I was up climbing the Botanical Garden (in Ooty) early morning before anyone was around, scale beyond the fencing of the garden there is a pathway (further up is a temple, a Km further in the Shola forest is Woodhouse- an abandoned colonial cottage ...more on that sometime later. This is thick forests where Gaurs and even leopards have been spotted quite frequently). I was walking around and from the bush next to the trees came what sounded like a chuckle, almost human. It was unbelievable since i had already walked passed and this bird seemed to be mocking!. White patch over the eyes was indication that i am in the presence of Endangered Nilgiri Laughing Thrush. O mine did i feel a surge going through my body? I had to be calm since the bird is notoriously shy. A wrong move and this one will flit away- it would be devastating to miss an endangered specie, the mechanical lens was giving me problems as i focussed refocused all the while excited about the fortuitous spotting. Incredibly fortunate to have got these few good shots, memorable indeed.
Nilgiri Laughing Thrush are endemic specie to Western Ghats and are found in the Nilgiris at the elevation of more than 4500 feet. They have preference for shola edges and could be seen foraging for fruits and invertebrates in the bushes . Once quite common now it has become endangered specie (IUCN) with serious threats to its habitat and encroachments (studies show breeding success rate as low as 33%), the restricted range of the specie also add to its problems. Hopefully creation of Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve will help in conservation.
The Toda community of Nilgiris
We have sat at a place with a good view
All the hamlets are seen; all the sacred places are seen
The Toda tribal community of Nilgiris are probably the most studied tribal community in India. Though quite insignificant in numbers (as per the 2001 census there are about 1560) they are unique in many ways. Ethnically (including Kota tribes) and linguistically they are different from other tribes in the region (seems to share more with Greek Cypriots) speculating many theories. I read about a strain from Malabar, but must say though the language is classified as Dravidian but having listened to it just couldn’t decipher anything, it doesn’t really sound Dravidian. It is believed to have split from Dravidian stock before Malayalam, but carries rules of earlier derivation making it an interesting study. Other characteristic of this tribe is that they are vegetarians and life revolves around dairy with buffaloes being centre of activities- consisting of elaborate rituals and practices, the care of buffloes and the duties connected with dairy forms the sole work of toda men. Goddess Tokisya is honoured as their principal spirit. Toda hamlets are referred to as mund and their houses are half barrel shaped made from bamboo, close to the mund is another hut with smaller doorway called tirieri or Dairy temple. Also in the vicinity is buffalo open shelter called pen. Another aspect of this community is the dress- garment known as putkuli, a thick white cotton cloth with red and blue strips that is wrapped around the body. I have known about Todas from mid 1990s, and read few essays, even met some from the tribe in Delhi during a tribal meet; i was extended an invitation but somehow forgot about it.
It is only last week i took out time to explore this community (end of March being right time to travel nilgiris- Ooty to be specific- before the vacations and marauding Indian tourists). My main concern was literature, if possible some poems. Fortunately i got some help from Dr. Sathyanarayanan (Director of Tribal Research Centre), an amazingly enthusiastic man who opened the modest library at the Centre for me and even searched some books out. I also contacted Ms Sandhya of Nilgiri library, who was kind enough to share photocopy of some personal material related to Toda songs. There are three seminal writers on Toda: Murray Emeneau, WHR Rivers and Anthony Walkers. The library had all the writers including Emeneau except his Toda Songs- the one i was looking for!!. I flipped through other books for few hours till i realised it was getting late, tribal centre being on the outskirt of the city i was concerned of being stranded. Mr. Sathyanarayanan also gave few contacts one being Mr.Pothili who stays in Toda Mund within the city. Mr.Pothili turned out to be man of few words but the surprise was his wife (Vasamalli.k) an articulate lady who seemed to have dealt with outside world frequently, comfortable in English (even a hint of western accent!) she explained to me about Toda culture and so on, even ventured to sing a song about a bird, to my pleasant surprise. She wrote few lines of some toda song (i am putting the scan of the write up in here. It is a Peacock Song-wherein the prayers of toda saved the life of peacock from fire as it brought rain. The first few lines are in toda language-incidentally it doesn’t have script so uses mostly Tamil, rarely English. The next lines are literal translation in English). The picture herein is of Ms Vasamalli in front of concrete half barrel shaped house that used to be in Bamboo few decades back.
This is a song of lamentation (written by Teitnir on the death of chief Pidrvan), lament is referred to as Kundstkin. First i am putting a literal translation from Toda, then it is sought to be explained!
buffalo oh! plate oh!
necklace neck oh! trouser legs oh! car horn oh!
elephant foot oh! European oh! sambhar oh!
beautiful buffalo to eye i kept, old woman that
they said, old man that they said, Kwarzan of Kars clan
O chief seven village chief, conqueror oh!
peace loving man oh! strong man oh! kavanadi diary carried oh!
pen carried posts oh! not born before one
you were born, renowned one you were born, council
you held, money fine you imposed, buffalo fine one man to
you told, girl one to man you made, barren buffaloes
in the midst you went, buffalo to the next you went,
chosen number beat you went, chosen number you ran before,
leg dance you danced, your one new things
you made, your one invention you made, to-day eye
face i saw, kars kazun has it come? kwarzan of kazun
has it come? burning place at ashes heaped, azaram at grass
Before i go into understanding the above it need be pointed out that the rituals associated with death includes sacrificing buffalo, that in itself is an elaborate procedure (documented in detail by Rivers, Walkers). The dead buffalo in the lament is equated with the deceased. The first part in this lament is for the buffalo and the next is for the dead.
O, your legs like trousers, your horns like a car, your foot
is like that of an elephant, you walk a step like European soldier,
your appearance is like that of a sambhar, i saw you were the most beautiful buffalo of all
they said you would be the parent of the dead, but now you are dead yourself
O chief of many villages, conqueror, peace loving and yet
strong man. You were like Kavanadi, who carried the posts of buffalo pen.
O man of wonderful birth, renowned you were born; you held councils; you fined
some by money some by buffaloes; you settled who should marry the woman.
In the midst of barren buffaloes you went; you caught the throat of the buffaloes;
you ran first and caught the buffaloes before the chosen men; well you danced and shouted finely;
you invented new things. Today for the first time i saw your face. Has the angel of death come to you?
I see nothing but ashes in your burning place. In your azaram place i see nothing but grass growing.
This one is a charming myth, i got it from Emeneau’s collection.
Origin of thunder and lightning
If you say “what is that thunder thunders in the sky?” in former times two buffaloes went to heaven-so they say.
The names of those two buffloes- Osum was one- so they say.
Pusum was the other –so they say.
These two buffloes fight at various times and knot their two tails to one another and the two buffaloes fighting pull the knotted tails, one this way and one that way- so they say.
At that time the two knotted tails crack – so they say.
It is when the two tails crack that the thunder thunders- so they say.
The two buffloes cry out- so they say.
At that time, the vapour which comes out of their mouths becoming bright, it lightens- so they say.
When the tails crack, the thunder thunders- so they say.
When the buffaloes cry out, the vapour lightens- so they say.
This is how they say that thunder and lightning are created.
I liked this song that is part of dairy ceremony which involves uttering of curse and then removal of curse. Must say it is quite fun to read!
May he die
May a tiger certainly seize him! May a snake certainly bite him!
May he certainly fall over a cliff ! May he certainly fall into a river!
May a boar charge him!
May a jungle animal seize him! May a leopard carry him off!
Reversal of curse
Instead of what we said “may he die!” “may he be well”
Instead of what we said “may a tiger certainly seize him!” “may it go on not seizing him!”
Instead of what we said “may a snake certainly bite him!” “may it go on not biting him!”
Instead of what we said “may he certainly fall over a cliff !” “may he go on not falling!”
Instead of what we said “may he certainly fall into a river!” “may he go on not falling in!”
Instead of what we said “may a jungle animal seize him!” “may it go on not seizing him!”
Instead of what we said “may a leopard carry him off!” “may it go on not carrying him off!”
Instead of what we said “may a boar charge him!” “may it go on not charging him!”
There are many more charming songs/myths like these. This blogger requests the readers to take time to read about this unique tribe, and next time you come to Nilgiris try to visit their munds. It is an enriching experience.