Unusual Ooty Sightseeing with Todas, Kotas & Badaga Tribes

posted in: Asia, Culture, India, Nature, Tamil Nadu | 42

Ooty or Ootacamund is considered as the capital of the Blue Mountains (Nilgiris). This hillstation has been a weekend getaway and a honeymooner’s paradise for centuries. Owing to its popularity, I won’t be surprised if you tell me that you have ticked off all the major Ooty Sightseeing destinations here. In fact, so did I until I got an invite from Sterling Holidays and then, came in a treat. They introduced me to a very unusual side of Ooty – its cultural and heritage one – involving the indigineous Nilgiri tribes of Todas, Kotas and Badagas.

The Cool Valleys of Ooty

I met three different tribes during the course of my 2 days stay at Sterling Holidays. Not only did I learn about their cultures but also, visited their traditional villages. It was quite a revelation to know how different they were. In fact, it is funny how none of us even associate them with Ooty – even though these hills are their original home. What I discovered will make you add a visit to these villages to your list of places to include in your Ooty Sightseeing.

History of Ooty & its Tribes

Ooty has been a part of various kingdoms – like the Vijaynagara, the Hoysalas, the Nayakas and more. It was given to the British East India Company as a part of an agreement by the famous Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The British fell in love with the place owing to its cool green atmosphere. They compared it to the greens of Switzerland and made Ooty the capital of the Madras Presidency.

Kota Tribal Village in Ooty

In this long history, the original inhabitants of the Blue Mountains were forgotten. The place was home to almost 7 tribes – the Kotas, Todas, Badagas, Kurumbas and the Nayakas being the key ones. These tribes have their own culture, language and skill set. They have been peacefully coexisting in these hills and are still found there – though in smaller numbers.

I could not visit the Kurumbas and the Nayakas , meeting the others was quite an illuminating experience. Something that you will discover as we go along.

Toda Tribes

Pingalamma -A Toda Tribal Woman in front of her traditional home.

If there is any tribe that is has a fair bit of recognition in the Nilgiris, then it would be the Todas. I had the fortune of meeting them twice – once when a clan came over to Sterling to showcase their dance and the 2nd when we visited a Toda Village & met with the charming Pingalamma. What I gathered is that the Tribe were primarily dairy specialists – focused largely on Buffalo products. Their entire lifestyle and culture are centered around the Buffaloes – they consider them as sacred!

Toda Village – The Mund

The Toda Homes are semi-circular in shape and have a low door. One has to crouch and crawl through them to get inside. When I first looked at them, I felt they were a cross between an igloo and a tepee. Like these two homes, the Toda ones too, did not have windows.

A little modernized but in essence a Toda Home in Ooty

A typical Toda home is made with stones and Bamboos. The Bamboos give a framework to create the semi-circular structure while the stones give it a sturdy feature. The traditional homes had dried grass covering the walls but that has now been replaced by concrete. A typical feature of these homes are the murals on their front doors. Sadly, I could not see those except for in pictures, for the village that I visited had long replaced the original tribal homes with the modern ones.

The Toda homes are generally, constructed in groups and one such group or village is called Mund. The Mund also, has a sacred temple which is in the same shape as the Toda house. The temples are not accessible to everyone. Only a priest can enter the same. Incidentally, this is where the sacred Buffalo milk is kept.

Toda Culture, Religion & Festivals

The Todas worship a deity called Teikishi and believe that before they were created, their deity created the Buffaloes. Every ritual and festival in a Toda Village has the Buffalo as its center point. Even the hymns they sing have their sacred animal as its focus.

The Toda Women in their traditional wear

The tribe has their own set of festivals that they celebrate. The Modhweth festival is one key one that is celebrated in January. This is also, called the Buffalo festival. During the festival, one partakes only Buffalo milk and products made from it. It is also, the time when the tongues of the Buffaloes are smeared with salt. The reason for this is more practical than traditional. As per the Tribal people that I spoke to, the Buffaloes were dying of a particular disease. Salt prevented that from spreading. This is done at the Teikish temple.

Portrait of a Toda Tribal Woman - Pingalamma

The Todas marry within their tribe. Earlier, one single woman was married to all the brothers of a family. This form of Polyandry was practiced for quite some time but now, has been stopped. In terms of language, the Toda Language is quite unique to this tribe. It is different from Tamil and Kannada that is usually, spoken in this part of India.

Toda Lifestyle – Food, Attire & Occupation

Primarily vegetarians, the Toda Food consists of rice and butter made from Buffalo milk. Most of their curries have vegetables with a base of some Buffalo product. This is what is prepared during their feasts too.

Pingalamma showing her traditional Poothkuli

Besides being herdsmen, the Todas are excellent artisans – especially when it comes to clothes. The Toda embroidery has been recognized as an important art and efforts have been made to preserve the skill. In fact, the Toda shawls called Poothkuli are becoming quite popular as gifts. The elegant shawls are draped over skirts in case of women and dhotis in case of men. The entire outfit is called Pohar.

Motifs on Puttukuli

Pingalamma – the gracious Toda lady showcased her Poothkuli to us and in fact, took pleasure in wrapping it on us so that we could see and feel it up, close and personal. What I loved about it were the bright red and black patterns. The embroidery on that is called Pukhoor and is not a random design. As explained by the signs at Sterling Resorts, these shapes depict various things – from nature to divinity. A typical Poothkuli takes over a month long to be finished.

Toda Tribal Lady with Matigash_Ooty

Another unique thing about the Toda Attire is the way the women wear their hair. It is almost like ringlets – mostly made after they have a bath. They call it Matigash.

The Dairy farmers of Toda also, practiced agriculture. Unfortunately, they lost their land over time and they have now moved to other lucrative professions. A lot of them have moved out of the villages to bigger towns but a few like Pingalamma still stayed back to lands that originally belong to them.

The Kotas of Nilgiris

Kota Tribe Musicians

Melodious music greeted us to the Sterling Resort Ooty. The Kota Tribe on request from the resort, came out of hiding to welcome us to the cool green hills. Traditionally potters and musicians, the Kotas are said to have moved here after the Todas. However, that was eons ago for no one even remembers that. All they know now is that Nilgiris has been their home.

The Kota Village

Kota Tribal home in Ooty

Unlike the Toda Homes, there is nothing very typical about the Kota homes. Except that they are just so colorful. The homes are built like the modern day row houses and have a common wall between them. As I understood from the locals, a single lane of homes belongs to a clan. A typical Kota village contains many such lanes.

Colorful Kota Tribe Homes

What makes the whole village unusual is that it is a no-footwear zone. One has to leave their footwear outside the boundaries and only then, walk the lanes. In fact, they are so fanatic that the villagers first looked at my feet – almost with a frown. Once they realized that I had followed their custom and had come barefoot, they burst into a smile and posed for a picture.

Posing in front of a Kota home

At the entrance to the entire village are three temples built in a typical Kota style. These temples are out of bounds – for not just the visitors but also, the Kota Tribe. One cannot even see the entrance. Naturally, I was curious for me and here is what I figured!

The Kota Culture & Festivals

Kota Tribal Village Temples

The three temples at the entrance represent 3 Gods that the Kotas worship. Each one of them represent a father, a mother and a younger brother. They have been termed as Aiynoor, Amnoor and Kunavanoor respectively. The temples do not have any idols and only the Tribal priest is allowed to enter the same. The rest of the people pay respect to it from afar. Even during festivals, the tribals are to stay away from it.

The main festival that they celebrate is a harvest festival celebrated in January. The 6 Kota villages come together and indulge in some dance and music. Food is laid out on 2 gigantic plates – one for the males and the other for the women. The entire community eats from that single plate. The village priest eats on special palm leaves. Quite like the Todas, the Kotas too, enjoy delicacies made from Buffalo milk.

The Tribals had an unusual cremation ritual. They used to preserve the bone from the forehead of the dead before they were cremated. The tradition is no longer followed and the tribals now only, cremate the dead.

Kota Tribal Women have a larger say in their community

The woman has a higher say in the Kota community. She is in-charge of the household and has a say in the finances too. Polygamy was a common practice in the community but with the modern times, has ceased!

The Kota Lifestyle

Pottery was the traditional art and occupation of the Kotas. The tribals also, made musical instruments and played at various rituals of not just their own tribe, but the Todas and Badagas too. Now, a lot of the tribe has moved to cities and better jobs.

Kota Tribal Woman wearing a Vanad

One can easily recognize the traditional Kotas. Both the males and females wear white cloth on them. They call it the Vanad.

In terms of food, the Kotas are Non-Vegetarians. Their staple cereal is a special one called Vatamik. This along with rice and sambhar forms their basic meal.

The Kota Women meeting in their village square

On the whole, I found them a lot more traditional than the other two tribes that I had met. They seem to adapt to change but within the folds of their tradition. The closeness of community was evident when I visited their home. It was evident that they were a close-knit community that was welcoming only to an extent.

The Badaga Tribes of Ooty

Badaga Tribe for a performance at Sterling Holidays

Along with the Toda Ladies who came to perform at Sterling resorts, were a group of men clad in White. The Badagas had their own story to share that evening. The largest among all the Nilgiri Tribes, the Badagas have long embraced the modern developments in all spheres of life. Except that there were still some aspects that kept them rooted to their culture.

The Badaga Hattis

As much as I would have liked to, I could not visit the Badaga Hattis. Nestled in the valleys, these hatties looked so cute. The colorful homes of the Badagas seemed so interesting when our guide – Mr. Richard described them.

Badaga Hattis in Ooty

Hattis refers to a Badaga Village where the homes of various families are constructed over a slope in a single file. They all have common walls and currently, are made of stone and concrete. In earlier days, the walls too, were absent and only additional quarters were made to accommodate the growing families.

The Badaga homes are clustered around a central well and square. This was the common area for the Badaga families to meet. Important clan meetings and rituals took place here. Even now, you can see remnants of the same.

Badaga Culture and Religion

The chief deity of the Badagas is called Hethai. All their rituals and festivals are centered around her. She is not represented by an idol but is said to be the power of their success, abundance and strength.

During the Hethai Habba – their key festival, they indulge in their traditional Badaga dance and song, which again they refer to as Hethai. The entire community gets together to feast and have fun.

One of the important ceremonies in their culture is the celebration of death. The Badagas have a huge community feast where they feed 1000s of people. The entire community contributes for this feast. They believe that the death is the release of a soul.

Badaga Lifestyle

Most of the Badagas have moved on from their traditional farms. A few that remain are now involved in Tea cultivation. Besides tea, they even grow cauliflowers, beans, potatoes and peas.

Badaga Tribe in their white attire with turbans. This is how they dress for festivals

Quite like the Kotas, the Badagas too, favor white. Their traditional attire is in this color with a Mundu for the men and a saree for the women. They even sport a white turban.

When asked, the men from Badaga tried told us that their food was normal food. They preferred rice, ragi, beans and other vegetables. One of their traditional sweets is called Thupadittum. This was made of flour and Buffalo ghee. The sweet was served during all their festivals – including the death ceremony.

Other Places to include in Ooty Sightseeing

Lovedale Railway Station in Ooty

My Sterling Resorts visit to Ooty was largely concentrated on visiting these tribal people and villages. However, as I mentioned earlier, there is plenty more to discover in Ooty. From the beautiful view points over Pykara Dam, to waterfall chasing including Catherine Falls and refreshing walks around the Rose Garden & Botanical park, there is enough to do here. In case you are curious, here is a quick list of the Ooty Attractions.

  • Pykara Dam
  • A Boat Ride on Ooty lake
  • Visiting an amusement park – Thunderworld
  • Catherine Waterfalls
  • Botanical Gardens
  • Riding the Toy Train of Nilgiris Mountain Railways
  • Tea tasting trail in one of the Tea Estates – both in Ooty and Coonoor
  • Heritage visit to the Stone House
  • Wax World Museum
  • Nature Trails through the Nilgiris

About Sterling Holidays

Sterling Fern Hill Ooty

A quick word about my host – Sterling Resorts. They are a network of resorts that offer Timeshare in India. Affiliated with RCI, they have recently upgraded their set of resorts. What I found interesting about them is that unlike a lot of other resorts, they club in a lot of local activities in a destination. This helps their guests enjoy more than a comfortable and relaxing stay in a resort. It allows them to experience a destination.

Read about what Timeshare is and how Sterling Holidays makes it different.

Nature trail at Cairns Reserve Forests in Ooty

Besides the Tribal visit, the Sterling team also, included two other trails to discover Ooty. A tea trail to discover the lovely green estates of Ooty and a nature trail through Cairns Reserve forest to enjoy the cool Pine forest. These definitely were different from the regular Ooty tour packages that include the usual. In fact, it is this advantage of the joy of discovery of new cultures, places and cuisines that make a Sterling membership so attractive.

A Tea Estate Tour in Ooty

The other huge advantage is the variety that a Sterling member gets to experience. You have resorts across a variety of destinations – from mountains to beaches and even heritage destinations. So, you can never really get bored. I realized this as I have stayed in a Sterling resort in Wayanad earlier . When I was there, I had a blast with activities like bird watching, wildlife spotting and visiting heritage spots in Wayanad. Ooty was in contrast was a lot different.

In conclusion, I am pretty sure that by now you are considering the positives of a timeshare – especially when they allow you to see the unknown facets of a done and dusted destination. The Tribes of Nilgiris definitely gave a different spin to the already explored Ooty for me. I am sure that you too would like to see it for yourself.

Getting here

  • The closest airport to Ooty is 88 km in Coimbatore. There a regular flights to Coimbatore from most major cities of India. Once in Coimbatore, you can hire a cab or take one of the regular buses to Ooty.
  • You can even drive down from Mysore (126 km) and Bangalore (273 km) to Ooty. The drive is quite a scenic one through the Bandipur and Mudumalai forests.

Travel Tips

  • Ooty is pretty cool throughout the year. Summers might get a little harsh in the day but the evenings are always pleasant.
  • The main town in Ooty is pretty commercialized. It is better to stay a little away from the center.
  • The Tribal villages are quite remote and do not take kindly to strangers. It is better to get in touch with a local guide who can take you there. If you are a guest of Sterling Resorts, you can just opt for this as your resort package.
  • When visiting the tribals, please be respectful of their traditions. For example, leave your footwear outside the village when visiting the Kotas. Always take permission before you take their pictures.

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