History & Culture

Exotic race warms the Nilgiris

A stall put up by a Toda group  

She dwelt among untrodden ways... A violet by a mossy stone; half-hidden from the eye; Fair as the star when only one is shining in the sky.

Poet Wordsworth may have said this of Lucy, but the exotic tribe of Nilgiris, tucked away in the mountain range is what the 18th century Romantist would have visualised.

The Nilgiris, (blue mountains) first explored by British writer John Sullivan in 1819 is the pride of South India. Everything about the hills is amazing; more so its name which is derived from a wild flower called Neela Kurinji (bluish-violet colour) that blossoms once in every 12 years.

The hills get carpeted with this blue hue and what more, the natives count their years with every bloom.

Even more exotic is the first ever tribal natives of Nilgiris, the Toda (Thuda) clans who were first spotted by the British who were enamoured by their charm, culture and character. And not without a reason.

The Toda clan to this day are distinctly different from the rest of the Tamil tribes or plainsmen. They are an exotic race, whose facial features (barring gene mutations) are very un-south Indian. For one, they are generally not dark; they are fair-skinned, ruddy with constant exposure to sunny to rainy weather.

Their brow, nose, prominent cheekbones, chin and physical structure is reminiscent of Greek sculptors come alive. The eyes for most are light coloured varying from brown to grey; the identical Indian black pupil is more an exception than rule.

Says Dr. Tarun Chabbria, an Ooty-based dental doctor who also runs an NGO ‘Toda Nalvazhvu Sangam’ for the upkeep of the unique Toda culture, “Definitely the race has come from outside India but then that must have been centuries ago! There is varied speculation as to their origin by many a foreign linguist and anthropologist not to talk of many British writers and researchers. None can definitely be proved except perhaps a DNA test. The Englishmen who resided in Nilgiris then were amazed and also appreciative of the Toda’s good looks as also their pride, as has been written in their analogies. The Toda would never turn his head and admire the foreigner as we would even today. One Toda headman was supposed to have told a British gentleman that his Gods had already predicted that their land would be under the sway of foreigners of a lower cultural hierarchy. The British always admired them in most of their writings. What I have come upon in my research is their intriguing myth. They believe that their original ruler Aihhn bequeathed his tribe to his daughter Taihhkirshy (now goddess/Amman) and he proceeded to take care of the ‘after world’. The ruler wanted to ensure that his Todas would reach the spiritual world after death. So he moved towards the last mountain in the Nilgiri range and established the spiritual world. On his journey he embarked on mythological sites. What is surprising is that all these sites are now there, I have seen them. For the Todas, these are the sites their soul traverses after death to live with their King-God Aihhn. The goddess is their protector on earth.”

N. Thudadhu Kuttan , board member of the Toda Cooperative at Ooty (Udhakamandalam) is not ready to admit about the foreign gene. “We have been one of the first six tribes of India. And we come under the Scheduled Tribes. We are very possessive about our culture. Our elders till recently were against education because it would erode the Toda distinct culture and breed. But due to so many government incentives we have come out to educate our children. There are a few graduates too. Our houses and dress code is also like anyone else, though we have not lost our Kalachara veedu (heritage home) or our dress. Our deity is just a stone and a lamp. We do paalabhishekam to this edifice in our specified temple hut (mandu). We deify the buffalo. There are 15 Toda clans presently in Nilgiris, each having its own temple and head priest. We are close to the Hindus in our religion.”

“Far from it,” states Dr. Chabbria. “Though their aberrant language is Proto Dravidian, their prayer is not in their spoken tongue. Even linguist Emino in 1930s was unable to decipher their prayer lingo. The Toda culture is unlike other tribal cultures across India. It is more a break-off from Vedic culture, I feel. The Todas have dream time; they have deity hills worshipped by all the 15 clans. What is even more interesting is that Todas are totally vegetarian; their diet is milk and milk products. They are pastoral by birth but now many have moved to agriculture too.”

But for the 40 per cent who got converted to Christianity during British times and have lost links with their culture, the Toda is an orthodox, original and highly attractive tribal race that glows like a gem in the crown of the blue mountains.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 9:26:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/exotic-race-warms-the-nilgiris/article7945137.ece

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