The princely state of Travancore had it own version of Jim Crow laws that were oppressive of lower castes in the 19th century, when slavery was also in vogue. “It was the feudal nature of society, the strange laws of land ownership, the agrarian economy, the division of labour and the caste system that ushered in slavery which remained a bleeding wound in the body politic of Travancore till the middle of the 19th century,” wrote Joy Gnandason in her book, ‘A Forgotten History’, on the missionary movement and liberation of people in South Travancore, published in 1994.
Nadars, then referred to as Shanars, “being one of the lowest castes in Travancore, their social condition was extremely oppressive and degrading,” said M S S Pandian in his research, ‘Meanings of “colonialism” and “nationalism”: an essay on Vaidkunda Swamy’, which was published by Sage Publications in 1992.
Among the restrictions imposed on Nadars, one was the bar on women covering the upper portions of their body. “By strict conventions and rigid rules they were bidden to wear a coarse piece of cloth known as ‘mundu’ extending from the waist to the knees leaving the breasts bare,” said Gnandason.
It was in this backdrop that the Christian missionaries first encouraged women in their boarding schools to wear a loose blouse. But higher caste men objected and at times even tore the dresses. But, the situation took a turn for the worse when the Christian Nadar women also started using an upper cloth on top of the blouse, which was then a privilege of the higher caste women. So, there were many riots over the years.
Hindu Nadars, who had not associated themselves with Christian Nadars in the riots of 1822-23 and 1828-1830, started claiming their right to wear upper cloth on the inspiration of Muthu Kutty of Swamithopu, revered as Ayya Vaikuntar, said Gnandason and added: “This leader gave the community a sense of unity and dignity and has been acclaimed as an incarnation of Shiva.”
Pandian said: “The Sri Vaikunda Swamy cult took shape among the Shanars of south Travancore, during the 1930s.”
Finally, Hindu Nadar women, along with the Christian Nadar women, fought bravely and faced oppositions and tribulations. “Hence these disturbances came to be known as ‘Nadar Riots’. Since the ostensible cause was the Nadar women wearing the upper cloth, some call it the ‘Breast-Cloth Controversy’. Still others call it ‘the Upper Cloth Revolt,’ said Gnanadason, adding that the right of Nadar women to cover their breasts was granted by the Government of Travancore on July 26, 1859.