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How green is their valley

Where it all began for the Todas, writes PANKAJA SRINIVASAN


VERDURE ALL AROUND A Toda temple in Muthunadumund and a calf grazing in a Toda village

It is just a little out of Ooty. Still, not somewhere where you would find tourists, thank God! Or, thank the broken, cratered, treacherous stretch that dares to call itself the Mysore Road and leads up to our destination — Muthunadumund.

Its inhabitants call it their motherland. The Tekkerasi Amman temple is where their origins lie, they believe. The temple has a ring of stones around it — no woman can cross the boundary they mark out.

It is difficult not to romanticise the Todas. They lend themselves to romance. The earliest inhabitants of the Nilgiris, no one really knows from where they came. Theories abound. Some say they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, while others say they have descended directly from the Pandavas. No matter, they have managed to retain individuality distinct from the others of the region. For one, their language is nothing like anything one may have heard before. And their appearance also defies typecasting.

In keeping with their mysterious origins, a swirl of mist rolls by obscuring for a moment the stone pillar and the thatched temple nearby — as if reluctant to show themselves to aliens like us. But then the sun peeps out and all is bright and beautiful again. A bunch of Toda women bask in the sun chattering away in their strange tongue as they deftly embroider lengths of creamy cloth. With the traditional red and black embroidered shawls (poothukuli) wrapped around them, and with their hair coiled into ringlets, they present a picture of dignity.

All around it is brilliantly green, acres of rolling meadows. "You will always find Toda settlements near grass hills," explains one of the tribesmen. That stands to reason as they are traditionally pastoralists and, even today, tending buffalos is central to their existence.

As if to reinforce what he said, one hears mooing from a distance and we head off to find out where that came from. We cross a round stone. It weighs all of 120-kg and is used in a sport. Toda lads lift it up to their shoulders in a show of strength but not before it has been smeared with butter!

As we trudge up a gentle slope, a copse of trees grows in a rough circle. "Cremation ground," says our Toda friend with a happy smile. The dead are sent off with a lot of rituals here, he explains. Skirting the area, we proceed.

We walk on grass that feels like a deep pile carpet to our feet and little blue flowers growing along with the grass lean away, as we walk on sidestepping a lone mushroom. A sudden shimmer of silver and there is a lake. A few buffaloes enjoy a leisurely swim, while a couple of others soak in the sun. Ahead are sloping forests. We sit there in bucolic bliss, in silent communion with the scented breeze, rippling waters, rustling trees and contented buffaloes. In the middle distance, a goatherd sprawls elegantly on the green carpet as his charges forage for food. What a life!

How to get there

From Ooty, head towards Mysore Road. Cross Thalakundah and turn right. About six kilometres down is Muthunadumund.

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