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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.

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