Knots of IdentityLocation - Rajkot
Tucked away in Northern Tamil Nadu, lie the beautiful Nilgiri hills or Blue Mountain most popularly known for the hill station Ooty, or Ootacamund as the local tribes would call it.
Primarily a tribal land, the Nilgiris were home to several like the Badagas, Kotas, Kurumbas and Irulas. One of them, the Todas have been around for several centuries, but have a cumulative population only in a few hundreds if not 1 or 2000 over several centuries.
The Todas, the initial owners of Ooty, are a pastoral community, with their livelihood traditionally centred around buffalo herding for centuries now. In fact most of their religion and rituals involve practices around dairy and buffaloes.
While the community is venturing into more agricultural practices and away from the traditional pastoral work, life around dairy continues to hold great religious and cultural significance to them
The Toda ‘dairy’ Temples which look similar in structure to the bamboo huts they live in, are surrounded by stones in a circular pit and have a head priest in attendance. Women from the tribe are not allowed in or near these temple structures
Not only is the language, rituals, clothing and dressing vastly distinct from the nearby tribes, even their ancestry is sometimes claimed to be linked to the Pandavas or even the Greek army of Alexander
One glance at the tribesmen and the dignity and the aura around them leaves you in wonder about their ancient connections. The way they drape their traditionally embroidered shawls and the perfect ringlets into which the women weave their hair are reminiscent of an era gone by.
These traditional shawls Puthkulis showcase intricate symmetries and geometrical designs symbolic of the nature around them, and are embroidered by the women in the community with minimal tools and help.
Occasions like wedding ceremonies see the tribesmen sporting a variety of these shawls, each with the traditional red and black stripes over a white plain cloth.
Just like the tattoos that the village elders sport, the puthukuli designs also are of great cultural significance and the wearing of this completely embroidered shawl itself holds great value in tradition, just as for this newly wed Toda couple
Wedding ceremonies usually involve gifting of buffaloes and dairy products, while now there is also the inclusion of gold and money, the buffalo gifting is still central to the practise.
Large occasions also see the entire tribe show up in their finest specimens of the embroidered shawls
With absolutely no other tools, the ladies of the tribe work on the shawls with a simple darning needle and thread
Women have been practicing this art since ages. The base cotton material, normally bleached and pale white in colour, is hand woven in single width and the weave is such that it allows for the embroidery to be done by counting of threads.
The edges of the puthukuli have red and black bands, woven at 6 inch intervals, and the women embroider in between these bands creating a striking 'pallav'.
The women do not refer to a stitching pattern as one would normally do for creating cross stitch designs, neither is a frame used to keep the cloth in place
The traditional three colours also have great cultural significance to the tribes: the cream/ pale white stands for purity and innocence, while red stands for youth and the black for maturity
The embroidery is worked on the reverse of the cloth and a little tuft of thread is left behind while drawing the needle back, thereby producing a rich, embossed effect on the surface
Out of practice, they create the design on the cloth without tracing the pattern or referring to a book. The finished cloth is reversible, in the sense that both sides have a neat design.
In the local Toda language, the embroidery is known as Pugur meaning flower. Flower and nature itself inspires names for several elements in the Toda vocabulary, and many of these motifs are used in the puthukuli
The geometric motifs, merging as they do with the woven bands are often mistaken for woven patterns. These motifs are traditionally inspired by the Sun, the Moon, animal life like snakes, squirrels, etc.
Of course, like most things in Toda paying reverence to the buffalo, the buffalo horns are also seen as a popular motif in the embroidery. Rabbits ears are also often embroidered on the fringe of the shawl.
Embroidering each shawl takes a lot of effort and strain on the eyes and takes about 2 to 3 weeks to wrap up
While the tribe primarily use to trade produce with neighbouring villages, the women now have started to embroider and use the sales as supplementary income for the families.
The embroidery now a days is not limited to just shawls. The work is now seen in stores on dupattas, drapes, table runners, and even yokes that can be attached onto dresses.
Of such great significance are the shawls, that even at funerals, the bodies of the departed are covered with these traditional pieces.
In sync with all things that the Todas do, even the pugur embroidery is a mark of respect and reverence to the bountiful nature that they venerate around them.
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