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While restating the Kerala government’s resolve to uphold the Supreme Court’s order lifting the legal ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering the Sabarimala temple, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recalled an iconic civil rights protest in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore in the early 19th century to buttress the argument that orthodox sections have always resisted social reforms.
The struggle he was recalling is referred to as Marumarakkal Samaram (Protest to cover the upper body) or Channar Lahala (Channar Revolt).
The Channar Lahala or Channar revolt, also called Maru Marakkal Samaram, refers to the fight from 1813 to 1859 of Nadar climber women in Travancore kingdom for the right to wear upper-body clothes to cover their breasts.
In 19th century Travancore lower-class women were not allowed to wear clothes that covered their breasts. Higher-class women covered both breasts and shoulders, whereas Nadar climber women were not allowed to cover their bosoms, as most of the non-Brahmin women, to punctuate their low status. Uneasy with their social status, a large number of Nadar climbers embraced Christianity, and started to wear “long cloths,” strengthened by their new belief system, which offered equal rights to all men and women. When many more Nadars turned to Christianity, many Nadar women started to wear the Nair breast cloth.
The struggle began in the early 19th century, when women from the Channar(Nadar) caste who had converted to Christianity sought to cover the breasts, a right only Hindu upper caste women were allowed to exercise. The diwan of Travancore state, Colonel Munro, issued an order favouring the demand.
The upper castes (Nairs), who dominated the bureaucracy as well, refused to allow the order to be followed and attacked (Nadar Christian) women who sought to wear an upper garment. In the face of resistance from the upper castes, the order was even amended to say that Nadar Christian women could wear a jacket (blouse) that was different from the dress worn by Nair women.
In 1822, nearly a decade after Colonel Munro’s order, riots broke out in Kalkulam, a town in southern Travancore (now part of Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu), with Nair men attacking Nadar Christian women who wore a cloth covering the upper body. British Christian missionaries approached courts and got a favourable order, which said Nadar Christian converts could avail of all the rights available to Christians in the state. However, in many marketplaces in southern Travancore, upper caste men continued to attack Nadar Christian women who chose to assert their right to wear what the order entitled them to. By the late 1820s, the riots subsided with a royal decree that allowed the lower castes to wear the upper cloth but in a manner different from the upper castes.
Two decades later, the issue flared up again when Nadar women began to wear both the blouse and the upper cloth preferred by upper caste women. The scale of violence was bigger this time as Nairs and Nadars clashed in many market-towns in southern Travancore and churches and schools were set on fire. After months of riots, the Palace, under duress from the British Governor of Madras Presidency, issued a decree, allowing Nadar Christians the right to wear garments of their choice.
The Channar revolt exposed the caste fault-line that ran deep in the kingdom of Travancore. The Nadars embraced Christianity promoted by British missionaries as a way out of the oppressive caste order enforced by upper caste Hindus, which included the royalty. While caste Hindus didn’t object to the conversion, they resisted the attempt of lower castes to claim social parity with them by moving out of Hinduism.
At the core of the Channar revolt was caste Hindus’ resistance to the idea of equality. Dress had become a metaphor for equal rights — a subversive idea that rejected the graded inequality embedded in the social hierarchy founded on caste. This was no matter of faith or gender rights, as in the Sabarimala issue, but a case of anti-caste assertion.