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The Culture In A Blade Of Grass

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

“Our whole lives are intertwined with the buffaloes. Without them, our entire culture will disappear.” – Peetagarai, elder Toda tribesman.

To the Toda people in the upper Nilgiri plateau in Tamil Nadu, the growing forest cover – cause for celebration anywhere else in the world – is not good news. They may be harmonious with nature, but as traditional pastoralists, wide open grasslands as far as the eye can see is home. Without the grasslands there are no buffaloes and, as Killdass Kuttan, a Toda herder, succinctly summarizes: “if there are no buffaloes, then there are no Todas.”

The tribe has worshipped the unique breed of water buffalo for centuries, even separating the herd into sacred and regular buffaloes. “I can go to a local Shiva or a Muruga temple and offer my prayers (at any time), but if we have to go to our temple there has to be a sacred buffalo and only then can we perform oblations,” says Killdass Kuttan, adding that once the sacred buffalo dies, the temple is closed.

All the tribes in the Nilgiri hills face an uncertain future as they battle unplanned afforestation, which has inadvertently resulted in greater conflicts with displaced wild animals, urban and industrial encroachment, and an apathetic bureaucracy. While some adapted to changing times by embracing trades and skills from the outside world, the Todas only became reluctant farmers to survive. Buffalo milk and milk products formed the basis of their entire economy and for many in the tribe, life used to be as simple as melting butter at home and selling the ghee for whatever they needed. But all that changed rapidly as their ancestral landscape was invaded by colonialists and their foreign flora and fauna. They do not recognize their native environment anymore and, due partially to the restricted expanse of their territory, are struggling to thrive. Environmental sociologist Siddhartha Krishnan says the Toda describe the region today as “dark, woody, thorny and predatory.”

“We could see the buffaloes for 4-5 kilometers, but now if they leave the house, we can’t track them,” says Araadu Kuttan, another Toda tribesman. “Earlier, there were natural forests and grasslands but now it is [full of] eucalyptus, wattle and lantana. The upper hillsides, which were all grasslands, are now filled with wattle. Only in the lower parts of the hills, we can see the native trees and even there, the invasive species are taking over,” he says wistfully looking over the picturesque, dark green plateau. The scenic forest landscape is great for postcards and nature documentaries, but for the tribes like the Toda who live there, it spells a slow creeping death despite the vulnerability to exploitation grasslands face.

In a country where every free acre is a luxury, an entirely cleared plateau in the upper Nilgiris will surely be a prime target for vested interests or the government wanting to convert it for industrial or other uses they deem productive. Also compounding problems for the Todas are unforeseen consequences of various conservation programs in the habitat. While the world cheered the success of the Save the Tiger campaign, the Nilgiri tribes fought off a rise in attacks by the apex predators.

Buffalo numbers were already falling before they became prey to the wildcats. Killdass Kuttan steered 46 buffaloes and 24 calves in 2013, but saw his herd nearly decimated to just 6 buffaloes only two years later. Even so, he is less worried about the financial implications of a smaller herd than he is with the threat to his culture. “I don’t care about a salary or money as long as I have the buffaloes in my house. Land is permanent property, something that can be passed to my future generations, but buffaloes are temporary... For the Todas, milk, fruits and honey are sacred. Land or something else is not god; only a buffalo is god,” he says.

As is the case with much of India, the Todas’ troubles probably began with the arrival of the British, who ironically, patronised them and bestowed special protection statuses on the tribe. Nevertheless, they also cleared the wild jungles with neither care nor concern for the natives and planted the tea they brought from China. Summerhouses and the famed plantations to which they escaped to from the stifling heat followed swiftly. However, also imported were the invasive acacia, eucalyptus, and pinewood trees. All three species grow tall and spread wide roots, are extremely thirsty, and wreak havoc on the region’s resources even today.

The colonialists also planted the first English vegetables – carrots, potatoes, radish and turnips – which they grow even today. As pastoralists, the Toda traditionally grew few things and relied heavily on trading their dairy products with the five other tribes in the region. “Earlier, Todas did not know how to farm, they only knew to rear buffalo,” says Peetagarai. “Only a few people knew how to and they would farm on half or an acre of land.”

While some elders are open to change and the tribe has recovered and subleased land for cultivation over the last 20 years, the Toda youth yearn for their traditional past and want to return to a pastoral economy. But Krishnan warns against chaotic measures like those that have ruined the region through the last two centuries. Any efforts at restoration will have to take ecological as well as socio-cultural aspects into account and as the ancient custodians of the lands, the Todas must be given the lead. “To what time in the past do we want the landscape to be restored; 1950? 1900? 1800? We don’t know. It has to be a conservation conversation involving the Todas, the migrants who have sub-leased their lands, the people distilling the oils, the forest department officials and also the ecologists.”

Peetagarai hopes the government helps them restore their landscape and buffaloes, but he is cautiously wary. “What next? We don’t know,” he says with a sigh.

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