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De-Colonizing Toda Ethnography

(W.H.R.Rivers and the Toda)

Professor Promode Kumar Misra


Former National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research

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Nilgiris the habitat of the Toda was mercilessly exploited by the British during their rule. The indigenous as well as the others were not only marginalized but also dispossessed of their rights. They created divisions among the communities. Introduced slavery. Brought a huge number of labourers from outside for laying mountain rail which lasted 25 long years though there was no need for the railway there, the British had to enrich their contractors. In this and other projects, the forest dwellers were deeply hurt. You will be surprised to learn that several firms were registered in England to do gold mining on the western slopes of the Nilgiris. It was indeed as Shashi Tharoor says organised loot. Anthropologists had nothing to say about all these things. How could it be? The studied people would never know why they were being studied or what is the result of the study. They were engaged in doing science where it was written that one set of people will be studied by a selected few.

Western ethnographers during colonial occupation had unhindered access to ethno-cultural communities in remote areas of the Indian sub-continent. These were pristine terrains, unexplored and ‘exotic’ to the outside World. First accounts of these cultural and ethnic groups were acknowledged and appreciated for its assumed originality. Ethnographers like Rivers were applauded and have over a century retained a significant hold on ethnographic enterprise. 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 were 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 the 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 many populations outside Europe were viewed as ‘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 returned 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 for a systematic study.

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 dialect. How far these native interpreters could translate into English what they heard from the Toda and how much they were able to 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 ‘primitive’ ignores that the so called simple societies have as complicated brain structure as of any the other human beings. Categorization as savage and non- savage is false. Such categorization overlooks their long history and their place in the larger society. Way back in 1935 no less than Kroeber had pointed out that Rivers had 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 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 of 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 is 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 to 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, the practice of polyandry, the 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 sweeping globally. Despite such strong challenges the Toda have retained their identity. Not only that the people like the Toda could be considered 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. 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. It was organized and merciless ‘loot’.

The sad commentary is that a host of scholars who worked in the region like W.H.R.Riversassumed that the British rule was neutral to the life of the people they were scientifically studying! This assumption is extremely surprising because the presence of the British made irreversible changes in the social fabric of the Nilgiris. How could they remain innocent of those changes? This question was relevant then and continues to be so for the anthropologist.


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

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

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

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

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1 comentario

08 jul 2022

It's a pleasure and a privilege to go through such a wonderful write-up. My deep regards to Prof Mishra....

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