The warped mountains of the Nilgiris enshrined within its folds, a myriad of secrets and stories. Montane grasslands cover the towering mountains, and at the valleys one can find the stunted forest patches - the Sholas. The Sholas where, orchids and other epiphytes grew on vacant branches, the fallen debris hid interesting insects and leeches, excellently camouflaged toads thrived near the water bodies, dragonflies and waterbugs danced along the water’s surface. The clear streams within these forests, albeit narrow, indicated the reason behind the lush greenery -- generous water. The plant life was of great medicinal value too, like the tree that had pink fleshy wood under the bark that cured any tooth related ailment when chewed on.
During my stint as an intern with the Keystone Foundation, I was lucky to witness firsthand the mesmerizing Nilgiris, its ecosystem, and its people -- the indigenous Todas. During my trail near Tarnad Mund (a Toda hamlet), about half an hour drive from Ooty (also called Ootacamund) -- a city that was once a small Toda hamlet until the Britishers came along -- I was surprised and saddened to see a dying heritage looking right into my face.
Tarnad Mund is a small settlement with about 10 houses of which some were the iconic rainbow huts built with locally procured mud and straw, with their small doorways and wall motifs of buffaloes. While I was admiring the simplicity and beauty of these huts, it wasn't late until something else caught my eyes -- the concrete houses replacing these iconic huts. Perhaps the comfort, permanence, availability of electricity and tap water, absence of dripping roofs and cold floors, and of the need for long-term maintenance, are why the Todas are moving out of their signature homes, I thought, mourning at the loss.
As we progressed along the trail led by Kuttan (a common Toda name) anna, we entered the grasslands that carpeted the hills beneath our feet and disappeared into the Shola forests that seemed to concentrate at the water laden valleys. These grasslands were giving the hills a warm beige background, with blots of shining grey of the steep rocks while the forests tried to claw their way upwards. The enchanting melody of the Malabar whistling thrush reached my ears while I saw the black eagles and kestrels soaring on the currents, hardly ever beating their wings. Clear evidence of leopards, sambars and elephants were littered along the grasslands, and Agama lizards were basking on warm rocks.
Farms and houses could be seen, like broken bits, on the hills that were splayed in front of us; and certain nemeses of this ecosystem (like eucalyptus and wattle) sprang up in patches. A strange breed of buffaloes grazed nonchalantly, which we were told, were not ‘owned’ by the tribe, but harken to certain commands of the Todas.
Todas -- born from the soil of the Nilgiris
Traditionally, the Todas were buffalo herders who revered the buffalo as a life giving deity and protected it from any harm, only procuring milk from the animal. The milk is often bartered for nuts and berries with other tribes. In fact, it is the herd of buffaloes that dictate where the Todas live -- above 2000 metres where the forests give way to grasslands that the buffaloes feed on.
Our guide, Kuttan, shared some facets of their fascinating culture. A God-fearing tribe, Toda priests followed some peculiar customs on particular days like not talking to outsiders, not interacting with women, living away from the family and eating particular food. Interestingly, different men took up priesthood at different times. They had temples too that served as the venue for many social occasions.
It was also fascinating to hear the languages that the Todas spoke, similar to some Scandinavian languages which have a heavy usage of the sounds like x’s and sk’s. Apart from words, whistles were also used to communicate with others -- something that Kuttan anna picked up and responded to! Their creativity of the Toda women is evident from their unique embroidery patterns with iconic black and red motifs, a testimony to the aesthetic sense of living they practised.
The journey towards modernisation
A striking aspect of the Toda lifestyle is their ability to live in harmony with Nature, considering everything precious, divine and revered. But perhaps, not anymore! Thanks to the various schemes of the government under the guise of ‘upliftment’, the Todas have switched over to farming or contract labour, in the pursuit of stable and lucrative income. The result? Buffalo herds which were once as big as a 100 per hamlet, are now a meagre 20-25. Their rainbow huts are gone, bringing in aspects of modernization with concrete houses. While one may empathize with the gradual, yet stark developments of the Toda community, it is hard to contemplate the loss of an entire way of living.
The spell of modernisation has cast doom on the ecology of Nilgiris. Grasslands that act as crucial drainage of water are misunderstood as 'wastelands', and are 'afforested' with invasive alien species like eucalyptus, tea or wattle. With disappearing natural vegetation and resources, the indigenous people now face the challenge of land encroachments and forced relocation.
The Todas of the Nilgiris are not an isolated case. The Shompen tribes of the Great Nicobar in the Andamans are also victims of this modernization. A very reserved population who never engaged with others, individuals of the tribe with well built body and fair skin are now hooked to hooka (tobacco in Hindi), which they beg from every ‘modern’ person they encounter with. With the Nicobar islands also losing its indigenous resources that once supported the Shompen hunter gatherers, and the 2004 Tsunami jeopardising their lives, many tribal welfare committees now provide food materials to these people.
Often, the contact with people from the ‘urbanised’ world is not too beneficial. “It is the main land Indians that introduced tobacco to Shompens and dominated the tribes of Nicobar. Some often used the innocence of tribals, to gain money”, shares Nobin M, a PhD scholar at ATREE who was involved in a field work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a few months. After the devastating tsunami, the government and other agencies are rebuilding key infrastructure like roads, hospitals, houses and other basic amenities.
Helping hands in building an inclusive system
Thankfully, there is a growing understanding that human development and environmental sustainability must go hand in hand, and indigenous tribes like the Todas have a huge role to play. Many organizations are working closely with individuals from the tribes in solving problems regarding conservation, livelihoods and enterprise development. One such is the Keystone Foundation which has a bunch of offerings designed for the upliftment of the indigenous people of the Nilgiris.
Keystone’s research spans the study of water systems to pollinators to indigenous pottery making techniques of the indigenous communities like the Kotas. Their Nilgiri Field Learning Centre (NFLC), established in collaboration with Cornell University, aims to explore questions of sustainable environments and livelihoods with an interdisciplinary approach. Their community radio talks about issues pertinent to the local communities, their culture and livelihood. The Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd (APPCL) is a tribal producer company managed solely by the indigenous communities. The Last Forest Enterprises is fair trade market, which sells its sustainably procured products online and through outlets. The Nilgiris Natural History Society (NNHS) tries to inculcate a participatory approach to conservation through talks, workshops, trails and treks.
In spite of the challenges in accessing basic amenities like education, hospitals and lack of social engagements, most indigenous tribes are happy and self sufficient, immersed in their own small world. On this International Day of World’s Indigenous People’s day, let us make an effort to understand them better and appreciate the life they lead. It is an enriching experience for us to look into the lives of those who live closest to the nature and learn a lesson or two.