala.’’ The missionaries intervened and got a favourable verdict from the Padmanabhapuram court in 1823. Still, nothing changed. Samuel Mateer in his ‘Land of Charity’ relates an incident, in 1828, in which a group of Nadar Christian women who went to depose before a lower court were forced, in the presence of the Diwan, to remove their upper clothes and leave it at the outside entrance before entering.

The year 1829 marked a turning point.

That year, a royal decree was issued asking Christian Nadars to bow to the existing codes of the caste system.

“This united the Christian and Hindu Nadar communities. They began to appear in public places and in temples with their upper bodies covered,’’ Joy writes.

Vaikunta Swami, who had set up the ‘Samathwa Samajam’, acted as the unifying force. “While the missionaries worked only for the converted, Vaikunta Swami ignored the barriers of caste and strove for the uplift of all the backward classes,’’ Joy writes.

The upper castes reacted violently.

But once the Nadars responded with ferocity, violence abated.

It was in 1858 that violence once again reared its head. “Nair men, with machetes tied at the end of long poles, used to stand far way from lower caste women and tear their jackets,’’ according to Dargees, an 83-year-old former headmaster of the Neyyattinkara Amaravila LMS High School, who had heard of the incident from his father. Dargees is quoted in Joy Vlathangara’s book.

Samuel Mateer’s ‘Land of Charity’ describes how an official dealt with two ‘covered’ Nadar ladies who were walking to the Neyyattinkara market. “He tore their jackets, tied them with a rope and hung them from a tree in full public view.’’ The Nadar response was more severe.

They looted upper caste shops and terrorised upper caste areas. The Government was forced to act to restore at least a semblance of peace. Madras Governor Charles Travelein, through the Travancore Resident Kallan, told the Travancore King that the condition of women in Travancore does not put the Travancore rulers in good light.

Aayilyam Thirunal, who was till then wary of upper castes’ fury, then made the decisive move to grant Nadar women the right to cover their breasts.

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