The Todas: The contemporary lifestyle of an ancient tribe

The Todas: The contemporary lifestyle of an ancient tribe

Catherine McMaster attempts to determine whether and to what extent the unique lifestyle of the Todas has been affected with the influx of modernity and how the Toda people themselves react to these inevitable changes.

In Nilgiri mountain range of South India reside a number of traditional tribal communities. The Irula, Paniyam, Kota and Badaga people are some of the many tribal groups that inhabit the area, among whom the Toda community is the most remarkable.

The Todas distinction in dress, physicality and their relationship with nature make them an interesting and unique tribal community and they are an integral part of the pastoral landscape of the Nilgiris Mountains. I had the good fortunate to meet a number of Toda people and discuss with them the growing concerns about modernization and the abandonment of traditional practices.

A Seamless Coexistence

The dogles (homes) of the Todas tribe

Along with two other volunteers from Madurai Messenger, I journeyed to Ooty to meet the Todas. Firstly we were introduced to Othally Kuttan (60) attached to the Kash Mund clan. Othally Kuttan was able to explain many of the traditional practices and beliefs of the Toda community. No amount of secondary research can enlighten you fully to the lifestyle and existence of an ancient tribe. That is why I approached Othally Kuttan with much humility and I was fortuntate enough to actually gain primary insight into the microenvironment of a Toda person.

Othally Kuttan invited us into his dogles(home), which was modeled after the traditional distinctive oval pent shaped huts. Painted a vibrant blue on the outer walls, Othally explained to me that three families live inside this relatively small hut, home to him, his wife, his son and his wife and their children. Collectivism seems to be a common trait amongst all Indian communities and the Toda community is no exception to this. This idea behind collective living is one of the many traditional Toda values that have been maintained. Yet, so many other Toda traditions have slowly adapted and have been modified to suit our modernized environment.

The Toda doglesis one example. Othally Kuttannow lives in a more modernized Toda dwelling. It still maintains the barrel vault shaped structure, but rather than made out of bamboo, his home is concrete. The original entrance door has been abandoned for a larger entrance. Former traditional dwellings were built of bamboo and fastened with raftan. They originally had a very small entrance door, 3 feet wide by 3 feet tall, which acted as a protection against wild animals. This traditional architecture is incredibly unique as not a single nail is used in its construction.

The dogles are decorated on the outside with buffalo horns and crosses. Inside, they consist solely of a single room. Unfortunately what remains of this traditional architecture is the Upper and Lower Temples. Only men are allowed to enter these temples and strictly only members of the Toda community are permitted inside. The fact that women cannot enter interests me, but when I inquire as to the reasons behind this, I am only given the answer ‘because it is tradition’. In fact, women must remain beyond the boundary and cannot cross the border of the temple, which is identified by a rock. They can pray from there, but are strictly not permitted any closer.

After the age of eight years, any male member of the Toda clan has the eligibility to become a priest. While I was at the kash mund, we met an aspiring priest, Messi (17), who was to become an official Toda priest the following day. This occupation would mean that he would not be allowed to have any contact with anyone who is not a Toda. While we were chatting with Messi outside the temple, we caught a glimpse of the current priest of the Lower Temple. He, as already previously prescribed, cannot venture to talk to us and rather remains hidden on the upper plateau, looking down. He stays by the temple ready to welcome any Toda who wishes to enter forth, herding buffalos and cutting trees for fires. He wears a very simple dress, a plain cloth with his torso bare. Such is the provincial and traditional life of a Toda priest.

Not all persons of the Toda community choose to live in such a traditional way. They are a unique tribe because they have accepted that modernization is inevitable, but they still work as a society to uphold traditional ancient values and beliefs. The modern doglesdwellings that Othally Kuttanreside in are an example of how the Todas maintain their traditional style homes (the barrel vault shape), yet are still open to modernization (they have abandoned the small door and the wood structure). As Othally Kuttan explains, they still speak their traditional ancient Dravidian dialect and do want to maintain their culture, “we are upholding this very strongly,” he says. And they certainly do. The buffalo is still the main focal point of the Todas’ religion and is still worshipped and revered amongst all members of Toda society.

The Buffalo, Central to Toda Culture

The pen in which they keep their prized buffalo, high up in the Ooty Mountains

The Toda buffalo is different to other herds of buffalo, being pale brown with exceptionally long horns. The buffalo is revered in Toda society and their religion centers and continues to center on the buffalo. According to the Todas, the goddess Teikirshy and her brother created the sacred buffalo and then the first Toda man. The first Toda woman was created from the right rib of the first Toda man and thus, man and buffalo were created together. This strong sense of unity between buffalo and man is visible in all facets of Toda society. Upon entering Othally Kuttan’s hut, I noticed a visible amount of buffalo material that decorated the walls. A buffalo stag’s horns were placed above the entrance door, as well as a small ancient silver plaque of a buffalo. Buffalo curd and milk are used in many Toda rituals and are consumed on a daily basis. In fact the other two volunterers and I had the opportunity of tasting buffalo curd outside the lower temple. I can’t say it was the most enjoyable substance, a thick consistency that had a very strong essence of buffalo. As it was unsweetened, it was highly nutritious but quite bitter in taste. But buffalo curd is one of the Todas’ highest exports. It is sold in the local cities and is an important product for maintaining the Todas’ present agro-based economy, which has been necessitated due to the shrinkage in pasture land.

As Othally Kuttanexplained to me, “if the buffalo is not there, then out culture is not there”, and it is easy to see why. The buffalo motif is everywhere; stones at the temple bear the motif of the buffalo head, and every mund(clan) has a thoovarsh, a circular open space for keeping the buffalos at night. Buffalos are also used in Toda rituals. The Toda justice system is one interesting example. If a member of the clan has practiced or participated in something unethical, the system of justice within the Toda community will involve a buffalo. The Toda man or woman, after being convicted by a counsel of elders will then fight a buffalo. If they choose not to, they will be ostracized from the community. If they defeat the buffalo, this is then a sign that they have been forgiven by their gods and therefore are allowed to re-enter society. If the buffalo kills them, it is an indication that they are guilty of their crimes. Such a method of justice is unheard of within Western culture, yet it is an interesting example of how certain ancient Toda rituals continue to be practiced within their society.

Todas women crafting typical Todas embroidery

The rapid decline of the buffalo within the Niligiris region is a serious issue for the Todas. There are a number of reasons for this decline.  The Todas believe in reincarnation and in the past, as part of their funeral procedure, 30 buffalos would be sacrificed. Now, only one buffalo is used in a funeral procession. The Todas celebrate two main festivals for the buffalo, Paniuppuin winter and Koruppain the summer. On both occasions, buffalos are sacrificed. In the olden days, shepherding the buffalo was the main occupation for Toda men. Nowadays, this agricultural occupation has been surpassed in favor of studying in the cities. Othally Kuttanexplains to me that he was the “first of the Todas to go to University”, his wife was the first graduate, and his sister was the first Toda to reach postgraduate study. Thus, the traditional mentality of this tribe, which dictated that men are in charge of the buffalo and women see to the housework, has inevitably changed.

The Hold of Time-tested Traditions

Yet the Todas accept this modernization as inevitable. I also met with two elder Toda women, both septuagenarians who chose to remain anonymous throughout our interview. They both agreed that they “preferred the old times, where we were happy with the limited things. Now people are more greedy”. However, both Toda women accepted the fact that if their children wanted to live in this competitive world, they would have to go out and study. That is what makes the Todas, a unique ancient society. They do maintain traditional practices and ideologies and yet are very liberal in mindset in the sense that they accept modernization as inevitable. As the women explained,  “when tradition changes, life also changes”.

The Todas tribe have retained many of their traditional practices. One of which is continuing to live in their dogles

With the ever-changing onset of modernization, these traditional changes have been implemented. This was specifically indicative in the now more modern style of dress that the Todas wear. When I interviewed the two Toda ladies, they had both styled their hair in the traditional ringlets that is unique to the Toda culture. While the history behind this stylization cannot be identified, the ringlets are a unique way to show that you are a Toda. Othally Kuttanexplained to me that his mother wore her hair in ringlets everyday until her death. However, nowadays, the women constitute a minority in keeping up with this traditional Toda hairstyle. Women now rarely style their hair in ringlets and saris are worn instead of the traditional puthikuzhi. Thus, many younger people of the Toda community choose not to physically differentiate themselves from the rest of society.

The two elder Toda women described their lifestyle before these modern changes. “In my mothers time we would all get together and have an active social life. Now they watch TV; we used to have a ghee lap and sit together and sing songs”.

This is just one of the many lifestyle changes for the Todas. However, having said this, the elders do make a conscientious effort to ensure that traditional practices are maintained among the younger generation. The two annual festivals, Paniuppain winter and Koruppain the summer are occasions when all Todas wear traditional dress. These festivals are generally celebrated with dance and music. The lively songs consist of simple stanzas, describing important events from the Todas’ past. As they have no written script, songs and chants are very important. Wedding and funeral ceremonies are other occasions when all Todas adhere to traditional practices of dress and song. As the two women explained to me, “for every occasion, the children have to wear traditional dress”. The ‘children’ can participate in more modern practices, yet when they enter the mundthey must adhere to a Toda way of life. This means they must be vegetarian and participate in traditional festivities.

For these traditional occasions the Todas will style their hair in ringlets and wear their homespun cotton shawls called puthikuzhi, whichhave black and red embroidered motifs. Worn by both men and women, they are tied around the waist, with one end thrown over the shoulder, almost like a Roman toga. While Othally Kuttanwas not wearing traditional dress, he did show me his puthikuzhi. He also showed us his family photographs of his mother and father and grandparents wearing traditional dress at their weddings. Even the women from the surrounding dogles were embodying these shawls in order to sell them in the cities. The exportation of these homespun cotton shawls is important in maintaining the Todas’ economy. Thus, while we may assume that the Toda lifestyle is gradually becoming more modern, traditional practices and style of dress are still preserved.

The Todas and Nature

The Todas’ relationship to nature is something that is completely unique and really quite beautiful. Towards the end of my trip in Ooty I interviewed Dr. Tarun Chhabra, who is the pioneer of the Toda Welfare Association. He is also the only non-Toda to speak their language and he has a strong fascination and knowledge of the Toda community. “The best way to help and preserve a culture is to get someone from the outside to speak their language,” he says. This is certainly what he strives to do and through my conversation with Dr. Chhabra I was enlightened on the unique practices and rituals of the Todas.

Dr. Chhabra’s fascination with this unique society came about in 1990, when he read W.H.R Rivers’ book The Todas (1906). Rivers is just one among a number of cultural anthropologists who have studied the Todas. Nonetheless, it was Rivers who captivated Dr. Chhabra’s fascination with this ancient tribe. The discussion soon turned to the relationship that the Todas have with their natural environment, a relationship that has not changed or altered with the passage of time. The Todas have quite a beautiful and pure connection with their environment. The Todas will not point to the hills, as they believe that their deities reside in the hills. Each hamlet has a number of water sources; one stream may be used for the priest, the other for women. It is not just a stream of water, but a sacred stream used in ceremonies. The Todas have a ‘worry flower’, which opens when you are worried or agitated. The hills, mountains and streams all have sanctity. Todas are also strictly vegetarian. This is a unique quality in itself, as you will very rarely find an indigenous population who are non-meat eaters. This means that they do not hunt and reside peacefully in tranquil co-existence with nature.

This relationship with nature is something “that all societies can learn from” as Dr. Chhabra explains. Their natural environment has sanctity that is unseen in our modern world. They respect and pay tribute to their surroundings and continue to do this despite the onset of modernization. There are some Toda practices that are unchanged, and certainly their strong sanctimonious relationship with nature is one of them. When a Toda dies, their soul passes fifteen landmarks. These landmarks can all be identified in the hills. A rock will have symbolic meaning, as will a certain stream or hill. They reside peacefully with nature and this is a reason why the Todas have survived as a society for such a long period of time.

Unique Experience

For Dr. Chhabra “everything has been a revelation with the Todas”, and I also felt that I had undergone a similar process. I was completely ignorant of the Todas before my research, and the opportunity to have one-on-one contact with members of the Toda community was a unique experience. Dr. Chhabra also enlightened me on the Todas and gave me a different non-member’s academic perspective. The Todas are such a unique culture who continue to thrive in their ancient ways despite modernization. What I find unique about the Todas is their liberal ideology. They accept and welcome modernization, yet they continue to uphold and respect the values and practices of their forefathers. They may be a small community, yet they have such a strong identity within their natural environment and way of life that makes them unique among other tribal groups.

Catherine McMaster
Editor | Writer | Content Producer Editor - Sunseeker Magazine Editor - Gaggenau Magazine Editor - Unique Magazine Contributing Editor - THE SUN | NEWS UK

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