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Mulakkaram: The gruesome tale of India’s 19th-century Breast Tax

It’s that time of year again, the kids have returned to school, the nights are drawing in, the smell of pumpkin lanterns and the sound of children’s shrieks of laughter will soon fill the air… This is Halloween!

Whether you love or hate to experience fear, there is no denying the rush of emotion we feel when we are scared. From the prickles on the back of our necks to the pounding of our racing heartbeats. It is for this very reason we have decided to ‘trick-or-treat’ you to a terrifying tale of tax terror…

Our story begins in the early 19th Century, in the princely state of Travancore, India. It was here in this region of tropical climate that the King of Travancore levied a tax on women of lower castes should they cover their breasts in public. The tax was known as ‘Mulakkaram’ or The Breast Tax.

The tax was constructed to maintain social customs on clothing as a way to identify a person’s caste status merely by the way they were dressed. Only women of higher castes should be permitted to wear items such as the ‘Mulakkacha’ (breast cloth).

Dr. Sheeba KM, an associate Professor of gender ecology and Dalit studies at the Shri Shankaracharya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Kerala, India states:

“The purpose of the breast-tax was to maintain the caste structure and nothing else. Clothing was considered a sign of wealth and prosperity and the poor and the lower-castes were simply not entitled to it.”

I’m sure at this point you’re as astounded as we are, but hold onto your hats, here’s where the tale takes a terrifying turn…

According to folklore, a woman known as Nangeli was visited by the pravathiyar (village officer) of Travancore to collect the Mulakkaram. Nangeli refused to pay the tax as she, like many others, found it to be discriminatory towards women of lower castes. It was at this moment, in an extraordinary act of rebellion, that Nangeli is said to have cut off her breasts with a sickle knife and handed them to the pravathiyar wrapped in a palm leaf.

The pravathiyar fled, leaving Nangeli to bleed to death from her wounds on her doorstep where upon finding his beloved, her grief-stricken husband tragically committed suicide.

News of the horrific event eventually reached the Royal Court, where the King was forced to abolish the tax. The story remains a sombre and stark reminder of the differences between the not-so-recent past and the now, which sadly still rings true in certain parts of the world even today.

As the saying goes, ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’.