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William Halse Rivers (W.H.R. Rivers) (12th March 1864 - 4th June 1922)

On 4th June 2022, protagonist of these dialogues Prof. P.C. Joshi remembered W.H.R. Rivers on his 101st death anniversary.

W.H.R. Rivers (FRC, FRAI)(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The anthropological conversations among the members of the United Indian Anthropology Forum engages constructive and critical deliberations on various important issues and highlights the significance of anthropology and contributions of anthropologists in these debates. These conversations bring about critical thinking driven by inference from anthropological research and validated information from other disciplines. On 4th June 2022, protagonist of these dialogues Prof. P.C. Joshi remembered W.H.R. Rivers on his 101st death anniversary. Before one dwell on the content of these conversations, for the benefit of students of anthropology a brief introduction on River’s academic journey and his contributions to Indian anthropology is presented.

W.H.R. RIVERS is known to followers of Indians anthropology because of his historic contribution to the study of the Todas of Nilgiri Hills in Southern India published in 1906 and recognised for precision in documenting life and culture of a traditional (commonly addressed as indigenous, tribal, Adivasi etc.) pastoral community. It is important to draw attention to the fact that though the field work tradition in anthropological texts is traced to Bronislaw Malinowski (August 1914-1915 to Mailu and Woodlark Island and then to Trobriand Islands in 1918), researchers like Rivers travelled as part of Cambridge Expedition in 1898 to Torres Strait (between New Guinea and Australia) while practising experimental psychology and acquired his love for anthropological fieldwork over there. In 1902, he became a fellow of St. Johns college, Cambridge and in the same year he travelled to India to study the Toda. His anthropological treatise on Toda was followed by his fieldwork in Melanesia that resulted in the publication of two volumes on the Important History of Melanesian Society (1914). His empirical research forays also helped him to formulate his ideas on Kinship terminology that was published in 1914 in Kinship and Social organization and resulted in seminal contributions to developing Genealogy as a method of research. Post 1914 he devoted remaining eight years of his life to enhance knowledge in the field of Medical Psychology and published his celebrated work Instinct and Unconscious (1920).

He was principally trained as a medical doctor and researched on physiological Psychology. He received his M.D. degree in 1888 at the University of London. In 1897 he became director of Britain’s first Experimental Psychology laboratory at the University of London. His multifaceted personality excelled not only in Anthropology but also in Neurology and Psychology. In in the beginning of his career, he wrote on Delirium and it allied conditions (1889), Hysteria (1891), Neurasthenia (1893). He also served in the capacity of a house Physician at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic and is known for giving treatment to the first World War officers suffering trauma due to either physical or psychological injury experienced in the war. It was described by psychologist Charles Meyer as “Shell Shock” in 1915 in an article in The Lancet. It is now described as post-traumatic distress disorder (PTSD).

It is pertinent to give a synoptic view of the community for which River’s acquired legendary status in Indian anthropology. First mention of the community Toda occurs in the accounts of Finicio-a Portuguese Priest in the year 1602. He stayed for two days in the Nilgiri Hills. But after English occupation from 1602 to 1812, there are no records of cultural history of the Toda. From the beginning of the 20th century and after the British occupation, starting with W.H.R. Rivers classic study, there is recurrent interest in studying this small community

Toda numbered only 800 in 1960s but have crossed 2000 mark in the 2011 census. They speak ‘most aberrant’ form of Dravidian language that separated from Tamil-Malayalam in circa 3rd century B.C. Siddiqui (2005) believes that the Toda dialect has phonetic correspondence with Proto-Dravidian and has a rich vocabulary of buffalo terms.

Some accounts of the history of migration of this community suggest that they moved to higher altitudes nearly two thousand years ago. Relatively recent study by Indian Institute of Sciences, Bengaluru reasons that the community moved to higher reaches of Nilgiri hills about 3000-4000 years ago because of climate change in southern India. Some imaginative accounts suggested that they moved from Israel, or have Vedic Aryan, Scythian or Macedonian origins and came to settle here. Anthony. R. Walker (2004) disputes their mythical ancestry from Israel and other places and believes that Toda’s tall stature, fair skin, aquiline noses are also spotted among some other South Indian communities establishing the fact that this pastoral community always lived in this region.

Toda huts have also been object of interest and enquiry because of their conical shape and its climatic resilience. These houses are built on a wooden frame and have an arched roof in the shape of half barrel. Traditional dwellings were largely destroyed and were replaced with cemented houses. Amy Tikkanen (2021) writes in Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Seven years ago, there were just a couple of traditional houses remaining in the permanent hamlets. One day a Toda wanted to build a traditional house for his ailing father. The administration agreed to provide the funds. Quite soon, it was ready and one Sunday morning, the collector, additional Collector, and the Superintendent of Police inaugurated the house. The construction was so impressive that advances were paid on the spot for two more houses. Nine houses came up that year. Today, over 35 traditional houses have been constructed.

It is evident from her account that it was efforts of a pro-active administrator, who realised eco-friendly nature of these houses and arranged state funding as incentive for building traditional houses. Scholars visiting the area affirm presence of several such houses now.

Community lives in different helmets locally called Munds. In 2000, Walker (2004) reported 56 helmets having one to nineteen households residing in each. Conventionally, Toda economy comprised of exchange of cane and bamboo articles with their neighbours living in the Nilgiri Hills. Products that were exchanged comprised of grain that they exchanged with the Badaga community. Clothes, tools, and pottery came from Kota people and forest products were procured from Kurumba forest dwellers. Over the years, community known for its pastoral activities is gradually shifting to agriculture because of non-viability of pastoralism as an economic activity.

Toda dairy temples are also built in the same design and are regarded as divine. Community worships Buffalo and entry into the Toda temples is restricted to only men having a defined ritual status. Several ballads are devoted to Buffalo cult. She-buffalo is regarded sacred and dairy temples and priests offering prayers are placed in a ritual hierarchy that is strictly adhered to. Community also worships ‘Gods of mountain’ associated with one or the other Nilgiri Peak. These Gods have anthropomorphic forms, and the local belief is that they once lived on the earth. Celestial bodies like the sun and the moon are given gender identities, sun is regarded as male and the moon as the female. But there is no concept of celestial worship and thus no rituals attached to their identity.

Funerary rites are complex starting from the home of the dead just after death. Funeral procession starts at daybreak and funeral performed near a stream located almost 14 miles away from the homestead. For the first few miles funeral procession in the past was escorted by neighbouring Kota tribe blowing horns as a mark of reverence to the dead. Every Toda clan has separate funeral places for men and women.

Though known for practising fraternal polyandry, the community is patriarchal. Women are not treated at par and there is historical evidence that the practise of female infanticide existed prior to legal embargo in the 19th century. Concept of ‘Social paternity’ was the norm in the past and to an extent remains in practise even today. Monogamy is now a preferred practise, but marriage rituals follow the traditional norms. These are solemnised under a sacred grove and the bridegroom gifts a bow and arrow to the bride as a symbolic marker of their association.

Intricately Embroidered shawls that appear like a woven fabric and worn by both men and women are exclusive handicraft of Toda women. Deftness with which these are embroidered is truly exceptional. A piece of white fabric is embellished with black and red threads with such finesse that the fabric is not visible in some finished products. These shawls can be worn from both sides. To make the product market friendly, some NGOs have tried introducing new motifs and designs. It is indeed cultural appropriation of the traditional style. Researchers working on this style of embroidery have recorded resentment of the local craftswomen about it. In June 2013, this unique tradition of embroidery received a GI (Geographical Indications of Goods Act, 1999, Govt. of India) tag.

This small community had lived for centuries in isolation and in sync with its natural surroundings. They are now part of Nilgiri biosphere Reserve recognised by UNESCO as World heritage site in the Western Ghats. It has a unique ecology and is known for its rich biological diversity. It was in this ecological sphere that the Toda lived and followed pastoral practises with unique herd of Buffaloes. Over the years because of environmental degradation, and land acquisition by outsiders for tea plantation this small community is being forced to change their economic preferences.

Irrefutably, a lot has changed over the years for this unique ethnic community. For the last sixty years Kotas have stopped playing music at the time of Toda deaths. They now regard themselves at par with their neighbours. Polyandry is also not a recognised cultural practise anymore. Christianity has also made inroads and some studies report that in the year 1960 one hundred and eighty-seven people converted to Christianity (Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed on 8.05.2022). They go to the local Church and not to their divine temples. Animal Sacrifice integral to death rituals is largely abandoned. Mountains have lost their sacred entity because of encroachment by outsiders. Amy Tikkanen in revised posting in the year 2021 in Encyclopaedia Britannica also observes that more than 20.000 years old Shola-grassland unique to the Western Ghats is threatened and no longer conducive for pasture activities. “Toda Buffaloes are restricted to a small patch of grassland behind Toda settlements and often wander around Ooty town”. This article also endorses observations made by several other scholars that most members of the community are now growing vegetables on their land. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed on 8.05.2022)

There are several publications on Toda life, culture, religion, ecology, language, and poetry but as aptly summed by M.A. Siddique (Director of Museums, Chennai) in a foreword to Jaka Parthasarathy’s (Director, Tribal Research centre, Palada) book on Anthropological reflections on Community Survival (2005), “the People of the Toda community still feel and express that both their culture and language have not yet been understood correctly and completely”.

One hundred and sixteen years ago (2006), erudite scholarship of W. H. R. Rivers brought Toda life and culture into the public domain. The strength of the first systematic account continues to evoke same interest in Toda life and culture even now.

It is to celebrate life and works of this eminent ethnologist, scientist, researcher, humanist, and psychoanalyst that on his 101st death anniversary, Prof. P.C. Joshi (President, Society for Indian Medical Anthropology)paid his tributes reminiscing:

“We remember William Halse Rivers Rivers or WHR Rivers on his 101st death anniversary, who played a pioneering role in development of social anthropology in general and Indian Anthropology in particular. Rivers was teacher to the founding fathers of Indian Sociology - G. S. Ghurye and Indian Anthropology - K. P. Chattopadhyay. He can also be called founding father of Medical Anthropology. His distinguished contribution to theory building in Medical Anthropology has paved the way for future research in the area. His famous idea that Indigenous medicinal practices are indeed rational, when viewed in terms of religious beliefs. A medical doctor and anthropologist, Rivers was a pioneer in the fields of neurology, psychology, and anthropology. During World War-I, he worked as a psychiatrist at Mcghull and Craiglochhart Military Hospital. Rivers contributed significantly to the treatment of 'shell shock' syndrome or War Neurosis, the symptoms of which included paralyzed limbs, mutism and localised loss of sensation or numbness and 'male hysteria. This syndrome is now called PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To a more violent and aggressive treatment for this condition, Rivers advocated and clinically proved a soothing and humane approach involving 'talk therapy' and 'autognosis'.

River’s study of the Todas of Nilgiri Hills in South India is an all-time classic ethnography of India. Some of his other famous works are - Medicine, Magic and Religion; Instinct and the Unconscious; Kinship and Social Organization; Social Organisation; Psychology band Politics; Conflicts and Dreams; Psychology and Ethnology; History and Ethnology. W.H.R. Rivers extensively used and established Genealogy as an important method in anthropology. He was undoubtedly one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century making unparalleled contribution to the subject. I pay my tribute to him”.

Responding to Prof. Joshi’s post Dr.S.B.Roy, (Chairman IBRAD)wrote:

“Thanks a lot Prof Joshi for reminding us about the important contribution of W.H.R Rivers, fatherly figure among the Indian Anthropologists who also made significant contribution in the field of Medical Anthropology. I have not studied much about his contributions to Medical Anthropology, but I do vividly recollect his contributions to Anthropology in general and particularly to anthropological theory. His contributions to theory of Social Organization, structure and approaches to Ethnography are still taught in Business Management institutions. I have used his references during my tenure of teaching MBA student. Thanks for sharing.

In her remarks to mark the occasion, Dr. Nita Mawar (formerly with ICMR) said:

“My humble tribute to a great Anthropologist for his immense contributions in different fields of Anthropology. Good to remember W.H.R Rivers, hundred years after his death. His memories take us back to our classes on Toda. The connection of medical anthropology and psychology and social psychology is well known. I think it's time we Anthropologists can take up specific studies in their departments or various departments of anthropology, plan specific research programs in collaboration with other departments to work on common themes e.g., stigma related to a disease, or reproductive health concerns in a community, issues of gender and sexuality and many similar concerns. They should be taken as capacity building programs and researchers can seek funding from ICSSR, ICMR, DST, or International funding agencies. We need to develop these on long term basis of 5 years or so. I had planned one such study with Prof. Mutatkar (former Chairperson, Department of Anthropology, Pune University), when their SHS was coming up... It was a capacity building program between Nari and SHS. We can talk about it.... I think the forum could take up such projects after the WAC-23”.

In response to Dr. Mawar’s comments Prof.Joshi wrote:

“I agree with you. While individual research may continue, there should also be attempt at knowledge production and sharing across departments. Stigma research is one of the most important area which various departments can jointly touch upon. I remember, long back there was a summer school in Himachal Pradesh, where such an exercise was attempted. Our Forum can also be a platform to identify common area within specific research domains”.

“Remembering Rivers on his 101st death anniversary for his individual contribution to anthropological journey as well as his debates with other anthropologists like Kroeber, Radcliffe-Brown over theoretical and methodological issues and principles is crucial. I feel the need for healthy debates even today, more so in India, which requires 'advancement and decolonization' of anthropological knowledge. This year, in INCAA we focused upon decolonization of Anthropology during its annual round table. More debates are definitely needed”.

To this discussion Dr. Somnath Bhattacharjee added:

One of the major contributions (out of many) of W.H.R. Rivers, is the Genealogy method in relation to the study of kinship and social organization. The study on Traditional medicine by Mackim Marriott in India, reflects clearly that he was inspired by the pioneering works of Rivers, as I have found. The Genealogy method is compulsory to study, during any ethnographic field work, to clearly know about the rules of descent, lineage, and clan centric rules (both sanctioned and restricted) of marital regulations in any Tribal society. It is a great day, to remember one of the legends in Anthropology, who had given a new dimension to the ethnographic studies.

To this discussion Prof. Gregory (member Secretary UIAF) added:

“Prof Joshi, Thank you for reminiscing WHR Rivers on his 101st death anniversary. In this context, I would like to reproduce the following passage from one of my writings titled ‘Reinventing Anthropology as a Means of Engaging with Society’

“In the course of their analysis, Grimshaw and Hart recognizes the year 1922, as a critical moment in modern history, having been a witness to several important events, including the publication of the monographs of Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown, and the demise of WHR rivers, apart from the releasing of Flaharty’s film about Eskimo life, the Nanook of the North, and of the appearances of some of the world classics in English literature.

It is their contention that it is W.H.R. Rivers and not Malinowski, the real creative force in the early years of the British school’s modern anthropology. In their considered view, it was W.H.R’ Rivers who sowed the seeds of scientific ethnography and not Malinowski who seem to have created a myth of a pioneer. In their opinion, with his desire to come to terms with a world in rapid movement, and with his commitment to development of new methods, Rivers’ invention of anthropological science was considered to be radical. He seemed to have sought to know the world as it had never been known before, which made him critical, experimental, and above all, methodologically rigorous, which, according to them, might have prompted the greatest of the 20th-century anthropologists Levi Strauss to attribute ‘Galilaean’ status to him. The crux of their analysis has been that anthropology had a new beginning with fresh intellectual climate and innovative ground-working at the turn of the 20th century with the initiative of the stalwarts like W.H.R. Rivers in Europe and Franz Boas in America”.

Responding to these comments, Prof. P.C. Joshi thanked Prof. Gregory for enriching and adding on to River’s contribution to Anthropology. I can only say that the impact of W.H.R. Rivers was much more enduring and shadowed under the glitter of Malinowski's aura. This was also a time when Anthropology and psychology/psychiatry were coming closer. While we generally give credit to American school of culture and personality, the extremely important contribution of Rivers tends to be ignored. I thank you for adding to the details.

Prof. K. K. Basa (Vice-Chancellor, Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo University, Baripada, Odisha) commented:

Many thanks. I liked three aspects of your account. First, genealogy as a method in social anthropology. Second, his work on the Toda. I am sure you are aware of the joke that perhaps today there are more accounts of the Todas themselves than their whole population. Third, his celebration of indigenous knowledge system for what we now call medical anthropology. My sincere thanks to you once again for reminding us about the contributions of different people who have excelled in life.

Prof. Mutatkar (former Head of the Department and first director, interdisciplinary school of Health Sciences, Savitribai Phule University, Pune University) observed:

This discussion emanating from Rivers reminds us of the strength of Ethnography as a tool and technique of qualitative research. I was fortunate in using genealogy method to give justice to tribal families in the northern extensions of Mumbai, towards Vasai. Land Mafia grabbed tribal lands at throw away prices, managing to brand families as non-tribal. TRTI asked me to verify. Genealogies with kinship extensions in neighbouring villages confirmed their tribal status. Judiciary accepted our findings. Law does not permit sale of tribal land to non-tribal.

Prof. SR Mondal made some important observations stating:

Remembering legendary W.H.R. Rivers on the day of his 101st death anniversary; my humble tribute to this great man and a legendary figure of anthropology. Rivers was one of the chief architects of today's academic anthropology. His contributions in anthropology and allied disciplines are immense. The legacies and lessons he left to us has special significance even today. Besides all other important contributions, his method of GENEALOGY seems to be very important for its multi-dimensional use and for which he will be remembered forever by the anthropologists and other scientists. During field studies once Professor Roy-Burman reminded me about the significance of genealogy and its deeper implications in examining ethnic/social history, social organization and social or cultural transformation of any social group, including the study of group identity. River’s contributions to anthropology in India have immense value. Obviously, this is for his own works, but also for the works of one of his own students, Prof. K P Chattopadhay-a pioneering, path breaking nationalist anthropologist and a well-known defender of Civil Liberties. River’s direct student was KPC. KPC was also a Legendary Professor of Calcutta University, have immensely contributed to anthropology during its constructive period and he was the man behind the creation of three specialized subdisciplines in anthropology those helped in the expansions of the core discipline.

In her comments Prof. Shalina Mehta penned:

I have the privilege of compiling this set of fascinating conversations about W.H.R.Rivers-a name with which every student of anthropology gets acquainted in the formative years of training in the discipline. I also became inquisitive about the community he researched, very early in my anthropological journey. It was an accidental encounter in the year 1975, as my research field work in the streets of Delhi on the empirical concerns of Hindu-Muslim relations was threatened because of unfavourable political climate. To keep my commitment to the confidentiality of research data, I had to recuse myself from Delhi and find shelter with a friend in Wellington cantonment. It was on a holiday to Ooty with them that I suddenly realised how close I happen to be with the Toda people. I was fortunate to spend few days with them and did record some details but never wrote about it. I vividly recall ‘isolation huts’ in which women were asked to live during period of menstruation and after childbirth. I also observed that women did all other chores but were kept away from their local temples and men performed all sacred duties. Polyandry was practised and respected and when a husband was visiting his wife, he would leave his shoes outside the house.

It was on 15th January 2022, when I heard Dr. Tarun Chhabra in a Pre-WAC-23 distinguished lecture series talk about The Toda Landscape, my memories returned, and I realised how much has changed. This observation iterates a difficult question that anthropologists, development planners, and political pundits are grappling with equal concern. We may decide to create eco-friendly protected landscape for some of these communities, but do we have any agency or legitimate power to decide the path that they must follow? In a 2021article in Hindu, Felix Padel and Malvika Gupta asks-Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi Culture? They were questioning presence of Thakar Baba Gurukulam – a residential school for providing free education and boarding to young children from Toda and other native communities from the region. Authors of this paper believe that presence of such schools destroys local Adivasi culture. This argument is purported against all residential schools for Adivasi/Tribal schools, supposedly having ideological inclination purported by the dominant community. The argument acquires selective bias when there are no intellectual protests towards similar schools by other ideological discourses. Moot question takes us back to dated issues of assimilation and isolationism. From 1939, when Verrier Elwin proposed keeping all “Adivasi communities in isolated parks” to its subsequent withdrawal; we have walked many miles with a model of inclusive secular education for all. ‘Toda’ have changed too, aspirations of the young are compelling. What we must fight for is their right for self-determination and voluntary acceptance or rejection of whatever every one of these communities deem fit. The state and its agencies have additional responsibility to ensure that Adivasi heartlands and habitats are not violated any further. The best tribute we will pay to W.H.R. Rivers in conformance with his vision of humanism is to value and respect individual choices.

In a 2002 article in Down to Earth, Tarun Chhabra also posed the same question in an article titled “Toda traditions in Peril” asking “can this tribal community in the Nilgiris survive the concrete trappings of civilization”? Answer is decidedly no, but keeping faith in Buddha’s middle path, there must be a way forward with active participation of people from what was once a pristine land.

My second quest while paying tribute to W.H.R. Rivers memory and revering his ability for enquiry and innovativeness is to question- if method of genealogy that we all respect him for was an original idea or borrowed from a well-established tradition of keeping genealogical records from several sacred sites in India. If one visits a website Hindu Pilgrimage Records, genealogies of several Hindu families from 1194-2012 are readily available. These records are maintained by traditional family Pandits commonly addressed as Pandas, who perform pujas for various rituals like Mundan (hair removal of Children), pilgrimage, and importantly post-death rituals performed at the time of immersion of ashes in holy waters.

Hindu Pilgrimage Records, 1194-2012

Image of Pilgrimage record 1989 (cf.,_Hindu_Pilgrimage_Records_-_FamilySearch_Historical_Records)

These records have names of ancestral village and district, names of grandparents and great grandparents, births, Marriages and Death. Information about affinal families is also recorded. I can personally vouch for its authenticity when our family panda showed us past records at the time of immersion of my parent’s ashes. I have often questioned, why anthropologists working in India studying family, kinship, caste, ethnic origins have not used these records as a reliable source of data. If some anthropologists have used these records, I seek their forgiveness and request for access to those studies. I do know for sure, eminent Art Historian Padma Bhushan awardee Prof. B.N. Goswami (Professor Emeritus, Panjab University, Chandigarh) have accessed these records for tracing original painters of Pahari Paintings. In his 1969 article, Pahari Painting: The family as the basis of Style he traced the genealogy of renowned miniaturists like Pandit Seu, Nainsukh and Manaku and has since published five books using these accounts. In his lectures, he would often elaborate on his numerous visits to Haridwar talking to chroniclers of these records.

Following historic and invaluable post came from Veteran anthropologist

Professor Promode Kumar Misra


Former National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research

Email ID:

Nilgiris and the Toda are very close to my heart. Though I have not written anything significant about them I think I have some knowledge about the people and the region which goes back to 1962 when I joined An.S.I station then located at Ooty. Thereafter I went back to Ooty in 1983 as the Director of Tribal Research Centre there. My association with the Nilgiris is stronger in me than I am prepared to concede.

The colonial influence on the people and the region has been deeper as well widespread. Their officers, the British railway contractors, missionaries and host of others including anthropologists wore colonial glasses which saw no wrong in their doings. Perhaps, one could have said that all that belongs to history but the legacy they have left persists- even among anthropologists. Sorry to say that I am also a product of that history.

There should have been a radical departure from those values. Let me drop this topic here.

My write-up is attached. It has become a bit longer. Please keep it as it is if you can. It could be used as a kind of historical document. My God when I think about it has been six decades since I first got exposed to the Nilgiris, notwithstanding my reading about the region and its people. I have extensively travelled in the region.

Professor Joshi is doing a yeoman service to the members of the UIA Forum by refreshing our memory about the great scholars and those who did some pioneering work in some specific field. We applaud his sincere effort. However, in our enthusiasm to celebrate some contributions we should not overlook the historical context (political, economic, cultural etc.,) in which those were or are made. Change the context then it looks different and sometimes absurd. For example, it is said that Columbus discovered America and for the white European population he is considered a hero. Now in modern America at least for the indigenous populations his name has become anathema for obvious reasons. In our school history books we read Vasco da Gama discovered India! This is by way of caution.

This introduction was necessary to understand both the Toda and W. H. R. Rivers. The celebrated monograph of Rivers came out in 1906 but before that several other scholars had made some observations about them. They all got attracted to the Toda as they looked somewhat different, practised fraternal polyandry and reared buffaloes. They made elegant houses which required a high level of skills and craftsmanship on beautiful spots. Rivers thought that they choose those spots not because they are beautiful but for functional reasons (Misra 2007:152). For Rivers they were ‘primitive’. Rivers completely overlooked their aesthetics and sense for appreciation of beauty. The Toda compose songs for almost all occasions, make embroidery which have become internationally famous, have great regard for ecology and have a rich repository of rituals which throw much light on their understanding of cosmology.

At the time when River’s book on the Toda was published it soon became a rage and Rivers’ was hailed for his discovery of genealogical method but over years his influence in the development of social anthropology waned and in late 1960s the assessment of well-known anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown, Firth, Fortes was critical, the latter going to the extent of saying that though he was first to start the research on kinship in Britain but “his basic hypotheses were absurd” (Rooksby 1971:110). Rivers came to India to retest the genealogical method he had discovered in Torres Strait, his single-minded focus on it led him to cover the entire life cycle of the Toda. In the process he set a very high standard in Anthropological field work.

Rivers grew up in England at the time when unilinear evolution was a dominant theme and the scholars were looking for evidence to determine the stages of development and that is how a large number of populations outside Europe were considered to be ‘primitive’ and hence came under the urgent focus of the western scholars. Urgent because it was believed that ‘primitive’ communities were changing fast and so whatever was still there should be recorded. Lewis Morgan’s works were great influence on Rivers though the former had little access to data. Rivers received medical training and practised for a while, but he got drifted towards experimental psychology. As events turned out to be he joined A.C. Haddon, leader of the Cambridge Anthropological expedition to Torres Straits as a psychologist but retuned as an ethnographer having conceived the idea of his famous ‘genealogical method’. In Torres Strait he discovered ‘how extensive’ and apparently accurate was the native knowledge of their kinship. On his return, he remained engrossed in writing on genealogical method elaborating the function and purpose of genealogy. He was keen to confirm that genealogy would provide concrete evidence on marriage rules, inheritance, succession to office and the relationship of the people participating in rituals. This indeed was new to the western scholars but in India where in every region there used to be professional caste of genealogists, had to learn from Rivers the importance of genealogy. He came to India to work among some ‘primitive’ tribe in south India. Small size of the community, practice of polyandry, relative isolation etc., among the Toda finally made him to select the Toda to study them.

It is to be noted that his field work among the Toda was just for five months. He had no knowledge of any of the South Indian languages. He worked through two interpreters in succession both were Tamil speaking Christians, and it will be safe to assume that they did not know the Toda language. It is only now that the Toda are fluent in Tamil. Therefore, perhaps all the conversation took place in Badagu the language spoken by the Badaga who had emerged as a dominant community in the Nilgiris. One of the criticisms is that the Toda in Rivers’ book were being seen from the eyes of the Badaga. Rivers was absolutely a stranger to India and more so for South India. For him the interpretation was being done in multiple languages- Toda to Badagu, Badagu to English through Tamil speaking interpreters who perhaps had rudimentary knowledge of Badagu. How far these native interpreters could translate into English what they heard from the Toda and how much they were able interpret what Rivers spoke to them in his British English. We do not have adequate answers to these questions, but the fact remains that there were so many linguistic and cultural hurdles. The Toda are very sensitive to their ‘purity’ status, they have clearly marked sacred spaces, objects, and persons. Rivers did not stay in a Toda settlement so that he could supplement his data with his observations. Despite these hurdles, he produced a book which has been commended by the later scholars for the accuracy of the data. The fault lies elsewhere. That is the assumptions of European scholars about themselves and ‘others’. Considering some communities as ‘primitives’ overlooking their long history and their place in the larger society shows serious flaw in their understanding. Way back in 1935 no less than Kroeber had pointed out that Rivers has considered the Toda as if they were living in an island, an influence of his training in Torres Strait. Despite Kroeber’s observations, ethnographic studies of the communities as isolates in India have continued unabated and have been hanging like stone mill on the necks of the anthropologists. The problematic of ethnographic studies of communities in oriental societies has remained unresolved. What is described in ethnographic studies cannot be ordinarily questioned but it must be conceded that the aspects they are describing have not been carved out in complete isolation of the larger context. No one who studies even the tiniest segment of Indian society can afford to overlook the larger context of the Indian civilization. Further, there is another pitfall once you declare a community as ‘primitive’, it acts like a blind spot. It refuses to acknowledge their long history, capabilities of abstract thinking, their wisdom in relational epistemology and their understanding of cosmos as has happened in the case of the Toda. It is assumed that the ‘primitive’ are chasing food all the time and are ‘immediate return people’ disregarding their complex social structures, symbols loaded with subtle everlasting values and overlooking vibrant images of cosmos which has been so perceptively highlighted by Chhabra in his book on the Toda (2015). There are methodological as well as theoretical problems too while dealing with oral societies. It is simply impossible for an outsider to get into their minds and reach to the constructs they have. Besides, the issue of ethics, as to how much one can objectify the other society always remains. Further, like any other society the Toda have different versions for the same ritual or traditions. Search for ‘correct’ version is like freezing them in time. They live their traditions. They continuously respond, adapt, and react to the developing situations within and without. They are not immune to developing contradictions. Taking such factors into account disturbs the neat narrative that anthropologists want to arrive at. Finally, it boils down to the question whether dispassionate scientific study of the societies ever possible?

The colonial anthropologists and the legacy they have left behind, refuses to acknowledge the role of the larger framework in which the communities in India live. It has been firmly established that the Toda are an ancient community, and they are like numerous other Hindu communities found all over India: practising their own rituals as well as of popular Hinduism of the region (Walker 1986:297). It is indeed remarkable that though the Toda are a small community and are tucked away in a part of the Nilgiris, they have tenaciously held on their identity much of it has to do with their culture as well as the larger context. They continuously negotiate, interpret, reinterpret, and adapt. They have strong articulations with the larger Hindu system yet there are many aspects which are unique to them such as their life revolving around their buffaloes, their graded dairies, practice of polyandry, tradition of embroidery, their homesteads and numerous rituals of which paternity and funeral are outstanding. Unfortunately mainstreaming the oral societies is a wave which is globally sweeping. In spite of such strong challenges the Toda have retained their identity. Not only that the people like the Toda could be considered as one of the few most peaceful people in the world who are not only sensitive to all living beings but also to nature. However, it should be added with regret that during the colonial rule the Nilgiris became one of its main command centres. The region, its resources, and the people in particular the indigenous were mercilessly exploited. In this endeavour Raj and Church moved in tandem. Scholars were not far behind. Not only the economy but also the demography and ecology of the region were irreversibly changed. Forest dwellers were grievously hurt. Vast areas of forest were released for commercial farming. The sad commentary is that a host of scholars who worked in the region like W.H.R.Rivers assumed that the British rule was neutral to the life of the people they were scientifically studying! This assumption is not surprising as they were favoured guests.


Chhabra Tarun. 2015. The Toda Landscape: Explorations in Cultural Ecology. New Delhi: Oriental Blackswan Private Limited.

Misra P.K. 2007. “Rereading the ethnographies of the people of the Nilgiris: Anthropology at crossroad”. The Eastern Anthropologist Vol.60 (2).

Rooksby R.L. 1971. “W.H.R.Rivers and the Todas”. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Vol.1. No. I.

Walker, Anthony R. 1986. The Toda of South India: A New Look. Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation.



Chhabra, T. "A Journey to the Toda Afterworld."The India Magazine of Her People and Culture. 1993 (September):7-16.

Chhabra, Tarun 2002. “Toda Traditions in Peril”. Down to Earth. 14.08.2002. Vol. 11.

Emeneau, M. B. Toda Songs. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971.

Goswamy, B.N. 1968. “Pahari Paintings: The family as the Basis of Style”. Marg. XXI (4). (September).

Hockings, Paul, ed. 1989. Blue Mountains: The Ethnography and Bio-geography of a South Indian Region. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press.

Parthasarathy, Jakka. 2005. Todas of the Nilgiri Hills: Anthropological; Reflections on community Survival.

Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta. 2021. “Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi Culture?”. The Hindu, 13th February 2021.

Walker, Anthony R. 2004. The Truth about the Todas. Frontline-Hindu. Published on March 12, 2004. (accessed on 10th June 2022. https://frontline.the article 30221327

*A purpose of these conversations is to encourage dialogue on a wider platform. For further observations and comments please visit UIAF Website section on Conversations.

*Text on Toda life and culture is drawn from secondary sources. If any reader of these conversations wants to add, correct, delete any information provided there, they may put the relevant inputs in the comment’s column with authenticated data.



Professor of Social and Cultural anthropology (retd)

Panjab University, Chandigarh

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