An Ancient Vegetarian Tribe Struggles to Keep Its Traditions Alive
The Todas of India’s Nilgiri Hills have played a crucial role in safeguarding the biodiversity of the UNESCO World Heritage site
Kwattawdr Kwehttn cast a reverential gaze upon the distant hill, it’s the abode of Etyottydaihh, one of the gods of his tribe. Sitting on a cot outside his house in the Nilgiri Hills in southern India, he then turned his gaze to another peak, which too, is the abode of another god, Kwedrehndaihh. He doesn’t point towards the peaks. That would be disrespectful. Kwehttn’s life — his community’s life — is imbued with reverence for the hills, land, and the whole ecosystem that sustains them.
Photo by GBSNP Varma
Eighty-year-old Kwehttn is an elder of the Toda tribe, an ancient nomadic pastoralist people of the upper Nilgiri plateau, which is one of India’s smallest Indigenous communities. The slim, gap-toothed elder lives in the tiny hamlet of Kwadrdhinnymund. Nestled amid towering hills peppered with tea plantations, and stands of eucalyptus, acacia, wattle, and pine trees, the hamlet is home to eight extended Toda families — a total of 28 people.
Kwehttn’s knowledge of the landscape, of the local plants and flowers, and of his community’s sacred sites is encyclopedic. He is among the few remaining members of his tribe who possesses the knowledge of Toda cosmography. Throughout his life, Kwehttn has wandered among these hills and mountains, communing with its plants and trees and stars. He tuned himself to the ebb and flow of the landscape and to the rhythms of forests. He has also observed his community’s rituals and listened to their ancient stories and passed this knowledge on to younger generations.
“I have no desires,” he says, “except to see Toda culture survive in the midst of changes happening all around.”
The Nilgiris are a part of the Western Ghats, a 990-mile mountain range that runs along the western coast of the Indian peninsula that contains a large proportion of the country’s plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the region. The mountain range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity in the world. Two national parks — Mukruti (mostly shola grassland) and Mudumalai — form the core of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India’s first designated biodiversity reserve. This region, which also includes Silent Valley Reserve, is at the core of the Toda community’s landscape. The flora of the Nilgiris are an integral to the Toda culture, and the tribe, which is one of the few traditionally vegetarian Indigenous groups in the world, has played a crucial role in safeguarding local plants and trees.
The Nilgiris are home to endangered and endemic mammals like the Nilgiri tahr (or ibex) and the Nilgiri marten, but it’s the plants and flowers of the Nilgiris that make them the most unique hills in the entire Western Ghats range. The hills are home to more than 2,700 species of flowering plants, 160 species of fern and fern allies, innumerable flowerless plants, mosses, fungi, algae, and lichens.
Photo by Aasif Iqbal J
“The most important uses the Todas have for plants are cultural. Each of their rituals or ceremonies is based on a specific species of plant,” says Dr Tarun Chhabra, whose team rediscovered about 250 plant species the Todas use in their lifetime. Their legend holds that the goddess Taihhkirshy ordained them that only certain flowering species can be used in a particular ritual, and under no circumstances can they be substituted,” he says. Chhabra is a practicing dentist, an applied anthropologist and ethnobotanist who works with the Todas to preserve their culture. The Todas consider Chhabra one of their own. They trust him enough to show him their sacred sites, which are normally off-limits to outsiders. He has documented their creation stories, legends, songs, and music.
“It’s the Toda belief that only a person who has performed mandatory lifetime rituals is qualified to go to the after-world, Amunawdr,” Chhabra continues, “and each ritual requires a specific plant species. So the Todas have preserved the plants, their ecosystems all through. That’s their culture… For them, oneness with nature and participating in the ecological processes of the land, protecting plants and flowers is as natural as breathing.”
It’s not only protecting nature that the Todas are known for. Every aspect of their living and way of life is inspired by and modeled after nature. For example, the rainbow is said to have inspired their traditional barrel-vaulted reed and bamboo huts. Those structures are perfect for living in the cold climate of Nilgiris. Very few of these huts remain today, though an effort is underway to revive the architectural style and build more traditional homes. In another example of early biomimicry, the flowers of the kafehl plant (Ceropegia pusilla) inspired the Toda cane milk-churning stick.
Apart from plants, the Toda culture is closely tied to their long-horned, ferocious-looking Asiatic buffaloes, which over thousands of years of breeding have evolved into a distinct breed. Their livelihood comes from these herds. Its milk, curd, buttermilk, and ghee are their staple diet along with millet and they traditionally traded their dairy products with other Nilgiri inhabitants. Much of the Toda religion too, revolves around the buffalo. Their dairies are considered temples and each temple has a corresponding herd of sacred buffaloes, which they look after with devotion and care.
The Toda population has always been small, not exceeding about 2,000 individuals at a time. “By instinct, they kept their population low,” says Chhabra, “since they require plants for each of their ceremonies, more population would not have sustained their culture. So, they kept the land abundant in plants and flowers, kept the ecology intact.”
At present, there are about 70 Toda hamlets, with greatest concentration of them in the upper Nilgiris, popularly known as Wenlock Towns. About 1,500 to 1,800 Toda people live in different parts of upper Nilgiri plateau.
Time has wrought changes in the local landscape and disturbed the ancient rhythm of Toda life. Today’s cash economy has brought its own problems, like alcoholism (alcohol was alien to traditional Toda culture). They now build concrete and cement houses, and many of the younger members of the tribe have given up the pastoral lifestyle and taken up jobs, either in government offices or as cab drivers, cleaners, and such in nearby towns.
Photo by Indianature SG/Flickr
Moreover, the government has banned their time-honored practice of burning tracts of forest to allow the grasslands to flourish, and planted nonnative plants for commercial purposes instead, “Without fire, there is no water,” Kwehttn says. When it rains, grasslands hold water. By stopping the burning, he says, the cycle of nature’s self-renewal gets out of whack, and that results in eventual degradation of the grasslands.
Standing in the open grassland on a recent afternoon, amidst the vast expanse of land and sky, his hair blowing in the wind, the strong-jawed, aquiline-nosed Kwehttn looks like a Vedic seer, rooted in the land and transcendent at the same time.
The sky is an overcast, metallic gray. Thunderclaps rumble across the hills. A cow saunters across the grassland. Two dogs caper around, and a group of Toda buffaloes graze in the distance. As he walks up a slight incline, Kwehttn is slightly breathless, but he goes on with is reminiscences of the old times when they had a great herd of buffaloes, fruit, and honey.
Looking out to the mountains that he knows like the back of his hand, he talks about the stars, flowers and weather. Their life is aligned with 28 star, weather, and plant combinations. Each new star signifies flowering of particular species of plant, which, in turn signifies a particular season like the start of the Monsoon or its withdrawal.
Chaabra, relates a story about Kwehttn’s keen knowledge of the changing seasons. Usually, by September the westerly Monsoon comes to an end. But one year, when the heavy downpour continued well into September, Chhabra told Kwehttn that Monsoons might linger for some more time. But Kwehttn assured Chhabra that the rains would stop within a week, because, he had seen mawrsh trees (Michelia nilagirica) flowering en masse in the shola forests. Sure enough, the rains stopped within a week.
“Many things have gone,” Kwehttn says, covering himself with his Pothkali, a shawl with intricate red and black Toda embroidery. “There are no flowers on trees, and so no honey. I don’t know how it came to such a pass.”
But the Toda vision and practice — seeing the cosmos as continuum of life rather than discrete chunks of matter (which is echoed by most Indigenous peoples across the world) — endures. Kwehttn embodies it in his now-frail frame.
From the Todas “you can learn, for example, about sanctity of water,” says Chaabra. “They have different sources of water for different purposes. Water from particular stream is used by a priest in the temple; another stream for ordination ceremonies; yet another for domestic purposes, and so on. Each hamlet has these streams.” That apart, he adds, “there is vegetarianism, pastoralism, keeping population low, their entire culture, in fact… Whatever I have learned about the link with nature, with plants and animals, with landscape, about environment and ecology, I have learnt from the Toda perspective.”
In the last wash of the evening sun, the distant hills acquire ethereal glow. As Kwehttn gazes at his gods’ abode once again, I can’t help thinking that perhaps we all need a Kwehttn in our lives to help us relearn the age-old practice of living in harmony with nature.