The Todas tribe of Nilgiri and their unique ‘Todas embroidery’

The Todas of Nilgiri

Tucked away in Northern Tamil Nadu, lie the beautiful Nilgiri Hills or the Blue Mountains, most popular as Ooty or Ootakamund as local tribes call it.

The Nilgiris were home to several ethnic tribes like the ‘Badagas’, ‘Kotas’, ‘Kurumbhas’ and ‘Irulas’. One of them, the ‘Todas’ have been around for several centuries, but their population has dwindled down to a few hundreds today.

Not only is the language, rituals, clothing and dressing vastly distinct from the nearby tribes, even their ancestry is sometimes claimed to be linked to pandavas or sometimes even to the Greek Army of Alexander.

The toda women style their hair in typical ringlets which they believe to keep their hair healthy.

The Toda ‘Dairy’ Temples which look similar in structure to the bamboo huts they live in, are surrounded by stones in a circular pit and have a head priest in attendence.

The Todas, the initial owners of Ooty, are a pastoral community, with their livelihood traditionally centered around buffalo herding for centuries now. In fact most of their religion and rituals involve practices around dairy and buffalo. 

While the community is venturing into more agricultural practices and away from the traditional pastoral work, life around dairy continues to hold great religious and cultural significance to them.

The Toda Embroidery

The patterns over ‘Toda Shawls’ reflect the creativity of each Toda woman who is inspired by nature and mythological stories so that every single piece will be unique. Rabbit Ears, Bull Horns are some of the elements that are used that signifies different spiritual meanings to the Todas.

Women have been practicing this art since ages. The base cotton material, normally bleached and pale white in color, is hand woven in single width and the weave is such that it allows for the embroidery to be done by counting of threads.

Having created the design hundreds of times, the women replicate it on the cloth without tracing the pattern or referring to a book. A unique aspect of the finished cloth is that is reversible with both sides having a usable finished look to it. The embroidery is worked on the reverse of the cloth and a little tuft of thread is left behind while drawing the needle back, thereby producing a rich, embossed effect on the surface.

The ladies of the tribe work on the fabric with a simple darning needle and thread without the assistance of modern tools. These women do not refer to a stitching pattern as one would normally do for creating cross stitch designs, neither is a frame used to keep the cloth in place.

The traditional three colors also have great significance to the tribes. The Cream/pale white stands for the purity and innocence, while red stands for youth and black stands for maturity.

Occasions like wedding ceremonies see the tribesmen sporting a variety of these shwals, each with the traditional red and black stripes over a white plain cloth. 

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