A Review of Tarun Chhabra’s The Toda Landscape –Explorations in Cultural Ecology

Michael Charles Tobias | November 30, 2015 | Leave a Comment


Michael Charles Tobias with the Dancing Star Foundation reviews Tarun Chhabra’s recently released book, The Toda Landscape –Explorations in Cultural Ecology. Learn more about the book here!


In 1873, a British ethnographer named W. E. Marshall visited a tribe known as the Todas in southern Indian and upon discovering that this small ancient cluster of humanity – distinct from all of the surrounding tribes – engaged in no hunting or meat eating or violent sports, indeed, in any form of recognizable violence – he assumed they must, therefore, represent what Marshall characterized in the form of a famed question: “Was man originally created virtuous as well as very simple?” He answered his own query by suggesting, “in this absence of vigorous qualities; in the disregard of gain and thrift, as well as in their [the Todas’] ultra-domesticity, we have the attributes of a primeval race” and he wondered whether he had not come upon “the tracks of an aboriginal reign of conscience.”[1] While Marshall’s whole point of view was steeped in a “noble savage” blind-spot, he was not mistaken when it came to that “reign of conscience.”[2]

The 1400 or so Todas are among the few remaining vegetarian tribes left on this planet, and most certainly one of the very gentlest. When I first had the opportunity, thanks to Tarun Chhabra, to visit some of the Toda clans in the mid-1990s, I came away with an entirely new and rejuvenated sense of humanity; a belief that here was more than a mere window on what our species is capable of. Here was compassion in action.

Members of a Toda Hamlet © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Members of a Toda Hamlet © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

But the Toda world goes far beyond that, and the continued vitality of many of the biomes surrounding the Todas – and which their culture and lifestyle depends – is testimony to their conscious and vital conservationist sensibilities, a cornerstone of this more than 600-page groundbreaking masterpiece of ecology, exploration, ethnography and enthnobotany – sumptuously conceived, deeply felt, magnificently written and illustrated – by Tarun Chhabra, a work many decades in the making.

The Remote Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve © M. C. Tobias
The Remote Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve © M. C. Tobias

Over the past near quarter century I have had the opportunity to visit the Todas repeatedly in the company of Chhabra, and his close colleague, the naturalist Ramneek Singh, and see first-hand how researchers involved with their Edhkwehlynawd Bontanical Refuge (“EBR” –edhkwehlynawdr in Toda means “place with a magnificent view”) have been assiduously identifying and working to safeguard the vast array of grass species and vascular plants throughout the mountainous Nilgiris, eleven degrees north of the Equator, in the corner of three Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka – that form the underlying ecological backdrop for what is one of the most biologically profuse regions in all of India, as well being the first UNESCO recognized Man in the Biosphere region of the country (1988). It is an exquisite part of the Indian sub-Continent known as the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that also touches upon the greater connectivity of three national parks (one of which is a National Tiger Reserve) – Mukurti, Mudumalai, and Silent Valley. This region, all above 1,500 meters, comprises what is known as shola grasslands (“stunted evergreen montane forests”) as well as both moist and dry deciduous forests. The UNESCO region covers 5,500 square kilometers. Of the three parks, Mukurti contains over a dozen “abodes of specific [Toda] gods,” writes Chhabra.[3]

 Native Nilgiri Amphibian © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Native Nilgiri Amphibian © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

This area also happens to fall within one of the world’s 35 known terrestrial biological hotspots, called the “Western Ghats and Sri Lanka” area: a mountainous repository of an astounding level of biological endemism increasingly at risk.[4]

Tarun Chhabra, Photo © M.C.Tobias
Tarun Chhabra, Photo © M.C.Tobias

Chhabra, one of the only non-Todas in the world to fluently speak their language, has done more than any ecologist to focus on what the Toda world is from the inside, and in so doing has gifted their culture and all of India a rare opportunity to cherish and preserve a community that may well be more in touch with its immediate surroundings than any other people on this planet. Chhabra’s extensive list of species known to the Toda – known to them in ways that corroborates every mytho-poetic reverie ever purported by that deep ecological hope vested in indigenous cultures, that they are more in touch than that far more rapacious and imperialist successor species, namely, modernity – represents one of the most persuasive arguments ever advanced for human symbiosis with biodiversity.

In the Sacred Heartland of the Nilgiris  © M. C. Tobias
In the Sacred Heartland of the Nilgiris  © M. C. Tobias
Toda Sacred Landscape © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Toda Sacred Landscape © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chhabra’s vast tome provides the first truly accessible guide to the transliteration of Toda; a deeply personal and extensive Prologue which explains how a local dentist (Chhabra) came to become so utterly enchanted by, and committed to the Toda world; a comprehensive bio-geography of the Toda landscapes, clans, lifestyle, dress and embroidery; migrations to various seasonal hamlets throughout the mountainous Nilgiris, the Toda’s unique relationship to honey, to scores of endemic plants, their unique architecture, numerous sacred peaks and waters, even their very journeys to the Toda Afterworld which involves an arduous itinerary through a spectacular and all but inviolate afterlife that is located in precise physical regions within the Nilgiris. This is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, through a region of India that is as close to paradise as one can imagine, except for the fact that this is the 21st century and there is no end to the threats encircling the Toda world. Indeed, writes Chhabra:

“It would be no exaggeration to state that Mukurti National Park and its environs have remained in a pristine state partly due to the management practices followed by Todas over the centuries. Even in many adjacent areas – especially in and around the Toda homeland – some rare floral species can still be found. Consequently, there is an urgent need to increase significantly the size of Mukurti national Park from its present 80 sq. km. Moreover, because the park, on its west gives way to escarpments and slopes that have some of the best-preserved rainforests in south India, the Kerala state government needs to declare as a protected area the contiguous forests of New Amarambalam, Attapadi and Nilambur.”[5]

Nilgiris Moon Moth © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Nilgiris Moon Moth © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

Additionally, Chhabra acknowledges that “The alteration of the Nilgiris climax ecosystem over the past one-and-a-half centuries has radically altered the original landscape.”[6] He adds, “So far as I know, however, none of the endemic or endangered species has disappeared.” And he succinctly elaborates upon the objectives of the Botanical Refuge he and Ramneek Singh founded, EBR, “to restore the original ecology in a degraded zone surrounded by areas of high biodiversity” and “to incorporate the plant species crucial to the Todas”; “to reintroduce and propagate the endangered flora of the Nilgiris; and (d) to prevent further degradation and encroachment onto the adjacent hinterland.”[7]

While the bustling city of Ooty, or Ootacamund as it is traditionally named, which adjoins Toda habitat had a 2011 state Census of fewer than 89,000 people, there is everywhere a combination of pollution of streams and habitat fragmentation. Dating back to the first wave of occupation in the mid-19th century by largely British tourists who thought of this far western corner of Tamil Nadu as the “Queen of the Hill Stations” the resulting onrush of tea and coffee plantations extirpated native species that were replaced by commercial cash crops. The traffic on the steep and winding roads is intense, air pollution equally so in the deep valleys, and commercial industries, including film processing adding to point and non-point pollution into local streams. As a princely tourist destination high above the stifling heat of the large city of Coimbatore 80 kilometers down in the south, the Toda’s majestic world is anything but secluded.

One of 12 species of Impatiens flowers endemic to the Nilgiris © M. C. Tobias
One of 12 species of Impatiens flowers endemic to the Nilgiris © M. C. Tobias

Not only are the Todas themselves at risk, but so are the plant species upon which their world depends, and this is perhaps the most extensively discussed and colorfully illustrated aspect of Chhabra’s work. His identification of many hundreds of native and endemic plant species and how the Toda relate to them is the product of decades of study. The analyses pertain not just to floral distribution and barriers to distribution, with many remarkable new discoveries, particularly amongst the genus Impatiens or true balsams of the Balsaminaceae family; or Chhabra’s discovery of the Nilgiri white rhododendron – thought to exist only in the Himalayas; or the abundant diversity of rock orchids or of the “six o’clock flower” that opens precisely on time, serving like a Rolex watch for anyone who knows about this species; even a species that glows in the dark, bioluminescent; or all those species which heal wounds, or more than satisfy hunger; but how many of the species have deeply psychological and medical bonds with, and for the Todas. The seasons in which these plants exert mind-altering deliberations amongst the Toda (the Worry flower, for example, an herb known as the Nilgiri Gentian which, writes Chhabra, is a flower that “indicates the level of anxiety of the person who holds its stem in her/his fingers.”)[8] The botanical revelations are myriad and uniquely presented; secrets about human nature that will be both eye-opening; that there are indeed human societies of such deeply abiding wisdom, both pragmatic and spiritual, that gives great cause for optimism that our species has exactly what it takes to ensure the sustainability of the Earth. Every student of nature needs to read this book whose section “Toda Ecological Knowledge”[9]  could just have easily been the very sub-title of the entire work.

Toda Priest, Youngsters and Sacred Buffaloes © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Toda Priest, Youngsters and Sacred Buffaloes © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

Key to that knowledge, and to Toda tradition dating back many thousands of years are the sacred water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, a vanishing breed and one of eighteen River buffalo breeds in South Asia. Toda buffalo separated genetically from all others between 1,800 and 2,700 years ago.[10] Without the Toda’s reverence for these spectacularly sentient beings and the shola mixed forest-grassland ecosystems upon which they depend, this animal and Toda culture itself would go extinct.

While French philosopher August Comte is credited with having coined the word, altruisme (altruism) = autrui, or “other people”, originally Latin, the “other,” and urged all societies to embrace this ideal which was the heart of his revolutionary thinking both in terms of sociology as well as the history of science and the human future, the Todas had – thousands of years prior to Comte – placed altruism at the spiritual locus of their entire civilization. They continue to do so, as Chhabra so brilliantly evinces in both his mastery of detail and observation, and the personal passions that come through his prose. He exemplifies that ideal scholar whose work is not theoretical, but acutely experiential. Chhabra’s observations are fine-tuned by his being there day after day, year after year. This reality I was once fortunate to experience first-hand with him during a trek down into Silent Valley, almost a decade ago.[11]

 Expedition into Silent Valley © Photo by M. C. Tobias
Expedition into Silent Valley © Photo by M. C. Tobias

The evolutionary impetus for altruism, like empathy, has long exercised agitation and uncertainty amongst those fired up by the endless debates accompanying natural selection and sociobiology. That commitment to altruism was explored in a fine book, also published in 2015, by David Sloan Wilson, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.[12] Wilson explores “common pool resources,” or CPR, a notion that got Elinor Ostrom the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics; for her development of eight core design principles that together, if implemented appropriately, could avoid privatization.[13] This was the option posited as the only antidote to what Garrett Hardin had described in his oft-cited “Tragedy of the Commons,” an essay in the Journal Science, in 1968.[14] Ostrom had first explored CPR in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.[15]

The Todas show no propensity for all of the ills of modern society with respect to agitation over private property. They apparently have little patience with arguments and settle conflict resolution in a most remarkable and sensible manner. I was once present at a Toda “noyim” in which, over the course of many hours seated on a hill a large number of Todas simply discussed what was the best way of dealing with a particular situation that was apparently bothering some member or members of a Toda clan. There was no display of anger, no shouting, no exercise of tempers in any manner. All was rational, one might even venture, Socratic, in its gentle way of working through whatever the problem was.

Exhibiting in nearly every respect a benign ecological footprint, their culture fully embraces a collective approach to sustaining the crucial and inextricable realities of a world of limited resources. As Chhabra’s book make’s abundantly clear, the Toda are instilled with a deep sensitivity to the vulnerability to pain and suffering amongst all those other individuals – plants, insects, Asian elephants, their revered buffalo – who are, to re-iterate, those multitudinous Others as conceived linguistically in its Latin origins as the essence of that which should compel altruism towards those with whom we coincide.

Toda Gentleman © Dr. Tarun Chhabra
Toda Gentleman © Dr. Tarun Chhabra

There is a moment in Chhabra’s book that profoundly illustrates just how finely attuned to the myriad of unerring truths of nature that bless the Toda’s little patch of turf on this amazing planet. It involves a tiger. The tiger population in Toda country is still somewhat robust, possibly the most so in all of India, where this remarkable mammal, at the zenith of beauty, mystery and importance, is all but headed, otherwise, towards extinction. I quote from Chhabra’s Epilogue at length to draw home this important message:

“The Todas’ pastoral way of life, combined with their non-martial, non-hunting, pacifist and vegetarian lifestyle has surely played a significant role in ensuring the survival and prospering of the flora and fauna that surround their settlements. Even today, Todas meet with introspection, rather than anger and a desire for revenge, the loss of a buffalo to a predatory tiger residing in the vicinity of their hamlets. Extraordinarily, they are able to accept their loss as being a kind of benediction.”[16]


The article above is a review by Michael Charles Tobias with the Dancing Star Foundation of Tarun Chhabra’s recently released book, The Toda Landscape –Explorations in Cultural Ecology. Learn more about the book here!


[1] Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart and Mind, Chapter 43, p.339, “An Ecological Paradise in Southern India,” by Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, Springer, New York, 2014.

[2] See Michael Tobias, “The Anthropology of Conscience,” The Journal of Society and Animals, Volume 4, Number 1, pp.69-71, The White Horse Press, Cambridge UK, 1996.

[3] Chhabra, p.385

[4] Ajith Kumar, Rohan Pethiyagoda and Divya Mudappa, in Russell Mittermeier, et.al., Hotspots Revisited, Conservation International, Cemex, 2004.

[5] Chhabra, p.385

[6] ibid., p.405

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., p.401.

[9] ibid., p.386.

[10] S. Kumar, et. al., “Genetic variation and relationshiops among eight Indian riverine buffalo breeds, “Molecular Ecology, Vol. 15, March 2006, p.593.

[11] See Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence, by Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, A Dancing Star Foundation Book, Los Angeles, CA, 2008.

[12] Yale University Press and Templeton Press, New Haven and London, 2015.

[13] ibid., pp.11-12.

[14] Science , 13 December 1968: Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248; DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

[15] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[16] Chhabra, pp.443-444.

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