The battle to cover , not cower


The struggle of the women of the South Indian Nadar community to cover their upper body in the face of strict caste regulations against it, is remarkable, and relatively unknown. Nivedita Louis chronicles this astonishingly difficult struggle.

The Nadar. Shanar. Nadan. The name refers to a caste group that inhabited Travancore and Southern parts of Madras Presidency during the 19th century, and the story of how a bunch of missionaries rewrote the destiny of their women has to be told and retold. As such, 19th century Kerala was ruled by Travancore Royalty with support from the British Diwans. The existing caste system was prevalently favourable to the upper caste people. There was marked animosity of the upper castes against the Avarna people or those who didn’t find a space in the system. The Shanars of Travancore numbered around 1,00,000 and Ezhavas another 80,000 during the beginning of the 19th century. The main occupation of the Shanars was tending to palmyrah trees and work allied to that, including making palm jaggery and toddy tapping.

The tradition as it was

Owing to the humidity and balmy temperature of the west coast, the inhabitants of Travancore were prone to wearing a coarse cloth covering the lower parts of their body, leaving the upper torsos bare. With the arrival of Europeans in droves, the local people tried to emulate them, by wearing coarse upper cloths covering their torsos. The upper caste women had different set of rules with respect to covering their torsos. The Namboodri women had the right to wear blouses and upper cloth when in the presence of people of any caste, but Nair women had to bare their bosoms when they visited the temples or in front of other Namboodri men and women. There is a recorded instance of a royal woman tearing down clothes of low caste women who covered their bosoms in their presence. If women of lower castes wanted to cover up their bosoms, they had to pay a tax called “mulakkaram” or “breast tax”. There are alternate opinions that say “mulakkaram” was the tax collected for number of women who worked in farms, just like “moustache tax” collected for number of men working, though it holds no plausibility.

A new social order was slowly forming wherein the upper caste women sported upper cloth, whereas the lower caste ones were watched with disdain if they chose to wear it.

When the missionaries entered

Enter the missionaries into Travancore, the trouble assumed epic proportions. The missionaries who set up schools and started preaching in Travancore and Nagercoil areas of Tamil Nadu, had an acute following of Nadar women. Women were permitted to read and write, the missionaries of Nagercoil like Rev. Mead, Mault, Duthie went to the extent of offering money in exchange for slave children brought to learn in the missionary schools. Slavery did exist in Travancore and was rampant among Hindus. The missionary women detested the inequality among women in covering themselves up. Mrs. Mead, Mrs. Mault, Mrs. Thomson, Mrs. Miller invented a unique blouse for the converted Christian women to wear, called the “kuppayam”. The Nadar and Ezhava women converted willingly from Hinduism to Christianity in droves, as they saw this as an opportunity to cover themselves up. The missionaries introduced embroidery and bobbin lace making to this part of the country, where women excelled in needle work.

The hate slowly spread throughout the kingdom and women from lower caste if they sported upper cloth, they were attacked. It was in 1813 that Travancore’s Resident Diwan Colonel Munro issued an order to the Sarvadikariakar (chief tax collector) of Travancore and Neyyatinkara Taluks, permitting converted Christian women of these two taluks permission to cover their upper body with coarse cloth. Unfortunately, the Nadar women wanted more. They just were not happy with the kuppayams or blouses alone. They wanted to cover themselves up like the upper caste women, draping ‘seelai’ over their shoulders. This brought much disdain to the upper caste Hindus and skirmishes erupted in 1822, at Eraniel and Kalkulam Taluks of South Travancore, joined by Mohammedans. Nadar women who sported “thol seelai” in addition to their kuppayams were attacked in broad daylight in market squares. Rev. Mead complained to Padmanabhapuram Court against the attacks and when no action was taken on his complaint, he appealed to the Resident of Travancore, Col. Newell. Mead was able to obtain a decree in 1823 from Padmanabhapuram Court that read – “If these people were Christians and if the religion required them to wear upper cloth for the sake of decency, when they go to the fairs, markets and other places and that, they were instructed to do so and it aught to be so ordered agreeably to Christianity”. Donning the thol seelai was thus viewed as a Christian rite, and this angered the upper castes further.

Their anger rightly turned to those who aided the Christian missionaries and churches were burnt, those who supported the Nadar Christian women were jailed on false pretenses, Nadar Christian women who wore blouses were stripped in markets. The Madras Presidency Government took note of the complaints of Rev Mead and Mault and sent 15th Regiment and Capt Cibbald to South Travancore and this quelled further riots. Another proclamation followed in 1829. By 1850, about 17,000 Christians were in South Travancore, most of them Nadars. The revolt of 1857 had its adverse effect on the women, transfer of power from East India Company to British Sovereign meant lesser interference in local governance by Maharajas and Ranis. The Nadars fearing persecution fanned out to the coast of Tamil Nadu, from Kanyakumari to Thengapatnam. The upper castes were further afraid of these ‘new born’ Christians upsetting their caste system, and were looking for opportunities to rise up in revolt against them.

What education wrought

When the atrocities became too much to bear, Nadar youth in villages around Nagercoil started wielding stones and weapons against the upper caste people who tore the blouses and upper cloth of their women. Decades of education and conditioning of moral equality by the missionaries had borne fruit by the late 1860s. Those who did not want to continue fighting the caste system moved to nearby Paniyanadu – the areas under British direct governance of Madras Presidency. The missionaries on the other hand mounted pressure on the Governor of Madras, Charles Trevelyan. Despite Trevelyan’s direction, the Crown in Travancore remained silent. The final letter Trevelyan sent to Major Tracy on 7th February, 1859 read, “If you can’t quell the atrocity with your police force, the respect of women will be safeguarded at gun points of our military force”.

It was finally the effort of Diwan Madhava Rao in convincing the Travancore Royalty that another uprising by Nadars would bring in British soldiers, aided by missionaries, and eventually it would sound the death knell to the Travancore Royals. In 1865, the decree permitting Nadar and other low caste women to wear upper cloth as they deem fit was announced. The emancipation of women and slowly the power of education and empowerment were giving the Nadar women was remarkable. Colleges and schools established in Travancore region, including those in southern parts of Tamil Nadu where Nadars were spread out were teeming with women interested in gaining education and thereby societal acceptability. The needlework taught by missionaries also came in handy. The teacher training colleges led to a revolution where Nadar women of the three Southern districts, especially the Christians – Catholics, Church of South India and Protestants altogether, passed out in multitude. The hard working Nadar women could plant themselves easily in any part of the state and take up the best profession their education could offer- teaching. Not a single school is now bereft of a Nadar lady teacher in the state now.

When a struggle for female emancipation was happening in Travancore, the Hindu Nadar women of Sivakasi and allied areas were going through a different phase of riots and struggles for temple entry and its aftermath. The Hindu Nadars of these areas were finding it increasingly difficult to remain ‘outsiders’ in temples and their struggles for entry into temples started from late 1800s. The Kamudhi temple riot and other repeated riots to gain entry into temples for worship had direct impact on the women folk. The arrival of Madura Mission into Madurai and nearby areas and the schools and colleges set up by missionaries slowly induced these women to convert, thereby gaining access to worship in churches that practiced equality. Men too followed suit and mass conversions happened. Yet, the best was yet to come. When the match stick and cracker revolution erupted in Sivakasi and neighbouring areas around mid-1920s, economic power glided down the order directly to the women. These hard-working women who were into palmyrah cultivation readily worked in match box and cracker factories, the new-found financial independence gaining education for their children. The ones who were enterprising, joined hands with families and became successful entrepreneurs.

For those who were not lucky enough to get the education or financial independence, the “petti kadais” or “Nadar kadais” offered solace. The Nadar clan had the cohesiveness in churning out ‘rags to riches’ businessmen, their acute business acumen winning them success. The richer Nadars now probably own the shopping districts of all major cities of the State and their not so lucky counterparts are having control of smaller areas. The women, of course, they march hand in hand with the men, controlling the business empires – be it king size or bite-size. The tremendous growth of the women of this community from the pariahs who bared their bosoms to upper caste men to being the most educated and economically independent, fierce women of the State is worth mentioning as we celebrate Women’s Day. Success comes only to those who toil. And to those who dare to wear the “kuppayams”! Happy Women’s Day to all of us!

Nivedita Louis

Nivedita Louis is a writer, blogger and social activist by choice. Bitten by the travel bug, and smitten by nature, she loves travelling and cooking. She blogs at