The Toda are tribal pastoral people who live in the Nilgiri Hills. Also known as the Todava, Ton and Tutavar, they have received a great deal of attention over the years from anthropologists because of their unusual marriage customs and other cultural features. They have always been a small group. A Jesuit priest said there were “about a thousand” in 1603. In the 1950s there numbers fell below 500. There are around 1,100 today, with another 100 or so Christian Toda, some of whom have intermarried with non-Todas. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Toda are linguistically, culturally and economically distinct. They speak a Dravidian language like the other peoples of the Nilgiri Hills and southern India but their language has no written form and for the most part is not understood by non-Toda. Their skin and eyes are lighter in color and they have longer noses than the Tamils of southern India. They have traditionally been buffalo and cattle herders utilizing grasslands called sholas, while those around them have traditionally been farmers or forest people.
Some have speculated that the Toda may have come from ancient Greece, Israel, Sumatra, the Danube basin or some other such place but the linguistic evidence clearly places them in southern India. The first reference of them on a historical document is on a stone inscription dated to A.D. 1117. Their homeland in the highlands meant that they were relatively undisturbed regardless of who ruled the plains below them. In recent years the Toda have become more absorbed into Indian society and many of the customs that made them unique are no longer practiced or have been modified.
Toda culture is being threatened by encroachments from the outside world, More than 700,000 outsiders live on land that once was predominately theirs. It is also threatened by the Todas own pursuit of education, jobs and a better economic life.
Source: Tribal Research Center in Udhagamandalam (Ooty)
The Toda have traditionally believed in a world of the dead and the world of the living. In there scheme there is no hell; those who have lived meritorious lives have less trouble reaching the world of the dead. Their pantheon of gods and spirits includes “gods of the mountains” that reside in the Nilgiri Hills. The most important deity is Tokisy, who rules over the world of the living and created the Toda and their buffalo. The land of the dead is watched over by Tokisy’s brother On, and is regarded as similar to the world of the living except harsher and more grueling.
In recent years, elements of Hinduism have become stronger among the Toda. Many go on pilgrimages to Hindu sites. They also embrace Hindu views about purity and pollution, venerate Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan, Aiyappan and sometimes have elaborate god rooms in their homes. The Toda have shaman that go into trances to communicate with the Hindu gods. Beginning early in the 20th century some Toda converted to Christianity and now there are several Christian Toda communities.
Toda’s Sacred Buffalo and Dairies
The Toda have developed a cult that revolves around sacred cows and dairies. They believe that God resides within their herds of buffalo which also provide them milk and butter. The so called “sacred cows” (in this case buffalo) have traditionally been more than simply objects of worship. According to Cambridge anthropologist William Rivers, they provided the Toda with a communally owned safety net. The sacred buffalo wandered where they pleased and usually grazed with domestic buffalo during the day.
The Toda divide their herds into secular cattle and sacred cows. For the latter, every task—herding, milking, making clarified butter, mating the buffalo and giving them salt—has religious significance, and there are special rituals attached to each act. The cows are ranked in hierarchies and the priests and other people that take care of them are also ranked.
The dairies where the sacred cows are milked also serve as temples. The entrance to the Toda dairy-temple has traditionally been only one-meter high. When worshipers prayed at the temple they inserted only their head and shoulders into the temple for a few minutes and made an offering to the gods of buffalo milk. Inside the temple were relief images of snakes, celestial bodies and buffalo heads and the temple itself was shaped like a hogshead. A great deal of effort was put in to making sure the dairies stayed pure. They were looked over by “gods of sacred places.”
Toda Funerals and Infanticide
Toda traditionally believed that individuals need two funerals to enter the Land of the Dead. In the first funeral the deceased was cremated. In the second a fragment of bone or a lock of hair was burned. The two funerals were very similar. These days the second funeral is no longer held and rites that were conducted at the second funeral have been grafted on the first one. The cremation is accompanied by the sacrifices of buffalos: secular ones for females and sacred ones for males. The land of the dead is believed to be to be below the Nilgiri Plateau to the west.
During a traditional two-part funeral the Toda ritually slaughter a sacred buffalo and place the body of the deceased near the buffalo’s head. The corpse is covered with a cloth by relative and placed on a bier next the one-meter-high funeral pyre. Gifts are placed on the body. The fire is lit by friction for men and with an already burning rag for women. They body is swing over the fire three time to symbolize the destruction of the gifts so that relatives can claim the possessions of the deceased. Afterwards a lock of hair is cut from the copse and the body is cremated. A month after the remains from the cremation and the lock of hair are cremated in a second cremation. The remains are then buried.
Todas used to practice female infanticide. In 1871 there were 140 Toda men for every 100 women. At this time female infanticide was commonplace and the act was usually performed if the first born was not a son. Infant girls were sometimes drowned in buffalo milk or trampled by buffalos, but usually they were suffocated by an old woman who specialized in the practice. Horrified by the practice, the British convinced the Todas to practice group marriage in which a family of brothers married and a family of sisters. Family infanticide was abandoned a long time ago but the form of marriage it encouraged continues to exist.
Marriage for the Toda have traditionally been regarded as an alliance in which a male married a female of any age—preferably the mother’s brother’s daughter to the father’s sister’s daughter— and she entered the male’s patriarchal family. Negotiations for the marriage often began when the coup was two or three and continued until the reached maturity and the couple was married and move to the hamlet of the groom.
Most marriages are monogamous although polyandry was common in the past. Traditional arranged marriages are often broken by elopement. Once a marriage is formalized it is rarely broken in part because a divorce casts great shame and disgraces the family. Toda have traditionally rarely married outsiders.
The Toda practiced polyandry in the old days because there was a shortage of women. A woman took several husbands (as opposed to polygamy, where a man has several wives). According to anthropologists the Nilgiri Hills and the Himalayas are the only places on earth where polyandry has been practiced. One of the problems with polyandry is that it leads to an increase in venereal disease. In 1871, four percent of the entire Toda population had syphilis.
Under Toda polyandry women married brothers, and the first child born going to the oldest brother, the second child to the second oldest and so on. The first husband was usually a cousin picked out for the bride when she was three-years-old. Once she was an adult she could an choose her own additional husband. Men were expected to bring gifts to the marriage: a shawl the first year, gold the second year and a buffalo the third year. Often times the father of a child was not known and a special ceremony was held in which the woman selected one of her husbands to care for the child even though he might not be the natural father. The ceremony was conducted at night and the selected "father" gave the pregnant mother a bow and arrow, symbolizing his willingness to care for the child.
Polygamy was also practiced. Some wealthy Toda men took a second or even third wife. In same cases both polygamy and polyandry were combined and brothers sometimes shared two or more wives. Needless to say some of the families were quite complex. Another custom that arose from the shortage of women was the institution of “marriage by capture.” This allowed men to take the wives of other men if they paid a compensation of buffalo to the former husband. Polyandry, polygamy and “marriage by capture” are rarely practiced anymore.
Toda Men, Women and Children
Toda men traditionally have taken care of water buffalo while women have done housework although men have often helped out with the cooking. Today. agricultural work is done by both men and women. Many women devote large amounts of time to doing embroidery. Property is often handed over to sons before death. Daughters generally don’t receive anything except for a dowry.
Toda women traditionally curled their waist-length hair, tattooed their arms and upper body and wore toga-like garments. They traditionally greeted male relatives older than them by kneeling and placing the relatives feet, one at a time, on her forehead. Women traditionally were segregated during pregnancy and birth so they didn’t defile the hamlet. Paternity has traditionally been sanctified through ritual not biology. A man takes the responsibility of fatherhood by presenting a woman a bow and arrow during her seventh month of pregnancy (See Above).
Children are breast-fed for up to three years. They are often weaned by placing an astringent on the nipple. Young children are punished with stings from nettles on the buttocks. At an early age children play by pretending they are animal herders. As they get older they do the real thing.
Life event ceremonies are usually more highly ritualized for boys than girls. These include the first exposure of a baby’s face to the outside world, the naming of infants and the ceremonial piercing of a boy’s ear to signify ritual maturity. Girls were symbolically deflowered. Many of these customs are no longer practiced.
Toda society has traditionally been divided into two subcastes: one that owned the sacred dairy cows and the other which milked the cows and operated the dairies. Villages generally don’t have a headman. Decisions are made by an all male caste councils. Because the Toda often recognize the suzerainty of the Badaga sometimes Badaga leaders are called in to help settle disputes and make decisions.
The Toda are divided into more than 60 clans with village priests playing a key role in village life. The dominant social structure is the is the nuclear family. Households are generally held responsible for the behavior of their members. Disputes between household are sometimes settled by the caste councils.
Toda traditions and cultures have been passed down orally through the centuries. The most important of cultural expression has traditionally been oral poetry, often performed to music and dance. Both men and women compose songs about important events using a special poetic language. Many acts of everyday life have a song that is done with them. Toda women are skilled embroiderers. They produce large cloaks that the Toda wear and tablecloths and placemats for sale. These items often have elaborate geometric designs.
Toda Villages, Homes
In the late 1980s there were 64 permanently-occupied Today hamlets, including three Christian ones. There used to be several dry season and wet season hamlets that were used when the Toda migrated with their cattle. These have mostly been abandoned, mostly because the grazing land is no good anymore.
A traditional Toda hamlet. known a s a mund, embraces one to five barrel-vaulted houses, a buffalo pen, calf sheds and sometimes a separate calf pen. Ech hamlet much have a water source, a nearby forest to supply firewood and ample grazing land for the cattle. Many have dairies where cows are milked. Few traditional barrel houses remain any more. Former grazing lands have been dug up for potato and vegetable gardens, All hamlets have electricity.
Many Toda live in whitewashed brick and mortar homes. Traditional huts were often decorated with buffalo horns. Toda women wear intricately embroidered shawls and curl their hair in a distinctive way. The Toda utilize a number of mountain palms for healing and ceremonial purposes. They conduct a number of special ceremonies that utilize special plants. These plants are becoming harder to find as a result of deforestation and encroachment of agriculture.
Toda Economics and Livestock
The lives and the economy of the Toda has traditionally revolved their herds of female, long-horned, short-legged and aggressive mountain water buffalo. Being vegetarians, the herds of buffalo provided them with milk and butter. Male calves were sold to Nilgiri butchers.
Wealth traditionally has been measured in terms of buffalo and buffalo paraphernalia such as ornaments and bells for buffalo. Inheritance was usually in the form of buffalo and buffalo gear. Land was not owned; grazing rights were shared. The British introduced land titles.
The Toda have o1 exchanged milk products for grain with the Korta forest product for jewelry with the Kurumba. Exchanges were often made between hereditary linked partners that had done business together for generations. These arrangements are largely gone, Today, today they sell milk to cooperatives for cash which they use to buy rice and other things they need. Despite their proud past as pastoral people, most are now farmers who raise potatoes, carrots and cabbages.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015