Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Tiny tribe in India faces identity crisis

The twin pressures of one of the world's fastest growing economies and the quest among the Todas themselves for education and jobs are threatening the survival of their customs and rituals


In a green meadow in the hills of southern India, the gentle curve of a temple of mountain grass and bamboo rises in celebration of the intimate link between man and nature.

Those who worship there live nearby, in a row of similarly shaped huts that are decorated with buffalo horns.

But the whitewashed huts, unlike the temple, are made of bricks and mortar, a break with tradition and testimony to a rapidly encroaching modern world.

For centuries, the tiny Toda tribe, now a community of fewer than 1,500 people in a country with population of over one billion, have kept their traditions alive in the high-altitude grasslands of Nilgiris, or the Blue Mountains.

But the twin pressures of one of the world's fastest growing economies, which has brought 700,000 settlers to the area, and the quest among the Todas themselves for education and jobs are threatening the survival of their unique customs and rituals.

"Their culture is at the crossroads. I found it on the verge of collapse," says Tarun Chhabra, a dentist in the popular hill station of Udhagamandalam, who has set up a voluntary organization to help the tribe.

With their lighter skin, long noses, light eyes and intricately embroidered shawls, the Todas stand out among the darker Tamil-speakers of the area.

The Todas, who live in hamlets called "munds," follow customs taught orally and handed down through generations.

Divided into more than 60 clans, they have a hierarchy in which the village priest plays a key role.

They rarely marry outsiders and, according to Jakka Parthasarathy, director of the state-run Tribal Research Centre, have a tradition of polyandry, in which the women take more than one husband.

For centuries, their lives have revolved around buffaloes, grasslands called "sholas," spirits and mountain plants.

From birth to death, they conduct ceremonies that involve special plants which are becoming ever harder to find as the modern world and new farming ventures encroach.

Even the mountain grass, which they once used to make their huts, is getting scarcer.

"Now we get loans from government to build brick houses," says Ranmalli, an elderly Toda woman.

Udhagamandalam, usually called Ooty after the British colonial name of Ootacamund, is 2,200m above sea level, and lies 550km southwest of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu state.

The British who founded the hill station in 1822 won over the Todas by giving each family about two hectares on condition the land could be tilled but not sold.

The Todas, who had no tradition of crop growing, grazed their buffaloes on the land or leased it out, illegally, to others.

Today, the scent of eucalyptus fills the air along the winding roads that bring in the tourists for the tree oil that cures a variety of aches.

For the Todas, however, the introduction of the trees has spelt trouble.

"The eucalyptus trees are stopping our grazing and we have only the land allocated to us," says Sinsaykuttan, a Toda villager. "We can't live like those days anymore."

K. Vasamalli, the first Toda university graduate, is now campaigning to keep her community's culture alive. She says the tall trees are destroying the fragile mountain ecology, making old swamps go dry.

"Without any recognition of our values, they planted eucalyptus trees. They did not know the consequences," she says.

But the trees are not the only threat to the survival of Toda culture.

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