How One Woman Challenged India’s Oppressive Breast Tax

by Olivia Harrison

For all the ladies out there who are totally OVER the tampon tax (AKA everyone), here’s a story for you. It’s unfortunate, but there’s actually a long history of women being taxed for simply being biologically female— something that is beyond our control. One such outrageous tax comes from The Kingdom of Travancore, which was a kingdom in India ruled by the Travancore Royal Family until 1949. And in this kingdom there a “breast tax,” which was called Mulakkaram. The tax was paid by Dalit women (women from the untouchable caste). The Mulkkaram was meant to humiliate the women of the lowest caste by disallowing them to cover their breasts in public unless they paid a tax according to breast size. Man, I would have been screwed with these knockers. Anyway, if you could not afford to pay the tax, you would be forced to bare your naked breast in public and everyone would know you belonged to the lowest caste. There were other outrageous taxes forced on Delit men and women that ensured they would stay in debt, but none were as barbaric as the breast tax.


Out of this unbelievably oppressive stint of history came an incredible heroine named Nangeli. Nangeli was a Dalit woman who lived in early 19th century Travancore, and she was a total fucking badass. Nangeli was known as a beautiful and fiercely independent woman in the Ezhava community, and she was determined to stand up to the injustice of the Mulakkaram. One day, when she was 35 years old, Nangeli covered herself and left the house. The news of her defiance spread through her village causing the tax officer to come to Nangeli’s house in order to collect her breast tax payment. The tax custom of the day required the payment to be placed on a plantain leaf, so Nangeli prepared her leaf, but she did not place money upon it. Instead, Nangeli emerged from her home drenched in blood from chopping off her breasts. She places the breasts on the plantain leaf and presented them to the tax officer. The collector fled in fear, and poor, brave Nangeli bled to death on her doorstep.

Chitraka.1Nangeli Great 312x400

Later that evening, Nangeli was cremated, and her husband joined her in protest of the harmful law by throwing himself onto her funeral pyre. (Fun fact: this is the first recorded instance of a man committing sati instead of a woman.) Amazingly, Nangeli’s death was not in vain. Almost immediately following her death, the king annulled the breast tax, and in an ode to her defiant mutilation, the area where Nangeli lived became know as Mulachiparambu (“The Land of the Breasted Woman”).


These days, we’re still fighting for control of our bodies. Abortion rights, not being shamed for breastfeeding in public, access to healthcare and affordable feminine hygiene products. We’re still fighting. It’s in these trying times that it’s encouraging to look back at history’s heroine’s. Thank you for your bravery, Nangeli. We’ll keep fighting the good fight. 

Images via Vagabomb 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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