Who are the Todas? A question that continues to stir curiosity not only amongst backpackers and travellers but also anthropologists who have dedicated their whole lives to documenting indigenous tribes. As fellow Indian nationals too, we have been largely oblivious to the Toda Tribe of the Nilgiri region, who have been its inhabitants for decades together. To most of us, their culture still remains an exotic mystery.
Historically an ancient tribal community of the upper Nilgiri plateau, today the Todas may be popularly associated with their art of creating distinctive, geometric red and black embroideries of the Poothukuli craft. But the more we probe into understanding their culture, the less we are led to stereotyping them as only expert craft weavers from the South of India. What makes them truly distinguishable is their unique outlook, customs and age-old traditions – all of which have gone down the books of history as a fascinating subject.
The tribe and its people:
At present, nearly 1800 people inhabit the Toda establishment, sprawled across 65 villages (of what remains overtime). Looking towards nature to find a sense of purpose, the Toda people have their own distinct faiths and rules of living life.
Some researchers have speculated that the Todas may have come from ancient Greece, Israel, Sumatra, the Danube basin or some other place. But, the linguistic evidence clearly places them in southern India. The Todas speak their own language that can be linked back to Dravidian origins. Most Todas today speak Tamil and Badagu in addition to their mother tongue.
Traditionally Todas are a pastoral tribe who have spent a large part of their yesteryears in herding a unique species of short-legged and aggressive mountain water buffalo. Considered a pious animal – the buffalo forms the backbone of their economic, social and religious life.
For decades the Toda way of life has revolved around their cattle herds and the dairy temples. But with changing times and the rapid modernization of cities, today, the Nilgiri hills are laid out with townships made up of concrete, tea gardens and hydel reservoirs.
As the grasslands dwindled, so did the tribe’s economic dependence on their four-legged companions. Increasingly, the men from the community have ventured outside to nearby towns for everyday jobs. The women have continued to stay indoors, sustaining their traditional craft, embroidering crimson and black designs on homespun off-white cloth.
The legends and customs of life, alliance and death:
Seeped in tradition and as documented in legends, the tribe believes that the first sacred buffalo had been created by the gods even before the first Toda man and woman. Only a Toda who undergoes elaborate ordination ceremonies can qualify as a priest. He can then milk the herd of sacred buffaloes to ritually process it into butter, buttermilk, curd and ghee.
Marriages for the Todas have traditionally been regarded as an alliance between a male and a female of any age – preferably the mother’s brother’s daughter to the father’s sister’s daughter. In the past, younger brothers became co-husbands to the eldest brother’s wife, a custom called fraternal polyandry. This was necessary because of the shortage of women in the tribe, resulting from the now long-abandoned Toda practice of female infanticide. Many of these coupling practices have faded with time.
Todas traditionally believed that individuals needed two funerals to enter the Land of the Dead. In the first funeral, the deceased was cremated. In the second, a fragment of bone or a lock of hair was burned.
The toda architecture:
Todas live in small hamlets called mund, which means village. Each mund consists of dwelling huts, fenced off the circular open ground for buffaloes, sheds for calves and a temple.
Spending time in the lap of nature, the tribe has derived the true meaning of conservation by ensuring sustainable practices and methods. This can be seen in their architectural structures. Being energy-efficient, non-polluting, and durable, their traditional houses have been made of materials that can withstand any weather and stay incredibly warm even during the coldest of winter nights.
Over the years, as their environment compelled them to embrace change, the Toda quaint barrel-vaulted houses have virtually disappeared, which symbolized the Nilgiris. Mass planting of exotic trees like eucalyptus on adjacent hillsides also led to the disappearance. The traditional huts have gradually been replaced by concrete structures, making sure the form and architecture remain the same. A few old huts still remain intact for anthropological evidence.
Traditionally, the people of the mund depended upon nearby water bodies for their daily necessities of water. But now, as new structures are formed, the water supply is being regulated by the government, along with provisions for electricity. Over time, the old ways have been let go of to adapt to a new way of being.
The Toda women and their craft
This beguiling narrative about the Toda tribe is incomplete without its most crucial protagonist – the Toda Women. The women remain solely responsible for their cultural continuity by keeping the craft alive, passed through generations together. These women take pride in what they do and can be spotted easily from afar, adorning unique tattoo art on their bodies and dreadlock like curls.
Coming back to the craft, the distinctive geometric red and black embroideries of Poothukuli (a 9 yard embroidered shawl) is a hard miss as we browse through some of the indigenous craft bazaars of today. Their embroidered garments are significantly in demand and are also traded through Toda’s Co-operative Society.
Threading the narrative:
While the tribe has evolved under the pressures of modernity, the Toda life still remains enveloped in their fine and intricate embroidery craft – locally called Pugur, meaning flower. The embroidery style has survived the test of time and plays a vital role in all aspects of their life from weddings through funerals.
The embroidery is executed to produce a rich, embossed effect on the surface, mainly circling around nine intricate designs. The motifs are primarily inspired by nature – the sun, moon, stars, snakes, peacocks, rabbits, and other flora and fauna.
The embroidery is reversible, done on unbleached white cotton woven in a balanced weave structure woven with three stripes – two of red and one of black. It is believed that the black of the embroidery represents the goings-on of the netherworld (hell), the red, the essence of the earth, while the white signifies heavenly elements.
With the changing economic times, there are attempts to diversify the craft and sustain it for the future. Today, it has found its way on items like keychains, bags, pouches, shawls with the Toda embroidery – which are up for commercial purchase on retail channels and other marketplaces.
The Todas today:
In ancient times communities like Todas, Badagas, Kotas, Irulas, Kurumbas, and Kattunayakkans came together to help sustain each other’s way of life. But with the turn of the century, the region has largely been infiltrated by migrants from all over the country.
With Ooty being a popular holiday destination now, it brought with it a large number of tourists and other development programs in the locality, which led to changes in the lifestyle of the Todas.
Over the years, what was seen was mass destruction of grazing lands and confiscation of tea and coffee plantations during colonial times by the British. All of this became fatal to the survival of the sacred Toda buffaloes. Being a pastoral tribe, many people of the community had to pivot to become agriculturalists, which they once despised and was clearly not their forte. Some of them have leased out their land for cultivation and don’t really practice agriculture on their own.
With such tremendous changes, the tribe has disintegrated from what they took pride in doing. Instead, they have flung to the cities to work in modern everyday jobs to earn their daily wages.
Tips for the curious traveler:
When it comes to reaching this tribe, our advice – Hold your horses and plan well, as accessibility to their villages is not for the average traveler.
The only accessible Toda Village is approximately 3 km from Upper Bazaar in Ooty. The best way to get to it is to walk through the roads before you across a series of deep pine forests and vast open valleys leading your way up to botanical gardens, which ultimately open to a hillside gateway at the top. Other than this village, the other Toda villages are closed for tourists and general public and should not be disturbed.
Researched and written by Gneev Nagi | Artworks by Ananya S R | Trip credits & Photography by Shraddha Gupta