«The Truth which I uphold is imprinted on all the monuments of the past. To understand history, it is necessary to study the ancient symbols, the sacred signs of the priesthood, and the art of healing in primitive times, an art which is now forgotten . . . . » Baron du Potet.
The event takes place in Madras, in the first half of July, 1883. The West wind blows, beginning at seven o’clock in the morning, i.e., at sunrise, and blows incessantly till five o’clock in the afternoon. This wind has been blowing for six weeks, and will last until the end of August. The thermometer marks 128 degrees in the shade. As it is little known in Russia what the West wind in the South of India means, I shall try to depict this merciless enemy of the European. All doors and windows which happen to be in the direction of this little wind which is equable, continuous and velvety, are covered with thick «tattis,» which means mats of kusi (fragrant herb); all chinks are stopped up. The smallest opening is stopped with cotton-wool, a material which is believed to be the best protector against this West wind. But nothing prevents this wind from penetrating everything — even those objects which are sufficiently impermeable to water. This wind infiltrates into the walls and the following extraordinary phenomenon takes place as a result of its equal and tranquil blowing: books, papers, and manuscripts, all papers move as if they were alive. Leaf after leaf rises as if taken by an invisible hand, then — under the pressure of this intolerably hot and burning wind — every leaf rolls itself up into a tiny tube, after which the paper only continues to tremble under the caresses of the new zephyrs. Dust, at first hardly perceptible, then becoming very thick, settles on furniture and other objects. If some cloth is covered with it, no brush can ever take it off again. And if sofas and chairs are not beaten every hour of the day, the layer of dust which will have settled by evening, will be three-fourths of an inch thick.
There is only one salvation, the «punkah:» to open wide one’s mouth, turning towards the East and to remain motionless, either sitting or out-stretched, and breathing an artificially created freshness by the movement of a giant fan spread across the room. When the sun has gone down it is possible to breathe a pure though overheated air.
It is for this reason that, in March, the European society people of Madras follow the local government and depart, until November, for the «Blue Mountains.» I also decided to leave, but not in the spring: it was already the middle of July and the West-wind had had time enough to dry me to the marrow of my bones. I accepted the invitation of my good friends — the family of General Morgan. On July 17th, half dead with heat, I rapidly packed my trunks and at six o’clock in the evening I found myself in the compartment of a train. The next forenoon I was at Metopolam, at the foot of the Nilgiri.
It was there that I came in direct contact with the Anglo-India exploitation, which we call civilization, and where I also met Mr. Sullivan, member of the Council and son of the deceased collector of Coimbatore. The «exploitation» presented itself under the aspect of an abominable box on two wheels covered with a linen roof. I had already paid for it at Madras where it was offered under the pseudonym of a «closed carriage with springs, and very comfortable.» As far as Mr. Sullivan was concerned, I must say that he appeared to me as the guardian angel of these mountains. He certainly had a very great influence on these heights which rose before us to the sky, but he was as powerless as myself against the exploitation of the private British speculators who had settled at the foot of the Nilgiri. All he could do was to try to console me by setting an example. After having introduced himself he told me that he was on his way to the authorities who had sent for him (he had left his plantation, situated I don’t know where). Then he sat down without protesting and we continued our way in this horrible box on two wheels. The great ones of the «superior» race, who are so proud with the Brahmans, become quite small and tremble before the inferiors of their own people in India. I have noticed it more than once. It may be that they are afraid of their disclosures, but perhaps they are even more afraid of their poisonous tongues and their almighty slander.
Thus the member of the Council was afraid of saying one word to the dirty employee,» the agent in charge of the transportation of travelers and luggage from Madras to the Nilgiri.» When this agent declared with insolence that owing to the rain in the mountains he was not going to run the risk of spoiling the color and varnish of the «closed cars» and that, therefore, the travelers were to depart in open cabs, neither Mr. Sullivan nor the other English travelers had one of those Anglo-Hindu gestures which reduce the natives of highest rank to nothingness.
There was nothing to be done. I sat in a stooped position in this box on two wheels in comparison with which the Russian Tonga on the road to Shimla is like a royal compartment against a kennel where the dogs are kept during a voyage. It was thus that we began the ascent of the mountain. Two miserable worn-out nags dragged the cabriolet. We had hardly made half a mile when one of these phantoms reared on his hind legs and fell down, throwing over the cab which was rolling with me to an abyss — fortunately not very deep — and into which, moreover, I did not roll. I had a lucky escape, having only a disagreeable surprise and a torn dress. One of the Englishmen very kindly rushed to my assistance (his cab had got stuck in the red clay), then vented his anger on the driver who was neither the owner of the two-wheeled box nor of the nag which died on the road. The driver was a native, and we knew that it would be useless to try to pacify the Englishman. I was compelled to await the arrival of another cab and two other jades that were expected to come from the depot. I was not sorry for losing this time. Already I had made the acquaintance of one of the members of the council — acquaintance made under the constraint of a common exploitation. Then I also started a conversation with another Englishman. An hour of waiting had gone but during this time I was able to learn many new details on the discovery of the Nilgiri, the father of Mr. Sullivan, and the Todas. Later, at Ooty, I often had opportunity to see these two «dignitaries» again.
We finally continued our way, but my misfortune had not ended. Another hour had gone by when it began to rain. My cab was soon transformed into a bathtub with shower. Moreover, the temperature fell in proportion to our ascent. At last we arrived at Kotagiri. I was freezing in my fur coat. There was one more hour of traveling. There I was in the «Blue Mountain» at the height of the rainy season. A stream of thick water, reddened by the soaked ground, was rushing down toward us and the beautiful panorama on both sides of the road was almost hidden by fog. Yet even under these unpleasant conditions I enjoyed the journey. The brisk air was delicious after the heavy atmosphere of Madras. Though filled with humidity, it was impregnated with the perfume of violets and the fragrance of pine trees. What were the mysteries these forests — covering the slopes of the «Blue Mountains» — had witnessed in the long course of their existence? What had they seen, these century-old trunks jealously hiding scenes like those in «Macbeth»? Legends, in our days, are no longer in style — they are called stories, which is natural. «Legend is a flower unfolding only on the groundwork of faith.» Faith, however, has long since vanished in the hearts of the civilized Occident. It is for that reason that these flowers perish under the murderous breath of modern materialism and general incredulity.
This rapid transformation of climate, of the atmosphere and all nature appeared miraculous to me. I forgot the cold, the rain, the horrible box in which I was sitting on my trunks and suit-cases, which were half broken and soiled with mud; I had only one desire: to breathe, to drink this pure and beautiful air which I had not inhaled for years.
We arrived at Ooty at six o’clock in the evening. It was a Sunday and we soon encountered a crowd returning from their evening service. The majority of these people were Eurasians — Europeans in whose veins flows the «black»
blood — ambulant passports with «particular marks» which they carry from the cradle to the grave in their finger nails, profile, hair and complexion. I know nothing more ridiculous than an Eurasian dressed in a stylish jacket, his low forehead covered with a round hat. Perhaps more ridiculous still is an Eurasian woman in her hat adorned with feathers. She resembles a horse with a headdress of ostrich feathers put before a hearse. No Englishman is capable of feeling and especially of manifesting such hatred against the Hindus as the Eurasians. The depth of their hatred against the aborigines grows with the quantity of blood that they assimilate from the natives. The Hindus pay them back, and with usury. The «gentle» heathen transforms himself into a cruel tiger when only the word «Eurasian» is uttered in his presence.
However, I did not look at the creoles who sank up to their knees in the heavy mud of Ootacamund, with which all the streets of this little city were covered, as with blood. I did not look at the newly shaven missionaries who preached in the wide open spaces under their open umbrellas, gesticulating pathetically with their arms, whilst the water was running from the trees. No, no. Those whom I was looking for were not there. The Todas do not walk in those streets — they rarely ever approach the city. My curiosity — this I learned soon — could only be satisfied several days later.
The evening before, in the train, I was almost dying — suffocating with intolerable heat. Now, not being used to this climate, I trembled with cold under my blankets and had to have a fire during the whole night.
For three months, until the end of October, I worked in order to acquire new information about the Todas and the Kurumbas. I went as a Nomad to the former and made the acquaintance of almost all the elders of these two extraordinary tribes. Mrs. Morgan and her daughters, who were all born on these mountains and spoke the language of the Badagas, as well as Tamil,
were of great help to me, and assisted me in enriching every day my collection of facts. I have put together here all that I could learn from them personally and otherwise, and all that I could extract from manuscripts which were entrusted to me. I hand these facts over to the reader for his study.
There is indeed no tribe in the world resembling the Todas. The discovery of the «Blue Mountains» was for Madras what the discovery of America was to Europe. During these last fifty years numerous books have been published on the Nilgiri and the Todas, and every one invariably puts the question: «But who are the Todas?» Indeed, where have they come from? From which country have they arrived — these giants — real «Brobdingnagians» of the land of Gulliver? From which branch of humanity, dried up — dead since a long time — reduced to dust, did this strange, unknown fruit fall on the «Blue Mountains»?
Now that the English have lived side by side with the Todas for more than forty years, and have learned about them all which is possible — that is to say, something like zero — the authorities of Madras have calmed down a little and have changed their tactics. «No mystery is attached to the Todas and it is for this reason that nobody can penetrate it,» say the officials. «There is and was nothing enigmatical in them. . . . These men are like other men. Even their influence on the Badagas and the Kurumbas, which is incomprehensible at first, can easily be explained: it is the superstitious terror of ignorant aborigines and of ugly dwarfs at the sight of physical beauty, great height and moral power with which this other tribe is endowed. In other words, the Todas are beautiful, though dirty, savages, irreligious and without a conscious past. They represent simply a tribe that has forgotten its origin, and is partly bestial, like all the other tribes of India.»
However, all the officials, agriculturists, planters and all those who have settled and lived for a long time at Ootacamund, Kotagiri and other little towns and villages on the slopes of the Nilgiri, look differently at the problem. The sedentary inhabitants of the «Sanitariums»,* which grew like mushrooms during thirty years on the «Blue Mountains,» know things which the newly arrived English officials will not see even in their dreams — and about which silence is kept. Who wishes to become the object of ridicule for others? However, there are others who are not afraid of speaking openly and with emphasis of that which they have recognized to be true.
*This name is given by the English to such towns as Simla, Darjeeling, Mysore, and other towns in the mountains of India, where officers and soldiers are sent for recovery.
To these latter belongs the family who had invited me and who had not left Ootacamund during forty years. This family consisted of General Rhodes Morgan, his amiable and cultivated wife and their eight daughters and married sons. They all have clear and firm opinions established concerning the Todas and the Kurumbas — especially in regard to the latter. «My wife and myself have grown old on these mountains» — this was an often-repeated saying of the honorable old English general.» My wife, myself, and our children speak the language of the Badagas and we understand the dialects of the other local tribes. The Badagas and the Kurumbas work on our plantations by the hundreds. They are used to us and like us and consider us as members of their families, as their friends and faithful protectors. If, therefore, there is anybody at all who knows them well, their domestic life, their customs, their rites, their faith — it is only we: my wife, myself and my eldest son who serves here as collector. It is thus that we come in continual contact with them, and — fortified by facts which more than once have been proven in the courts — I do not hesitate to declare openly that the Todas and Kurumbas really and unquestionably are possessed of certain powers of which our savants have no conception. . . .
If I were superstitious* I could solve this problem very simply. I would speak, for instance, like our missionaries: ‘the Mulu-Kurumbas are an infernal progeny; they are the direct offspring of the devil. The Todas, though heathens, serve as an antidote to the Kurumbas; they represent the instrument of God to weaken the power of the Kurumbas and thwart their plans.’ However, as I do not believe in the devil, I have arrived, a long time ago, at another conviction; we cannot deny that in man and in nature there are forces which we do not understand. If our haughty science refuses to admit their reality it is due to lack of wisdom and because science rejects what it cannot understand or classify.**
*The honorable general is a «free-thinker» and very appreciative of the scientific agnosticism of Herbert Spencer and other philosophers of the same school.
**It is interesting to compare the opinions emitted by the English skeptic with those of the priest named Belyustin who has published many articles in the magazines of our capital on the superstitions of the Russian people in regard to sorcerers and witchcraft. We shall find later that the attitude of mind of the English general approaches the attitude taken by the Russian priest.
«Too often have I witnessed occurrences that were unquestionable proofs of the existence of this unknown force, so that I cannot but reject the skepticism of the scientists in this respect.»*
*This is an extract of a report of the Major-General Morgan addressed to the Committee which was organized by the General Council of the Theosophical Society for the study of religions, customs, cults and superstitions of the Dravidian Mountain tribes. This report, composed by one of the principal members of the Council, and president of the Theosophical Society of the Doddabetta at Ootacamund, was read at a public meeting before 3,000 persons on the day of the annual assembly of the members, on December 27th, 1883, at Adyar (Madras). The family of General Morgan is well known all over South-India. They enjoy the esteem of the authorities and of the entire European society. It is with their express consent that I reveal their names and take them to witness. The skeptics of Russia are invited to address themselves for more complete information to the General himself if they wish to know the opinion of an English savant on the sorcery and witchcraft of the Mulu-Kurumbas.
All that my honorable friend and host had seen and heard from the Todas and the Kurumbas would fill volumes. I shall relate a fact, the authenticity of which has been certified by the General, his wife and his children. This story will prove how much these cultivated people believed in the witchcraft and devilish power of the Mulu-Kurumbas.
«Having lived for many years, in the Nilgiri,» writes Mrs. Morgan* in her book, «Witchcraft on the Nilgiri,» «I have been in a position to study the lives and customs of hundreds of natives belonging to different tribes working on our plantations. I know that they often have recourse to demonology and witchcraft, especially the Kurumbas. This latter tribe is divided into three branches; first, the ordinary Kurumbas consisting of sedentary inhabitants of the forests who often work as laborers; the second branch are the Tena-Kurumbas (derived from the word ‘tein,’ honey) who live upon honey and roots; the third branch are the Mulu-Kurumbas. These latter are more frequently to be seen in the civilized parts of the mountains, i.e., in the European villages, than the Tena-Kurumbas. They live in great numbers in the woods near Viniade. They use bow and arrow and like to hunt the elephant and the tiger. There exists a belief in the people — and the facts often prove its justification — that the Mulu-Kurumbas (like the Todas) have power over all the wild animals, especially over elephants and tigers. In certain cases they are even capable of assuming their forms. Under cover of this lycanthropy the Mulu-Kurumbas commit many crimes without being punished; they are very vindictive and evil. The other Kurumbas always address themselves to them if they need help……. If a native desires to take veneance on any enemy he calls on a Kurumba.
*Wife of the General and daughter of the Governor-General of Travankor, at Trivandroum, where she was born.
«Amongst the laborers working on a plantation of Ootakamund there was a whole company of Badagas, thirty young and strong men who all — without exception — had grown up on our territory where their fathers and mothers had served before them. Suddenly, without apparent cause, their number diminished. I noticed nearly every day the absence of one laborer, then of another. Inquiries which were made revealed that the absent man had suddenly fallen ill and shortly after had died.
«One market-day I met a monegar (elder) of the village to which my Badaga-laborers belonged. He saw me, stopped, then approached me, greeting me with great deference.
«‘Mother,’ said he, ‘I am sad, for a great misfortune has come over me’ — after which he sobbed desperately.
«‘What is it? Speak quickly…..’
«‘All my boys die one after the other and I am incapable to render them assistance, powerless to stop the evil…. The Kurumbas
«I understood, and asked for the motive which induced the Kurumbas to commit these murders.
«‘They always want more and more money. . . . We already give them nearly all that we earn, but they remain dissatisfied. Last winter I told them that we had no more money, that we could not give them more.» All right . … do as you please….. but we shall have what we want. . . .» If they answer in this fashion one knows in advance what it means. Such words predict the inevitable death of several members of our company…….. At night when everything is asleep around us, we are suddenly awakened and see a Kouroutnb in our midst. Our entire company sleeps in a large bunkhouse. . . .’
«‘Why don’t you close your doors properly? Why don’t you lock them?’ I questioned the elder.
«‘We lock them, but of what avail! You may close everything — the Kurumba will penetrate any object. No stone walls will be an obstacle to him. . . . After having been awakened one looks at him in fear, he is there — in the midst of us he gazes at us, at one after the other — then lifts his finger and points to one, then to the other. . . . Madou, Kourirou, Djogui (the names of the three last victims), he does not open his mouth — he is silent — only points out, then vanishes suddenly without leaving any trace! Several days later those toward whom he had pointed with his finger fall ill; fever seizes them, their stomach swells — and the third, often the thirteenth day, they die. It is thus that during these last months eighteen young men out of thirty are dead among us. We are now only a handful of men…..’ And the monegar shed hot tears.
«‘But why don’t you lodge a complaint with the Government?’ I asked.
«‘Are the sahibs going to believe us? And who could catch a Mulu-Kurumba?’
«‘Then give to these horrible dwarfs what they demand, two hundred rupees, and have them promise to leave the others at peace. ….’
«‘Yes, it will be necessary to do so,’ sighed the Badaga. Then, after another bow, he went away.»
This story is one of the many happenings related to me by Mrs. Morgan who is an intelligent and serious-minded woman, and is a proof of how much the English people share the belief of the «superstitious natives» in the magical occult power.
«I have lived amongst these tribes for over forty years,» said the General’s wife many a time. «I have watched them for a long, long time, and very closely. There was a time when I did not believe in this ‘power’ and treated all things relating to it as absurdities. However, persuaded by facts, I cannot help believing as many others do. . ..»
» Do you know that people laugh at your belief in ‘witchcraft’?» I said one day.
«I know it. But the opinion of the masses who judge superficially cannot change my conviction which is founded on facts.»
«Last night at dinner, Mr. Betten told me laughingly that two months ago he had encountered the Kurumbas, and that in spite of their threats he was still alive….»
«What did he tell you exactly?» asked Mrs. Morgan vividly, taking off her eye-glasses and putting her work aside.
«While hunting, he had wounded an elephant, but the animal disappeared in the thick forest. However, the elephant was magnificent, and Mr. Betten did not wish to lose it. Eight Burgher-Badagas were with him; he ordered them to follow and find the wounded elephant. But the animal forced them to go very far, and still farther. Then, suddenly, when the Badagas had declared that they were not going any farther, as they were afraid of encountering the Kurumbas, they saw the lifeless body of the elephant. The Englishman, when approaching the animal, found himself face to face with several Kurumbas. They declared that the elephant belonged to them, that they had just killed him, which they proved by twelve arrows stuck into the body of the corpse. However, Betten searched for the wound created by his bullet. According to him the Kurumbas had only put a finishing hand on the animal which had been seriously wounded by him. The dwarfs, however, insisted on their rights . Then — according to Mr. Betten’s story — in spite of their maledictions, he chased them away and returned home after having cut off the paws and tusks of the elephant. ‘I am still safe and sound,’ said he laughingly to me, ‘while the Hindus in my office had already buried me when they heard of my encounter with the Kurumbas.»‘
Mrs. Morgan listened patiently to my story, then asked me:
«Is that all he told you?»
After dinner there was a general discussion on the subject.
«Now I shall tell you what Betten omitted to mention; after which I shall call a witness, the only one who survived this dreadful encounter. . . . Did Betten repeat to you the words which the Kurumbas uttered when he first tried to take the tusks of the animal? ‘The one who touches our elephant will see us at the hour of his death.’ This is the habitual formula of their menace. If Betten’s Badagas had been of this country here they would rather have allowed their master to kill them on the spot than to disregard the threat of the Kurumbas. But he had taken them from Mysore. Betten wounded the animal, but he is too sensitive — he admits it himself — to cut the corpse of an animal to pieces. He is only half a hunter — a ‘cockney’ of London,» Mrs. Morgan added with contempt. «These shikaris of Mysore cut off the paws and the tusks of the animal and then carried them away on their poles. They were eight, and do you wish to know how many of them are still alive?»
The General’s wife clapped her hands. It was thus that she called her servant. She sent him to fetch Poorna.
Poorna was an old shikari of very poor health. With his little dark bilious looking eyes he looked apprehensively at his mistress, and at me. He certainly did not understand why he had been called into the drawing room of the Saabs.
Mrs. Morgan, in a decided tone, said: «When hunting the elephant two months ago with Betten-sahib, how many shikaris were you in all?»
«Eight men, ma’am-sahib; Djotti, a child, was the ninth,» answered the old man, with a hoarse voice.
«And how many are you today?»
«I alone remain, ma’am-sahib,» sighed the old man.
«What!» I exclaimed with undisguised terror. «All others, even the child, are dead?»
«Mourche, they are dead — all!» moaned the old hunter.
«Tell ma’am-sahib how and why they died,» bade Mrs. Morgan.
«The Mulu-Kurumbas killed them; their stomachs swelled, and they died, one after the other; the last man died five weeks ago….»
«But how was this man saved?»
«I sent him right away to the Todas so that they might cure him,» explained Mrs. Morgan. «The Todas did not receive the others. They never take it upon themselves to cure those who drink, they send them back — that is why my good laborers died one after the other, as many as twenty men,» she added with a sigh. «There you are — this old man is being cured — besides, he did not touch the elephant — he only carried a gun. Betten had told me, and others confirmed it afterwards, that he threatened the shikaris to compel them to spend the whole night in the forest with the Kurumbas if they would not carry with them the remains of the elephant. Terrified, they quickly cut off its paws and tusks and carried them away. Poorna, who for a long time had been in my son’s service at Mysore, rushed to my house. I sent him and his comrades at once to the Todas. But they received nobody except Poorna who never drinks. The others fell ill the same day. They were walking among us like phantoms, green, shrunken, but their stomachs heavily swollen. Before a month had gone they were all dead with ‘fever,’ according to the diagnosis of the military doctor.»
«But a poor little child could not as yet be a drunkard?» I asked. «Why did the Todas not save it?»
«Even our five-year-old children drink Mrs. Morgan replied, with an expression of disgust.» Before our arrival on the mountains of the Nilgiri there was no smell of liquor; it is the gift of grace bestowed by our civilization. And now….»
«Now? . . .
«Today alcohol kills as many men as are killed by the Kurumbas. It is their best ally. Otherwise, the Kurumbas would remain powerless owing to the proximity of the Todas.»
Our conversation stopped at these words. Mrs. Morgan gave orders to have two oxen yoked before a big carriage. She invited me to go and see her village «behind the herbs.» We left.
She spoke to me about the Todas and the Kurumbas throughout the ride.
Mrs. Morgan loves these mountains and is proud of them. She considers herself as their child, and the Todas and even the Badaga laborers are to her part of her family. The General’s wife cannot forgive her government for not recognizing sorcery and its disastrous consequences.
«Our Government is just stupid,» said Mrs. Morgan, getting quite excited. «They refuse to constitute a committee for research, and to believe in the facts admitted by the natives of all castes, while a number of them make use of these horrible means for the purpose of committing crimes that cannot be punished. These crimes are committed far more often than is known. The terror of this occult power is so great among our people that they prefer to kill a dozen innocent animals by means of an entirely different kind of sorcery, rather than let a patient die whom they believe to be the victim of the evil eye of a Kurumba — being convinced that in this way they can save him. One day I was riding in the country. Suddenly my horse shied, reared, and bouncing sidewise in an entirely unexpected manner, almost threw me out of my saddle. I looked upon the road and saw something very strange. There was a big flat basket on which was placed the cut-off head of a sheep, gazing at the passers-by with its dull eyes; there were also a cocoanut on that plate, ten silver rupees, some rice and flowers. This basket was placed on top of three stakes arranged in the form of a triangle, and was attached to this triangle by three very fine threads. The whole arrangement was made in such a way that any person, coming from one side of the road or the other, inevitably hit against these threads, tore them and thus received a violent blow from the deadly ‘sunnium,’ as this kind of sorcery is called here. This is the most ordinary means used by the natives to which they very often have recourse in cases of illness, where death alone seems to be the solution. Then they prepare the ‘sunnium.’ Whosoever touches it, were it only one thread, catches the disease, while the sick person gets cured. The ‘sunnium’ which I nearly hit that evening had been placed on the road leading
to the club and where people always pass at a late hour. My horse saved me, but I lost it; it died two days later. How is it possible after such an experience not to believe in the ‘sunnium’ and in all this sorcery! . . » And she continued: «It exasperates me that the physicians attribute death, caused by sorcery, to a certain unknown fever. Strange fever — which knows how to select its victims so unerringly and so intelligently. It will never hit those who do not come in conflict with the Kurumbas. It is always the result of a disagreeable encounter, of a fight with them and the result of their anger against their victim. There is not, there never has been, any kind of fever in Nilgiri. It is the most healthful place in the world. My children, from the day of their birth, have never been ill for a single hour. Look at Edith and Claire, at their strength and their clear complexion, Mrs. Morgan added, pointing to her children.
She did not listen to my compliments. She continued to rage against the doctors. Then, suddenly, she interrupted her invectives and exclaimed: «Look, there is one of the most beautiful murtis, villages of the Todas. Their saint Kapillol, the oldest, live there.»
The Todas, as I have told before, are partly nomadic. The entire crest of the mountain chain from Rangaswam to Doddabetta is covered with their villages, if a group of three or four pyramidal habitations can be called a village.
Such houses are erected one not far from the other, and between them, distinguished by its grandeur and more careful construction, shines a «tirieri,» sacred stable for the buffaloes. Behind the first «chamber» serving as nocturnal refuge for the buffaloes and especially their females, and which is a room of very large dimensions, is always a second «chamber.» An eternal obscurity reigns in this latter hall; it has neither doors nor windows and its only entrance consists of a hole not larger than one square archine.* This room must be the temple of the Todas, their Sanctum Sanctorum, where the mysterious ceremonies take place, known to no one. The entrance hole is placed in the darkest part of the building. No woman or married Toda is allowed to enter there; in other words; no Kuta, i.e., person belonging to the laic class. Only the «Terallis,» the officiating priests, have free access to the interior tirieri.
*One archin — .712 meters.
The entire building is always surrounded by a rather high stone wall, and the court inside, or the tuel, is also considered as sacred. At a distance the houses around the tirieri by their form recall the tents of the Kyrgyz. But they are entirely made of stone and coated with very solid cement. They are twelve to fifteen feet long, eight to ten feet wide and not higher than ten feet, measured from the ground to the pyramidal point.
The Todas do not stay in their habitations during the day; they spend only the night there. Without regard to the weather — during the most violent monsoons, during the torrential rains — one can see them sitting in groups on the ground or walking by twos. As soon as the sun goes down they disappear into the small openings of their miniature pyramids. One large silhouette after the other vanishes into the building. Then, by means of a thick wooden shutter, they close this opening and only reappear the next morning. After sunset no one can see them nor make them leave their retreat.
The Todas are divided into seven clans or tribes. Every clan is composed of one hundred men and twenty-four women. According to the statements of the Todas this number does not vary and «cannot change»; since their arrival in the mountains it has always remained the same. The statistics have indeed proven this for the last fifty years. The English explain this regularity in the number of births and deaths, which limits the Todas to the number of 700 men, by their existing polyandry; the Todas have only one wife for all brothers of one family, even if there are twelve of them.
The notable minority in the birth of female children was at first attributed to the killing of the newly-born, a custom which is quite prevalent in India. But this has never been proven. In spite of all efforts and ceaseless spying, and not-withstanding all promised compensations for denouncing those who could be caught in the very act of delinquency (the English were burning with desire to catch them, one does not know why) it has been impossible to find even the smallest trace of child-murder. The Todas have only a smile of contempt for all these suspicions.
«Why kill these little mothers?» they said. «If we had not need of them, they would not exist. We know the number of men and the number of mothers we need; we shall not have more.»
This strange argument induced the geographer and statistician, Mr. Torn, to write angrily in his book on the Nilgiri: «They are savages, idiots, and they mock at us.» Those, however, who have known the Todas for a long time and have watched them for years, think that the Todas speak with gravity and believe in their affirmations. They even go further and frankly express the opinion that the Todas, like many other tribes living close to Nature, have penetrated into many of her mysteries, and, as a result, are far better instructed in practical physiology than our most learned doctors. The friends of the Todas are absolutely convinced that the Todas have no need of recourse to infanticide, as they can increase or decrease the number of their «mothers» as they please; they, therefore, speak the truth, though their modus operandi in this obscure physiological problem remains for all an impenetrable mystery.
The words «woman,» «girl,» and «virgin» do not exist in the language of the Todas. The conception of the feminine sex is, with them, indissolubly connected with maternity, nor do they recognize any special term for the feminine sex, in whatever idiom they may express themselves. Whether they speak of an old woman or of a one-year-old child, they always say «mother,» and if precision is necessary, they use the adjectives «old,» «young» and «little.» The Todas often declare: «Our buffaloes have fixed our number once for all; also the number of the mothers.»
The Todas never remain in a murti for a very long time, but move from one to the other as they require new pasturage for their buffaloes. Owing to the fecundity of the flora in these mountains these pastures have not their equal elsewhere in India. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the buffaloes of the Todas surpass in height and strength all other animals belonging to that family, not only in this country but all over the world. But there is another impenetrable mystery: the Badagas and the planters also have buffaloes that live on the same fodder. Why are their animals smaller and weaker than the «sacred herds» of the Todas? The gigantic stature of the sacred buffaloes leads one to believe that they are the last survivors of antediluvian animals. The animals of the planters can never compare in strength with those of the Todas, and the Todas refuse categorically to lend their buffaloes for a crossing of races.
Every clan of Todas — there are seven — is divided into several big families. Every family, according to the number of its members, possesses one, two or three houses in the murti which are situated in several pastures. Thus every family always has its habitation ready, wherever they may settle for the time, and their domain often extends over several villages which belong to them alone, with the inevitable tirieri, temple-stable for the buffaloes. Before the arrival of the English and their spreading like a parasitic vegetation on the slopes of the Nilgiri, the Todas, when leaving one madd for another, left the tirieri empty, as well as the other structures. But noticing the curiosity and indiscretion of the new arrivals from the first day of their invasion, when they attempted to penetrate into their sacred edifices, the Todas became very careful. They are distrustful now, have lost their former confidence, and when moving to new pastures leave behind them, in the tirieri a «Teralli»* priest, known today under the name of Pollola,** his assistant Kapillol and two female buffaloes.
*Pollola, guardian; and Kapillol, under-guardian.
«For one hundred and ninety-seven generations we have been living quietly on these mountains,» said the Todas in their complaint to the Government, «and none of us, except the Terallis, have ever crossed the thrice-sacred threshold of the tirieri. The buffaloes roar with anger. . . . We ask you to prohibit the white brothers from approaching the tuel (sacred cattle-pen), otherwise a disaster will happen, a terrible disaster…..»
And the authorities were wise enough to forbid the inhabitants of the valleys, especially the English and the curious and insolent missionaries, to enter or even approach the tuel. But the English only gave in completely when two of their countrymen had been killed at different times; the buffaloes had lifted them up on their enormous horns and had crushed them under their heavy hoofs. Even the tiger, which is scorned by the buffalo of the Todas, does not dare to try his strength against this animal.
Thus no one has been able to uncover the mystery which is hidden in the room behind the stable of the buffaloes. Even the missionary Metz, who lived with the Todas for thirty years, did not succeed in solving this enigma. The description and all the information given on this subject by Major Frezer* and other ethnologists and writers, is purely imaginary. The Major had «penetrated» into the room behind the stable of the buffaloes and all he discovered in this temple in which the whole world was interested, was a dirty and entirely empty room. It is true that the Todas let the authorities just have this village for another and much larger pasture. All that had been in the houses and the temple had been carried away; the buildings themselves were to be burned.
*»The Todas, What is Known of Them.»
The Todas do not occupy themselves with the rearing of cattle; they have neither cows, sheep, horses, goats nor birds. They have only their buffaloes. The Todas do not like poultry, as the cocks would disturb the silence of the night and, with their crowing, would wake the «tired buffaloes,» one of the old men explained to me. I have already told that the Todas have no dogs, but the Badagas keep them. The dog is indeed very useful and even necessary in the caverns of the forests. The Todas have never performed labor of any kind — either before or since the arrival of the English; they neither sow nor do they reap. However, they have all they need, have no regard for money, and none of them understand anything of material matters, with the exception of some old men. Their women adorn their white drapes — their only garment — with very beautiful embroidery; but the men despise all manual labor. All their love, all their meditations, all their pious sentiments are centered on their magnificent buffaloes. The wives of the Todas are not allowed to approach the animals, only the men take charge of milking the female buffaloes and of looking in every way after these sacred animals.
Several days after my arrival, accompanied only by women and children, I went to visit a murti situated about five miles from the city. Several families of Todas were at that time living in the village, also an old Teralli and a number of priests. I had had opportunity to meet several Todas, but had not seen their women nor their «ceremony with the buffaloes.» We had gone with the intention of assisting, if possible, at the «ceremony of the buffaloes entering the stable»; I had heard much about it and was very anxious to see it.
It was already five o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was disappearing behind the horizon, when we stopped at the edge of the woods. We had left our carriage and were walking across a large glade. The Todas were busy with their buffaloes and did not notice us, not even when we were quite near them. But the buffaloes began to roar; one of them, undoubtedly the «chief,» decorated with silver bells on his enormous coiled-up horns, left the herd and came as far as the edge of the road. He turned his head toward us, glanced at us with flaming eyes, then set up a roar as if to say: «Who are you?»
I had been told that the buffaloes were lazy and stupid and that their eyes were expressionless. I had held the same opinion before knowing the buffaloes of the Todas, especially before knowing this buffalo who came toward us to speak to us in his animal language. His eyes were burning like two fiery coals, and in the restlessness of his slanting eyes I saw the expression of surprise and distrust.
«Do not approach him,» my companions cried. «This is the chief and most sacred animal of the entire herd. He is very dangerous.» I had no intention of approaching the buffalo. On the contrary, I withdrew much quicker than I had advanced. At that moment a tall youth, as beautiful as Hermes amongst the oxen of Jupiter, with one leap jumped between the buffalo and ourselves. Crossing his arms and bowing before the «sacred» head of the animal, he began to murmur words into his ear which none of us understood. Then such a strange phenomenon occurred that, had this fact not been confirmed by the others, I would have considered it a simple hallucination aroused by all the stories and anecdotes that had been told me about these sacred animals.
The buffalo, as soon as the young Teralli spoke his first words to him, turned his head toward him as if he really listened and understood. Then he looked at us as if he were examining us more closely, shook his head and began to snort in short jerks, which seemed like an intelligent answer to the respectful observations made by the Teralli. Finally the buffalo threw another indifferent glance at us, turned his back to the road and walked slowly toward his herd.
The scene appeared comical to me, and reminded me so strongly of the popular conversation held by the Russian man with the chained bear named «Mikhail» that I almost burst out laughing. However, seeing the solemn and intimidated faces of my companions, I restrained myself.
«You have seen it — I told you the truth,» said a young girl of about fifteen years to me, in a low voice triumphantly and at the same time apprehensively. «The buffalo and the Teralli understand each other and speak to each other like men…..»
To my great surprise, the mother did not contradict her daughter; she made no comment. Somewhat bewildered by my questioning, astonished look, she said: «The Todas are, in all things, a strange tribe. They are born and live in the midst of the buffaloes. They train them for years and one must indeed think that they converse with them.
The wives of the Todas recognized amongst us Mrs. T. and her family; they came out upon the road and surrounded us. They were five; one carried her child which, in spite of the cold wind and the rainy weather, was perfectly naked. Then there were three others, quite young and extraordinarily beautiful, and an old woman, not bad looking, but almost too dirty. This old woman approached me, asking — I suppose in Kanarese — who I was. I did not understand her question and one of the young girls answered for me. When the question and answer were translated to me the latter appeared to me very original, though it did not quite correspond with the truth.
I was introduced as a «mother» coming from a strange country and a woman «who loved the buffaloes,» as my interpreter told me. This declaration evidently pacified and even gladdened the old, dirty woman. Without this recommendation, as I knew later, it would not have been possible for me to assist, later in the evening, at the ceremony with the buffaloes. The old woman ran toward one of the Teralli, the eldest, who was surrounded by a group of young priests and stood at some distance in a picturesque attitude, leaning on the magnificent black back of the «chief» buffalo, already known to us. He came at once toward us and addressed Mrs. S., who spoke their language as well as the natives themselves.
What a beautiful, imposing old man! I could not help comparing this ascetic of the mountains with the other Hindu or Mussulman anchorets. These latter are weak and look like mummies, while a Teralli is of amazing health, bodily strength and vigor, like an ancient oak. His beard was beginning to look silvery, and his hair, falling down in heavy locks, was white. Holding himself as straight as an arrow, he approached us slowly, and it seemed to me as if the living picture of Velisar had left its frame. The sight of this proud and beautiful old man who resembled a king clad in rags, and who was surrounded by six powerful and magnificent Kapilollis aroused in me a burning curiosity and an irresistible desire to know all about this tribe and especially its mysteries.
It was, however, impossible to satisfy my desire at this moment. Like the great majority of Europeans, I did not speak the language of the Todas. So I had to wait patiently and without complaint. All I could do was watch and observe whatever I would be allowed to see. That evening I assisted at the following strange ceremony which the Todas perform daily.
The sun had gone down almost entirely behind the big trees, when the Todds prepared their sacred animals for their return to the stable. The buffaloes, about one hundred in number, were grazing quietly in the field, the «chief,» who never leaves his observation post, being in their midst. Each buffalo had little bells fixed on his horns, but while their bells were of copper, their chief was distinguished by bells of pure silver and earrings of gold.
The ceremony commenced in this way: the children of the buffaloes were separated from their mothers and locked up in a special stable near the tuel, where they remained until morning. Then the wide doors of a very low wall were opened. This wall was so low that, from the road, we could see all that happened inside the tuel. Their bells ringing, the buffaloes entered one after the other and ranged in line. These were the male buffaloes. The females waited their turn. Every buffalo was led to a cistern, or rather a pool; there they were washed and dried with herbs; then, after quenching their thirst, they were locked up in the tirieri.
Now, wherein lies the interesting part of this ceremony? As the buffaloes approach the doors, the «Laymen and women» (i.e., about 80 men and about two dozen women of different age) stand in line on each side of the doors, the men on the right, and the «mothers» on the left. They salute each buffalo as he passes. Moreover, every Todd of the laic caste performs certain incomprehensible gestures which express profound respect. The same ceremony is repeated for the female buffaloes. Moreover, when saluting the female buffalo, they tender her some herbs and bow to the ground. The «mother» whose offering has been accepted by the «chief» female buffalo, believes herself very fortunate, as this is considered a good omen.
After the male buffaloes have been taken care of and locked up, the men begin to milk the female buffaloes, who will not allow any of the women to approach them. This sacred ceremony lasts for two hours; the vessels, which are made of bark, after having been filled with milk are carried seven times around the female, and are then deposited in the «dairy,» a special building kept very clean. Only the «initiates,» i.e., the Kapilolls, are allowed to milk the animals, and they perform this duty under the supervision of the chief Teralli, or first priest.
After the milking of the buffaloes, the doors of the tuel are closed and the initiates enter the stable of the buffaloes. Then, according to the statement of the Badagas, the room next to the stable is illumined with many little lamps which burn until morning. This chamber is the habitation of the initiates only. No one knows what takes place in this secret sanctuary during the night, and there is no hope that it ever will be known.
The Todas despise money; it is impossible to bribe them as they have no need of anything and view with indifference the «not mine,» i.e., all that does not belong to them. As has been well said by Captain Garkness and others who have lived with them for a long time and have witnessed their daily actions: The Todas are not interested in money in the fullest meaning of this term.