Going to the mountains has always been fascinating for me, where the cacophony of the city traffic is replaced by an orchestra of bird calls, and the tall skyscrapers are substituted by enormous mountains and towering trees. The whole universe seems to be alive and talkative. The stones, the trees, and the breeze, everything seems to have a language which I wish I could interpret. The Nilgiris, or the blue mountains as the range is called, is said to have got its name from the words ‘Nila’ which means ‘blue’ and ‘Giri’ which means ‘mountain’ because of the purple-coloured Kurinji flowers that bloom here once every 12 years covering the mountains in a purple hue. Sadly, I missed the last flowering and now will have to wait 10 more years to see the indigo magic.
The most fascinating parts about these hills are the people, who are as sweet as the honey that is harvested here. This is one of the few regions in the world that can boast of harmonious co-existence of indigenous groups – the Todas, Kotas, Badagas, Kurumbas, Paniyans and Irulas. They have managed to keep their ties with the land with their invaluable knowledge of folk wisdom. They occupy different parts of the mountain, for e.g. the Todas live in the upper part of the Nilgiris.
I had the rare opportunity of visiting the Mund (hamlet) of one of the indigenous tribes, the Toda. They are a small community that has lived here for generations. In fact, there was a time when the Nilgiris were called Todamala (mala means mountain). I was introduced to the beautiful world by my friend Annu, an ecologist, with the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri. This foundation works closely with a number of tribes in the Nilgiri Biosphere, one of them being the Todas. I met Kuttan, a Toda, at Keystone who, after realising my interest in the world of the Nilgiris, invited me to his Mund. I didn’t anticipate how beautiful the visit was going to be.
The next day, early dawn, we left for Kuttan’s village, Bikapathy Mund. It was a long drive soaked in natural scenic beauty with monochromatic green carpet spread across against the contrast of the cerulean blue of the sky and clouds covered mountain peaks. As we approached closer to our destination the path narrowed, dipped and curved and we had to cut through dense layers of unruly creepers. Our destination was just the beginning of another experience.
As we walked to enter the village, we were welcomed by a grand tree standing at the entrance. Annu pointed out that it’s a rare Jamun tree which is around 50 plus years old. These trees are sacred to many tribes in the Nilgiris. The Todas perform their wedding ceremony by this tree. We also spotted a plant called Puduur (sophora glauca shrub). The twigs of this plant are used by the Toda groom to fashion a bow and arrow. When the bow and arrow are handed over to the lady under the sacred tree, marriage stands solemnized. I was fascinated with this piece of information I received at the entrance and couldn’t help but wonder how much more was in store for me as we walked further into the village.
We continued walking and trying to keep pace with Kuttan following him on the tour of the Mund. We walked down a small path through gentle slopes until we reached a closed dome, shaped structure. That was the temple he said by pointing towards the structure. It is called Aotrealvroh. Each Mund has a temple.
The temple looked grand standing against the blue sky and the green backdrop of the shola forest. On the front, it had a beautiful graphic form of a buffalo like rock mural painting. Symbols of the stars, the moon, the sacred lotus, and cross mark are seen on the walls. The tiny door was held shut with a stone. The sacred sanctuary was constructed in a circular pit lined with stones. We stood outside the stone enclosure keeping a respectable distance as entry to the temple is restricted strictly to the Toda priest, the others pray from the entrance or outside.
I stood there in awe of the modest architecture and fascinated by the details. Trying to study every detail my eyes could trace from that distance. It was a very quiet experience. We spent a good time just standing around the temple. There was nobody around the temple except us. We hardly spoke to each other and whatever we did it was in whispers.
From the temple, we went straight to Kuttan’s mother’s house, which looked much like the temple – domed shaped but only a bit smaller. It had bamboo fencing all around. The house was simple, constructed of bamboo, dried grass and had a thatched roof. With a little miniature door; we had to almost crawl on all our fours to get in.
Kuttan’s mom, Sugander Poo, graciously welcomed us inside and served us a coffee. It was a single-room, dimly-lit cosy hut. In one corner of the hut was the cooking area where Kuttan’s mom was seated on the floor. Shiny steel and brass utensils were neatly arranged on the shelves above. We sat near the door on a raised platform-like bed. Kuttan was speaking to his mom in their local Toda language which is difficult for outsiders to understand. The language is sprinkled with Tamil words. It’s fortunate that most Todas understand and speak Tamil with outsiders. Kuttan got out a Toda buttermilk churning stick. The stick was made of cane and the design for which he said was inspired by a plant belonging to an orchid family found in the sholas. He proudly posed with the stick and I quickly took some pictures.
The Todas are small but a distinctive community whose lifestyle for centuries has revolved around the sacred long – horned water buffalo. They are one of the few vegetarian aboriginal groups in the world. The consume buffalo milk in a variety of forms like butter, buttermilk, cheese, yoghurt and plain milk. Dairy is not just an occupation but keeping and tending to buffalos is a deeply spiritual activity for them. You will find the symbol of the buffalo motif on houses, temples and even their embroidery.
As we stepped out of Kuttan’s mother’s house, I looked around to find only two such traditional homes. The rest of the 5-6 houses were concrete, brightly-colored squat buildings that seemed misplaced in the organic landscape. Kuttan informed us that these were built with the support of the government and that most of the people were now happy and found it easier to build and live in these concrete homes. These ugly buildings seemed to have robbed something precious from these indigenous people. I felt sad at their loss, to see their unique traditional homes replaced by these modern concrete structures. I wish the government had implemented a more planned and culturally sensitive restoration process. I sincerely hope the younger generation realize the value of their rich heritage and find a balance of preserving or merging their indigenous cultural roots, knowledge, and wisdom along with modern lifestyles.
We started walking around the Mund when Kuttan’s mom joined us. She introduced us to an elegant Toda elder, who must have been in her 80s, busy working on a piece of the traditional Toda embroidery. She had sharp features, hazel eyes, salt and pepper hair curled in the traditional Toda style ringlets, dotted tattoo adorned her wrinkled neck and arms. Each wrinkle on her face held a story.
There were other women doing similar embroidery known as Puthkuzhy or Poothkully. They were making red and black floral geometric designs on coarsely woven off-white cotton cloth. This allows them to count the threads easily to create patterns. There is no tambour hoop (the frame) used for embroidery, like most other embroidery methods. The design is based on thread counts. Their patterns revolve around motifs inspired by nature like flowers, butterfly, honeycomb, buffalo horns, mountains, etc. The shawl is draped around in a way so as to display the intricately embellished portion in front over the right shoulder first and then over the left shoulder.
The traditional shawl is not just a cloak. It is knowledge, culture, tradition, emotion & wisdom a Toda wraps himself and carries with him. This cloak is also known as the funeral cloak which a Toda takes along with him on his journey to the afterworld.
The shawl is a showcase of art and grandeur of the Toda traditional embroidery. You will always see a Toda proudly draped in these shawls on special events. Our model and host Kuttan draped the shawl embroidered by his mom on himself to show us how it is worn. This beautiful Toda art is now tagged under GIA (Geographical Indication of Goods Registration and Protection Act) certification from the government of India. Credit for the initiative goes to the efforts of the Toda Nazhvazhvu Sangam and the Keystone Foundation – an NGO which works with the tribals of the Nilgiris helping with conservation and development projects. This means the Toda embroidery can now be produced only by the Toda community.
The art of song and dance plays a very important part in their life. Women sing songs which they compose on the spot when doing embroidery. Singing and dancing is intrinsic to communing among the Toda. They dance gracefully in a circle moving clockwise and anticlockwise to the rhythm of the song.
As we moved a little further, we stood on a hill top bracing ourselves against the wind. We were in complete awe of the picturesque view of the mountains from where we stood. Kuttan explained to us Pointing out that there was a time when these mountains were thick, dense sholas that have now become a carpet of tea and eucalyptus, in an afforestation drive by the government. They have planted a lot of eucalyptus trees which obstruct the view of the grasslands for the Toda from the top of the hill making it difficult for them to spot their grazing buffaloes.
While walking we nibbled on some strange berries Kuttan had plucked from a shrub on the path. They looked like tiny guavas. Annu said these are edible berries that grow along shola borders and are scientifically known as Rhodomyrtus tomentosa and locally known as Thavittu Koya (false guava literally). The Todas have extensive ethnobotanical knowledge about the upper Nilgiris. But sadly, much of the indigenous wisdom is blurring with time as most of the kids are now attending government schools and working outside the Nilgiris. Hope they realise the value of their rich heritage and find a way to preserve it.
The sky was beginning to turn a blazing orange and showing streaks of red, like the Toda embroidery. That was our cue that the full-day excursion to the village was slowly coming to an end. It was time to leave this rich landscape. We waved our sweet hosts goodbye. I sat quite in the car with my heart heavy with this experience. As we drove back, I still kept thinking about Kuttan, his mom, the people I met, the temple, the embroidery. Little did I know that after four years, I would still relive my experience with the same feeling of wonder.