Despite much amateurish speculation about Toda origins in Greece, Rome, the Danube Basin, ancient Israel, Sumeria, and other unlikely places, the linguistic evidence points clearly to the people's South Indian roots. But because Toda emerged from the mother language before Tamil and Malayalam separated, we cannot be certain whether the community's ancestors ascended the Nilgiris from east or west, although west seems the better guess. (Toda say they were created on the Nilgiris.) Artifacts, seemingly unrelated to the Toda, from stone-circle burial sites in the highlands suggest that Toda were not there before the beginning of the Christian era. The first written evidence for Toda in or near the Nilgiris, an inscription on stone dated 1117, relates in Kannada how a Hoysala general "conquered the Toda" before dedicating the Nilgiri peak "to the Lakshmi of Victory." In 1799 the mountains became a British possession, though unadministered until after 1819. Before that time, Toda may have paid a grazing tax to overlords in the plains, but their physical isolation atop the high Nilgiris permitted a way of life mostly untrammeled by outside interference. After the assertion of British rule, Toda were never again to be quite free of state bureaucracy.
Linguistically, culturally, and economically distinct, the Toda are nonetheless an integral part of a traditional Nilgiri society whose affiliations—despite modifications due to physical isolation—are clearly with the wider civilization of south India. The Toda's traditional Nilgiri neighbors included: an artisan caste of potters, blacksmiths, and leather workers, the Kota; an immigrant group of Kannada-speaking castes with the common name of Badaga, who became the dominant food producers, hence political overlords, of the Nilgiris; and two forest-dwelling communities, Kurumba and Irula. These Nilgiri peoples maintained an interfamilial System of economic, ritual, and social interdependence very much within the tradition of multicaste rural communities throughout India. In typically Indic manner also, they recognized among themselves a social hierarchy based preeminently on considerations of relative ritual purity. In the early nineteenth century the isolation of the Toda homeland was shattered with the coming of the British administration. The resultant growth of an immigrant population, markets, and a cash-crop- and plantation-based economy disrupted the old economic interdependence of the Nilgiri peoples, while intensified contact with mainstream South Indian Hinduism eroded the foundations of the traditional ritual interdependence. Only vestiges of the old order now survive; modern Todas, several of them working in Nilgiri factories and a few college-educated, are as familiar with immigrant peoples as with their traditional Nilgiri neighbors, and they are far more conversant with the market economy than with the former system of intercommunity familial transactions.