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Toda Environmentalism Part I


The indigenous Toda people of the Nilgiri Hills of south India who have lived there since millennia, have environmentalism in their genes. Their first major connection with nature began in ancient times when the gods, after completing their cycles in human form, went onto occupy some prominent hilltops, where they are still believed to reside. As a consequence, some elders still consider it sacrilegious to point out the location of a particular deity hill (taihh-tehtt).

In addition, each of the fifteen patriclans have ruling deities who inhabit specific peaks in the vicinity of their principal hamlets. If one analyses the Toda prayers, we find that there are over two hundred hills that have varying levels of sanctity that is specific to certain clans and hamlets.

For instance, Maihhdr clansmen look to Kawnttaihh (his hill near Avalanche, better known as Devar-Betta) as their ruling deity, but also revere Kwatteihhn, a former clansman who became a god, as a special clan deity.

Deity Hill and cliff known as Kawlvoy

Kwatteihhn’s hill is located in the Attapadi Valley in neighbouring Kerala and commonly known as Malleswaran Mala (Lord Shiva’s mountain; 1664 m). On Mahashivaratri, the indigenous Kurumbas organise a pilgrimage to this pinnacle that has been described as a ‘finger stabbing the sky’, sometimes taking along a Toda.

People residing in the vicinity of deity hills often remark that they have heard the resident god entering her/his abode, and indeed, many have natural ‘door-like entrances’. Todas passing in the vicinity of a deity peak reverentially salute the summit by adopting the koymukht posture, raising the right forearm with palm outstretched, and having the left hand touch the right elbow, as they softly chant the kwa(r)shm or sacred name of the deity.

All such sacred hills have thus been afforded protection by the Todas for as long as they were allowed to manage their homeland, and now form the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (the first such in India).

We have recommended that UNESCO adopts a serial approach to add the area in and around Toda sacred hills to the existing Western Ghats World Heritage site as a mixed (cultural and biodiversity criteria) property and protecting it accordingly.

the door-like 'entrance' to the god's abode

The door-like ‘entrance’ to the god’s abode

To the Todas, any alteration in the ecosystem around a deity hill is deemed as an indication of profound sickness of the environment. This may be due to the planting of exotic trees or tea or actual destruction during the construction of hydroelectric dams, etc.

The second irrevocable bond with nature was instituted by their pre-eminent deity, Goddess Taihhki(r)shy, when she miraculously created Toda buffaloes that were distinct for the dairy-temples attached to each patriclan, and those that were allotted for domestic purposes. Incidentally, Toda buffaloes, like their masters, are confined to the Nilgiris, and represent a distinct breed of the Asiatic Water Buffalo.

She gave sacred words to all the sanctified areas, sites and buffaloes as well as to numerous species of flora and fauna, thus ensuring their sanctification and protection. As a modern day consequence, when we were searching for one of the rarest of endemic Nilgiri orchids (considered to be on the brink of extinction), Liparis biloba, it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover it growing at a remote Toda hamlet, Kwehh(r)shy.

The Todas’ third indissoluble bond to nature began when Goddess Taihhki(r)shy’s father Aihhn, presiding deity of the Toda afterworld, proclaimed that the only Todas who would qualify to reside, after death, in his realm were those who, during their lifetimes, had diligently performed all the rites of passage, involving the use of many different kinds of plant material.

Since every Toda thus requires the use of scores of such plant species to be present around all hamlets, this edict constituted the third link with their environment.

A typical Toda prayer consists of sacred chant words addressed to mountain gods, along with other natural landmarks, like nearby peaks, slopes, valleys, ridges, shola thickets, specific sacred trees, rocks, swamps, meadows, pools and streams.

If we analyse Toda prayers, we find a corpus of sacred names for several hundred natural features; and when we attempt to map all the named features that have survived the ravages of the recent march of civilisation, then we have one important aspect of Toda sacred geography in place.

Kaa(r)sh-gol (Nilgiri Peak) is one of the most important of the Todas’ deity hills and the abode of a god of the same name. This peak, a sheer massif, 2476 m, is related to the onset of the Southwest Monsoon.

Todas believe that the first mists of this monsoon swirl around this hill—like people perambulating a temple building—before moving to the deity hill Kawnttaihh (Devar-Betta), where the mist similarly encircles the summit.

Todas pilgrimage annually to the top of the deity hill, Kawnttaihh, to pray for ecosystem and general well-being. This hill is also related to the Southwest Monsoon.

Todas pilgrimage annually to the top of the deity hill, Kawnttaihh, to pray for the ecosystem and general well-being. This hill is also related to the Southwest Monsoon.

Todas believe that, following this phenomenon, the monsoon rains will begin and that the mist will not leave these two peaks until the Southwest Monsoon peters out (when these peaks are visible during the rainy season in modern times, the Todas are aware that some larger phenomenon of climate change is occurring).

Let us take one aspect of Toda sacred geography—their waters. The two major river systems: Kawllykeen (Mukurti-Pykara) and Kinatthill(zh)y (Avalanche-Emerald), represent sacred entities on the same level as that of the deity peaks.

There is also a smaller river known as Taihh-vahh, or ‘river of the gods’. As is also the case with the deity hills, mortal Todas do not consider themselves capable of enhancing the sanctity of the sacred rivers.

On the other hand, they understand that the crossing of such holy rivers in a state of purity and in accordance with prescribed regulations, can lead to their own spiritual uplifting. They take great care to ensure that these ‘deity rivers’ are not defiled in any manner. To prevent such defilement, Todas have established a number of ritually acceptable crossing points all along the course of these waterways.

Interestingly, even today an Indian, who is out on a pilgrimage of the sacred sites of ancient India, often uses the term, teertha-yaatra for this journey. Few might be aware that the word teertha in Sanskrit is literally, ‘crossing place’ of a sacred river and this is how it was in ancient days—a physical place to ford a sacred river.

Over a period of time, however, this term came to denote not only other places of religious significance, but also to signify places of spiritual crossing. Besides, most of these holy places were flanked by sacred rivers anyway.

The ancient Upanishad texts refer to this as a ‘crossing over’ marking the soul’s spiritual transformation from this world to the world of the Supreme, the world illuminated by light of knowledge. When we look at various elements of Toda sacred geography and culture, we are continuously reminded of those early days of the Indian civilisation.

Many of the Nilgiri river systems—the two most sacred and several others—along with their crossing points, as well as some other streams, pools, springs and waterfalls that are related to mythical events, feature in numerous clan and hamlet prayers.

In addition, there are several categories of locally-sacred waters for each hamlet. Water from all of them is used for ritual or for practical purposes associated with elements of sanctity.

Those waters directly related to priestly activities include the dairy-temple stream, the waters reserved for priestly ordination, and those used for the salt-giving rites. For all the above categories, sanctity has to be periodically maintained by purification; the priest mentions their sacred names whenever he chants the prayer of a specific hamlet, and by throwing into these waters a sacred bark that no lay Toda is allowed to handle.

In and around every sacred hamlet and site, there are several important rocks and stones. Many of these are sacred and have names that are chanted in prayers. Some also have utilitarian aspects, like the rocks where the salt is ground at salt-pouring ceremonies. Others have specific rituals performed by the priest, such as pouring of freshly-drawn milk from the sacred buffaloes.

Poll(zh)y-ka(r)sh: the sacred barrel-vaulted 'temple stone'

Poll(zh)y-ka(r)sh: the sacred barrel-vaulted ‘temple stone’

Therefore, by treating various categories of rocks as sacred, the Todas are once again able to provide protection to various aspects of their ecosystem. Added to this is the fact that many of these sacred rocky areas are essentially repositories of perennial mountain springs and streams.

Besides all the natural sites mentioned, there are also several areas that are a combination of both natural and man-made, such as sacred hamlets that usually house temple complexes of the highest grades.

In these places, like the area around the Konawsh conical temple complex, everything is sacred. Beside the temple, the surrounding shola, grassland, waters, flora, specific rocks, pathways, buffalo pens, hills and other landmarks are all considered sacred.

Not unexpectedly, various faunal species have also been conserved and indeed protected by the Todas in a twofold method. The first is their status as sacred, albeit in some cases, feared creatures. But the difference being that these animals or birds physically ensured their own sanctity rather than other aspects of nature that are treated as such.

The second method is by eschewing meat and practicing vegetarianism. This non-hunting trait is most unusual in an indigenous community that did not practice agriculture traditionally and where even today, game is abundant. The Todas have a name and story for almost every animal and bird in their area.

Birds too have a similar, although more varied, role. The bird that plays the role of warning people of transgression of sacred rules is the Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata nilghiriensis) and is called kaarrpill(zh)c in Toda. Because the female of this species looks different, it has a separate name (kupeihh(r)shy).

This bird warned the founder god Aihhn’s son of a sacred regulation that he as priest had omitted. But this was not heeded and the priest met his end by drowning. The mighty god Kwatteihhn himself was warned by this bird of getting close to the goddess bathing in a pool.

The Todas of yore used nature as inspiration for their daily lives. Their barrel-vaulted houses and temples are said to have been inspired by the shape of the rainbow, their buffalo pens by the circular pattern of a clump of eihhmehr bushes (Gaultheria fragrantissima), and even their unique cane milk-churning stick is modelled on the kafehll(zh) flower (Ceropegia pusilla) that has an uncanny resemblance to a miniature churning stick.

They also recognise a flower called arkilpoof the ‘worry flower’ (Gentiana pedicellata), which can indicate a person’s anxiety level. If this flower is held by the stem, it closes only if one has worries—faster for more anxious people. And it is an accurate indicator of human anxiety levels!

By early October, showers from the northeasterly monsoon begin. The weather pattern Todas call kaashtk is initially peculiar, with fragmented rain showers giving way to a clear sky. A star (Pleiades), also with this name, is visible in the night sky and an exquisite flower Exacum bicolor, again called kaashtk, simultaneously flowers profusely.

It is the Toda indicator for this period of the year. The Todas recognise more than twenty such star-weather-plant triads, representing different phases of the year. Thus, they understood long ago that the planetary bodies exerted an influence upon the climatic condition, which in turn, played an important role on the flora of that season on the ground.

Todas traditionally have used plants and flowers to denote the season of the year. They can accurately predict the impending end of the southwesterly monsoon by the mass flowering in the sholas of the fragrant white maw(r)sh flowers (Michelia nilagirica).

Similarly, all the different seasons, and indeed, even their stages, are indicated by the flowering cycles of different specified plants. Toda embroidery patterns are mostly inspired by flowers, butterflies, squirrels, hills, plants, honeycombs, etc. This ancient art form has now been accorded the Geographical Indication (GI) patent by the Government of India.

Toda Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) encompasses many domains—that range from recognising the tensile strength of particular bamboo species used in their architecture, along with judging the properties of an endemic wetland grass as a thatching material; they even recognised that certain insects use their cousins to carry out their chores!

This I disbelieved until I happened to read ‘Slavery in Ants’ by Edward O. Wilson (incidentally, one of the persons credited with coining the term ‘biodiversity’), bringing home the realisation that what science was discovering in modern times, was actually well known to indigenous peoples.

Todas have long realised that different plants have specific pollinators. An ancient song describes the different insects that pollinate specific plants, with the resultant properties of wild honey and fruit, with great accuracy.

One of the many unique aspects of Toda culture is the association of specific floral species with particular rites of passage and with the construction of traditional buildings. For example, a particular species of bamboo reed and of trees must be used for pregnancy ceremonies.

This, in turn, encourages Todas to protect these species in the sholas located within the vicinity of their hamlets. Again, only the bark of a particular tree may be used for a higher ordination rite.

Every Toda ceremony requires the use of half a dozen or more specific plants, which cannot be substituted. As for traditional buildings, only specific kinds of natural raw materials may be employed for building barrel-vaulted and conical temples.

Using these, the Todas produce marvels of architectural beauty and robustness. Among first societies of the world, the Toda people have been recognised as architects par excellence.

The salt-giving rites, besides their utilitarian function of periodically providing salt to the buffaloes, are an indirect method of ecosystem management. Failure to perform them, especially at the onset of the winter and pre-monsoon seasons, is deemed an invitation for ecological ill health.

Toda Environmentalism

salt-giving rites

This is because, Todas believe, failure to perform the pony up, the winter time salt-giving rite, would result in an absence of frost and this, in turn, can mean a failure of the proper flowering cycle of some plants, thus making the impending honey and wild fruit seasons erratic.

As for the up salt-giving, if it were omitted during summer, their belief is that the Southwest Monsoon would likely fail, thus causing a shortage of pasture and meagre milk yields, as well as a depletion of water in the sacred streams, pools and springs; water that is so necessary for the performance of many of the sacred rituals.

Earlier they use to ritually herald the onset of winter by using Litsea wightiana firesticks to set fire to select portions of the grassland. Even though this activity has been found to be ecologically beneficial – with selective burning being employed in the pastures of the Yellowstone National Park – it has been proscribed by the authorities. However, Todas continue to make fire for all important rituals, including lighting of the sacred temple lamp, only by using these firesticks.

The Todas’ relationship with nature begins with their birth rituals. The neonate is a passive participant, but the mother is required to handle a number of specific plant species to validate the ritual activity. A few weeks thereafter, during the infant’s naming ceremony, the grandfather uncovers the child’s face outdoors for the very first time, pointing out to his grandchild various elements of the natural environment: the rising sun, the birds, the buffaloes, hills, bodies of water, and so on.

Their spontaneously composed songs are a unique form of oral poetry that has been described as a combination of Homeric, Hebrew poetry with its parallelism of phrases, and the use of a stereotyped corpus from the Vedas. Here, the verses are split into units of a fixed size — in most cases, of three syllables. However, these units may occasionally range from 2-5 syllables.

The three syllable units appear to be more rigidly adhered to in the songs that are chanted and danced to, rather than those that are sung with a melody. This is apparently due to the fact that in the former, the three-syllable units make up the rhythm for the dance steps and any deviation in the number of syllables would affect the dance tempo. In the Rig Veda too, such trimetric syllables are used.

The transition towards modernity began many decades ago among the first converts to Christianity. The important difference between then and now was that those people still valued the salient features of Toda culture and spoke the language. Thus, they followed an integrated form of their newfound religion.

For example, they chanted the gospel that was adapted from traditional Toda songs and prayers. This was an early example of Todas adapting to change. Today, hardly any converts speak Toda or have much knowledge of their cultural heritage.

Almost all Toda myths mention still-existing physical features of the Nilgiri landscape. This makes the Toda stories all the more interesting. Certainly, the most fascinating of all these sacred stories is that which describes the journey of the departing spirits to Amunawdr, the afterworld.

Metthinny-ka(r)sh - the natural stone steps to be ascended by departing Toda spirits on the route to their afterworld

Metthinny-ka(r)sh – the natural stone steps to be ascended by departing Toda spirits on the route to their afterworld

The story is rendered fascinating by the fact that all hurdles and landmarks to be crossed by a departing spirit exist as real physical landmarks. For example, one landmark is Metthinny ka(r)sh, with natural steps within a rocky dike running up its almost vertical face, which a departing Toda spirit must climb on its way to the afterworld.

The Todas’ intimate link with nature is one of the factors that has endowed the Nilgiris with such a high degree of bio-cultural diversity. It is a fine tribute to this people and to the values they espouse that their sacred homeland has, in modern times, become the heart of India’s very first biosphere reserve.

When a Toda looks at certain hills, he sees them as the abodes of deities whose names he has often chanted while serving as a dairyman-priest. Indeed, when he looks at many a rock, or rock formation, tree or body of water, he sees them as emanations of divinity, integral parts of the sacred world of his hamlet, clan and community.


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