Todas of the Nilgiris





Intro: High in the Nilgiris, the lovely "Blue Mountains" of South India, reside the Todas. One of the many tribes of India, the ancestral links of the Todas remain shrouded in mystery. Anthropologists and historians, some of whom believe the Todas are descended from one of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, are still trying to fit together the pieces of their genealogical puzzle. Don Weaver recently visited the tribal settlement and reports for the VOA on the Todas of the Nilgiris.

Text: (sound of women singing Toda song)

The dialect in the music you hear--the Todas singing of their village Norsh in South India--has little similarity to any other Indian language. There is no script. The Todas, consequently have no written history, and most of the adults, being illiterate, have no knowledge of their distant forebears.

Yet American anthropologist David Mandlebaum of the University of California at Berkeley, during a recent visit to India to study their customs, described the Todas as a "classic tribe" in anthropology. He said they possess some of the most sophisticated poetry in the world.

The Todas, who have spurned agriculture and traditionally earned their livelihood by raising buffaloes, have been polyandrous in the past. Their leaders say current tribal law no longer permits polyandry.
Until recently, their numbers were dwindling, some experts say because of intermarriage and disease. About a decade ago, there were slightly more than 500 Todas, excluding Christian Todas.

Today the Toda population is expanding, and other changes are being introduced as the effects of the 20th century gradually penetrate their lives. The government of India has had a hand in improving the lot of these simple hill people.

At the village of Norsh, a few miles from Ootacamund, District Welfare Officer N. Shanmugam discussed the Toda population and assistance programs.

(Weaver, Shanmugam tape, with translation)

"What is the total Toda population at the present time?

"According to 1961 census it was 706. Recently we surveyed and got the figure 983

"How recent was the latest figure?

"This census was taken about two years ago."

Shanmugam outlined what the government is doing to further increase the population of the Todas.

"Dr. Narsimhan, the Tribal Welfare Association Joint Secretary, is running a clinic. He wants to take a survey of all the tribals, including the Todas, Kotas, Kumbas, Paniyas...He wants to take a survey of these types to increase their population and to study their diet and species."

Shanmugam went on to describe some of the government programs of assistance to the Todas.

(tape with translation)

"We provide them with the housing scheme under which we are building houses and giving them water supply, giving them roads and subsidy for agricultural purposes."

Welfare Officer Shanmugam also mentioned efforts of the government to provide education for the Todas since most adults are illiterate.


"They have got higher elementary schools up to eighth standard. There is residential school. The government is meeting the entire cost. The Servants of India Society is running the school and government is giving a grant every year. And up to eighth standard they study in these schools and after that they go to the cantonment (a military base). They have high schools and colleges there and there are hostels.

Shanmugam said Toda youngsters who attend the residential school receive free food, books and clothing.
The Todas boast another modern acquisition--a credit union. It's officially called the Todas' Rural Multipurpose Credit Society and has more than 100 members, a fair representation considering the limited Toda population.

T. Mothicane, a spokesman for the Todas, provied some information on the origin of the credit union.


"The government gave a 4,000 rupees share capital in advance. It is how long--1963? Now in those days we were only 100 people...Now the members are increasing. We are 136.

The Todas have used credit union funds to finance larger herds of buffaloes, and for crops, quite a switch for the Todas, who have confined their efforts in the past exclusively to buffalo husbandry. Farming has become necessary because pasture land is shrinking.

(tape Mothicane)

"We have purchased the buffaloes, some of them. And some of them cultivate. They will get manure and seeds from the Cooperative Marketing Society. We get good seeds and will cultivate the seeds and the cultivation loan will be repaid within ten installments, this means within ten months. The other loan is for milk animals."

Mothicane, who is a member of the State Tribes Advisory Council, estimates the assets of the Toda credit union at 80,000 rupees, a significant increase over the original 4,000 rupees advanced by the government.
The world of the Todas is focused on their tawny buffaloes, which provide food and also play an important role in their religious beliefs. To the vegetarian Todas, the god On is the ruler of the world of the dead.

According to legend, Tiekirz is the ruler of the living. Some 600 other deities reside on hilltops and watch over men and buffaloes. The first few hundred Todas were pulled from beneath the surface of the earth by grasping the tail of a buffalo.

When a man dies, a least one buffalo is slain to provide milk and companionship en route to the land of the dead. The one who has passed on and his friendly buffalo "go west" to the kingdom of On.
Modicane expands on this.


"We believe in the next world, that is why we sacrifice the buffaloes. If a man dies, he wants milk...We've thought that the man and buffalo goes on to this next world."

Only men can care for the buffaloes. Women are not permitted to milk and only the priest can churn. The Toda priest churns milk into ghee (a form of butter) in the temple, of which there are five types, all devoid of ornamentation on the interior. One of the Norsh village temples, however, does have exterior bas reliefs of the buffalo and some Hindu gods.

When a sacred buffalo dies, the Toda men assemble and reverently touch the animal's hoofs. Possibly in some remote connection with ritual, the use of feet in greetings is commonplace among Todas. When a village woman and an elder meet, for example, the woman crouches on the ground and the elder places a foot on her head.

Experts are baffled concerning the ancestry of the Todas. One theory is that they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. The sight of several men in white mantles and full beards marching single file across the verdant hills strikes the visitor as a living testimonial direct from the Old Testament.

In his book, "Phrenologist Amongst the Todas," Englishman William E. Marshall said there was "something of the Jew and Chaldean in their appearance.' Marshall, who lived for some time with the Todas, declined to pinpoint their ancestral land.

Some anthropologists have tried to prove the 14 clans of Todas sprang from the Macedonian stock of Alexander the Great, whose army invaded the northwest sector of the sub-Continent long before the time of Christ. The Toda mantle, or putkuli, edged with colorful embroidering, closely resembles the Greek toga and the hairstyle of the people also has a Greek configuration. Some have blue eyes.

Still other experts have advanced the possibility that the Todas might be traced to early residents of an ancient Roman colony, and point to the discovery of gold Roman coins in nearby Ooty. Yet another premise is that the Todas could have been Dravidians (a South Indian ethnic majority) driven south by Aryan invasion.

Toda marriage regulations, steeped as they are in polyandrous tribal law, are noticeably different to the outsider. Mothicane says the Toda polyandry system has undergone changes.


"In those days, two brothers had one wife, because there were less ladies. Also they didn't want to split the wealth and buffaloes and what they had...This was the Toda polyandry system. Now in this 20th century, this is changed. Now no one has the polyandry system. There is only one wife to one husband."
Most young people, according to Mothicane, are betrothed after negotiations by their parents and are married in their middle teens. Divorce, he says, is "very, very rare" but when separations become legal, the penalty is paid in buffaloes. This can amount to as many as 20, a stiff price to pay for the family of the disgruntled spouse.

The early months of union have interesting aspects, as related by Mothicane.


"Then suppose she gets pregnant. In the fifth month of carrying we have a festival that is called 'bow and arrow.' We go to the jungle under a tree and invite all the Todas. And the boy and girl must bow to the feet of all the Todas who are assembled and bring some bushes from the jungle. And the boy makes a shape like a bow and arrow and asks the parents, 'may I give this bow to my wife?' Then the parents will agree. Then he gives the bow to his wife. He makes a small hole in a sacred tude tree and we put a ghee lamp into the hole and kindle the lamp and they will keep that bow under the lamp. That is out marriage custom. After that the boy and girl are permanently married."

The emancipation of women is expanding even in the backward areas of India. The Toda woman, too, is coming into her own as an economic force. The male is predominant in religious and business affairs of the Toda society, but the Toda woman is being called upon to lend financial support.

Cloth is purchased in Ooty, embroidered by the ladies and returned to town for sale to tourists and other customers. The women's handicraft work continues but has not come close to supplanting the primary source of Toda income, which remains the care and breeding of buffaloes.

One mark of beauty in a Toda woman is said to be prominent ankle bones. The women, who are mostly look-a-likes to the visitor, wear their hair in long curls, kept shiny and in place with generous applications of ghee made from buffalo milk. Women, after the birth of their first child, are decorated with blue tattoos on their upper chests, arms and legs.

The Toda society, generally insulated from Indian communication media such as radio and the press because of illiteracy and language obstacles, has long looked inward for entertainment and amusement.

(tape Norsh men singing)

On the surface a sober people, Todas enjoy dancing and music. Mothican willingly arranges a "round dance" in which several men clasp arms and revolve counterclockwise. This type of dancing and singing is usually reserved for festivals.

A few miles away from village Norsh, along a pleasant route in the comfortable climate of Wenlock Downs' green pasture land and sun-splashed gum forests, is village Kaghudi, a study in contrasts.

Here there is a single pucca (upscale) brick house and alongside a small Toda house with plank gabled walls, thatched roof and door so low the guest gets down on all fours to enter. Here two Toda youths and a village elder render a Toda love song.

(tape of song and translation)

"One man loved a girl.
"Her parents know about this love.
"They catch the man and tie him to a tree.
"His beloved waited from dawn to dusk
"But her lover never came.
"'The buffaloes are home again'," the lad sighs,
"'But my lover does not come.
"'My cows have come to shed
"'But my lover does not come.
"'The lights will soon be lit
"'But my lover does not come.
"'The darkness deepens
"'But he is not home.
"'The sun will soon set
"'But my lover does not come'."

There is another variety of song.

(tape of Kaghudi women singing, keep under voicing)

Although a transistor radio or newspaper is not often seen in their village, Todas do have a line of communications of sorts with nearby towns. Some of the curious take a long walk through the quiet forest paths into bustling Ooty, where factories and new apartment buildings have sprung up.

Toda elders also are exposed to the influence of their offspring, some of whom are drifting away from the clan to seek higher education, employment and other benefits. Life isn't what it used to be. The older Toda song composers do not necessarily care for their glimpses of the outside world and its effects on their society, as this song by the girls of Kaghudi Village indicates.

(tape girls' song under translation)

"The world is changing day by day,
"The population problems are increasing.
"There is not enough rain,
"There is not enough food..."

And so we leave the Todas of the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu State, a people with a shadowy past they make every effort to cling to, but who are being gradually assimilated into the 20 century through the compulsion of a progressive trend they cannot stem.