Todas, an ancient people living in the Nilgiris, are according to
anthropologists, an off-shoot of the Lost Tribe of
Israel. Some of their customs and practices are amazing and often
shocking. An insight into their fascinating lifestyle.
The Neilghrrey, the
Nilgiris or the Blue Hills of Tamil Nadu boast of vast tea and
coffee estates, huge forests of teak, rosewood and eucalyptus that
give the hils their aura of blue. And, most important of all, they
are home to the Todas, an ancient people who in dress and stature
strongly resemble characters from the Old Testament.
Prince peter of Greece,
an anthropologist, after a careful study of these people, concluded
that there was strong likelihood that they were an off-shoot of the
Lost Tribe of Israel.
The Toda men, over six
feet in height, are well proportioned with tousled hair and beards.
Well-shaped, high-bridged aquiline noses, natural hauteur and an
independent spirit show why they work for no one. As a matter of
fact, they are the lords with people working for them. Their athletic
physique, remarkable stamina and endurance make them magnificent
men. The women, however, are small in stature and wear cork-screw
ringlets as a mode of hair arrangement.
The Todas live in small
groups in the forests around Ootacamund. Their beehive shaped huts
are made of reed and bamboo woven together and then plastered with a
mixture of clary and cowdung to make it wind-proof and water-proof.
The roofs are heavily thatched with dried out wild lemon grass. Each
hut consists feet by ten feet, with no widnow or chimney.
A small opening, large
enough for someone on all fours to crawl in and out, makes up both
the entry and the exit. Though smokey inside, the huts are kept neat
and clean with a regular plaster of cowdung. Each group of them is
called a mund from which the name Ootacamund has come.
Each mund is self-sufficient and the word of the elders is law. At
present there are only a few munds left-each one consisting of five
The Todas follow a
patriarchal system and men rule with an iron hand. They own the land
on which these munds are constructed by hereditary pattas,
the eldest son inheriting and succeeding his father on the latters
demise. In keeping with the government policy to preserve the rights
and customs of the tribals, they are exempted from paying taxes.
The prosperity of each
mund is judged by the herds of wild buffaloes owned by it. These
ferocious but magnificent animals roam the forests living on wild
vegetation and when it is time to milk them, the Toda in charge makes
a rather weird call and immediately the wild herd returns, to the
mund. After the milking is over, the herd adjourns to the wilds
again. The buffaloes play a vital part in Toda life. Its butter
anoints bodies and dresses hair. It is given as dowry by the girls
parents and sacrificed at death. The Todas are vegetarians so they
leave the sacrificed animals to nature and lesser men to do what they
want with them.
Toda women play a
subsidiary role to the Toda buffalo. On greeting a man, a Toda woman
drops to her knees and raises the mans right foot to her temple
as a sign of welcome, greeting and obedience. A female child is
considered a curse, a disgrace, a burden. In the past many were
sacrificed in the bull rings located at strategic spots away from
Ootacamund on the grassy downs.
A flat grassy spot 25 to
30 feet in diametre surrounded by granite blocks rolled into place
with an opening large enough to admit a bull made up the bull ring.
On a day favoured by the Moon God the bulls would be driven into the
ring and a stone would be rolled into the opening to keep the bulls
The unwanted female child
would then be thrown over the parapet into the ring. The spectators
would begin to shout, thereby inciting the bulls into a stampede to
trample the condemned child to death. This barbaric female
infranticide was ultimately banned by the Government on humanitarian
The woman in each mund
are common wives to all the men in the mund and the birth of a child
is in no way connected with togetherness. The Moon God is the
benefactor and a child is produced when the God so decrees. All the
women of the mund are earth-mother and all the men are
earth-father. Children from different mothers are not
considered related and can cohabit on reaching puberty.
A Toda marriage is quite
akin in many ways to those of other hill tribes. A boy selects a girl
and lives with her in her parents home. This is the purat
marriage. Only when the girl is seven months pregnant does the actual
marriage take place. The boy presents the girl a bow and, carrying
sanctified threads, they go into the forest where they tie them
around a sacred tree- one with a forked branch. The Todas do not
marry outside the community which is one of the reasons why they are
almost extinct today.
For the Todas a buffalo
is a sacred as is a tree with a forked branch and the Moon God, not
Goddess, is the benefactor. Their temples are secret and private
where only the priest or Toda men can enter. It is believed however,
that the horns of different animals are kept as dieties.
Some of the funeral rites
for a Toda chief are blood-curdling. The elaborate ceremony is held
at daybreak and close to a stream, nearly always 14 miles away from
the settlement of which three to four miles are covered by
foot-slogging. Todas from all the munds are informed by runners
over-night and they all come to attend the ceremony. As tradition
demands, Kotah musicians blowing numerous trumpet-like horns embossed
with copper relief work, precede the procession.
The Kotahs consider it an
honour to make music on the death of a Toda chief and accept no
payment for their service. The body of the chief lying on a decorated
cot is carried by the pallbearers immediately behind the musicians.
Following him are the mund wives, each reclining on a blanket or
sheet tied to parallel poles and carried by males. These hammock
stretchers are put down at the spot where the chief awaits cremation.
The wives sit in squares
of four and when the sun is high in sky, at a given signal, they
start wailing and weeping. Two women sitting opposite each other lean
forward till their foreheads touch. They wail loudly. After a few
minutes, they sit upright and the other two of the foursome repeat
the performance. When all in the foursome have wept against each
other, they rise to form a fresh group of four till all the women in
mourning have wept with on another. This ritual takes up to two hours
It is now time to
sacrifice the buffaloes. Depending upon the importance of the chief,
five to seven buffaloes are drive into the natural sacrifice area.
The horns of these animals are well lubricated with buffalo butter.
The Kotah music and the wailing women make the animals restless and
they begin to prance around. At a given signal a number of young,
powerful, athletic young men dressed only in loin cloths and armed
with a hammer-like weapon, jump amidst the angry buffaloes to kill
them with blows of considerable force between the horns. When the
buffaloes charge, the young men nimbly throw themselves between the
horns of the animals and in an effort to dislodge the riders, the
buffaloes drive their horns into the turf. This is when the young men
strike the death blow. In case the blow has been ineffective, the
enraged animals make a fresh rush, and now its free for
..Any man in the gathering within reach, can administer the
death blow. When the last of the animals has been sacrificed, the
The cot carrying the body
of the chief and his personal belongings is placed on amound of wood
liberally sprinkled with buffalo butter to aid combustion. The toe
nails and finger nails of the body are removed and preserved. This is
the wet funeral.
When the cremation is
over, the women of the mund go into a six month period of mourning.
During this time they are forbidden to change their clothes, bathe or
cohabit. At the end of the six months a dry funeral
takes place, more buffaloes are sacrificed and the preserved nails
are cremated. This is the official end of the mourning.
It is now time for
rejoicing. Women from other munds drag the mourning women into the
stream nearby. Their clothes are torn off them they are bathed. Their
hair is washed and dressed with buffalo butter into cork-screw
ringlets. It is, however, customary and polite to resist the bath and
thus indicate a desire to go on mourning. A new chief now takes
command and normal life returns to the mund wives.
The young man who kills
the maximum number of buffaloes during the cremation ceremony is
presented with a key to all the munds. And the Moon God continues to
be the benefactor.
The Todas today are fast
disappearing. Intermarriage and the brutal killing to female infants
have largely contributed to their dwindling number. With better
education, hey are moving away from their traditional way of life but
at the same time are beginning to be absorbed into civilisation
and are making a positive contribution to the mainstream of Indian