In the early 19th century, it is said that the women of Southern Kerala had to adhere to a strange tax norm. They had to pay a tax if they wanted to cover their breasts! The appalling “breast tax” policy (mulakkaram) was especially earmarked for the lower caste women living in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. The practice continued for several years until an Ezhava woman named Nangeli chopped off her breasts in protest, and handed them to the tax collector on a plantain leaf. She died a few hours later but following her death, the breast tax of Travancore was annulled for good, and the land in which she once lived was renamed: “Mulachiparambu”, or the land of the breasted woman.
While Nangeli’s brave move is lost to us today, almost 200 years later, her role still holds a remarkable place in the evolution of traditional Kerala attire. For the longest time, covering your bosom was believed to be a mark of disrespect to the higher castes. In fact, till 1860 all women in Kerala (except the Muslims, Christians and Brahmins) never covered their upper bodies. On the other hand, women of higher castes usually did. Such a decree had wide ramifications: social, political and spiritual. The “upper cloth controversy” as it came to be called spurred on mass conversion of lower castes (especially Nadars and Ezhavas) to Christianity in a bid to evade the breast tax law.
Fast forward two centuries, we find that Kerala’s diverse albeit simple culture is symptomatic in their choice of dress, too. Growing up in a traditional Hindu home in Kerala, I was accustomed to seeing the men of the household in their crisp white mundus, while my mother, grandmother and aunts would don the mundum neriyathum, also known as the Kerala saree. The mundu, which is a piece of hand-woven cotton cloth tied around the waist, is probably the first thing anyone would associate with Kerala. This quintessentially “Mallu” piece of clothing can be worn by both men and women. For men, it is usually coupled with a shirt or a kurta when worn outdoors. Sometimes a piece of cloth (thorthu) would be casually thrown over their shoulders. For the womenfolk, the Kerala saree or the mundum neryathum, on the other hand, consists of two pieces of cloth. While the mundu is wrapped around the bottom, the neriyathu is draped on the upper body, usually over a blouse.
The mundu is somewhat the official costume of Kerala: convenient and easy to wear, it cuts across all caste and class boundaries of the region. But not without variations. The Brahmin Naboodiry mundus have a gold border that distinguish them from the other castes. They wear wooden slippers called methiyyadi as well. The Mappilla (Muslim) men have mundus with a purple, orange, or green border, tied on the left (Hindus tie it on the right!). A small cap, white or black, completes the attire. Christian women wore the two-piece blouse and mundu very differently from the ways the Hindus did: they usually pleated it like a fan (called njori) at the back coupled with a floral blouse called the chatta. The chatta-mundu set is usually spotlessly white, and covers the woman’s body in entirety, neck down, barring the arms and hands. It is common for women to drape a kavani (an embroidered polyester piece of cloth) before stepping out.
As a child, I remember being fascinated by the attire Muslims women wore: long thunis (a variant of the mundu) coupled with a white, loose tunics (penkuppayam), usually made of fine muslin. A thin, long headscarf (thattam) covered their hair, and a silver belt was tied around their waists. The belt intrigued me, especially the five-year-old me, and I’d run to them, trying to touch it, much to my grandmother’s annoyance. The Muslim thuni differed from other thunis because they usually came with brightly coloured borders. The penkuppayam later evolved into the pullikkuppayam and came to include tiny flowers or polka dots.
Nowadays, I rarely see anyone wearing the traditional muslim attire I was so used to seeing while growing up. Most muslim women now wear hijabs. Another outfit which has almost disappeared is the Kavaya, the age old dress of the Kochi Anglo-Indians. Derived from the Malaysian word kebaya, the kavaya is a full-sleeved, close-fitting, knee length jacket worn with a double layered thuni wraparound. While it is found in vibrant colours and floral patterns in southeast Asia, the Kochi kavaya is — or, should I say was — usually limited to deep red and black checks. The chatta and mundu set, too, is rarely seen these days. At least in practical, everyday life. Though I must mention how hotels across the region make it a point to dress their staff in traditional attire. The staff at Vasundhara Sarovar Premier in Alleppey, for example, usually wear neatly pinned sarees and beautiful malipu flowers in their hair.
Today a walk around in any city of Kerala is testimony to the gradual but inevitable wane of the more traditional attires. But the mundu (and the mundum neryathum) always makes an appearance in weddings, festivals and other similar occasions.
mulakkaram: Breast tax policy of early 19th century in Travancore where the lower caste women were required to pay a tax if they wanted to cover their bosoms.
mundus : A cotton garment worn around the waist in Kerala.
mundum neriyathum: The Kerala half-saree consisting of two pieces of cloth.
thorthu: A piece of cloth usually thrown casually around the torso.
methiyyadi: Wooden slippers
chatta-mundu: Jacket and skirt combination worn by Christian women.
penkuppayam / pullikkuppayam: Tunic worn by Muslim women in Kerala.
thuni: A variant of the mundu
kavyaya: Typical dress worn by Anglo-Indian women of Kochi
hijab: A veil typically worn by Muslim women world over.
malipu: Indian jasmine