Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Toda of South India: Culture and Medicinal Plants

In 1955 Joanne Van de Riet was a bright inquisitive teenager who was fascinated with the world around her. Two of her major hobbies were painting and flower pressing.  When an anthropologist visited the family home in the South Indian town of Ootacamund (Ooty) she was offered a chance to visit some nearby Toda people who lived in small communities called munds near the town.

During that visit Joanne collected and pressed as many plants as she could, particularly medicinal ones. She then sketched them.

After that she visited the school library and found the taxonomic name of each plant. Three lines of writing accompany each sketch: the taxonomic name, in most cases the Tamil name (in script) and the plant’s use. 
 All the sketches were scanned in 2013 by our daughter Karen and posted to a website  devoted to endangered languages. I have repeated the scan with only two examples here as the lettering might be difficult to read on the endangered languages site.

         According to Wikipedia the Toda people are a small pastoral community who live on the isolated Nilgiri plateau of Southern India.

Much of the Wiki information is accurate, but not all of it. Many of the old practises have been abandoned under the constant pressure of modernization.

At one time the Toda did indeed practice fraternal polyandry with one woman marrying all the brothers of another family. Missing from the Wiki report is that all the offspring of this relationship were deemed to be children of the oldest bother.  Furthermore female infanticide, which is now illegal was once routine. Polyandry has largely been abandoned.

Another remarkable fact is that the men were so dominant in society that a morning greeting involved the wife kneeling with head bowed so that the men could place a foot on her head. 

Kneeling wife and dominant husband in a morning greeting

The accompanying artwork by an unknown artist, possibly a Toda man, was made at least 70 years ago and is still in the possession of the Van de Riet family. It is a 3D piece, which does not show in the photo. It was sculpted of raw and probably unfired clay that has been coloured and has a somewhat abstract appearance.

There is also a theory that the Toda, who are very much taller and robust in stature than any other peoples of South India, are descendants of men who deserted from Alexander The Great’s army. His campaign, which only took place in Northern India began in 326 BC and ended at his death in 321. There is also an account that I have tried to verify of a visit by Greek nobility, perhaps even King Paul I or his brother George to the area in the 1940s.

As the Wiki site states the Toda built their faith around the water buffalo. According to the Todas, the goddess Teikirshy and her brother first created the sacred buffalo and then the first Toda man. The first Toda woman was created from the right rib of the first Toda man. The Toda religion also forbids them from walking across bridges, rivers must be crossed on foot, or swimming and they can't wear any shoes at all.

Toda dogie
There are interesting pictures of the dwellings, called dogies, of the Toda on the Wiki site, including a series showing how they are constructed. This photo taken in 1984 shows one such hut.

In recognition of the huts there is a concrete replica at one of the main crossroads, known as Charing Cross, in Ooty. The name is presumably a relic of former colonial days when The Nilgiri mountains (aka Nilgiri Hills or Blue Mountains) in South India was one of two hill stations much loved by the British as a place to escape the heat. When we visited the town in 1984 our taxi driver had no inkling of how to find the village and so Jo had to guide him. 
Modern home and three women
However not all the villagers used these dwellings. As the accompanying photo shows some of these huts have been replaced, at least in the community we visited in 1984 by concrete buildings more like modern ones seen all over the world. 

The other feature that is clearly visible in the photo is the long black hair of the women that is set in ringlets.

However the Wiki site has it wrong on the matter of the temples. It states that Toda temples are constructed in a circular pit lined with stones and are quite similar in appearance and construction to Toda huts. The temples only resemble the dwellings in that the upper parts above the rock base are constructed of bamboo bound with rattan and have thatched roofs.  The Wiki site also makes no mention of the fact that women were not allowed to enter the temples or even go into the pit.

Toda temple surrounded by pit
The accompanying photo, taken in 1984, shows a temple that only remotely resembles a dwelling. It does indeed have pit around it, as well as a heavy stone against the tiny door. The temple also acts as the storage place for the buffalo milk. The building may only be entered by the priest. No female may even touch a buffalo and it is only the men who milk them that may do so.

Temple door and rock
 A quote from Sir George James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1922) gives an insight into the position of the priest.
…the holy milkman, who acts as priest of the sacred dairy, is subject to a variety of irksome and burdensome restrictions during the whole time of his incumbency, which may last many years. Thus he must live at the sacred dairy and may never visit his home or any ordinary village. He must be celibate; if he is married he must leave his wife. On no account may any ordinary person touch the holy milkman or the holy dairy; such a touch would so defile his holiness that he would forfeit his office.

The photos of alleged temple and dwelling in the Wiki piece are oddly similar and are both of a home, again with a tiny door that is said to be a means of protection from wild animals. In older times this may well have been true, but decimation of wild mammal populations, a feature by no means limited to India, has no doubt reduced the risk from tigers, bears, panthers and dhole packs the much feared and voracious wild dog of the sub-continent.

Another factor led to changes in agricultural practices for the Toda. It was the wide-spread planting of exotic trees well suited to the mountain climate. There were eucalyptus forests, the trees originally imported from Australia. Joanne remembers that its gum was a useful mosquito repellent. The gum was prepared by piling up a huge mass of leaves and then starting a very slow fire underneath so that the oils dripped into pan. Some gardens were even surrounded by these trees on purpose. Another exotic tree, mimosa, was also grown in the area. It was a vital part of the film industry before the advent of digital technology.

1 comment:

Harry said...

Wow Beautiful Place.