Toda traditions in peril

  • 14/08/2002

Toda traditions in peril The God Aihn rules over Amunawdr, the realm of the dead. He is a dairyman and created the Todas and their buffaloes. To qualify for entry into the afterworld, the Todas of the Nilgiris must follow all prescribed ceremonies.

This belief is the pivot of Toda culture. An ancient tribal community of the upper Nilgiri plateau, the Todas have their own rules to understand the ultimate nature and purpose of life.

This single belief ensures that each sacred ritual, be it pregnancy or paternity, uses specific flowers or leaves, drawn from more than 100 specific plant species. The God will not settle for substitutes, and the Todas have complied. This is how they have inadvertently helped to preserve their environment.

However, these floral species are on the edge of extinction, just like their rituals and the Todas themselves. Toda population is down to 1400, scattered in about 50 hamlets. Their way of life is in danger of being corrupted by all trappings of civilisation.

More than 180 years ago, ever since the Nilgiri hills, were opened to civilisation, the Todas have fascinated anthropologists with their colourfully embroidered pootkuly cloaks, curious barrel vaulted temples and houses, unique dairy temple rituals and ferocious looking buffaloes with upward curving horns (a breed called Bubalus bubalis).

But, thankfully, the British, perhaps understanding the Todas' close relationship with nature, did not relocate them. Other outsiders were not quite sensitive. Today, the Nilgiri hills are laid out with townships of concrete, tea gardens and hydel reservoirs.
Toda way of life The Toda culture revolves around their cattle herds and the dairy temples. Each of the six grades of temple dairies has its cattle herd of sacred buffaloes and an exclusive array of varied rituals.

Only a Toda who undergoes elaborate ordination ceremonies can qualify as a priest and then milk the herd of sacred buffaloes, belonging to that temple grade, to ritually process it into butter, buttermilk, curd and ghee.

Each tiny hamlet with a temple mandates the use of several streams: a domestic stream; an ordination stream where priests undergo ordination ceremonies; and a dairy temple stream where the priest collects water for cooking the sacred food.

The Todas also believe that several landmarks like peaks, slopes, shola thickets, trees, plants, rocks, rivers, pools, swamps, paths, streams and caves are sacred. All resources to be preserved were marked sacred.

Another way culture led to better management of nature is the Todas' belief mandating the use of specified forest produce to construct their barrel vaulted and conical temples. They use natural materials like kwehtf or paarsh (Sideroxylon sp.); tree poles; specified wooden planks; rattan cane (Calamus pseudotenuis); theff or bamboo reeds (Pseudoxytenanthera monadelpha); a swamp grass called avful and specified wood for the door and carved kweghaishveil, a totem atop the thatch.

If any of these species gets depleted, Toda culture would be at a crossroads as they do not use substitutes. More frightening, if any species become locally extinct, their culture could collapse.
Toda predicament Today, Toda ecology faces an invasion. Exotic tree plantations have come up in abandoned Ti dairy sites