India has many offbeat stories and when it comes to its people and culture, there is so much to learn and share. In this blog, I will talk about the Toda tribes, claimed to be one of the first six tribes of India.
I had heard a myriad tales about Nilgiri Mountains (Blue Hills) and its ecosystem. Then followed the quest around the famous Neela Kurinji (bluish-violet colour) which bloom once in twelve years. And last but not the least, the charms of the popular hill stations of Ooty and Coonor has always been there. Therefore, as soon as I had an opportunity to visit Wellington, a beautiful town in the Nilgiris district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I had no second thoughts about my trip.
From road tripping along rolling tea-estates of Kothagiri, visiting the oldest school of Lovedale, spending a night in an outhouse overlooking the Pykara lake, driving uphill for the views of the highest peak- Doddabetta to taking a thrilling ride on Niligiri Mountain Train, I knew I was up for a memorable trip. On the cultural aspect what really stood out was getting acquainted with the various tribes of the Nilgiris – Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas, Irulas, Mullukurumbas and Paniyans. Here, I will talk about the Toda tribes, claimed to be one of the first six tribal cultures of India.
A Toda hut has very interesting structure and none can resist admiring its simplicity and beauty of it. A small stall put up by the Toda group at the Ooty botanical garden was my first acquaintance with them. Later, a beautiful red and black embroidery work made me inquisitive about their art and culture and led me into reading more about their origins, customs and the changing lifestyle. Only when I visited the Stone House (Museum) in Ooty, I got a better perspective of their community, settlements and overall lifestyle.
Todas Tribes and the Buffaloes
In the wondrous surroundings of Nilgiris, you can’t be without hearing the tales of the Toda tribe, who are believed to have been an inseparable part of it. They are indigenous, the most primitive pastoral people, and reclusive in nature. It was the British who took notice of them and fell in love with their charm, culture and character. This tribal group was not easily accessible but you could see their settlements around the grasslands, where their buffaloes come for grazing. The physique of a Toda man was touted close to the Greeks. In fact, even their buffaloes used to be unique breeds found only in the Nilgiris.
Along with living in harmony with nature, the people from the Toda tribes have thrived on a special connection with buffalo herds, all their life. This milk producing animal is revered by them like no one else. In fact, their culture revolved around the care and cult of a buffalo so strongly that they were not open to any kind of change or influence for decades. They believe that God created buffalo first and then came humankind. The buffalo was sacrificed to God during festivities and rituals as an offering to God and left for the nature to take care.
The Toda lands are part of The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-designated International Biosphere Reserve and their territory has been declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As I was headed away from the mainland of the city towards the greens, I remember being amused at the sight of a few semicircular shaped huts, only to be told later that it was a Toda hamlet or mund.
Ooty was also called Ootacamund because it was also a small Toda hamlet once. The Toda hamlets, a small collection of their huts across most of the plateau are known as “mund”. They have iconic rainbow huts, patched with mud and straw. The architecture is very interestingly done with bamboo planks latched together at regular intervals. They have a small doorway , no windows and the walls are decorated with motifs of buffaloes. In some structures, one literally has to crawl to make way to the inside.
Every mund has a temple, parabolic half-barrel shaped structure and a head priest. Along with treating their buffalo sacred, the Toda men worship a stone and use an earthen lamp in the temple. There is no idol worship for the Todas. Salutation for the sun is a morning ritual and they wind their day with praises for nature. These tribes have an extensive knowledge around flowers because their thinking tool revolves around flowers.
What is Puthukuli?
I am glad that I own a piece of this heritage. Todas can be easily identified with their dressing style. A single piece of clothis used as a mantle for both men and women. These shawls are adorned with the Toda embroidery, called Poothkuli or Puthukuli. The style of work is called Pugur in Toda language (meaning flower). Poothukuli holds a very important role in their festivals and funerals. Thankfully, this magnificent art has of embroidery practices has passed on from one generation to another.
While the men had a fascination for the buffaloes, the toda women have had a special expertise in a distinct style of weaving where the colors of the threads are extremely endearing. A white fabric is beautifully enriched with rich red and black motifs. The style says that two of red and one of black-is intricately woven to create their tattoo motifs and patterns. To create that richness and embossed effect, the embroidery is worked on the reverse of the cloth. Both the sides boast of an extremely neat work. And in total, they just have nine embroidery patterns. Some of the patterns include the Sun, moon, squirrels, rabbits, and buffalo horns.
The Todas did shift their attention from buffaloes to agriculture but it has not really helped them to fight the cultural shift. The change in the ecosystem has affected the tribal group more than the extent that we can fathom. With the shrinking of the grasslands, there has been a massive decrease in the number of buffaloes, having a direct impact on the lives, culture and existence of the Todas.
I had a conversation with a tribal women and she had to say that with the changing needs of survival and with penetration of several influences, continuing to live in their traditional ways was indeed difficult. It was a big blow for their culture to see the traditional ways of a whole community being lost to environmental degradation, development and modernization. No doubt, education has definitely been a light of hope and helped some of them carve a better life for them.
For me as an outsider, it was heartening to see that Tamil Nadu State Government was promoting Toda culture at various touristy locations. Happy Travelling!