The Todas and the Kotas of the Nilgiris have managed to preserve their strikingly unique culture in the face of relentless development.

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations has deferred India's request to declare the Western Ghats as a UNESCO World Heritage in the category of natural sites. While making a fresh bid, the authorities would do well to highlight the significance of the Western Ghats as a cultural heritage site too. Nilgiris, at least, qualifies for this heritage tag.

Over the last two centuries, scholars, both Western and Indian, have highlighted the unique socio-economic and cultural life of the indigenous people in the Nilgiris with special focus on the self-sufficient and interdependent economy of these mountain peoples and their peaceful coexistence.

Under assault

However, these indigenous groups have ended up as ‘development refugees' thanks to the relentless process of development the hills were subjected to both during and after the colonial rule.

Development has, predominantly, been an urban concept. No doubt mankind has benefited from scientific breakthroughs and spread of markets. But the relentless pursuit of development has also been responsible for economic and environmental problems like poverty, pollution, water shortage, loss of biodiversity... International conventions and national declarations cannot help find lasting solutions to these problems. Ultimately we have to look for solutions in our own value systems.

And that is one reason to protect these indigenous people and preserve their culture. Apart from a moral duty to care for the welfare of these ancient communities, where else can we look for sustainable values but to the tribes like the Todas and Kotas who have led a life of sustainable values from time immemorial? It is indeed remarkable that despite the vast changes around them, they continue with their traditional way of life.

But, for any indigenous culture to survive, the people should be economically self-sufficient and free to pursue their traditional social and cultural life. It is a tragic irony that — despite over half a century of support and patronage from the government and NGOs — the indigenous people of the district are, by and large, worse off today than at the time of independence.

Among the indigenous tribes of the Nilgiris, the Todas (1600) and Kotas (1800) are unique as they still form small compact groups and continue to be confined to their traditional habitations. The Todas now occupy some 60 Munds while the Kotas continue to be confined to seven Kokals.

Considering their small number and the feasibility of preservation in situ, the Toda Munds and Kota Kokals should be declared as Tribal Reservations or Conservatories. Apart from welfare schemes, these groups should have support to revive and carry on their artistic traditions that may include innovations like eco or cultural tourism. The general care of these tribes is better left to the ministries and departments, both in centre and in the state, dealing with culture and heritage rather than those in charge of tribes in general. What we are dealing with here is not poverty alleviation but cultural preservation.

The Toda Munds and Kota Kokals may also be recommended to be declared as World Heritage Sites (Cultural landscapes) by UNESCO.

Cultural landscapes

According to UNESCO's criteria, “Cultural landscapes are cultural properties and represent the ‘combined works of nature and of man' designated in Article 1 of the Convention. They are illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal…The protection of traditional cultural landscapes is therefore helpful in maintaining biological diversity.”

Defining what is called organically evolved landscape, the criteria states, “This results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features. They fall into two sub-categories…a continuing landscape is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.”

It seems very probable from the above criteria and definitions that the Toda Munds and Kota Kokals can qualify for the World Heritage status. This would be the best way forward to protect and preserve the Nilgiri cultures for the benefit of posterity. It would also bolster the case for declaring the Western Ghats as a World Heritage site.

The author is the Honorary Director of Nilgiri Documentation Centre. E-mail: dvenu@vsnl.net