Indigenous Folklores and Their Significance in Conservation
by Monisha Raman
Nilgiris, Tamil Nandu, India
“Aren’t you coming to listen to the kadhey? Nobody in their right mind misses it.” Grandma often chided me whenever I skipped a musical rendition at the village temple. Grandma’s contemporaries and the generations before them referred to hymns and songs as “stories.” Long before their time, certain ancient and enduring tales were rendered in a musical form. The kadhey she referred to is not a mere tale but a tradition loaded with wisdom, with a history as old as the mountains.
The Nilgiri mountain range in South India is home to several indigenous communities. Folktales, lores, legends, songs and dance are culturally intrinsic to the communities. They are not just sources of entertainment but an oral form of knowledge transfer. The Badugas, Todas and Kotas have several such mystical lores. The people’s belief in their sanctity has safeguarded the many peaks, forests, and valleys in the mountain district. Growing up in a Baduga family, I have been exposed to narratives of gods and men who animate certain valleys and hills and guard them.
Here are some of the folklores of the Baduga, Kota, and Toda communities, which hold covert messages on conservation.
The Badugas are the largest indigenous inhabitants of the Nilgiris. They live in hamlets called hattis and people of a single lineage occupy them. A collection of hattis is called uur and the people inhabiting them belong to a major lineage. People do not intermarry within this major lineage. Every uur has a forest in the vicinity which is considered sacred. They are called Bana Gudi (place of worship) Solai (forest). As the name suggests, deep reverence is accorded to this grove. Once a year, a few men visit these sacred woods to offer prayers during the harvest festival. For the rest of the year, it is left undisturbed.
In the uur I belong to, there is an interesting lore that connects to this forest. This is how the story goes—there once lived two brothers, Kareru Aiya and Kariyabetta. The older brother Kareru Aiya was married, whereas the younger wasn't. The brothers worked in the fields all day and took turns going home for their midday meal. Kareru Aiya's wife served her husband rice, and her brother-in-law finger millet balls every day. Finger millet was a common crop and it was grown in abundance whereas rice, a delicacy then, was an exotic crop and its consumption was rare among cultivators. One day when Kareru Aiya returned to the fields after his meal, a grain of cooked rice was stuck to his chin. On noticing this, the deeply offended younger brother said, “Brother, I have seen it as a seed and also as a sapling, but my eyes have never seen a perfectly cooked grain until today.”
Kareru Aiya understood his brother’s distress. Deeply embarrassed and wounded by his wife’s actions, he jumped to death from a steep waterfall close to the forest. The aggrieved younger brother, Kariyabetta, followed his sibling and jumped from the same steep. The horrified wife, who repented of her actions shortly after, followed them both. In reverence to the two brothers’ ethics and their departed souls, the place where they jumped and its vicinity, including the Bana Gudi Sholai, has been left bereft of economic activities. Today the area is designated as a reserved forest region. While the town developed and the places close to Bana Gudi Sholai are popular among tourists, the grove is still pristine due to the sanctity accorded to it.
Within the forest are certain stones, stacked structurally in definite shapes and intriguing in their appearance. The locals refer to these structures as Mauri maney (house of the Maurayas). Shivaji Raman of Aravenu, a scholar researching local legends, says these formations were built by the soldiers of the Mauryan army. They chose to camp in the forest for safety while crossing the mountains to get to the southwestern districts of current-day Tamil Nadu. It should be noted that the Mauryan Empire dates to the Iron Age.
The Shortu Bettu mountain, very close to my maternal hamlet, is a hilltop associated with several mythical tales. Grandma had once told me that the Pandavas lived there on that peak, hence it is considered sacred. She also mentioned that it is the only peak in the surroundings where rhododendron (Billi hu in Baduga) blooms. Grandma has heard from her mother-in-law that when a typhoon or a heavy gust of wind hits the valley, it takes its origins there. At one time, the villagers believed that when the God of the peak was angry, he sent a typhoon. Therefore, no actions offending the God of Shortu were committed, which included straying into the forest and polluting the stream.
Once a year, men visit this steep peak to take the challenging hike across slippery rocks. They bring a freshly bloomed rhododendron flower with them for festivities in the village.
Revered Baduga scholar Reverend Phillip K. Mulley tells me there is a pre-historic structure atop the hill which could be a dolmen. He reveals there are tales of a spiritually powerful ancestress being buried here. Whatever the reason, for ages the peak has been safeguarded and a few uncommon medicinal herbs can still be found here.
Todas are the most studied community in The Nilgiris owing to their unique culture and traditions. Divided into two major clans, they occupy the elevated part of the mountains. Primarily a pastoral community, they herd buffaloes for their living. They live in tiny hamlets called mund with extensive grasslands in the vicinity. These grasslands serve as grazing lands for the buffaloes that are considered divine.
The Todas have a lore associated with every peak, stream, and river surrounding their munds. The legends detailed here were narrated to me by Vasamalli, a Toda native, scholar and activist.
Vasamalli tells me that every hill in the vicinity of her mund, the Karshmund has a name. Toda infants are named after hills and peaks, which portrays the divinity accorded to these mountains by the community.
Legend of the Fire Buffaloes
In the western part of the Nilgris, there is a small conical-shaped hill named Ottarsh by the Todas, surrounded by tall peaks. These hills can be seen from the ninth-mile viewpoint, a popular tourist spot. Once Ottarsh sweated profusely and a buffalo was born from the puddles of his sweat. The first buffalo that originated from His perspiration is referred to as Thee Eer (fire buffalo when literally translated). Ottarsh then made balls out of the dung of this buffalo and let it roll downhill. Many calves originated from these dung balls.
There was a ritual present among the Todas to safeguard these fire buffaloes. These rituals involved fasting and prayers by the people of the mund and specific religious protocols performed by two holy men, Podhool and Kolthmu. Today the practice of anointing the two blessed men has been abandoned and the last of these fire buffaloes have disappeared into the forests, but Ottarsh and surrounding peaks are still considered divine.
The Holy Konchu
Vasamalli briefs that a hill is seen as a mere landscape by commoners, but it takes an entirely different viewpoint in the culture of the Todas. The Toda munds are present in the highlands of Kotagiri, Ooty and the junctions between Ooty-Gudalur. This gave the community a deep knowledge of the terrain. The community refers to every significant peak in the district by a name and each of these hills has a gender. They know the divine power resident in these hills and the history of every ridge and slope. These stories are recollected as a way of rituals and prayers while offerings are done to the community Gods.
One such divine entity was Konchu, who resided on the hill called Devbetta. It is said that Konchu visited the Baduga goddess Hethey every morning after the cock crowed. Hethey is the highly revered Goddess of the Badugas and the largest community festival is dedicated to Her. In memory of their meetings, a sacred ritual is performed at the Devbetta till today by both Badugas and Todas.
It is interesting that certain peaks are considered holy by different communities inhabiting their surroundings. One such hilltop deity in Kotagiri is called Hala Malai Swami by the Badugas and Ool Maall Deo by the Todas, which translates to “The God on the Hill of Milk” in both languages. Both communities have a legend of a buffalo that went atop the peak everyday and stood next to the stone perched there. The buffalo’s udder secreted milk on the stone for a few minutes before the bovine marched downhill. According to the Todas, this was a fire buffalo, a descendant of the sacred bovine born out of Ottarsh’s sweat. The annual ritual prevalent today on this peak involves anointing the holy stone with milk.
There are a plethora of Toda legends that describe the birth of streams and hills and the origin of buffaloes and the community Gods. An intriguing folklore common to the Badugas and Todas is that they believed their ancestors knew the way to the realm of the dead. A legend among the Todas names all the hills one is likely to encounter on the way to the other realm.
The Stories of the Kota Community
The Kotas live in settlements called kerre. They are predominantly blacksmiths and potters and are a musically rich culture. The Kotas have distinct ritual practices and their deity is Nilgiri Gor or the primeval Nilgiri God. They believed this entity resided at the top of the hill called Talko. After a misconduct of a ritual and a conflict among the people, the displeased deity moved to Rangaswami peak, the second tallest peak in the mountain district. This particular peak is sacred to most communities in the Nilgris, including the Badugas, Kurumbas and Irulas. There is a hilltop temple in Rangaswami Peak that the people visit once a year.
The most common Kota fable involves a black buffalo called Basavanna. This bovine led the Kota people to a place called Natkal and prophesied that a village should be built there. The Kotas milked the cow and built a temple there. One time the person in charge of the ritual made a horrendous mistake and the oil lamp within the temple disappeared. The temple was veiled in darkness. Singing a song of lament, this ritual leader went in search of light across the hills. At certain places, he got some clues. Till today, walking the same path, Kota men go from site to site singing hymns. These songs mention the names of those places and the vegetation prevalent there. A hymn named Velke mentions the names of native trees and plants and the flowers or fruits they yield at these sacred sites. In his research paper “Rain, God and Unity Among the Kotas,” published in 1997, anthropologist Richard Kent observes there are stone circles at these revered sites.
In these three languages, there is no word to denote nature. “Nature’s spectacle exists in a man’s heart; to see it, one must feel it,” is a quote by the renowned French philosopher Rousseau. The indigenous people in the mountains went beyond feeling into the stage of intuitive understanding that designated mountains and valleys as divine, thereby conserving them.
Displacement of Lores
In his lecture titled “Aspects of Ecology in Nilgiri Cultural Tradition,” Reverend Mulley points to the allegory in one of the Toda legends. He says the route detailed in the Toda lore that leads to the realm of the dead is the seasonal migration route of their buffaloes. He explains how the poetic idioms recollected during the rituals of the local communities provide a solid framework for conservation. These legends carry several allegories, some of which are beyond perception today.
In this age of insurmountable displacement of native communities in India, we are destined for a future with a complete loss of indigenous knowledge systems. When the current generations of these communities migrate to cities for jobs, education and better life, they take along the pieces of knowledge passed through generations. The kind of wisdom and understanding developed over centuries with close proximity to nature will probably dissipate with time. If these folktales are lost, it brings an end to conservation practices, which spells doom for entire ecosystems.
As Reverend Mulley ended the lecture mentioned above, “May the sacred places always be seen in the Nilgiri[s].”