In Ooty, if you pass the Savoy Hotel and continue down the road, right next to the enormous secluded bungalow with United Spirits printed on its gate is the tiny hamlet of Karashmund. Not more than six houses, a traditional temple and a tiny plot of grassland make up the hamlet of Karashmund, one of only 55 surviving Toda settlements.
Ooty, the capital of the Nilgiris district located at an altitude of 2,240 metres above sea level is an abbreviation for Ootacamund — a ‘mund’ is the suffix denoting a Toda hamlet. Where the city stands now was originally the home of the Todas, an indigenous pastoral tribe of the Nilgiris hills, who are living in this region from time immemorial. Now they number less than 2,000 people and Karashmund is home to only six families.
“When I was a child, this whole region was filled with grasslands and there was enough pasture for our buffaloes,” says Thorthai Goodn, 35, born and brought up in Karashmund. Goodn is a tour guide now, specialising in tours focusing on Toda culture. He takes people to the important Toda sites and talks about their pastoral way of life offering a unique insider’s perspective. “It is only in the last few decades that exotic plant species such as the eucalyptus and acacia have taken over the Nilgiris hills. This has affected our lives and culture really badly,” he adds.
Well documented, yet ignored
The Todas, Kotas, Badagas, Kurumbas and Iruals are the five hill tribes of the Nilgiris. Among them, the Todas have traditionally been among the most secluded, living at the highest altitudes. Their traditions and language too is quite unlike any of the other tribes here in the Nilgiris or elsewhere.
There has and continues to be great anthropological interest about the community. Many scholarly works have been published about their culture, tradition and practices over the last two centuries. This interest unfortunately has not translated into a better life for the Todas themselves. “My mother, Vasamalli, was the first graduate from our community. After her, others took to education, but securing employment and more importantly continuing our traditional ways has become impossible,” says Goodn. He adds, “Since we hardly count as a vote bank, there is little official interest about our community apart from perfunctory gestures. So we have to fend for ourselves. Even the requests we make are never paid any heed to by local authorities.”
The biggest problem that the Todas, including Goodn’s family faces is the depleting number of buffaloes. For the Todas, the buffalo is sacrosanct and is considered god and provider of all. Many of their cultural nuances is linked to the buffalo. For example, in their traditional temple, the sanctum sanctorum houses a flame that can be nurtured only with buffalo ghee. Strict vegetarians, their festive food, Ottidinash, is a dish made of boiled rice, buttermilk and butter from buffalo milk. The Toda buffalo itself is a unique breed and a genetically isolated population found only in the Nilgiris. “My grandfather Ponnian had 100 buffaloes, now there are only 20 left,” says Goodn. “This is because with grazing lands lost, the buffalo population has also depleted rapidly. We keep asking the Forestry officials to clear out the lands of these exotic trees but they have done little so far.”
The buffalos have also become victim to many carnivores while grazing which was not the case earlier. “Tigers and leopards inside the jungle are able to prey on our buffaloes better with the tall trees all around now. Earlier, in the grassland the buffaloes could see the animals approaching from distance and could protect themselves better. This is also another reason for their diminishing population,” says Goodn.
An uncertain future
Goodn is determined to preserve and carry his tribe’s ancient traditions into the future. “Our young people, they all dress modern and want to study a lot and get jobs like anyone else,” says Goodn. “This is fine, but since our tribe is so small, it’s important also to remember our customs, so it doesn’t get forgotten later.”
The future for the Todas is uncertain, especially with the loss of grasslands. Epitomising the real impacts of environmental degradation, the survival of the Toda way of life is intrinsically connected with the survival of the Nilgiris hills, sans over development and loss of traditional forests.
“After exotic plants have come, water tables have depleted greatly. They tend to suck up water. So even though we have never done farming traditionally, nowadays we’re forced to. Even I’m growing ‘English vegetables’, that is, carrots, cabbage etc. now,” says Goodn. He adds, “The Toda belief is that we created our way of life, language and everything here. Just buffalo and man, together. Till I’m able to, I’m going to do my best to keep our beliefs alive. I hope my children are able to do the same.”
The author is an independent journalist based in Chennai. This article was produced with assistance from FEJI-ATREE media fellowships 2017. He tweets @sibi123
Updated Date: Mar 09, 2017 13:59 PM