January 4, 2013
By Michael Charles Tobias
Environmentalism is, by definition, given to skepticism, dismay, political cynicism and the seemingly endless endeavors to guide human nature along a path more sustainable than that currently on display worldwide.
Yet, in India, the second most populated nation on earth, with her inordinate share of ecological turmoil and over 1.241 billion people, there exists an ancient, indigenous community of vegetarians, the Todas, whose lifestyle and footprint suggests a true window on what humanity – at its best – is capable of.
I’m referring to a community, in 2013, that is ethically vegetarian, non-violent; that may well be the most sustainably-committed community in human history. The Sistine Chapel of pure living; a “Maria Vespers” of the moral and geographical compass. A group of denizens who, if you are tracking ecological success stories, are front-page news.
Moreover, at the core of some of this community’s habitat remains the last remaining “wilderness” in all of India; unexplored by most. This region – the inner Nilgiris – hosts the last best hope for India’s wild tigers and one of three remaining wild populations of Asian elephants. Moreover, it is a botanical collective of astonishing dimensions in which – depending on the precise season, and day (or night) – are a vast number of endemic species known particularly well by one man – Dr. Tarun Chhabra.
Thanks to this remarkable ecologist, a practicing dentist by profession, and brilliant ethnobotanist, Dr. Tarun Chhabra, I have had the privilege over the course of many years, of spending time with this community: the Todas, on numerous occasions. In 1992, Dr. Chhabra and colleagues set about to preserve the Toda heritage, which was facing increasing pressure – demographic, toxicological, economic, genetic, cultural, legal – all those bedeviling challenges that can exponentially accumulate in the name of modernity and India’s increasingly palpable habitat fragmentation. Indeed, the Toda heartland was the same Western Upper Nilgiris aggregate of ecosystems that were also being threatened. Urgent measures were needed to save what was left of this habitat that is unique in all of Asia. Dr. Chhabra and colleagues established a non-profit Trust “EBR” which stands for the Edhkwehlynawd Botanical Refuge to help rally support for the Toda who dwell within the core biological area of India’s first recognized biodiversity hotspot and UNESCO biological World Heritage Site.
What endows this community with such a unique place in the bio-cultural context of southern India, and – for that matter- the whole world – is not merely the fact that they are one of the only vegetarian tribal groups left on Earth (while surrounded by meat-eating communities); or the computable realization that their ecological footprint, by even today’s economically-much marginalized rural Indian standards, is statistically zero.
What is utterly amazing about the Todas is their true biological sustainability. They magnificently integrate their own culture and rich biodiversity; a markedly restrained humanity, shy ethos, distinctly pan-Asian reclusiveness, and poetic landscape revery inherent in the tools of personal and community existence. This defines ecosystem person-hood. In the case of the Todas, it would appear to derive, at least in part, from their explicitly animist cultural rituals, traditions, beliefs, and worldview. This Renaissance-ecological orientation is a powerful argument in favor of the possibilities of the human species, after all. For thousands of years the Todas have worshipped a rare species of (now endangered) Asian river buffalo and have practiced non-violence with rare, consistent vigilance. Even their so-called “noyim,” a form of conflict-resolution, is so subtle that to be present at such a gathering (as I have been) you would never know a problem was even being resolved. Toda crises are not fought out at the last second, like fiscal-cliffs in Washington, although the stakes – if you are a Toda – are no less critical.
It must be professed that the Todas argue for one of the most advanced lessons on Earth in reference to how human beings can harmoniously engage in what Voltaire summarized in his novel, Candide (1759) when he suggested, in the end, that we simply cultivate our gardens. Remarkably, the Todas are not even that inflictive upon nature. Trans-montane ritually nomadic pastoralists, they restrain from nearly all traditional agricultural exploitation (not unlike the majority of India’s Jain communities – except that the Toda hamlets are to be found in rural, even wilderness areas, not in the urban environments, where most Jain communities are located.)
In 1873, a British ethnographer, W. E. Marshall, visited the Todas and wrote of them that they were, in essence, a total ethnographic anomaly, or anachronism; that they engaged in no hunting, no meat eating; no violent sports, no violence whatsoever. Marshall wondered, therefore, whether he had not come upon “the tracks of an aboriginal reign of conscience?” and asked, “Was man originally created virtuous as well as very simple?” His famed riposte to his own culturally-condemned conjectural inanity was that “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.”
That “primeval race” – that ultimate “reign of conscience” remains true to form in southern India; a bio-cultural Eden about which the human 21st century needs urgently to take notice.
I asked my friend, Dr. Chhabra – who lives just a few miles away from one of several Toda hamlets, about this wonderful and unique community of Todas today; their beliefs (herewith simplified, to be sure); and the threats to their livelihood. Toda environmentalism offers a rare window on human possibilities and optimism. Its anodynes and rudiments have tested the arc of time, whilst at least 22 other known human civilizations have risen, and fallen, as chronicled by such historians as the late Arnold Toynbee and Clarence Glacken.
Michael Tobias: Dr. Chhabra, what makes the Todas so globally unique, certainly from a ecological point of view?
Tarun Chhabra: I would attribute it to a combination of the following factors: The Todas live at the heart of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – in the highlands where they have traditionally been strictly pastoral people, with no history of farming. Much of their entire worldview revolves around an endemic breed of buffalo. They rely on the buffalo for the mainstay of their economic livelihood, derived from dairy products – sacred milk and butter
Michael Tobias: Of course, then, they are not vegan, but, as I have witnessed, they treat those buffalo like dignitaries, royalty.
Tarun Chhabra: That, and the fact the Todas are generally vegetarian folk with apparently no history of hunting. Moreover, their traditional architecture has been celebrated. The Head of Architecture at MIT is bringing out a book on “First Societies and their Architecture” where he is including the Toda structures. Moreover, their language has been reported to have the most complex phonetic system in India. Most importantly, the Todas have managed to adopt a manner of sustainable living and have kept their own population low over the centuries.
Michael Tobias: Zero population growth in India is certainly uncharacteristic, notwithstanding an inspired array of family planning luminaries and legislation throughout the nation. But India’s Democracy, as you well know, has not managed, ultimately, to come to grips with a demographic speeding train, most saliently in those EAG (Empowered Action Group) states where the TFR, or Total Fertility Rates are still as high as 3.9, such as is the case within the States of Bihar, or Rajasthan. To come upon a community of replacement fertility trends, and one with sovereign, historic staying power, is miraculous.
Tarun Chhabra: Even today, the orthodox Toda community number just over 1400 persons.
Michael Tobias: And the Todas’ spiritual and practical relationship to the botanical refuge in which they reside?
Tarun Chhabra: The Todas use specific plant species in their rites of passage, in the construction of their traditional dwellings and dairy-temples and even for denoting a person’s age, wisdom and anxiety levels accurately. They have also used the flowering cycles of plants not only to denote the different annual seasons, but also the stage of each season.
Michael Tobias: I gather the Todas have a complex belief system in terms of the afterlife, or Heaven?
Tarun Chhabra: The Todas believe in an afterlife and their afterworld is located at the Southwest corner of the Upper Nilgiris.
Michael Tobias: For referencing paradise that’s remarkably specific, a bit like that of famed John Bunyan’s 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress, with its maps; but, in this case, veritable GPS coordinates?
Tarun Chhabra: Well, the location of their ascribed paradise can certainly be ascertained. The eighteen mythical landmarks that a departing spirit is believed to cross en route, can all be seen as actual physical landmarks. For instance, at the place where the spirit is to ascend steps, we can see an actual, nature-created series of rocky stone steps.
Michael Tobias: It’s on a huge cliff, I gather?
Tarun Chhabra: Yes. The assumption is that only those who have used all the mandatory plants in their rites of passage and other important ceremonies, are eligible to enter Amunawdr, the Toda afterworld. This belief in their afterworld is what has ensured that Toda cultural heritage has been maintained.
Michael Tobias: If the more than 50% of the human species now occupying major cities around the world were told that their “heaven” or paradise were dependent upon the preservation of specific plant species in their very neighborhoods, specific locations (à la Central Park, in Manhattan) one might suppose the emergence of a true and universal ecological revolution. People would be utterly motivated (as in the case of Ecuador and her enshrined Yasuní National Park) to preserve all in situ native and endemic plant and animal species. To firmly swear that Paradise is here and now, right there, in one’s own backyard.
And here, in the heartland of India, you have this community of 1400 venerable back-to-nature Gurus, in the name of the Todas, who are telling us just that. It’s really bewitching, mystifying and magnificent. So where’s the downside? What are the crucial threats facing the Todas’ livelihood, and how do you view their current situation as emblematic of the problems across Asia, with respect to most indigenous peoples and their extremely complex ecological challenges?
Tarun Chhabra: One of the Toda’s biggest hurdles concerns future stewardship of their traditional homeland in modern times. The Toda people have sustainably managed their surrounding ecosystem for millennia. Although they continue to observe indirect methods of management by conducting, for example, so called saltwater pouring rites for their buffaloes during different seasons of the year (this ceremony, which is still observed by all Toda clans at every major hamlet, is basically a plea for ecosystem health); or by their gathering on the Paw(r)sh hill to pray to the Pykara River deity for general wellbeing and on the deity hill, Kawnttaihh, to pray for a healthy environment in which they reside, most direct forms of ecosystem management have been undermined or proscribed outright by India’s Government Forest Department, in recent decades.
Michael Tobias: Translate such legal ambiguities and outright debacles?
Tarun Chhabra: Well, during the onset of the winter season, the Toda priest of the highest-grade tea institutions performs a ritual where, using firesticks (Todas continue to use Litsea wightiana sticks to make fire in other rituals), they selectively set fire to the grassland and wetland. Although many officials now grudgingly acknowledge that a lack of firing is leading to ecological degradation in the Toda homeland, there is yet no move to rectify this.
Michael Tobias: To many, this might seem extraordinarily obscure. But it is not. In fact, it is this same conflict/discrepancy, in other guises, that invites serious debate amongst park managers across North America and Europe: the use, or lack thereof, of fire as a form of maintenance of forest tracts and parklands. It goes to the heart of forest management - whether in Yellowstone, Yosemite, or throughout Europe.
Tarun Chhabra: Here, in southern India, vast swathes of the Toda’s sacred grasslands have been planted by the Forest Department with exotic non-native trees. These include Blue Gum and Black Wattle.
Michael Tobias: Fast growing timber. Bio-invasives, in other words, that out-compete indigenous tree and shrub species, thereby abetting the impoverishment of native seeds and fruits upon which native species, particularly invertebrates and avifauna, are dependent. And no more so than during the quadruple-cascade effects of cumulative bio-invasive shock, climate change, poaching, and habitat fragmentation with profound impacts upon mammals and other vertebrates, in particular.
Tarun Chhabra: Yes. And, additionally, for a people who only drank dairy produce and had no native intoxicants, the onslaught of a cash economy that was imposed on them, has brought about all the usual problems, like alcoholism.
Michael Tobias: In searching for species like the endemic Tahr, Black Langur, and Laughing Thrush, I -like many -have seen firsthand the problem of habitat disruptions, whether in the form of tea plantations, or simply the spread of cities like Ooty (Ootacamund, in the State of Tamil Nadu) in all directions. Some of the rivers have long been polluted, and eco-tourism had resulted in economic boom-towns, with proliferating human surroundings.
Tarun Chhabra: Moreover, the fragmentation of habitat in the biosphere preserve that adjoins and encompasses much of Toda territory is obviously under increasing threat from encroachment, not to mention – as you indicated- of climate change, poaching and development.
Michael Tobias: In a region that is recognized for its biological World Heritage status by the United Nations; that prides itself on having the last free-ranging viable genetic populations of tiger and Asian elephant, what do you see as a crucial component of the Todas’ assured protective measures by the Government of India?
Tarun Chhabra: Well, thanks to sustainable management of their homeland by the Todas over centuries, areas like the Mukurthi National Park now constitute the core of the first formally-consecrated biosphere reserve in all of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. But much of the Upper Nilgiri plateau has now been populated by hundreds of thousands of people; tea estates stretch over tens of thousands of hectares as do other highly destructive methods of agriculture. The grasslands and wetlands of the Todas have been planted with exotic trees solely for commercial purposes by the Government. Several hydroelectric dams and reservoirs now inundate the heart and soul of Toda country, with the rich biodiversity of the wetlands now under severe threat.
The grass species that the Todas know as avful in their ancient Ahl language (to Western science it is known as Eriochrysis rangacharii; the Todas use avful to thatch their sacred dairy temples) is, incidentally, endemic to some Nilgiri wetlands and found nowhere else on this planet, and it is now on the verge of extinction.
Michael Tobias: So, if the sacred species upon which their ecological heritage pivots are lost, what can we imagine, expect, envision for the Toda culture as a whole?
Tarun Chhabra: Michael, as you yourself have seen and researched firsthand, all the indigenous groups of the Nilgiris are now dwarfed culturally and demographically. People who reside in the vicinity of the Todas almost invariably do not even care to learn or understand anything about Toda culture at all.
Michael Tobias: So what do you predict, and what are you and your colleagues working to engender, in terms of Toda bio-cultural preservation?
Tarun Chhabra: I see that involving indigenous people like the Todas in joint management of their traditional homeland with the Government is a vital component for the long-term protection and rejuvenation of the climax shola-grassland ecosystem, as it is termed. We are taking initial steps to begin such an experiment with one Toda clan at present. The thousands of hectares of exotic tree plantation “forests” must revert back to grassland status.
Michael Tobias: These are universally trying issues that cascade in any ecologist’s imagination; a plethora of problems facing every high biodiversity region on the planet. In this case, it is especially critical, and unnerving, because we are talking about not only some of the most critical habitat (e.g., montane wet temperate forest) in all of the Indian sub-continent, but, as previously noted, possibly the last vegetarian tribe on Earth.
The Toda comprise a veritable constellation of like-minded souls who are ecologists by first nature; environmental philosophers without skipping a beat; wilderness poets in their souls. With that in mind, what should the good people of India be especially mindful of when it comes to the Toda?
Tarun Chhabra: Well, on a very practical level, people should at least acknowledge the role of the Toda heartland in generating phenomenal quantities of freshwater and electricity for the multitudes in the plains who are dependent on this. This year in 2012, the Nilgiris suffered a failure of both monsoon seasons – with the result that crops in the plains down below (several thousand feet) are perishing and the people there are being subjected to power cuts that often stretch to ten hours every day!
Michael Tobias: Aside from the practical, I’d like to conclude with the ideal: What astonishes you most about the Todas?
Tarun Chhabra: The fact that they were one of the very, very few indigenous people who did not look up to their colonial masters during the British era. The fact that the Toda people considered their cultural heritage to be of a truly superb character; and this Toda state-of-mind, or nobility, utterly fascinated the British who, in fact, did their utmost to help these people, to continue to nurture the rare Toda ethos.
Michael Tobias: The Toda are largely vegetarian, but surrounded by numerous meat eating communities. To what do you attribute their vegetarian persuasion, their unflinching, unabashed love of nature, their worship of river buffalo, and their overall veneration of the habitat which clearly constitutes their sole survival?
Tarun Chhabra: Perhaps a combination of all three factors that you mention. Michael, I would recommend putting together a list of all the largely vegetarian indigenous groups and cultures from the world over and then look for the common characteristics.
Michael Tobias: I have endeavored to do just that, over the years. What is unique, I think, about the Todas is that there is evidence, as you know, that once they may have eaten meat, occasionally. And more recently, would sacrifice a buffalo once a year. Yet, something in their psyche changed; the whole culture switched to vegetarianism, by and large. I think it would be very important to discover what exactly triggered that dietary and ethical transformation, for it is a fundamental paradigm shift; one that encompasses a new nature; a new template of non-violence for future human survival, I suspect.