Whilst planning my trip to South India in 2016 I spent a good many hours scouring what information Google maps can provide, in particular looking out for interesting places within walking distance of where I plan to stay; something I can squeeze into my itinerary in the early morning or late evening before my next dose of Aloo Jeera (my personal favourite 🙂 ).
Set within the cool mountains of the Nilgiri hills, my research for what’s on offer around Ooty brought up an intriguing location :
Located on a ridge above the town’s botanical gardens was marked a “Toda Temple”. At the time I had no idea what exactly this was, nor whether it was really accessible, but being located very close to my hotel I decided it was definitely worth an exploration.
Reaching the temple was relatively straightforward. A series of paths within the botanical gardens gradually take you up the hillside to a gate at the top. Turning right here for a short time took me to the location of the Toda temple on the left.
The Toda tribe are one of 75 recognised tribal groups in India. Their name is likely to be derived from the Kannada word ‘Tudavar’, which means ‘those who live at the top’, or alternatively from the Tamil word ‘Toran’ or ‘Toruvan’ which means ‘shepherd’. The tribe is an ancient one, with their language having branched out from Tamil sometime in the 4th – 3rd century B.C. They are believed to be the first to introduce domestic cattle to the region, although no formal records exist of them prior to the 18th century. Today the Toda community totals just 1,600 people.
I stood for some time a little transfixed by the temple structure and it’s setting. It was a beautiful and peaceful place. Before long, I was met by Patha Kuttan, a village elder. Little did I know at this point that before the day was through I would be meeting hundreds of his fellow tribe.
Patha could speak a little English, and seemed keen to explain more about the Toda tribe.
He explained that the Toda live in small villages called Munds which are always found in the valleys where there is suitable grazing for their cattle. A Mund comprises of a few small houses to accommodate around 20 families, and usually with at least one temple. Traditionally their huts were made of bamboo poles and thatch, but typically today only their temples are made from the traditional materials and their houses are now built from more modern materials.
Their livelihood is derived from raising buffalo, primarily for milk which is traded in the neighbourhood.
In between rounds of milking his buffalo, Patha seemed keen to explain more, but he appeared to be pushed for time. He asks if I would like to attend a “temple festival” today, and suggests I return to the Mund in two hours time.
I’ve been to India enough times to know that attending any kind of festival in the country is likely to be an unforgettable experience. I accepted, and return back down through the botanical gardens to my hotel for breakfast.
Time flew by, probably my excitement and anticipation as to what I was about to experience. I once again made my way through the botanical gardens, assuming that this temple festival was being held at the place where I’d met Patha. Halfway up towards the Mund, I met him purposely striding in the opposite direction in what appeared to be traditional dress for the tribe. He seemed surprised to see me, but asked if I’d follow him. We left the gardens and entered the busy streets of Ooty, at this point I was wondering just what was going to be happening.
We met up with a friend of his, Pepraj, jumped in a rickshaw, and started heading out of the town. Although Patha’s english was ok, he wasn’t able to tell me where we were heading to. I was esentially with two complete strangers sharing a ride to an unknown destination. Although it was a slightly disconcerting situation, I embraced the moment and decided this was likely to be an adventure I would never forget.
We soon left the suburbs of Ooty, past St.Stephen’s church and into a more rural setting. It wasn’t long before we stopped by a cluster of small houses set in front of a field on the hillside. We got out and entered one of the houses. I’ve since discovered that I was at a place called Karsh Mund. I was made to feel most welcome, tea was served and the three of us sat in the living room. Sadly, conversation was limited due to the language barrier.
After a short while, I was led out of the house and we made our way towards the field on the hillside. I noticed the field had a series of large stones on the perimeter marking out an enclosure, and here I was asked to remove my shoes. Clearly where the shoes are actually left is significant, having placed them down once I was asked to move them 1m further away.
We walked up the hillside, past a wooden temple similar to the one I had visited earlier that day in Ooty, up to the far end of the field where another temple was surrounded by male members of the tribe.
It was then explained to me exactly what was occurring. This temple was being re thatched, an effort that involves not just the male members of the families living in this particular Mund, but also men from neighbouring Munds that come and participate in the construction, the subsequent ceremonies, and the festivities that follow. It was hive of activity.
The Toda temple construction I found fascinating. Set in a circular pit lined with stones, they at first give the appearance of an upturned boat. Subsequently I’ve been struck by their similarities with Buddhist architectural traditions, in particular the Chaitya and horseshoe designs you can find at rock-cut caves such as Karla, Bhaja and Bedse in Maharastra.
The walls of the temples are made up of bundles of bamboo or wood, covered with straw and tied together with bamboo fiber. The front and rear of the temples are made with granite slabs, the gaps between the slabs and bamboo are filled in with earth.
The structure is covered with overlapping straw bunches tied in a line on the frame from the bottom up, which creates a watertight roof covering. Finally, the ridge of the roof is locked with two long poles tied to the framework.
In the largest Toda temples there are two rooms. The first room with no window and a central fire is the living quarters for the priest. The second room acts as a dairy, with the fireplace placed against a wall and surrounded by various tools used for the processing of milk. Here there is usually a small window to allow a tiny amount of light in, and for smoke to leave the temple interior.
Both rooms are accessed by a very small entrance, only the priest is allowed into the interior of the temple. A large heavy stone or a wooden shutter often closes the temple entrance when the priest is away.
On the walls of the temples are decorative motifs representing the crescent moon (positioned at the top) the sacred buffalo in the center, the sun down, lotus flowers and stars.
The Toda religion does not worship idols, but instead focuses on the worship of the sacred Buffalo, with rituals related to the processing of milk and other products that form the basis of their diet.
As the day unfolded and the construction of the new temple roof proceeded, more male members of the Toda tribe arrived from other Munds to lend a hand. They were warmly greeted by the host Mund, and everyone did their bit. It was noticeable that no women were involved, in fact no women were even allowed beyond the stone-marked enclosure within the field. I subsequently learned that Toda religious practices are completely run by men.
The temple priest can never visit his home or any country, and must be unmarried. Strangely he can not cross any river via a bridge either. At Karsh Mund there were two priests, as there are two temples on the site. They were easily identifiable as they wore plain simple black dress, as opposed to the far more colourful attire of the other tribe members.
The Toda dress consists of a traditional embroidered shawl called ‘Poothukuli’ and worn from the shoulders down. This traditional costume has a special embroidery process, transmitted from generation to generation, which is now recognized and protected by the Tamil Nadu State.
Constantly throughout the day I was made to feel welcome, I was the only non-Toda person and persistantly reminded that I was an honoured guest, offering me food and drink. I’m always a little uneasy in these situations with photography and kept asking for permission, but they were always more than happy to be photographed.
By mid afternoon the temple rethatching had concluded, and the rituals and ceremonies commenced.
A circle was formed outside the temple entrance, and the tribe members rotated anti-clockwise chanting.
This ceremony lasted a surprisingly short amount of time, before everyone left the temple and headed down to the foot of the field. This was where the festival and celebrations really began in earnest.
Much larger circles were formed, and more chanting commenced accompanied by food and drink. This was all within the temple enclosure still, so the women remained outside the perimeter by their houses.
I was invited to stay as they continued their festivities, but evening was approaching and I still had no idea of where I was or how I was going to get back to Ooty. Luckily I managed to flag down a coach of architecture students from Chennai who were happy to drop me off in the center of town. Something that had been on my mind for the entire day turned out to be something of nothing, I wasn’t that far away from Ooty and getting back there was trivial as it turned out.
It’s rare for me to experience a day that I know will stay so crystal clear in my mind for the rest of my life. It was privilege to witness that day with the Toda tribe, and I am eternally grateful to them for allowing me to share the experience in such a welcoming way.
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