Oval Huts, Dairy Temples and Holy Milkmen: How a Secluded Existence Produced the Idiosyncratic Toda Traditions
The Todas are an ethnic group that inhabit the Nilgiri Plains of south India. They were once one of the most isolated people in the world. Their customs and language are still considered strange to non-Toda visitors, though they have gotten less unusual in recent years due to exposure to the modern global culture. Nonetheless, the Todas still stand out because of their novel way of life and beliefs. One particularly interesting facet of their culture is the architecture of their traditional oval and pent-shaped houses and temples.
The Basis of the Toda Traditional Economy
The Todas were ancestrally pastoralists who were dependent on the milk of water buffalo for their livelihood. They produced the milk in dairies and then traded it with the surrounding tribes in return for grain, vegetables, and other crops. The Todas are mostly vegetarians, though a few of them do eat fish. Today, most Todas make a living through agriculture. There is a minority, however, that still raises water-buffalo.
Photograph of a Toda 'green funeral' in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, taken by an unknown photographer from the Madras School of Arts in c. 1871-72. (Public Domain)
Because of the traditional importance of the dairy products of the water-buffalo in Toda culture, the water buffalo, particularly the female water buffalo, is considered sacred and the milk is stored in dairy-temples. Different buffalo herds have different degrees or grades of sanctity - meaning that their milk has to be stored in a temple of the same grade of sanctity and not a different one. Dairy-temples that are the most sacred are typically built outside regular Toda settlements, whereas the less sacred ones are often built within the settlements.
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Nilgiris - Mullimunth Toda temple with an evident drawing of a water buffalo. (Indianature SG/CC BY NC 2.0)
Traditional Huts in the Munds
Most Todas today live in houses that would not stand out in a modern suburb, but there are a few Toda villages, or munds as they are called in their language, which contain the traditional grass and bamboo house lived in by their ancestors. These houses are called dogles.
There is also a revival among the Todas to bring back this ancient way of life, which goes back at least to the 17th century (according to European records when the first European explorers encountered them in 1603.) When regular contact between the Todas and the world beyond the Nilgiri plateau began in the 1820s, their lifestyle showed little change from that earlier time.
Hut of Toda tribe (Nilgiris, India). (Pratheepps/CC BY SA 3.0) Note the decoration and very small door.
A traditional Toda mund usually consists of two or three huts. The huts are constructed using bamboo beams that are bent into an arc shape and planted into the ground so that they will retain that shape. Once the bamboo skeleton has been completed, grass is placed over the frame to create thatch for the roof.
Todas and Todas munds. (Public Domain)
The two ends of the pent-shaped hut are made of wood or stone. The front entrance is usually decorated with Toda artwork and has a small door where one must bend over or crawl in to enter. The reason for the small size of the door is for protection against the elements and from wild animals. Both sides of the entrance have a raised platform and semi-private area for sitting and talking. Each hut would contain a family or household.
Traditional Toda Families and Society
Ancestrally, Toda households practiced fraternal polyandry where one woman would be married to a number of brothers. Because of this custom it did not matter who a child’s biological father was, though it did matter who the social father was. A man who wanted to take the responsibility of social fatherhood for an unborn child would hand a bow and arrow to the woman pregnant with the child that he wanted to claim.
Traditional Toda society has always been patrilineal and patriarchal. A child’s clan membership, and therefore status and inheritance, would be based on who his or her social father was.
Photograph of two Toda men and a woman from the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, taken by an unknown photographer from the Madras School of Arts in c. 1871-72. (Public Domain)
Today, the Todas have abandoned polyandry as well as other traditional practices, such as female infanticide. One tradition they have not abandoned, of course, is their religion.
More on the Dairy Temples
As mentioned previously, the other type of traditional building used by the Todas is the dairy temple. The dairy temples look much like the Toda huts and are built in a similar way. They are built over a round pit lined with stones. A bamboo frame is created, followed by thatch. The dairy temple is also pent-shaped and at one end is a door which one must crawl through or bend over to enter.
Toda temple at Mullimunth. (Indianature SG/CC BY NC 2.0)
Dairy temples are overseen by special priests or holy milkmen. Because of the importance of buffalo milk in traditional Toda society, dairy priests are considered too holy to even be touched by laypeople. They are the only ones who are allowed into the dairy temple and even live in the dairy temple. Laypeople are only allowed to approach them once a year. The rest of the year, they must stand at a distance from the dairy temple and shout if they have business with the holy milkman.
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Other restrictions on a dairy priest who has been ordained and lives in the dairy temple are: he is not allowed to cross bridges and cannot attend funerals - lest he be defiled by being touched by a layperson and be forced to resign. If he has a wife, he must leave her. As manager of the dairy temple where the milk is stored and distributed, the dairy priest must be very careful not to defile himself so that he can continue to carry out his sacred duty.
Because of their relative isolation on the plateau, the Todas have developed a unique culture in terms of their language, marriage patterns, and dairy-centered religion. Their architecture is no exception, being unlike most of the other architecture styles in that part of India.
Toda hut. Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India. (Prof. Mohamed Shareef/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: The Toda mund, from Richard Barron, 1837, View in India, chiefly among the Neelgherry Hills. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
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