The Todas - A Photo Essay
The Todas is a very distinctive tribe. One of the best things to witness in the company of Todas is that they live with outmost respect and harmony with nature. As a city dweller, that is one thing I sorely miss. Only four tribes namely the Kotas, Todas, Kurumbas and Paniyans live in the Blue Mountains – Nilgiris. There is a lot of research that has been done on the Todas but what I wanted to focus on my visit was to connect to their people and try to see their world through their eyes. The mountains of the Nilgiris hold the truths, endless stories and history of the indigenous communities from a long time ago.
The Toda landscape is bewitching with its winding grasslands, tall trees, clear blue skies, and cold breeze. The attire of the Todas perfectly complements the serene green landscape with its tones of black, white and red. There has been much speculation about the origin of the Todas due to their unique physical traits and language. However, there has been no consensus.
Toda men at a wedding
An anthropologist Mr. Satyanarayanan who very kindly took me along to meet the community informed me that there are around 1200 Todas that live in the Nilgiris and that they are further divided into twelve clans. Each clan has their own defined area where they choose to reside.
The Toda people traditionally lived in their unique style munds but most of them have now moved on to the modern brick and cement homes.
The Toda language is considered to be an offshoot of the Dravidian family that formed its own shape around the 3rd century. Traditionally, the Todas were pastoralists who would herd their buffaloes over the Nilgiri grasslands.
A Toda woman informed me that earlier each family would keep five buffaloes but since the cost of one has risen to Rs 40,000, they end with keeping just one in the present day. Many of the Todas have now adopted agriculture as a means of livelihood. There are a few organizations working towards providing livelihoods through their craft form- Toda embroidery. However, the practice is slowly dying.
The Todas used to practice the custom of Polyandry. However, that practice has also declined. A woman in a polyandrous Toda system was generally the shared spouse of brothers and she lived in their home.
The Todas are strict vegetarians but many have begun to eat meat outside of their homes.
A Toda Dairy Temple
A Toda temple is a revered site. Women are not allowed to go inside a temple. The temples are connected to the Buffalo herds, priesthood and other related activities. They are built quite close to the munds. The temples do not have any idols. A Toda woman said to me, “We believe that light is God.” Men of ritual status decide which Buffalos are sacred and which ones would be used for dairy purposes. There are several rules and rituals pertaining to their complex system. The Todas also worship The Gods of the mountains, Moon God and their Sacred Places. They call the sun ‘male’ and the moon ‘female’.
Toda embroidery colloquially called as Pukhoor is the hand embroidery craft of the Todas, practiced only by the women. It is an intricate art form with motifs that depict their surroundings and beliefs. Made against white fabric, the embroidery is done in colors of black, red and white. Products made with Toda embroidery are classified as geographically tagged under the Geographical Indication of Goods Registration and Protection Act.
One can often see depictions of animals, reptiles, buffalo horns, and rabbit ears. The Todas are very proud of their craft and wear it on important days such as weddings, meetings or funerals. Several people choose to wear them every day too. A dead body too is wrapped in stunning embroidered fabric.
“Embroidery is considered as an homage to nature by Toda women”
This belief shows how embroidery is deeply embedded and connected to their historic culture and reverence for nature.
A Toda man - Mani in a traditional Toda shawl that his mother, hand embroidered for him. The shawl has an ingenious method of storage – a bag that gets hidden when the shawl is wrapped around his body.
Mani, an educated man commented on modern society, “You are getting rid of plastic, we never used it!”
Toda women have a unique way of wearing their hair. In earlier days, they used Buffalo milk and ghee to give the desired form to their hair.
A Toda woman shows off her hand embroidered pieces
Toda sisters at the wedding
Social paternity is a practice still continued by the Todas. I was fortunate to visit a wedding where a man gave a symbolic bow and arrow to the five months pregnant bride. This ritual acknowledges to the society that the child is his and is carried out after a wedding ritual in the previous night.
The ceremony is carried out in front of a carved mango tree. The bark is carved to create a space to light a diya (small bowl like lamps made of mud and filled with ghee to burn). The groom brings the bow and arrow to the spot and asks the bride for its acceptance three times, she replies positively and that marks the end of the ceremony that is followed by taking pictures and a hearty vegetarian meal.
The Tree readied for the bow and arrow ceremony
The carved tree bark
The newly wedded couple
The government has provided many schemes to help preserve the culture and community of the Todas. However, their craft is fast declining. Their traditional munds have been replaced by modern cement homes. It is of utmost importance to have a culturally sensitive restoration of the environment.
Aditi Dubey Lee