Monday, November 21, 2022

The Toda and Kov People Of India

In anthropology, outlier groups of people are often critical to understanding the big picture.

The Toda people, (previous coverage here) an ethnicity with a current census population counts at about two thousand in number, in the Tamil Nadu state of India in a hill region, which is on the far southern tip of the subcontinent, whom the following excerpts from Wikipedia summarize as follows, are one such people:
Toda people are a Dravidian ethnic group who live in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu. Before the 18th century and British colonisation, the Toda coexisted locally with other ethnic communities, including the Kota, Badaga and Kurumba, in a loose caste-like society, in which the Toda were the top ranking. During the 20th century, the Toda population has hovered in the range 700 to 900. Although an insignificant fraction of the large population of India, since the early 19th century the Toda have attracted "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 proved significant in developing the fields of social anthropology and ethnomusicology.

The Toda traditionally live in settlements called mund, consisting of three to seven small thatched houses, constructed in the shape of half-barrels and located across the slopes of the pasture, on which they keep domestic buffalo. Their economy was pastoral, based on the buffalo, whose dairy products they traded with neighbouring peoples of the Nilgiri Hills. Toda religion features the sacred 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 practice has now been totally abandoned, as has female infanticide. 
During the last quarter of the 20th century, some Toda pasture land was lost due to outsiders using it for agriculture or afforestation by the State Government of Tamil Nadu. This has threatened to undermine Toda culture by greatly diminishing the buffalo herds. Since the early 21st century, Toda society and culture have been 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; their territory is declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. . . .

Physical anthropologist Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, in 1934, described the Todas as being of the North Indid division of the Indid type, therefore connecting them to ancient Proto-Dravidian population. DNA studies in the early 21st century showed that the Toda and Kota share genes which distinguish them from the other Nilgiri Hill Tribes. . . .

Their sole occupation is cattle-herding and dairy-work. Holy dairies are built to store the buffalo milk.

They once practiced fraternal polyandry, a practice in which a woman marries all the brothers of a family, but no longer do so. All the children of such marriages were deemed to descend from the eldest brother. The ratio of females to males is about three to five. The culture historically practiced female infanticide. In the Toda tribe, families arrange contracted child marriage for couples. . . .
The forced interaction with other peoples with technology has caused a lot of changes in the lifestyle of the Todas. They used to be primarily a pastoral people but now, they are increasingly venturing into agriculture and other occupations. They used to be strict vegetarians but now, some people eat meat. . . .

Registrar of Geographical Indication gave GI status for this unique embroidery, a practice which has been passed on to generations. 
Genetically, the Toda people are the closest modern match to the pre-steppe invasion Harappan people in the Indus River Valley, as we can confirm by matching their ancient DNA to modern Toda genomes. Razib Khan notes at the link that the Toda people: "resembles the IVC population in having less AASI but not too much (if any) steppe."

Their lack of steppe ancestry could just be coincidental. But, their low level of AASI (ancient ancestral South Indian) ancestry in the pinnacle of South India, together with "their unlikeness to their neighbours in appearance, manners, and customs" suggests strongly that they a long distance migrants who might very well be basically unadmixed descendants of the Harappans.

Hinduism is generous and inclusive of considerable internal diversity, but nonetheless the traditional religion of the Toda people appears to be atypical of conventional Hindu practice (with about 88% of ethnic Toda people following the Toda religion, about 11% have converted to Christianity (about 220 people), about 1% are Muslim (about 20 people), and one Toda individual identifies as Buddhist)"
According to the Toda Religion, the goddess Teikirshy and her brother first created the sacred buffalo and then the first Toda man and woman. Many rites feature the buffalo, its milk and other products form the basis of their diet.

The Toda religion exalted high-class men as holy milkmen, giving them sacred status as priests of the holy dairy. According to Sir James Frazer in 1922 (see quote below from Golden Bough), the holy milkman was prohibited from walking across bridges while in office. He had to ford rivers by foot, or by swimming. The people are prohibited from wearing shoes or any type of foot covering.

Toda temples are distinct from Hindu temples and are constructed in a circular pit lined with stones. They are similar in appearance and construction to Toda huts. Women are not allowed to enter or go close to these huts that are designated as temples.

Linguistically, their Dravidian dialect is atypical, which could indicate a substrate Harappan language influence:

The Toda language is a member of the Dravidian family. The language is typologically aberrant and phonologically difficult. Linguists have classified Toda (along with its neighbour Kota) as a member of the southern subgroup of the historical family proto-South-Dravidian. It split off from South Dravidian, after Kannada, but before Malayalam. In modern linguistic terms, the aberration of Toda results from a disproportionately high number of syntactic and morphological rules, of both early and recent derivation, which are not found in the other South Dravidian languages (save Kota, to a small extent.)

Their language is noted for its many frictives and trills.

Other relic populations of the IVC may have blended into the regions of India to which they migrated before jati endogamy took hold, while this singular outlier population may have managed to endure with only minimal accommodation to the local language and the synthesized Hindu religious practices necessary to persist. Places that are highlands and economically marginal for other purposes, like the Nilgiris mountain range in Tamil Nadu, India, are common places to find relict peoples.

It is notable that while they were historically pastoralists, that they herded buffalo (true buffalo, unlike the American bison inaccurately called buffalo), rather than the horses, cows, sheep and goats that steppe herders may have herded. Again, this shows a lack of connection to the Indo-Aryans who were known for their horses and cows.

Fraternal polyandry and infanticide are classic cultural reactions to persistent poverty in a society where inheriting assets is critical. This could flow from their self-imposed isolation from modernity and the larger culture. 

Their kindred Kota people are also quite distinct, although they have embraced the outside world more fully than the Toda people:

Kotas, also Kothar or Kov by self-designation, are an ethnic group who are indigenous to the Nilgiris mountain range in Tamil Nadu, India. They are one of the many tribal people indigenous to the region. (Others are the Todas, Irulas and Kurumbas). Todas and Kotas have been subject to intense anthropological, linguistic and genetic analysis since the early 19th century. Study of Todas and Kotas has also been influential in the development of the field of anthropology. Numerically Kotas have always been a small group not exceeding 1,500 individuals spread over seven villages for the last 160 years. They have maintained a lifestyle as a jack of all trades such as potters, agriculturalist, leather workers, carpenters, and black smiths and as musicians for other groups. 
Since the British colonial period they have availed themselves of educational facilities and have improved their socio-economic status and no longer depend on the traditional services provided to make a living. Some anthropologists have considered them to be a specialized caste as opposed to a tribe or an ethnic group.

Kotas have their own unique language that belongs to the Dravidian language family but diverged from South Dravidian sub family at some time in BCE. Their language was studied in detail by Murray Barnson Emeneau, a pioneer in the field of Dravidian linguistics. Their social institutions were distinct from mainstream Indian cultural norms and had some similarities to Todas and other tribal people in neighbouring Kerala and the prominent Nair caste. It was informed by a fraternal polygyny where possible. Kota religion was unlike Hinduism and believed in non-anthropomorphic male deities and a female deity. 
Since the 1940s, many mainstream Hindu deities also have been adopted into the Kota pantheon and temples of Tamil style have been built to accommodate their worship. They’ve had specialized groups of priests to propitiate their deities on behalf of the group.
. . .

The Indian government considers them to be a scheduled tribe (ST), a designation reserved for indigenous tribal communities throughout India that are usually at a lower socio-economic status than mainstream society. They also have a special status as a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) based on certain socio economic and demographic indicators. But the Kotas are a relatively successful group that makes its living as agriculturalists, doctors, post masters and availing themselves of any government and private sector employment.
. . .

Although many theories have been put forth as to the origins of Kotas and Todas, none have been confirmed as factual. What linguists and anthropologists agree is that ancestors of both Kotas and Todas may have entered the Nilgiris massif from what is today Kerala or Karnataka in centuries BCE and developed in isolation from the rest of the society. According to F. Metz, a missionary, Kotas had a tradition that alluded to them coming over from a place called Kollimale in Karnatakas. They seem to have displaced the previous Kurumba inhabitants from the higher altitudes to lower altitude infested with malarial mosquitoes.

The Kota tribe shows the maternal haplogroup M frequency of 97%, which is one of the highest in India. Within M haplogroup, M2 lineages are common amongst Dravidian speaking populations of South India. They also demonstrate very low admixture rate from other neighbouring groups. The studies on the hematological parameters of Kota showed that they have a low MCV (mean corpuscular volume) even though there in no trace of anemia. However it is also suggested that there is a probability for G6PD deficiency among this group.

At some point in their history they developed a symbiotic economic relationship with their buffalo rearing Toda neighbours as service providers in return for Todas' buffalo milk, hides, ghee, and meat. They also had a trading and ritual relationship with Kurumba and Irula neighbours who were cultivators and hunter-gatherers. They specifically used the Kurumbas as their sorcerers and as village guards. Origin myth of Kotas postulates that Kotas, Todas, and Kurumbas were all placed in the Nilagiris area at once as brothers by the Kota god. This symbiotic relationship survived until disturbed by the British colonial officers starting in the early 19th century.

Since the early 19th century, missionaries, British bureaucrats, anthropologists and linguists of both Western and Indian kind have spent an enormous amount of time studying the different ethnic and tribal groups; of all, the Todas were the most studied, followed by Kotas. Other groups such as Irulas and various groups of Kurumbars were least studied. The study of the ethnic groups of Nilgiris was instrumental in the early development of the field of Anthropology. Although most groups lived in peace with each other and had developed a symbiotic relationship, taboos and cultural practices were developed to maintain social distance. According to F. Metz, as the original settlers of the highland, Kurumbars were subject to continuous violence including occasional massacres by the Todas and Badagas. According to Kota informants, they had supplied battle drums during periods of war.

Kotas were observed to be domiciled in seven relatively large nuclear villages intercepted between Toda and Badaga settlements. Six villages were within the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu and the seventh one in the Wayanad district in Kerala. Kota villages are known as Kokkal in their language and as Kotagiri by outsiders. Each village had three exogamous clans of similar name. Each clan settled in a street called Kerr or Kerri. Clan members were prohibited from marrying within each within the same village but could from the same clan or any other clan from non-native village. The relationship between similarly named clans was unknown and no social hierarchy was evident amongst the inter and intra village clans.

Women had a greater say in choosing their marriage partners than in any mainstream Indian villages and also helped out in many economic activities. They had the right to divorce. They were also exclusively engaged in making pottery. According to early western observers, unlike Toda women, who were friendly towards visitors to their villages, Kota women maintained their distance from outsiders. Wives of Kota priests played equally important ritual role in religious functions. Women who became possessed to flute music are called Pembacol and were consulted during important village decisions. Women also had specialized roles associated with cultivation, domestic chores and social functions.

Unlike Todas, Kotas ate meat and were in good physical condition when met by early anthropologists. Their traditional food is a type of Italian millet known as vatamk. Vatamk is served in almost all ceremonial occasions but rice is the preferred daily food. It is served with udk, a sambar like item made of locally available pulses, vegetables and tamarind juice. Beef is seldom eaten but eggs, chicken and mutton are consumed, when available, along with locally grown vegetables and beans.

Prior to colonial era penetration of the Kota area there was very little if not no formal relationships between neighbouring political entities and Kota villages. It is assumed that political entities from Karnataka made forays into the highland but their control was not permanent. Kotas are the head of the nilgiri. There was no formal differentiation that existed within and outside the village level. Each village had an expectation to meet. The village of Thichgad is famous for its women's song and dance, the funerals are well known in Menad, and the Kamatraya festival and instrumental music are famous in Kolmel. Kota village is led by a village headman called Goethgarn. The Goethgarn from Menad was the head of all the seven villages. Whenever a dispute arose, the Goethgarn will call a meeting known as a kuttim with the village elders and decide the solutions. Within a village, the Goethga-rn and elders decide when festivals are to be held and how to solve problems in the community. Although regular justice is handled through the Indian judicial system, local decisions of Kota cultural requirements are handled by the village kut. 
Kota religion and culture revolved around the smithy. Their major deities are A-yno-r also divided into big or Doda-ynor or small or kuna-yno-r, a father god and Amno-r or mother goddess. Father god is also called Kamati-cvara or Kamatra-ya in some villages. Although there were two male gods, there was only one version of the female goddess. These gods were worshiped in the form of Silver disks at specific temples. Historian Joyti Sahi and L. Dumont notes these deities may have roots in proto-Shaivism and proto-Shaktism.

Kotas had a number of religious festivals during the colonial precontact and immediately after the colonial contact period. It ranged from praying to their rain god Kannatra-ya or titular deity Kamatra-ya. During the seed sowing ceremony, they used to build a forge and a furnace within the main temple and smiths would make avocatory item like axes or gold ornaments to the deity. The head priest mundika-no-n and headmen gotga-rn usually belong to the particular family (kuyt) and it was passed from father to son. Mundika-no-n is assisted by the te-rka-ran, through whom the god (so-ym) communicates with the people while being possessed. Te-rka-ran could come from any family but mundika-no-n comes from a specific family in a village.

Kota funeral rites consist of two ceremonies. The first one is called Green funeral and concerns cremation of the body. The second ceremony is called a dry funeral and involves exhumation of buried bones from the first ceremony, followed by sacrifice of semi wild buffaloes. The second funeral is no longer practiced widely. Kota temples are unique in being run by a variety of people not restricted to original priestly families.

Kotas speak the Kota language or Ko-v Ma-nt and it is closely related to Toda language. It was identified as an independent Dravidian language in as early as 1870s by Robert Caldwell. It diverged from the common South Dravidian stock in years BCE. Kota language speakers became isolated and the language developed certain unique characteristics that were studied in detail and by the prominent Dravidian linguists Murray Emeneau. It is informed by maintenance of words that shows strong affinity to Archaic Tamil. According to Emeneau, Kotas have been living isolated since their separation from the mainstream Tamil speakers in years BCE. Emeneau dates the split to the 2nd century BCE as terminus ante quem ("limit before which") and was unable to date the period earlier than this in which the split may have happened, but it happened after Kannada split from the common Tamil–Kannada stock.

All Nilgiri languages show areal influence and show affinity to each other. Since the reorganization of linguistic states in India, most Kota children study in Tamil at schools and are bilingual in Kota and Tamil. Previously Kotas were multilingual in Kota, Toda and Badaga languages.


matovitch said...

I think the "three to five" female to male ratio means three females for five males isn't it?

andrew said...

This does make a more sense in terms of the numbers, I see that reading. Five males to three females would be a 167% male to female ratio which would be far more than any Indian state (129% in the far NW is about the peak), but given the small and highly distinct population that historically practiced female infanticide, it isn't outside of the realm of possibility.

andrew said...

Removed language misinterpreting language in article.

ramones1986 said...

I wonder how Toda fricatives were formed.

andrew said...

"I wonder how Toda fricatives were formed."

Good question. I don't know either.

ramones1986 said...

I'll try on the Ask Linguistics subreddit.