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Kerala Women and top-less dress revolution in the 19th century

It has become fashion these days to expose

their breast to

various degrees by modern women...Discrete and delightful ways of showing cleavage or side portions of breasts with branded clothes,with different positions and slants of the nipples,

are

hall marks of high fashion.Many designers cater to these needs with changing

patterns.

At the same time, women also

wish to display bigger and

firmer breasts with implants and surgeries of various kinds. Several sculptures in India [at Belur in Karnataka state and the erotic sculptures in Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh and in Konarak temple in Orissa]

are fine specimens of full-bosomed

buxom women ,without draping, but with a few ornaments and jewels adding to the charm of exposed breasts...... Interestingly,it was considered

a taboo and impropriety to cover

the breasts in the 18th and 19th century Kerala,the southern most part of India.This continued upto early part of 20th century.

This article is about the practice that prevailed in those times in Kerala.. I hope the women lib protoganists study this aspect in greater


detail and include in their creed and propaganda material... The Nair women and high caste women did cover their breasts with blouses and an upper cloth. [They wore lose skirt-like white piece of cloth,called 'mundu wrapped aorund their waist.] The caste restrictions were so rigid that low caste women ,especially Nadar women, out-caste (dalit) Pariah women were forbidden to cover their voluptuous

breasts.

The big fight between high caste nairs and brahmins towards low-caste men and women on this issue is almost unbelievable at the present time...In fact, low caste women were made to

expose

their breasts when they go to work in the fields, when they served in rich

homes as domestic help and while carrying produce in

their heads and so on...Of course,they could not enter temples with their bare breasts as temple entry was not permitted for those low-caste people.! This practice was promoted by caste Hindus as a way of keeping the women under their control and humiliation with less decoration of their bodies. Wearing blouse was considered a way of ornamenting the chest or attracting the attention to that portion of female form...The question of lifting the sagging breasts with bodice or bra did not arise

at all... It is a moot point whether

this practice led to more or less promiscuity in that society-especially among young men who are always attracted to the shape


and size of fleshy breasts....this could be a separate study and I do'nt intend to take it up.

Resistance to the top-less women Several social movements and agitations took place

to resist

and remove this practice.Unfortunately the Travancore Royal family [the present Thiruvanandapuram region]upheld this in support of Nair/Nambhoodri [brahmin] women among the Hindus.The Royal house did not support lower caste women covering their breast.Sometimes it took ugly turn when women wearing some form of blouse for covering the breasts in the market place were forcefully made to remove those coverings by young men at the instigation of local rowdies.. In passing we may note that there were other interesting ritualistic practices: While the Maharaja went on a procession from his palace to the temple and back,beautiful Nair women would stand in the balcony of low houses in the royal route and shower petals of flowers on the Prince riding a horse or an elephant.The nair women were also top-less on such occassions---according to some accounts. The low-caste women,especially young virgin girls, would line up the street and throw flowers at Maharaja's feet, with bare breasts...The princely troupe took delight at the fine display of


young breasts that way...what is more,the Nair women were mostly fair skinned and the low-caste Nadar and other women were dark skinned...This was another factor reducing the status of the low-caste women in the society.Nair women always wore pure-white saree or skirt like

mundu,thus enhancing the effect of their fair

complexion.The mundu was worn in such a way that it revealed the shape of their well-endowed butts and exposed their navel. The social movement took a

positive turn when the British

resident came over and also Christian missionaries were helping the Christian-converted Nadar women.Christian Nadar women started wearing blouses like Hindu Nair women.They had some support from local church clergmen. The Royal house slowly accepted the change or powerless at the official orders of Britsh resident controllin the princely state. It was alright for Christian Nadar women to wear blouses.But Hindu Nadar women or other low-caste women could not wear blouse or even cover thier breast with upper cloth.The youth were turned to uphold bare -breasted women by using force.We are told that strong men often entered houses of Hindu-Nadar women to tear their blouses if they persisted. Several movements were started by Christian groups and some forward-minded Hindus, especially lawyers; many educated upper class Hindus

took up the cause of covering the bosom of low


-caste women.The movements started by Sri Narayana Guru and other religious leaders also had considerable impact on this reform..Slowly several legislations and Government decrees were published, but to no avail...

Queen Victoria, sometime in 1859, after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1858, promulgated an ordinance stating that missionaries should not interfere with local culture and religious practices in the Indian colony. The missionaries took back seat in this movement.The Hindu groups and also the Royal house of Travancore twisted

this promulgation to their own advantage and insisted

that the local custom/culture demanded that the low-caste women could not cover their breasts.So, the movements had a

set back.

The people almost lost their hope of changing the practice , making women of all castes to cover their breasts.In 1859, a legislation was passed that only Christian nadar women can cover their breasts, but not other low caste women...

Finally ,in 1865, another legislation was passed by the Britsh Governer from madras/Chennai to cover the breasts of all women,irrespective of caste or religion.This had to be followed by the Maharaja of Travancore, as imposed by the British resident there.Even with this ,the evil practice of not allowing lower


caste women to cover their

breasts continued.The law was breached

almost by every one;the governement turned a blind eye. Only in the early 20h century,with further agitations and with stimulus from some British officials and Dewans and popular press, the legislation could be implemented to a greater degree. It is interesting that women lib movement people are telling the women to return to natural state of removing bra and let the breasts be exposed to their own liking.A huge women fashion industry hinges on such social mores , taboos and customs.This was the natural mode in many eastern cultures,which later took to high fashion.


Kerala-Women-Topless-custom-in-19th-century