Where the buffalo roams

I am scanning his face. Hard. Like everyone who is a temporary or permanent resident of the Nilgiri hills, I have heard all about the Todas. That they are a mysterious people, that their origins, obscured by the mists of time, point variously to the Aborigines, the lost tribe of Israel, the Greeks. That their features are said to resemble characters from the Old Testament.
The Toda tribal facing me shares just the colour of his skin, a smooth sheen of ebony, with the Abos. His features are distinctive if not finely chiselled; I could persuade myself that his is almost a Jewish nose. But Old Testament? I don’t know.
“I’m Ethiraj,” he says, with a slight smile. “Ethiraj,” I echo, on a note of disappointment. That’s not a Toda name, is it? “No,” he avers, solemnly. “My name is actually Ettrez. People at my workplace couldn’t get the name right, so it became Ethiraj.” He catches my look of enquiry and reads the question right. “I work as casual labour for the army.”  
So. That’s Ethiraj, the modern Toda for you, his whiter-than-white vest peeping out from beneath a slipping, magnificently embroidered Toda cloth worn in typical toga style, a watch gleaming on his wrist.
In a short while, I’m interacting with a voluble, happy lot of Toda women, all clad in the ubiquitous cream-coloured poothukulis, cotton cloth worked over with intricate and symbolic designs in black and red. Their long hair is worn in corkscrew ringlets that lends elegance to their faces. Jayanthi (yes, that’s my name, she tells me firmly) works for the government and asks me why I am not buying anything from the stand to my left, which the Todas have loaded with table linen, bags, waistcoats, all embroidered by them, of course. Ah, Jayanthi is a shrewd business woman. Another modern Toda.
And then there are the kids, a small group of Toda children running about, all clad in modern dress; frilly frocks worn by the little girls, smart pants and sweaters by the boys. When I give them packets of sweets, I am thanked and given the appellation ‘aunty.’ I am impressed. Or am I? The reality, alas, just doesn’t go with my romantic fantasies about an unspoilt, untouched tribe.  
This is the first Toda settlement just above the Ralliah dam near Coonoor. We are on a trek, it’s a warm day and at the settlement, we are treated to a small show-and-tell by the Todas. It’s clearly a tourist capsule, a potted presentation of their customs and traditions, topped by the Toda dance where the men make deep keening sounds and the women murmur chants while moving around in a small, tight circle. All in all, a 15-minute encounter. This then, is all the visitors need to know about the Todas.

I come home and get online. What I read is a clear sifting of fact from fantasy, and I realise it’s no wonder the Todas don’t exactly want the superficially curious to get more than a cursory peek into their world.  
The original inhabitants of the Nilgiri hills, along with the Irulas, Kotas, Panias, Kattunaikans and Kurumbas, the Todas were around in the early 19th Century, when the European missionaries first came. Friendly and hospitable, they nevertheless refused to convert, facing down the evangelists with their determination to adhere to their animist ways.
The next outsider to come up the hills was John Sullivan, the ‘founder’ of Ooty, followed by the British army. Sullivan, in fact, built the first stone house in Ooty on land he bought from the Todas in 1823. By then others too had come to settle in these salubrious climes, and forced the Todas to make a tactical retreat, further up into the fastness of the shola forests this pastoral tribe knew so well. And there they stayed, as they still do, making occasional visits to Ooty, Kotagiri, Gudalur and Coonoor towns to sell their wares.
The Todas worship a special breed of water buffalo. Back at the mund, Ethiraj/Ettrez took me to the dairy temple, telling me that the Goddess Tekirshi created the buffalo first, then the Toda. They use buffalo butter on both their bodies and hair, hand over set numbers of the animal as dowry, and even used to perform buffalo sacrifice, though the last is a near extinct ritual now. Ettrez tells me the Todas are vegetarians, milk and milk products as also millet being their dietary mainstay. Their language has no script and is believed to be an off-shoot of Tamil and Malayalam; so much for the Old Testament image! I entered one of their igloo-like dwellings, made of woven reed and bamboo, plastered with a mixture of cow-dung and wet mud. Getting in and out of these huts call for supple backs and staying in them, for strong noses because of the dung odour!

At the temple gate, I’m told that no one but the priest or a Toda male of appropriate status can enter. In these dairy temples reside the ‘gods of the places’; apart from them, the Todas also worship the ‘gods of the mountains’, and of course, virtually every peak in the Nilgiris has a resident god. The Todas believe they were created from the soil of the Nilgiris, part of the hills, the valleys, the meadows, the sholas.
There’s no escaping it; in quite some ways, they are like people down in the plains. The Toda women cannot take part in any religious ritual. Female children are considered a burden; the patriarchal Todas practised female infanticide till it was banned by the government. They were a polyandrous lot, too, where one woman was the common wife of a set of brothers; but that practice, too, has fallen by the wayside. The Toda woman is blessed by a village elder in this way: she drops to her knees and he slowly raises his right foot to her temple.
To no one’s surprise, studies of the Todas place them in South India, not ancient Israel. They are increasingly turning to agriculture now. Sadly, the traditional Toda munds are giving way to conventional brick-and-cement houses. Just a few decades ago, they were putting their cattle inside the houses built for them, preferring to sleep in the huts instead.
Today’s Toda community is well over a thousand strong and frequently come down from the hills to work amongst the people of the towns. And yes, almost everyone is into modern dress, with the Toda cloth thrown over a shirt, sari or even nightie.
It’s the old dichotomy of tradition and modernity. Which makes me wonder if there will come a time when the Todas will walk down their Lane of the Past only for the tourists. Indeed a point to ponder.

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