Upper cloth controversy

The upper cloth controversy or upper cloth revolt refers to incidents surrounding the rebellion by Nadar climber women asserting their right to wear upper-body clothes against the caste restrictions sanctioned by the Travancore kingdom, a part of present day Kerala, India.

In Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, no female was allowed to cover their upper part of the body in front of Upper castes of Kerala until the 19th century. Under the support of Ayya Vaikundar,[1] some communities fought for their right to wear upper clothes and the upper class resorted to attacking them in 1818. In 1819, the Rani of Travancore announced that the lower castes including the Nadar climber women have no right to wear upper clothes like most lower non-Brahmin castes of Kerala.[2] However, the aristocratic Nadan women of the region were exempted from this restriction. Violence against Nadar climber women who revolted against this continued and reached its peak in 1858 across the kingdom, notably in southern taluks of Neyyattinkara and Neyyur.

On 26 July 1859, under pressure from the Madras Governor, the king of Travancore issued a proclamation announcing the right of Nadar climber women to wear upper clothes but on condition that they should not imitate the style of clothing worn by upper class women.[3][4][5] Though the proclamation did not quell the tension immediately, it gradually subsided as the social and economical status of Nadar climbers progressed in subsequent decades with significant support from missionaries and Ayya Vaikundar.

Cause

19th century Travancore had a rigid caste hierarchy. There also existed a strict code of respect and mannerisms enforced by the state. The women were not allowed to carry pots on their hips or wear clothes that covered their breasts. Baring of chest to higher status was considered a sign of respect, by both males and females.[4][6] The Nadar climbers of Travancore fared a little better than their Tirunelveli counterparts, but, however, suffered severe social disabilities, unlike their Tirunelveli counterparts, under the rigid caste hierarchy of Travancore. As Swami Vivekanandha stated, Kerala was a mad asylum of castes. The Nadar climber women were not allowed to cover their bosoms, as most of the non- Brahmin women, to punctuate their low status. However the aristocratic Nadan women, their counterparts, had the rights to cover their bosom. Uneasy with their social status, a large number of Nadar climbers embraced Christianity.[7]

Influences

Proselytization to Christianity by missionaries started in Tirunelveli and started spreading to Travancore. In 1813, Colonel John Munro, British dewan in the Travancore court, issued an order granting permission to wear upper cloth to women converted to Christianity. The order permitted the newly converted climber women to wear kuppayam, a type of jacket worn by Syrian Christians. However this did not satisfy the climber women. Christian missionaries continued proselytising the Nadar climbers and helped the women train in lace making and other profitable business. The Nadar Christians became upwardly mobile.[4]

1858 revolt

Though the Nadar Christians improved their status with the aid of Christian missionaries, the outcome of the conversion was not according to the point of view of the missionaries. The Christian Nadar climber women, along with the Hindu Nadar climber women, wore the upper jacket in the manner of upper-class women and also their Tamil counterparts, in order to improve their social status. In turn they were discriminated and even abused by upper class men. One of the Nadan families of Agastheeswaram, instead of supporting their depressed counterparts, supported the upper class men and claimed that only their women had the right to wear an uppercloth.[7]

In 1858, fresh violence broke out in several places in Travancore and the governor of Madras presidency, Charles Trevelyan, pressured the Travancore king. On 26 July 1859, the king issued a proclamation leading to the restoration of equal rights to wear upper cloth to all Kerala Nadar climber women.[4][8][9]

See also

References

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