Nilgiris is a continuous chain of hills in the western ghats in India. It forms a strong border to some states and blessed with a cool climate unlike in the other parts of the adjoining states. Spending my time in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, I was interested in learning more about the early inhabitants of the Nilgiris, and learn a little more about its history.
It's always hard to learn history let alone write about it. There are perspectives from many different angles, many beliefs, many different experiences and many other variants that define each and every moment and incident, in a very different way.
Even though the facts remain intact and real, the background or the justification of what is right and wrong is extremely difficult to tell. It combines each individual’s beliefs, social norms and what not! So, this is going to be mere writing about the things I learned, came to know from different sources deducting the sentimental pieces of information and less conflicting to anyone who belongs to any community.
Most of the information on this blog comes from a conversation with an artist who is in the process of creating a great piece of art about the history of Nilgiris. He has extensively studied the tribes and their history worked with them and also belongs to one of the tribes of the Nilgiris.
The Nilgiris And Its Tribes
There are 5 tribes who were living in the dense mountain ranges of the Nilgiris. They are Toda, Badaga, Kota, Irula, and Kurumba. They all occupied the land in different regions of the hill and carried out a different lifestyles.
Toda tribe was the pastoral community that lived in the top part of the hill. There are only 7 or 8 villages where the Toda tribe inhabited and only less than 1000 of them exist today. They lived based on their cattle.
The men went for grazing the cattle for 3-4 months and they lived in small dome-shaped houses. One of their identities is the fabric they made using the nettle plants. They have a very distinct pattern and today it is easy to find such fabrics in most of the shops in the tourist shops in the Nilgiris district.
Badagas was the community that occupied a large area and large in numbers compared to other tribes. They used to live in a row of houses, built with raw timber, cane, mud, and cow dung to plaster. All these materials are procured locally and they were gatherers in those times.
A village divided into four regions. They had a cluster of villages and there was an administration village too. One region can marry from the other 3 regions of the Badaga community.
The evidence shows the Badaga community has been here for more than 3000 years. 1000-1500 years back cairns which are supposedly built to keep valuables away from invasion. Such cairns are still there in some of the villages. There might have been invasions that times too.
Badagas had distinct jewelry. Some of them are there, silver and gold. The British came to the conclusion of their existence for 3000 years were from these jewelry that they got from those Cairnes.
In the beginning, they were gatherers. Later became agriculturalists.
Kotas lived in the next layer of the hills and today, there are only less than 1000 people exits in this tribe. They were skilled in Carpentry, pottery and the blacksmiths of that time.
Kurumbas were forest dwellers and they had a livelihood like the bushmen until 30 years back. They are well aware of the forest and can navigate through the forest faster than anyone. They are also known for gathering wild produce like honey. Today, they are allowed in the forest but compelled to live a mainstream life.
Irulas lived close to the planes and were very shy in nature. They spoke Irula language and the people from this tribe can be seen different states of South India.
All these five tribes have their own language, lifestyle and areas were they lived. But, they lived in harmony. The main thread that connected them was the barter system where they exchanged their goods and services to other tribes.
I was interested to know if the whole tribe system was something that was in a place like a caste system in Hinduism. But, it was very different than that and however, there was a hierarchical system in most tribes.
Todas, who lived in the uppermost part of the hills were considered superior. They had a very different lifestyle and their villages are called “Mund”. Many articles suggest they practiced fraternal polyandry where one woman married to a family belonged to all the brothers.
They also live in a special dome-shaped small hut. From the descriptions and pictures online, I was expecting something like a hobbit house. They also worshiped buffalos and have a special diary worship center.
Badagas who were in a larger number and occupied most land in the planes next to Todas. Badaga is also a language, similar to Kannada. It is said Kannada came from the Badaga language. Recently this language got the script.
Badagas lived a life of gathering and they also led a pastoral life. The buttermilk after churning to make ghee was thrown away in the streams. They also lived a sustainable life using local materials.
Kotas Kurumbas and Irulas also exchanged their products with the other tribes. Even though they all had many differences in their lifestyle, some functions and ceremonies united them. One such important events were funerals.
A Badaga or Toda funeral didn’t happen without the presence of a Kota. The different tribes had different rituals before entering the villages of different tribes too. A Badaga or Kota didn’t enter a Toda tribe without washing themselves.
Despite all their differences, there was harmony between all these tribes and nature was well protected.
The first picture in the artwork showed tome was the one which showed 1934 when the British visited Coonoor and Kotagiri. The whole hill was a green with no visible settlements as seen as today.
Mr. Sullivan, who conducted the first successful expedition to the Nilgiris which was very difficult with the wildlife and the difficult terrain. He bought the then Ottacamundu, known as Ooty today, for 1 Indian rupee from the Toda tribe. The interesting fact is these tribes didn’t have a concept of money and gave their land to him.
Ooty and the Nilgiris were chosen for their resemblance to the European weather. Soon, the majority of the land there was changed into tea plantations and they also introduced agriculture to the Nilgiris. The land was later exploited for cash crops, wildlife for hunting games and the Nilgiris became a summer residence.
The British also built the train service across the Nilgiris, which is the toy train or the heritage train that still runs. It is one of the two single gauge train services across the world. I’ve written about the toy train and the experience in the previous blogs from Ooty and Coonoor.
Most Badagas started commercial agriculture, Kotas and the other tribe also got affected by the changes in economy and lifestyle. Toda people had their own lifestyles and allowed to continue grazing their wide horned buffaloes in the grasslands.
The Badaga villages till 30-40 years back looked like the way they used to live in the olden times. The concept of money and an economy changed the lifestyle and certain customs. Today, most of the tribal people are living in houses similar to the mainlands or in the facilities given by the government.
The grasslands that maintained the soul of the Nilgiris are mostly tea plantations today. However, in recent years, sholas, the forest areas have started to grow back and there are active measures to preserve these areas.
The tribes are living a normal life these days. They live in houses built like the mainlanders and do jobs like them. Todas still live in their munds and keep their cattle with them. They are extensively studied by anthropologists.
They sell the diary produces in the main markets of the cities and the ladies sell the fabric unique for their pattern.
Badagas became agriculturist in the later stage and now lives a normal life in relation to others in any Indian cities. They are large in numbers and keeps a sense of their community with them when it comes to life choices.
Kotas, Kurumbas, and Iruals also had the same fate or maybe worse. The whole civilization thing happened to them unintentionally and they are forced to live a life that they didn’t choose. They are hardworking people and mostly exploited for cheap labour.
The whole change in the economy and the reform movements started a clash in the cooperation between the tribes. Today, Kotas doesn’t attend the funerals of Todas. The same goes for the Badaga community after going through some issues that concerned “respect” and “insult”.
However, these days, alcohol has made their life uneasy. Most men spend their earnings on alcohol and different NGOs came up with these craftworks by the women to empower them. In reality, they were and still are to an extent, people with not much desire from life or the ones less materialistic.
No matter who invades and where it is not the best to destroy the land for our greed. Cultivating tea or eucalyptus was not the problem but the altitude and the aggressive monoculture definitely were.
No matter which perspectives you read from, there are few things most don’t deny: The mighty Niglirs, tribes that didn’t disturb the Nilgiris and its sholas, changes from colonization and the infested money system.