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There are some claims regarding a weird tax which existed just over a century ago in a part of India.

Several articles say that this tax existed. For example, the Economic Times:

State of Travancore imposed a breast tax on women belonging to disadvantaged sections of society. Women from lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, and were taxed heavily if they did so. Tax collectors measured the breasts and levied tax accordingly.

Several other articles say that this is just fiction and propaganda. For example, this Quora answer:

No, it was not a tax to cover one's breasts. And no, it was not calculated by the size of your breasts. The Travancore rulers had got the help of British to ward off their threats and in the disguise of protection the British were successful in gaining the trust of the rulers. They had influence in the higher echelons of Madambis, or local chieftains, and they began exerting their power on the kingdom by appointing their own Regent Col. Munroe. The kingdom had to pay a protectorate fee towards the British for their services. For this the kingdom implement both Mulakkaram and Thalakkaram - basically 'Woman tax' and 'Man tax'. The landlords were supposed to pay these taxes according to the number of laborers they had in their service. If there were 10 women laborers they paid 10 Mulakkaram and for 10 men they paid 10 Thalakkaram.

So, did tax collectors measure women's breasts and levy tax accordingly?


Edit 1: This is in response to Schmuddi's answer.

There are articles in support and opposition. One Quora answer cite photographic evidence on social or legal restrictions for men and women of all castes to cover breast. Another answer mentions the absence of such a tax in contemporary sources such as the report of the Travancore Mission. In seeming contradiction to these, some other articles, including some peer reviewed articles, mention that breast tax was oppressive towards certain castes.

My question remains: Did there exist a so-called breast tax where women were taxed with the amount determined by the attractiveness, or size, or some other property of the breasts of women?

Explanation: Is there any historical document or royal decree which support the claim? Can the historicity be established, or is this just a fiction?

  • Were the rankings from small to large or large to small, or some other criteria, say pendulous to perky? – K Dog Sep 6 at 22:56
57

This appears to be a myth manufactured by S. N. Sadasivan from oral history. He wrote:

The breast tax was levied as soon as a woman of the Ezhavas and castes below, attained puberty and more attractive the breasts were, the more the tax she had to pay.

No citation is given. The Quora user reports he cannot find a tax where the "more attractive the breasts were, the more the tax she had to pay" mentioned anywhere before Sadasivan's book, and I cannot either. The claim of some versions that women paid for the right to cover their breasts is also incorrect -- they were not permitted to cover whatsoever. However, the head tax on women really was called mulakkaram or "breast tax", and in this answer I will prove that the name of this tax was derived from real beliefs about uncovering breasts.

The story of Nangeli, a woman who supposedly cut off her breasts in 1803 (or "about 1840," according to Sadasivan) to protest the tax, has also been claimed to be a complete myth by some of these Quora users. Local people dispute this and there are multiple oral attestations of the story. I will not attempt to dig up the origins of the story here, but the fact of the matter is that there was a rule that lower-caste people had to expose their breasts, which was enforced by Hindu riots and church burnings.

The actual dispute

I do not reproduce the many petty things the Shanar caste were required to do to respect the high-caste Nair, as these are listed in another answer, but uncovering women's breasts were one of these.

In 1814, the Government of Travancore responded to Christian missionaries requesting permission to allow Shanar women to cover their breasts by ordering that such coverings had to be a partial bodice, in the style of local Muslims; no Shanar women "were ever to be allowed to wear clothes on their bosoms as the Nair women" (Hardgrave 1968:177). Some Shanars attempted to wear a full dress regardless, which caused rioting. The military was called in after several churches were burned, and in 1829, the Government retracted their permission to cover, as follows:

First, as it is not reasonable on the part of the Shanar women to wear cloth over their breasts, such custom being prohibited, they are required to abstain in future from covering the upper part of their body. (Hardgrave 1968:179)

Breast covering remained the central source of anger for upper-caste Nair well into the 19th century.

In the eyes of the Nairs, the missionaries were surely responsible for the spread of the upper-cloth, which had become the symbol of change in southern Travancore. The Nairs’ antagonism against the Nadars’ social innovations and prosperity was only heightened with the anxiety following the abolition of slavery in Travancore in 1855. [...]

With its economic and political base, the frustrations of the Nair landowners were directed against the pretensions of the Nadar and their assumption of the breastcloth. “The agitation has been recently revived,” General Cullen wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Government, Madras, in January, 1859, “the Soodras asserting that the Shanar women are constantly assuming the privilege of covering the upper part of the person, and thereby preventing a recognition of the caste. . .” Rioting broke out in October 1858, as Sudras attacked Nadar women in the bazaars, stripping them of their upper garments. (Hardgrave 1968:180-181)

In conclusion, breast covering was a not a political sideshow but a very central problem in the kingdom of Travancore for roughly a century. The article by Hardgrave (1968) discusses the serious consequences it had which strained relations between the British and the princely state.

Misuse of debunking

There seems to be a use of this real-life history as a political football by both the left and the right in 21st century India. The left has created a seemingly baseless story about breast inspectors, but the right also creates a false debunking narrative.

The Quora posts are one example of this, but another that gets more to the point of this argument can be found in a center-right op-ed in The Hindu published in 2017. This op-ed accepts the Nangeli story but incorrectly disputes its meaning, using debunking to score nationalist and anti-colonialist points. The author first claims that India knew nothing of patriarchy before the arrival of the British:

This was also the land where women enjoyed physical and sexual autonomy, where widowhood was no calamity and one husband could always be replaced with another. The coast was rich with the tales of great women — from Unniarcha of the Northern Ballad of Malabar, an accomplished warrior from Nangeli’s caste, to Umayamma of Attingal, a princess who reigned over kings. These were brave women of towering personality. But in the 19th century, Kerala’s moral conscience grappled not with their achievements as much as the conundrum that their unabashed bare-breastedness presented.

Virtue, as we recognise it today in its patriarchal definition, was not a concept that existed in Kerala. And till our colonial masters — and fellow Indians from patriarchal backgrounds — sat in judgement over the matrilineal streak heavily infused among the dominant groups here, women, their bare torsos, and their sexual freedoms did not in the least attract attention or opprobrium.

In short, the author contends that women were empowered by their bare breasts. He then scolds those who use Nangeli's story to make a point about breasts:

Nangeli too was recast. When Nangeli offered her breasts on a plantain leaf to the Rajah’s men, she demanded not the right to cover her breasts, for she would not have cared about this ‘right’ that meant nothing in her day. Indeed, the mulakkaram had little to do with breasts other than the tenuous connection of nomenclature. It was a poll tax charged from low-caste communities, as well as other minorities. Capitation due from men was the talakkaram — head tax — and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram — breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli’s storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax.

When Nangeli stood up, squeezed to the extremes of poverty by a regressive tax system, it was a statement made in great anguish about the injustice of the social order itself. Her call was not to celebrate modesty and honour; it was a siren call against caste and the rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it. She was a heroine of all who were poor and weak, not the archetype of middle-class womanly honour she has today become. But they could not admit that Nangeli’s sacrifice was an ultimatum to the order, so they remodelled her as a virtuous goddess, one who sought to cover her breasts rather than one who issued a challenge to power. The spirit of her rebellion was buried in favour of its letter, and Nangeli reduced to the sum of her breasts. (Pillai 2017)

We can see from the actual story that even if the mulakkaram was a head-tax, the claim that it "had little to do with breasts" is false. Ensuring that lower caste women uncovered their breasts was a matter of deep concern and anger among higher caste Hindus in Travancore, and this was most assuredly not because they found bare breasts empowering. The term mulakkaram cannot possibly be unrelated to the fact that breasts were visible when the tax-man came to collect, and were unexposed among high-caste women who did not pay the tax.

Furthermore, the lower caste women were not idiots. They understood that uncovering the breasts marked them as powerless and fought incessantly throughout the 19th century for the right to cover. Now, why did they not take more pride in their breasts? Was this the colonial weight of moralizing Victorian missionaries, or was there some kind of male gaze involved in the violently enforced rule that allowed high-caste women to cover their breasts, and refused low-caste women that right while calling the head tax on them a "breast tax"? I think common sense leads us to the latter conclusion. (Academics agree: outcaste "women had to endure humiliating dress restrictions, which were also ways to mark their bodies as inferior and sexually promiscuous." Gupta 2014:669)

This op-ed claiming that Nangeli would have been unaware of the concept of modesty is wrong, and although the idea that breasts were taxed by size seems to be a misremembering based on oral history, it is a fact that breasts were forcibly exposed and that the term mulakkaram was connected with this exposure.

References
Gupta, Charu. 2014. "Intimate Desires: Dalit Women and Religious Conversions in Colonial India." The Journal of Asian Studies 73, pp. 661-687
Hardgrave, R. L. 1968. "The Breast-Cloth Controversy: Caste Consciousness and Social Change in Southern Travancore." Indian Economic & Social History Review, 5(2), 171–187.
Mateer, Samuel. 1871. The land of charity. London : J. Snow and Co.
Pillai, Manu. 2017. "The woman who cut off her breasts." The Hindu, February 17, 2017.

  • 4
    It sounds like the beast tax was not assessed on higher castes. It sounds like it was just a tax on women. So it's technically right that it wasn't about beasts, just like "head tax" was not about heads. Yet, concurrently, it seems that breast covering was a major social issue. It seems like Nangeli's protest had nothing to do with the breast tax. – fredsbend Sep 3 at 0:43
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    @fredsbend Nangeli was low caste -- the point of her protest was against the breast tax on her. – Avery Sep 3 at 0:43
  • You sure? Because the things you quote make them sound like different things. The picture I'm getting is that protesting a general tax makes no sense when in the shadow of the scarlet letter that was the prohibition on top coverings. – fredsbend Sep 3 at 1:39
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    @Schmuddi Done. – Avery Sep 3 at 6:09
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    This answers my question. So, I shall accept this as the answer, although there are some issues with the answer. The point which is missing is that women of both so-called lower and higher castes seldom wore clothes on the upper half of the body. – Jayadevan Vijayan Sep 3 at 23:17
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I've found two recent peer-reviewed publications that suggest that such a breast tax did exist in Travancore in the early 19th century. However, the wording used in the Economic Times "article" is somewhat misleading and does not reflect the way this tax is represented in these publications.

The first publication that describes the "breast tax" (or Mulakkaram, which is mentioned in the Quora quote) is Thomas (2012) (note that I couldn't check his original source, Sadasivan 2000). According to him, a tax existed that women of lower castes had to pay if they wanted to cover their breasts, and the amount was determined by the attractiveness of the breasts (my emphasis):

Breast tax in the erstwhile Travancore kingdom of Kerala was levied on women who belonged to the lower castes. They could cover their breasts only on the payment of a certain amount as mulakkaram or "breast tax". It was levied "as soon as a woman of the Ezhavas and castes below, attained puberty and more attractive the breasts were, the more the tax she had to pay" (Sadasivan 2000: 394).

However, this tax may have to be considered in some context. Taken by itself, it sounds like a tax that is meant to reinforce male dominance especially over women of lower castes. However, the second publication describes the Travancore state in the 18th and 19th century as having a very restrictive system of legislations that aimed to firmly establish strict distinctions between the lower and the higher castes. Examples of these restrictions (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly affected the lower castes) can be found in Allen (2018):

Fixed distances of separation were set down, in multiples of six paces, ranging from six paces from the nearest Brahmin for Nairs to 72 paces from those at the very bottom of the caste ladder, the Paraiyars (Angl. ‘Pariahs’) and others. Nair men could wear moustaches but not their inferiors, their women could wear silver jewellery but not gold, the rest none at all. Nor could the underclasses carry umbrellas, wear footwear, send their children to school, drink from the public wells, wear new clothes without first making them soiled, put up walls or gates round their houses or use tiles on their roofs. If they had to converse with a Brahmin, they had to observe the correct distance, cover their mouths with their hands, remain bowed and not speak of themselves in the first person.

Based on this, the breast tax would rather be an instance of a socially-discriminating measure than of a gender-discriminating one (although I can't stop to see a very misogynistic note here). An additional twist is that while these prohibitions existed, it was possible to buy oneself free from them through money. As Allen (2018) goes on to describe:

But it was further decided that many of these caste prohibitions should be taxable – that is to say, avoided by paying a tax on it. By the start of the 19th century the ordinary people of Travancore were being required to pay as many as 100 petty taxes, ranging from head tax, hut tax, marriage tax and taxes on the tools of one’s trade to taxes on the family cow, goat or dog, wearing jewellery, staging festivals, growing moustaches, and above all what became known as the breast tax, mulakkaram, by which the women of lower social groups had to expose their breasts or pay a tax. The Brahmins, naturally, paid no tax at all.

Following this line of argumentation, it's less that women of lower castes were taxed heavily if they covered their breast, as the quote in the question states. It's rather that if members of the lower castes wanted to free themselves from the discriminating measures imposed on them, they could do so by paying taxes. The privilege to cover their breasts was one example of these.

It should be noted that while this answer is based on peer-reviewed publications, it may represent a controversial view. A relevant section on Wikipedia proposes that the "breast tax" was basically a head tax imposed on women in general (thus echoing the Quora answer from above):

A breast tax or mulakkaram was supposedly imposed by the landowning king on lower caste Hindu women, which was to be paid if they wished to cover their breasts in public and was further assessed in proportion to the size of their breasts.[references omitted] But, historical documentation of the conditionality of this tax and its linkage with breast size is scarce, despite ample primary literature covering the spans. Thus, Manu S. Pillai and some other scholar rejects a rigid interpretation of the etymological-connection and asserts it to be a generic woman-specific tax that was charged from all lower caste communities.[references omitted]

Both positions are referenced, but they are either non-scientific publications or primary sources that I don't have full access to, so I can't verify their content.

  • Thanks for the response. Primary sources and other evidence including those from archaeology are not provided. Please see my edit. – Jayadevan Vijayan Sep 2 at 19:14
  • I wonder if this was like some of Europe's crazier taxes. For example, the window tax. Everybody already had windows. Did Indian women of the time already exercise a modesty that covered the breasts? If yes, then the tax was probably assessed universally among the targeted classes. Further, perhaps they could theoretically forego the tax and the breast coverings, assuming there were no concurrent modesty laws that disallowed it. Was this just a catch-22? – fredsbend Sep 2 at 21:21
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    The Quora answer cited by @JayadevanVijayan claims that Sadasivan (2000) is based on late 20th century hearsay and has no period documentation. – Avery Sep 2 at 21:53
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    @fredsbend The window tax was a perfectly logical and practical way to tax property based on its size. Much easier to count windows than measure floor areas, or try to invent a taxation system based on market prices when there was no well-established property market providing convenient statistical data. Of couse a few people blocked up windows to reduce tax, but tax avoidance (unlike tax evasion) has never been illegal. – alephzero Sep 3 at 9:15
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    @fredsbend It's not really goofy and sketchy, it's just an oversimplified measure, which people then could use to game the system. In Vienna, we have a lot of houses with a first floor that's called "Mezzanin", rather than first floor, to avoid a tax on floors. You can't get that one right without measuring square meters, apparently. – sgf Sep 4 at 8:22

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