May 31, 2017

How do you measure wealth? Some measure by their bank balance, some by their health. The Todas,an ancient tribe indigenous to the Nilgiris, use a completely different parameter – the buffalo. The more buffaloes you have, the more prosperous you are.

Indeed, the presence of the Todas has helped preserve many rare endangered species in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Stretching across more than 5000 acres, the Nilgiris (which mean ‘blue hills’) are home to over a thousand species of flora and fauna, around 80 percent of which are endemic to the region.

Traditional Toda munds are barrel shaped and made using rattan cane.

“The Todas form their rituals and customs around specific species of plants. Even the streams flowing through their village have specific purposes,” says Dr. Tarun Chhabra, a dentist by vocation, and anthropologist and botanist by passion. A chance encounter with anthropologist WHR Rivers’ book The Todas set Dr. Chhabra on this journey and today, he is one of the few non-Toda people who are fluent in their language and customs. Dr. Chhabra has extensively documented the Toda way of life in his book The Toda Landscape – Explorations in Cultural Ecology.

“There is much to learn from the Todas – vegetarianism, pastoralism, humanity’s link with nature and about environment and ecology.” says Dr. Tarun Chhabra, who is one of the few outsiders who had the privilege to witness various Toda rituals.

A non-violent pastoral tribe, the Todas are vegetarians and live in perfect harmony with nature, their culture and rituals closely entwined with the flora and fauna around them. The hills are the abode of their gods, and flowers herald the passing of seasons. The river buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), an endangered species endemic to the region, is deemed sacred, and the task of milking it and churning the milk into butter is entrusted to a chosen few. The Toda lifestyle and its effect on the surrounding environment is an example of humanity at its best.

To preserve their heritage and to conserve the biodiversity of the Nilgiris, Dr. Chhabra established the Toda Nalavazhvu Sangam in 1992, and the Edhkweklynawd Botanical Refuge (Edhkweklynawd in Toda means ‘magnificent view’) in 2003. Apart from modernising the design of the munds (traditional Toda settlements) and electrifying them, the Sangam provides buffaloes and rebuilds abandoned temples. The Refuge identified three new species of Balsam flowers (Impatiens balsamia) in the Nilgiris in 2016, which are proof of the continuing ecological importance of the region.

The Toda tribe is known for their distinctive embroidery or pukhoor of geometrical motifs inspired by nature, and even has a GI tag. The Toda Nalavazhvu Sangam sells products such as jewellery, shawls, scarves, jackets, wallets and cell phone cases.