The Toda people are a small pastoral community who live on the isolated Nilgiri plateau of Southern India. Prior to the late eighteenth century, the Toda coexisted locally with other communities, including the Badaga, Kota, and Kuruba, in a loose caste-like community organization in which the Toda were the top ranking. The Toda population has hovered in the range 700 to 900 during the last century. Although an insignificant fraction of the large population of India, the Toda have attracted (since the late eighteenth century), “a most disproportionate amount of attention because of their ethnological aberrancy” and “their unlikeness to their neighbours in appearance, manners, and customs.” The study of their culture by anthropologists and linguists would prove important in the creation of the fields of Social Anthropology and Ethnomusicology.
The Toda traditionally live in settlements consisting of three to seven small thatched houses, constructed in the shape of half-barrels and spread across the slopes of the pasture. They traditionally trade dairy products with their Nilgiri neighbour peoples. Toda religion centres on the buffalo; consequently, rituals are performed for all dairy activities as well as for the ordination of dairymen-priests. The religious and funerary rites provide the social context in which complex poetic songs about the cult of the buffalo are composed and chanted. Fraternal polyandry in traditional Toda society was fairly common; however, this has now largely been abandoned. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, some Toda pasture land was lost due to agriculture by outsidersor afforestation by the State Government of Tamil Nadu. This has threatened to undermine Toda culture by greatly diminishing the buffalo herds; however during the last decade both Toda society and culture have also become the focus of an international effort at culturally sensitive environmental restoration.The Toda lands are now a part of The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-designated International Biosphere Reserve and is under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for selection as a World Heritage.
The origin of the Todas is not very clear. They are one of the original tribes inhabiting the highest regions of the Nilgiris mountain range and have remained secluded for a very long time.
Around 1823, the Collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, took a fancy to their land and bought it from them for a mere one rupee. He established a town at the place named Udagamandalam on this land. The interaction with western civilisation caused many changes in the lifestyle of the Todas.
The Toda dress consists of a single piece of cloth, which is worn like the plaid of a Scottish highlander. Their sole occupation is cattle-herding and dairy-work. They once practiced fraternal polyandry, a practice in which a woman marries all the brothers of a family, but no longer do so. The ratio of females to males is about three to five. The Toda are most closely related to the Kota both ethnically and linguistically. The Todas worship their dairy-buffaloes, but they have a whole pantheon of other gods. The only purely religious ceremony they have is Kona Shastra, the annual sacrifice of a male buffalo calf. Toda villages, called munds, usually consist of five buildings or huts, three of which are used as dwellings, one as a dairy and the other as a shelter for the calves at night. The inhabitants of a mund are generally related and consider themselves one family. The Todas numbered 807 in 1901 and their current population stands at around 1,100.