The upper cloth controversy or upper cloth revolt refers to incidents surrounding the rebellion by the Malayala Nadar climbers women asserting their rights to wear upper clothes against the caste restrictions sanctioned by the Travancore kingdom, a part of present day Kerala. Till 19th century (in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar), no female was allowed to cover their upper part of the body in front of the upper caste Brahmins. Under the support of Vaikunta Swamy, some communities fought for their right to wear upper clothes and upper class resorted to attacking them in 1818. In 1819, the Rani of Travancore announced that the Nadar climber women have no right to wear upper clothes, as most of the non- Brahmin castes of Kerala. However the aristocratic Nadan women of Kerala, their counterparts, had the rights to cover their bosom. Violence against Nadar climber women continued and reached its peak in 1858 across the kingdom notably in 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. 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 Vaikunta Swamy.
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.
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 was downgraded to wearing kuppayam, a type of jacket worn by Syrian Christians upon pressure from the pidakkars, the king's ruling council. Christian missionaries continued proselytising the Nadar climbers and helped the women train in lace making and other profitable business.
Nadar climber women preferred to wear the breast cloth of upper class women. In the 1820s an attack against Nadar climber women increased in public places. In 1828, in an effort to reduce the violence, the king restated the earlier order which allowed Nadar climber women to wear jackets but not the style worn by upper class women.
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.
- A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History, p. 314
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