The Breast Tax: Imposed On Women Who Chose To Cover Their Breasts

By Karen Harris
Lithograph from L'Inde Français, 1828. From the collection of Jean Claude Carriere. (Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The breast tax, or the mulakkaram, was an Indian practice designed to keep the centuries-old caste system intact. If a lower-class woman wanted to cover her breasts, she had to pay a tax, the amount of which was assessed in an ... unusual way.

Castes And Breasts

For more than 1,000 years, Hindu law defined a system of social hierarchy called a caste system. The different classes defined a person's lot in life and the set of rules and laws that applied to them, which typically became more strict at every level down. At the top was the Brahmins, the ruling elite who were subject to the fewest restrictions, and at the bottom, the Vaishyas and the Shudras, or the "untouchables."

Some of the most unusual restrictions of the Kerala state concerned a woman's breasts. Those of lower castes bared their breasts to honor their "betters," while women of the Brahmin caste bared their breasts only to images of Hindu deities. The "untouchables" were not permitted to cover their breasts at all, to honor any woman of a higher caste who might walk by. It also served as a handy identifier of an "untouchable."