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LOCATION: India (primarily Tamil Nadu state)
OPULATION: 1,412 (2000 estimate)
RELIGION: Centered on the sanctity of the buffalo
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India


The Todas are a pastoral tribe inhabiting the higher elevations of the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. It is unlikely that the ancestral homeland of the Todas will ever be identified conclusively, though linguistic evidence suggests a South Indian origin for the group. Other evidence, albeit circumstantial, points to Toda migrations from the Malabar coast region lying to the west of the Nilgiris.

The date of these migrations is uncertain, but most likely it occurred in the years following the 11th century ad. Stone circles enclosing cinerary burial sites (sites where cremated remains are buried), probably erected between the 3rd and 11th centuries, are found throughout the present Toda heartland. These structures, however, are associated with a people whose culture was markedly different from that of the Todas and is quite unlikely to be its precursor. While the Toda may have coexisted with these people, it is more probable they arrived in the high Nilgiris after the disappearance of the circle-builders.

Traditional Toda society was linked to four neighboring groups in the Nilgiris (the Kota, the Kurumba, the Irula, and the Badaga) in a complex of ritual, economic, and social relationships. The opening up of the Nilgiris by the British during the 19th century, along with social and economic development during the present century, have brought about profound changes in traditional Toda society.


The Nilgiri Hills, located in the northwestern part of Tamil Nadu, are a mountainous massif rising from the plains of southern India to over 2,600 m (8,500 ft) above sea level. They lie roughly 11° of latitude north of the equator, where the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala meet. Maximum temperatures average between 18°c and 21°c (65°–70°f) throughout the year, but at the higher elevations hard frosts may be experienced during the winter months. Standing full in the path of the southwest monsoon, western locations of the Nilg-iris receive up to 500 cm (approximately 200 in) of rain a year. Heavy tropical forests cover the lower slopes of the hills but give way above 1,800–2,000 m (approximately 6,000–6,500 ft) to temperate forest and open savanna grassland. It is here, at the higher elevations, that the Todas live and graze their herds of water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Some scholars argue that the Todas themselves created these grasslands through centuries of burning off the vegetation and grazing their buffalo herds.

Historical records show that the Todas have never been a numerous group. European accounts estimated a population of no more than 1,000 people at the beginning of the 17th century, a total that had dropped to 475 by 1952. Successful treatment of venereal diseases and other medical conditions

reversed the decline in numbers, and in 2000 the number of Todas stood at 1,412.

Population data regarding the Todas are notoriously inaccurate. The figure given above is the Ethnologue estimate for "ethnic" Toda. However, it is also estimated that only 600 of these speak the Toda language. Murray B. Emeneau, the late Berkeley linguist who did much of his work with the Todas, estimated a population between 700 and 900 during the last century.


The Toda language belongs to the Dravidian linguistic family and is thought to have developed around the 3rd century bc. It has affinities with both Tamil and Malayalam, but it separated from pre-Tamil before these two emerged as independent languages. The Todas traditionally had no written form of language; today, they use the Tamil script for writing purposes.


According to the Toda creation myth, humans and their buffaloes were created by the god Ön (Ö·n). One day, so the story goes, Ön and his wife went up to a plateau at the top of the Kundah Range in the Nilgiris. He set up an iron bar stretching from one end of the plateau to the other. Ön stood at one end of the bar and brought out 1,600 buffaloes from the earth. Hanging on to the tail of the last buffalo was a man, who was the first Toda. Ön's buffaloes were the ancestors of the Todas' sacred herds. Ön took a rib from the right side of the man's body and from it created the first Toda woman. Ön's wife stood at the other end of the iron bar and brought forth 1,800 buffaloes, from which all the Todas' secular buffaloes are descended.

Toda deities in general seem to be anthropomorphic developments of hill spirits, i.e., they are described or thought of as human. They live very much like the Todas, residing on the high peaks of the Nilgiris and tending their herds of buffalo. Some gods, however, appear to be deified Todas. Legends tell of the exploits of Kwoten, to whom the origins of many Toda practices are ascribed. Kwoten mysteriously disappeared after, so it is believed, intercourse with a female deity. Another Toda, Meilitars, is believed to have tricked the gods into eating buffalo-calf flesh and is credited with originating the ceremonial rituals still used in the calf-sacrifice. Both men are now revered as gods.


The Toda religion centers on the sanctity of the buffalo. Although the Todas have a pantheon of deities, of far greater importance are the buffalo dairies that, along with their contents, pasturage, and water supply, are viewed not only as sacred, but as divine. Toda dairies and their herds are assigned varying degrees of sanctity, each level being subject to more elaborate and complex ritual practices. The most sacred category of dairy is the Ti dairy, though the last of these temple-dairies disappeared in the 1950s.

All dairy complexes are served by dairymen who must be ordained, undergoing ceremonies that ritually purify them for their duties. These dairymen-priests are responsible for the care of the dairies, maintaining their ritual purity and the sanctity of the dairying equipment. They also tend the temple herds and, more importantly, milk the temple buffaloes and process the milk into butter, buttermilk, and ghi (clarified butter) for distribution to the community. The milk is viewed as sacred, but other milk products have less sanctity attached to them and ghi has none at all. In fact, the entire Toda dairying ritual has been interpreted as a means by which the sanctity of milk is dispelled so that the product may be consumed by the general population.

Temple-dairies and their sacred herds of buffalo form the focus of Toda ritual life. In each Toda settlement, weekly observances are kept to honor its dairy, and special ceremonies are performed when necessary to restore its ritual purity. The naming of a female buffalo, the first milking of a temple buffalo, or the giving of salt to buffaloes all require specific rituals. Historical accounts show that, until recently, male buffalo calves were periodically sacrificed and ritually consumed in a ceremony performed to further the welfare of a kin group and its herds. Buffalo-sacrifice continues to be performed at Toda funerals.

The most important goddess of the Todas is Tökisy (Tö·kisy). Modern Todas believe that she, rather than her brother Ön, created the Todas and their buffaloes. The Todas revere the "gods of the mountains," said to reside on the Niligri peaks, and the gods associated with the sacred dairies. The Toda belief system also encompasses elements of Hinduism, especially Hindu concepts of ritual purity and impurity. Today, many traditional Todas worship Hindu deities, such as Shiva, Marriamman, and Aiyappan, and participate in pilgrimages to Hindu sacred places.

Christian missionary efforts among the Todas at the turn of the century have resulted in the emergence of a very small community of Toda Christians. It numbers perhaps 200 persons who follow the Anglican rites of the Church of South India.


Toda festivals center around the ritual ceremonies associated with the sacred dairies. For example, in the past clans honored their dairies at the time of the annual clan prayer festival (mod fartyt) in late December or early January. Today, only the Nos clan hold this ceremony, but all Todas try to attend this event. In addition, villages have special days of the week sacred to the settlement and, as noted above, to its dairies. Although they are not marked by any special ceremonies, these sacred days involve restrictions on the normal activities carried out by the village. Many Todas also attend local Hindu festivals, such as that held at the temple of Marriamman in Ootacamund (Udhagamangalam), which is the main center and administrative headquarters of the Nilgiris.


Toda rites of passage vary in their complexity. Birth and death, which are held to be highly polluting and significant threats to the purity of the dairies, are heavily bound by rituals to protect the sanctity of these institutions. Events such as marriage and the attaining of adulthood, on the other hand, do not endanger the ritual status of the dairies and are accompanied by simpler observances.

A woman's first pregnancy is seen as ritually contaminating and, like childbirth, a threat to the dairy or dairies of the woman's settlement. In the past, she had to spend a lunar month (usually around the fifth month of her pregnancy) in a pollution hut constructed outside the bounds of the hamlet. Today, this custom has been abandoned, though the rites associated with the beginning and ending of this period of exile are still followed. In the seventh month of the first pregnancy, the bow-and-arrow ceremony is performed, by which the child-tobe is formally affiliated with the clan of the father (patriclan) and given its place in Toda society. This ceremony, at which the husband prepares and gives his pregnant wife an imitation bow and arrow, is a particularly important communal event and is accompanied by dancing, singing, and feasting.

Childbirth also is considered polluting. In some Toda hamlets, it is not allowed to take place in the settlement, and the soon-to-be mother is sent to a subsidiary hamlet. If a mother is allowed to give birth in her house, she is subject to various restrictions until the appropriate purification rites are held. Between one and three months of age, the face-uncovering and name-giving ceremony is held for the child.

No particular rites mark the attainment of puberty by boys, although they do undergo an ear-piercing ceremony. Traditionally, girls underwent both a symbolic and an actual defloration (loss of virginity) to mark their entry into adulthood, although it is uncertain whether these rites are continued today.

The rites associated with death are among the most significant in Toda society. Friends and relatives gather to pay their respects to the deceased, and a few days after death a "first day funeral" is held. Among the many rituals is the catching of the buffaloes to be sacrificed. For men, both temple and secular buffaloes are killed, whereas only secular animals are sacrificed at the funeral of a woman. Members of every social, kin, and affine (related by marriage) group to which the deceased belonged have specific roles to fulfill in the funeral ceremonies. Following a ritualized mourning and other rites, the corpse is taken to the cremation ground and burned. In the past, a second funeral—complete with buffalo-sacrifice—was held a few months after the first ceremony, but this custom no longer seems to be followed.


The Todas have different forms of greetings, depending on the person being addressed. When a woman meets her father or mother, for example, she "bows," meaning that she kneels and touches each foot of the parent to her forehead. She accompanies this with a verbal greeting ("etyeya? ," "salutations, father") to the father, but not to the mother. A man does not bow to his parents but respectfully says "Salutations, father" or "Salutations, mother." Similarly, the manner in which one greets other relatives is determined by the precise relationship, age, and often sex, of the person being addressed.


The Todas live in small hamlets scattered across the open grasslands of the Nilgiri uplands. A hamlet may have up to five dwellings, its dairy structures, a buffalo pen, and perhaps some calf sheds. The population of the hamlet can vary between 12 and 17 people. Houses and dairy buildings are constructed at some distance from each other and are often surrounded by walls of piled stones. The traditional style of building is a distinctive barrel-vaulted design found nowhere else in India. The rounded roof is made of rattan, supported by crosspieces, and thatched with grass. Heavy wooden planks sunk into the ground form the front and rear walls, with a single opening in the front wall for a door. A raised earthen platform in the one-room hut serves as a sleeping and sitting area. A hearth is placed at the back of the hut, and brass pots and other household utensils are hung along the back wall. A small hole in the center of the hut is used for pounding grain. It also serves the ritual purpose of dividing the hut into "pure" and "impure" areas. The churning of milk, which is a male activity, can only be done in the pure front of the hut; the impure rear half of the structure makes up the women's area.

Traditional Toda housing also includes a front-gabled hut thought to have been adopted from the Badaga. The old-style huts are rapidly being replaced by modern brick or stone housing.


Toda society is divided into two endogamous subcastes (the To·rØas and Töwfily). Each of these has a number of exogamous clans that are patrilineal (patriclans), i.e., descent is traced through the male line. Inheritance of property, rights and duties, ritual obligations—all are determined by one's patriclan. However, all Todas also belong to an exogamous matrilineal clan (matriclan), which is of equal importance in matters of marriage.

The Toda kinship system, which is quite independent of the descent system, follows the basic pattern of Dravidian-speaking peoples. Parents' siblings of the same sex are considered to be parents. Children of these "classificatory" parents are held to be one's siblings and, therefore, marriage with them would be incestuous. One cannot, for instance, marry the child of a mother's sister or of a father's brother. However, parents' siblings of the opposite sex are called "aunts" and "uncles," and belong to a totally different category of kin. Their children are potential and even preferred marriage partners. The ideal union in this system is with the child of a mother's brother or of a father's sister.

Toda marriages are arranged when the partners are mere infants, often less than two or three years of age and sometimes no more than a few months old. The children remain with their parents until maturity, when the girl moves into her husband's family home. The girl's father provides a dowry after the couple begins living together. A girl's family may break off the marriage before this time on payment of an agreed-upon compensation (usually in buffalo) to the husband's family. In time, the couple builds a house of their own nearby and set up a separate household.

In the past, younger brothers became cohusbands to the eldest brother's wife, a custom called fraternal polyandry. Th is was necessary because of the shortage of women resulting from the now long-abandoned Toda practice of female infanticide. A custom that continues today is that of "wife-capture," by which a Toda may make off with another man's wife and formalize the union by payment of the appropriate compensation.


The most distinctive item of traditional Toda clothing is the long cloak (pu·txuly) worn by both men and women. Made of thick cotton, its dimensions are about 2.2 m by 135 cm (roughly 7 ft long by 4 ft wide) and in appearance reminds some of the ancient Greek toga. It is off-white in color, with broad red and black bands woven across one end. Women often add elaborate embroidered designs to these bands. The cloak is wrapped around the body with the striped end thrown over the left shoulder. Underneath the cloak, men wear a cotton waistcloth over a breech cloth. Women wrap the waistcloth under their arms so that their whole body is covered.

Dress habits are changing. Today, Toda men may wear Western-style shirts and pants, with or without the traditional cloak. Shoes are commonly worn, whereas previously Todas went barefoot. Women have taken to wearing the sari and blouse. Children are invariably dressed in South Indian or Western-style clothes.

The Todas have no weaving skills and in the past obtained the cloth for their cloaks from weaving castes living in the surrounding lowlands. Today, materials for making cloaks, as well as ready-made clothes, are purchased in the bazaars of Ootacamund.

Another distinctive aspect of Toda appearance is the hair-style. Both men and women wear their hair long, women letting their hair fall in ringlets. Older men let their facial hair grow into bushy beards. Jewelry is worn by both men and women. Until recently, it was the custom for girls reaching puberty to be tattooed over extensive areas of the body, although this custom has now fallen out of use.


Dairy products, along with cereals and sugar, are the main items of the Toda diet. Buttermilk is used for drinking and for cooking. In the past, millet was the staple cereal, but this has been replaced by rice. A typical meal consists of rice, either boiled in buttermilk and served with butter, or cooked in water and eaten with spiced vegetables. The meal is usually followed by a glass of buttermilk or a glass of coffee, prepared with milk and sweetened with jaggery, a type of brown sugar. The Todas are vegetarians and consume no meat, although in the past the flesh of the sacrificed buffalo calf was ritually consumed.

The Todas usually eat a light meal at about 7:00 am and a larger one at mid-morning after the buffaloes have been milked. Various snacks and drinks (including buttermilk and coffee) are consumed throughout the day, with another meal being eaten in the late afternoon. Food is served on leaves, or on brass or stainless steel dishes, and is eaten with the right hand. Special foods eaten on festive occasions include millet balls served with honey and ghi (clarified butter) and rice boiled in jaggery water and served with ghi.

The Todas are fond of stimulants. Men smoke bidis, the small brown cigarettes made from rolled tobacco leaves that are common throughout India. Opium is sometimes added to coffee, and both men and women use snuff, placing it inside the lip rather than in the nose. Locally distilled alcohol is consumed in large quantities.


Though the government school established for Toda children seems to have been well attended, as late as the 1960s few traditionalist Todas advanced beyond an elementary education. The Todas seem open to formal education, however, and their overall literacy rate, according to the 1981 Census, is 43.43% (53% for males and 34.01 for females). Current figures regarding literacy among the Todas are not available, but according to the 2001 census, some 50% of the Scheduled Tribes in the Nilgiris Hill District, where many of the Toda live, were literate. Of course, with a base population of just over a thousand, such figures are virtually meaningless. And literacy among the Toda, for government purposes, essentially means literacy in Tamil.

The Christian Toda community, on the other hand, is highly educated and numbers businessmen, teachers, nurses, and government employees among its ranks. Higher education is favored by parents for both males and females.


Dancing is an important Toda tradition, often occurring at feasts or as part of specific Toda rituals. Only men participate in ceremonial dances, although over the last few decades women have begun dancing for recreation. The men form an inward-facing circle, standing so that their arms are touching. The circle moves in a counterclockwise direction, with each step being taken in unison and accompanied by a shout that marks the beat of the dance. A composer is sometimes invited to the dance. If one is present, he joins the circle and, as it rotates, shouts out standardized phrases appropriate for the festival being celebrated, or perhaps original phrases composed specifically for the occasion.

Singing often accompanies the dancing, and there is a strong tradition of oral poetry among the Todas. All aspects of culture are represented in the songs—milking and dairy rituals, the care of buffaloes, funerals, the sacred names (kwasm) of the Toda world, and even (in modern times) anthropologists studying Toda culture.


The traditional Toda economy is based on herding water buffaloes. In the past, milk products would be exchanged with the Badaga, Irula, Kota, and Kurumba in return for grains, utensils, forest products, and other items. The Kota, for example, provided articles for Toda funeral rites. Families from the different tribes had hereditary links extending back generations. Such traditional relationships, however, have largely disappeared in the modern cash economy. The Todas sell surplus milk and purchase rice and other goods in the local markets. Few Toda own large enough buffalo herds to subsist entirely on pastoralism, and more and more Todas are becoming involved in agriculture, either leasing their land or cultivating crops, such as potatoes, cabbage, and cereals, themselves. Th is move towards agriculture has been actively encouraged by the government, though many Todas still show a traditional preference for herding water buffaloes.


Games popular among children include dry-grass "tobogganing" on an old sack or a piece of wood. Children also like to form lines, with their hands on the hips of the person in front of them and weave through the hamlet. Toda girls imitate their mothers, pretending to cook food over imitation fires of twigs and leaves. Young boys play at being buffalo-herders, constructing miniature buffalo pens and making mud figurines of buffaloes and buffalo calves.

Both children and adults play various team games. One, played by males only, resembles tip-cat. A short stick, pointed at both ends, is placed against a stone in the center of the playing area. Teams, composed of 10 to 20 members, take turns batting. The batter takes a stick about a meter in length and strikes the short stick so that it goes straight up in the air. While it is in the air, he hits it towards the fielding team. If the stick is caught by the fielding team, the teams change sides. If the stick falls to the ground, the batter scores three points. If the batter misses the stick altogether, he is replaced by another member of the batting team. Points are scored in sets of 21, and the team with the most number of sets wins the game.


Beyond their ritual functions, singing and dancing are also forms of recreation among the Todas. Riddling is quite popular. Modern forms of entertainment, such as movie theaters where Tamil films are shown, are available in Ootacamund. Men enjoy passing time together in the coffee shops of the town.


Toda women are quite expert at embroidery, as seen in the decorative patterns they add to their cloaks. Efforts undertaken in the late 1950s to develop traditional Toda embroidery work as a handicrafts industry met with mixed results, although Toda embroidery is still marketed locally today.


For almost two centuries, the Todas have been the focus of efforts at improving their social and economic condition. The British colonial government, Christian missionaries, and Indian government planners have all, according to their own perspectives, initiated reforms. The last several decades, however, have been a period of dramatic change. The Todas have shared in the benefits of modern medicine, education, electrification, modern housing, and other social and economic advances. Following 1947, at the instigation of the local forest department, the Toda grasslands underwent forestation, with a series of collectors ending the annual firing of the grasslands by the Todas and restricting the grazing of buffaloes. Moreover, in 1975, as part of its Hill Area Development Programme, the central government assigned funds for the social and economic development of the Toda community. The Toda Welfare Scheme was organized, under the auspices of the Indo-German Nilgiris Development Project, to introduce the Todas to scientific agriculture, so they would not be so dependent on their buffaloes and pastoralism. Today, most Todas have abandoned pastoralism and are cultivators. Tea now covers more than 50% of the cultivated lands in the Nilgiris.

These changes have brought about tensions within the Toda community. Young Todas have been exposed to broader social currents and many see traditional Toda practices as social "evils" to be eradicated. Buffalo-sacrifice, polyandry, wife-capture, and child marriage, all features of traditional Toda society, are identified as practices to be discarded.

The Todas are thus a people in transition. The challenge that faces them is how Toda society, with its emphasis on its buffalo herds, dairies, and traditional rituals and customs, will move into the social and economic world of India as it enters the 21st century.


Traditionally, Toda women were prohibited from contact with the buffalo or their milk. Their role in society was to reproduce, cook the food, and clean the house.

However, given the increasing difficulty for Toda men to support a family, more and more Toda women are marrying outside the community. Few Todas own the size of buffalo herd (estimated at 12) necessary to support a family, so they go into agriculture to try and make a living. Increasing debt is a serious problem. Women see education as a way out of their community, so many opt out of arranged marriages at an early age to further their education.

Toda women, like women all over India, are still far from achieving sociopolitical and ritual parity with their men. But much change is in the air. For instance, customs such as female infanticide and polyandry are no longer practiced by the Todas. Moreover, Toda society seems always to have permitted greater liberty to its women than is common in South Asia.


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—by D. O. Lodrick.