Toda - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. Traditional Toda cosmology identifies two worlds: that of the living, ruled by the goddess Tökisy, and that of the dead, where her brother, Ö·n, reigns supreme. There is no conception of an eternal Hell, but those who have led unmeritorious lives are said to suffer many indignities before they too eventually reach the other world. Toda also have appropriated much of the world-view of their Hindu neighbors, and concepts of ritual purity, pollution, hierarchy, and ritual specialization underlie even the most indigenous of Toda ritual practices. Pilgrimage to Hindu temples, no recent innovation, is increasingly popular among younger Toda. Toda religion finds ritual expression principally in the cult of the sacred dairies and their associated buffalo herds. Buffalo are categorized as secular (the mainstay of the traditional economy) or sacred (with several gradations). For the latter, ritual surrounds every task of the dairyman: herding, milking, churning, and preparing ghee (clarified butter) from butter, as well as seasonal or occasional activities such as burning the pastures (now discontinued), naming a buffalo, giving salt to the herds, driving them to dry-season pastures, and rethatching or rebuilding a dairy building. Dairies, which Toda themselves identify as temples, are buildings kept in a state of ritual purity so that dairymen-priests (of comparable ritual purity) can process inside them the milk from associated herds of sacred buffalo. Ranked in a hierarchy, each grade of dairy has its associated grade of sacred buffalo and dairyman-priest. The higher the grade of a dairy, the greater is the need for ritual purity and the more elaborate the rituals that surround the daily tasks of the dairyman. Another category of religious specialist are the "god men," who in trance become mouthpieces of particular deities, frequently Hindu rather than Toda ones. Christian missionaries of several denominations have proselytized among the Toda, the most successful being those of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, whose first Toda convert in 1904 marked the beginning of a breakaway Toda Christian community. Now denominationally affiliated to the Church of South India, this community has churches in two of its three hamlets. Because of widespread intermarriage with non-Toda Christians and the use of Tamil, not Toda, as its principal language, this Christian community retains few traces of traditional Toda culture, although some of its Members remain proudly conscious of their Toda ethnicity. The Toda populate their supernatural world with several anthropomorphic deities generically termed "gods of the Mountains," because most of them are said to reside on Nilgiri peaks. The most important is the goddess Tökisy, creator of the Toda and their buffalo and ordainer of their principal Social and ritual institutions. Other deities, the "gods of the sacred places," represent the divine essences of the more sacred of the dairy complexes; they too are sometimes conceived anthropomorphically. Most modern Toda worship Hindu deities, displaying lithographic icons of Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan, Aiyappan, etc. in their homes and sometimes even keeping an elaborate "gods' room" such as one finds among the Hindu mainstream.

Ceremonies. Apart from the intricate observances of the sacred dairy cult, the principal Toda ceremonies mark the passage through life. Pregnancy and birth traditionally involved periods of physical isolation for the women to prevent ritual defilement of a hamlet and particularly of its dairy. Paternity is a social fact determined by ritual rather than biology; a man acknowledges fatherhood of an unborn child by presenting the pregnant woman (in her seventh month) with a stylized bow and arrow. Important childhood ceremonies, more highly ritualized for boys than girls, are: the first uncovering of an infant's face outside the house and its subsequent naming; the marriage of infants; and the piercing of a boy's ears to mark ritual (not physical) maturity. Symbolic and actual defloration once initiated adulthood for a girl, but these customs probably have been abandoned. Ceremony also attends a man's taking of his mature wife from her parental home. Death occasions the greatest elaboration of Toda Ritual (see below). Modern Toda actively participate in Hindu temple rituals, while Toda Christians follow the liturgical practices, mostly Anglican-derived, of the Church of South India.

Arts. The principal Toda arts are oral poetry, often but not necessarily sung to accompany dance, and embroidery. Women alone are the embroiderers, embellishing with geometric designs the large cloaks that Toda wear and producing tablecloths, placemats, etc. for sale. Both men and women compose songs about any noteworthy event in a rigidly conventionalized poetic language that uses parallelism to great effect. Practically every detail in Toda life has its special phrase that, in song, must be followed by a parallel phrase, either synonymous with or linked by convention to the first phrase: "all the hamlets / all the sacred places," "European in the courts / important man in the places," "child in the lap / calf in the pen," etc.

Medicine. Toda may attribute sickness to natural causes, the malevolence of supernatural beings, or the sorcery of Humans (especially Kurumba, traditionally feared for their supposed magical powers). They may take traditional herbal or modern pharmaceutical medicines, offer vows to Toda dairies, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, or Christian churches, or seek the services of a Kurumba in countersorcery.

Death and Afterlife. The death of an unnamed infant receives no public recognition, that of a named child some, and that of a respected elder a great deal. Traditionally two Funeral rites were held and it was believed that the deceased could not enter the Land of the Dead until the second was complete. At the first funeral, the body was cremated; at the second, a relic (lock of hair or fragment of bone) was burned. The rituals of the two were very similar, the relic substituting for the corpse in the second. Today second funerals are no longer held, their concluding rites having been appended to the first ceremony. At a funeral, every major division of Toda society and every principal kinship and affinal role comes into play, and buffalo are sacrificed to accompany the dead to the afterworld: secular animals for females, sacred and secular ones for males. Reformists recently have opposed buffalo sacrifice and have, on occasion, prevented it. The Toda locate the world of the dead to the west and below the Nilgiri Plateau, possibly indicating Toda origins in Kerala. The several routes to this afterworld can actually be followed to the edge of the Nilgiri massif. Toda say that the world of the dead is much like that of the living, except that it has a harder surface. Instead of people and buffalo eroding the land, they wear down their own legs, and when their shortened limbs make life in "the other-side place" impossible, their spirits are reborn as Toda or Toda buffalo of the Nilgiri highlands.

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