TNM spoke to 83-year-old Meenakshi, who was among the 23 women who wore blouses to the temple in Velur, Thrissur for the first time.
Twilight had fallen that February evening when 17-year-old Meenakshi Vellarottil stepped out of the house and walked towards the Manimalarkavu Devi Temple. It was the Bharani of Kumbham in the Malayalam calendar, the day when the big kuthira vela (horse festival) was held at the temple in Velur, Thrissur. Meenakshi walked alongside 22 other women, casting nervous glances about her. All the women were wearing red blouses, mundum neriyathum (traditional two-piece worn like a Sari), and two to four pieces of jewellery each. They were carrying thaalams (plates carrying lamps and flowers) for a ritual at the festival, accompanied by chenda melam (percussion).
The year was 1956 and the women were about to make history.
Women had been carrying the thaalam for the three-day festival for years before that. But never before had any of them worn blouses, or covered their breasts. The women doing the rituals had also belonged to the dominant Nair caste. But in 1956, for the first time, a bunch of women walked towards the temple wearing blouses, and they belonged to different castes – oppressed ones among them.
“There were policemen to protect us. Communist leaders of the day had led us. They had at first tried to talk to the temple committee about it. But the committee was made of Namboodiris and Nairs – dominant caste members. They saw the others as slaves. Members of the oppressed caste had to stand outside the temple gate and name their demands. Women performing the thaalapoli (ritual with the thaalam) had to do so without blouses. This had to change. It was anacharam (a malpractice).
Communist leaders, including women, went from home to home, convincing young women to go to the temple wearing blouses. I was one among the women who agreed to go,” says Meenakshi, who is now turning 83.
She, along with Communist leader KS Sankaran – one of the leaders of the protest -- was honoured by the Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (PuKaSa), an association of artists and writers, on March 2, the 65th anniversary of the historic day.
The incident in 1956 came to be called the Velur maaru marakkal (breast-covering) protest. It was not properly documented because there was not much noise about it back then. “There were police on either side. I remember how the ones with us gave sharp replies to the opposition. Someone said, the Devi (goddess) does not like the women to wear blouses when they took the thaalam. A policeman with us said, ‘It is not the Devi that does not like it, it is you’. And indeed there would be so many men crowding around the temple premises that day. In my home, they wouldn’t allow young women to go to the temple festival after evening because there’d be so many men,” Meenakshi says.
Velathu Lekshmikutty, another Communist leader of the time, led the women's procession. Born to the oppressed Ezhava community, she has been fighting the malpractice since 1952.
History should not sleep but stay awake to remind the young of today what their ancestors once went through to win the rights they enjoy, says Suresh Puthukulangara, Thrissur district member of PuKaSa, which observed the 65th anniversary of the Velur protest. "These are the people who witnessed history. You need to honour them. The Velur protest may not have made a lot of noise but it made a big difference. Today’s generation has it so easy they have little awareness of the system back then," he says.
The Velur maaru marakkal protest happened nearly a century after the more famous Channar Lahala fought by women of the Nadar community for the right to cover their upper bodies. It was also a couple of decades after the Travancore King Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma passed the temple entry proclamation, allowing people of oppressed castes to enter temples in Travancore.
This would have reduced the resistance during the Velur protest, Suresh reckons.
Meenakshi being honoured by Minister AC Moideen on March 2
Soon after the women's rituals were over, there would be a procession of horses from several regions. “I’d like to think the name Velur came because it is a place of so many festivals. It’s also a place of many protests. The maaru marakkal protest was led by Communist leader and former Member of Legislative Assembly ASN Nambisan. Other leaders include KS Sankaran, CP Jose, and Arumugham,” Suresh adds.
When the 23 women reached the temple, there were others who had begun the rituals without blouses as was the custom. Among the women wearing blouses, two dropped their thaalam and ran away out of fear. Some of them were very young. “We were aged between 16 and 32. I was scared too but I held on bravely. And we ended that decades-long anacharam by doing so. From the next year on, women performed the rituals wearing blouses. And people of all castes entered the temple. At last, we learned to live together as humans,” Meenakshi says spiritedly.
Her health does not allow her to step out for many activities as she used to. But she felt she had to attend the 65th anniversary celebrations of that Bharani day in Kumbham. Among all the women who daringly stood wearing red blouses that day, hardly anyone remains alive to tell the tale.
Belatedly, members of PuKaSa learned that there were two more women alive – Kanjiraparambil Neeli and Poovathingal Kalyani. They were honoured at their home on Saturday evening.