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The Todas – Pagan Rituals, Primitive Rites

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 families.

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 latter’s 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 girl’s 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 man’s 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 in.

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 grounds.

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 parent’s 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 at least.

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 it’s free for all…..Any man in the gathering within reach, can administer the death blow. When the last of the animals has been sacrificed, the cremation begins.

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 life.