Nangeli (whose name means ‘the beautiful one’), a lower-caste woman, was in her early thirties when she decided not to pay the humiliating tax to the king of Travancore. “One day , when the official tax collector (or the parvathiyar) repeatedly came to Nangeli’s house to ensure she paid up her pending breast tax, she calmly asked him to wait for a while. Nangeli then placed a green plantain leaf on the floor, prayed, lit the holy lamp and then proceeded to chop off both her breasts,” said a Kannur based artist, T Murali.
The place in Cherthala where Nangeli made her sacrifice is known as Mulachipa rambu, which in Malayalam means ‘the land of woman’s breasts’. However, with locals reluctant to spell out this name, it is now popularly known as Manorama Kavala (kavala means junction).
Elaborating on the historical incident which eventually led to the abolishment of the atrocious breast tax, Murali said: “Everyone in Cherthala knows the story of Nangeli who sacrificed her life to protest against the constant humiliation faced by lower caste women of that time.
They had to pay this tax in order to have the right to cover their breasts.Larger the breasts, higher the tax’
‘ Murali has made several paintings depicting the macabre scene, and along with several other citizens, demanded that the state must acknowledge Nangeli by having a fitting memorial for her–possibly at Mulachiparambu itself in Cherthala. Local resident Thomas V Pulickal (53), an assistant professor at the Government College in Ambalapuzha, said: “We have all grown up hearing of true stories of atrocities and of brave women like Nangeli.” Pulickal added that Nangeli’s descendants still reside in a neighbouring locality in Cherthala, after they moved out of Mulachiparambu several years ago.
The Times of India, along with Murali, traced Nangeli’s great grandniece, Leela Amma, 67, at Nedumbrakad, near Sastham Kavala in Cherthala. Talking in Malayalam, Leela said: “Nangeli and her husband did not have any children. I am the great granddaughter of Nangeli’s sister. Our elders used to tell us how beautiful she (Nangeli) was, and how the tragic incident took place.It will be nice if she is remembered by all.” Professor Ajay Sekher, a Kottayam-based researcher who has also blogged about Nangeli, said: “It is unfortunate that people are forgetting this illuminating episode in the long fight for human rights, dignity and equality in Kerala. It is not right to erase this tragic historical incident from our collective consciences, as if it never happened.” Advocate and former MLA from nearby Ambalapuzha, D Sugathan, agreed. “Yes, there should be a proper tribute to Nangeli. While growing up in Cherthala, which is also the hometown of former defence minister AK Antony, I too had heard her story from my elders. I have also mentioned it in my published book in Malayalam around three years ago.” The precise spot where Nangeli’s hut had existed is still left untouched with a patch of greenery surrounding it, along with an adjoining pond. On either side of this site are two big bungalows.
Originally published in the Times of India