Modern lifestyles have brought a unique tribal culture to the verge of extinction. Will the prestigious GI tag help save at least the exquisite Toda embroidery?

f the tribes living in the Niligirs, the Todas are possibly the most unique. Every aspect of their life — language, clothing, craft, worship, even their homes (half-barrel huts made of bamboo) — has been practically unchanged for centuries. However with the impact of modernity, this unique culture is on the verge of extinction.

Part of the cultural weave of the tribe is the intricate embroidery of their puthukkulli shawls, accorded the prestigious GI tag last month. Women are taught the sophisticated craft of shawl knitting from childhood. The puthukkulli , which resembles Scandinavian embroidery, is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Based on the intricacy of design, a puthukulli is priced between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 7,000. Today, the Todas use the traditional embroidery for other items like wall hangings, table mats, shoulder bags, and shopping bags but these are also expensive. Consequently, the products are hard to sell. Earlier, tourists bought the shawls as souvenirs. “But the demand has now dropped,” laments Sarasamma, a Toda woman of the Thannadu Mund.

The dip in demand can also be attributed to changes in the nature of Toda lifestyle. For one, the munds are vanishing. The front is decorated with Toda art, a kind of rock mural painting. Besides the huts, the mund has another structure with a smaller doorway, called Tirierl or dairy temple. “The new generation prefers to live in concrete houses rather than in bamboo huts,” says Mohan, chief of the Muthunad mund . Moreover, the shortage of construction material is also a deterrent.

The Todas are traditionally pastoral but have, in recent times, taken to agriculture and other occupations. “Even during the British Raj we were allowed to graze our buffaloes in the forest, but now we are denied this right,” laments A. Satyaraj, a Toda chieftain and member of the Tamil Nadu Tribal Board.

A survey carried out in 2010-11 by the Tribal Research Centre, Ooty, pegs the Toda population at 1608. Will the Todas and their quaint traditions survive in the slipstream of technological and geographic change?