The Mysterious Todas of India

In 1877, H. P. Blavatsky, founder of the modern Theosophical Movement, published her first

Some members of the Toda tribe or race, photograph dated 1871.
Some members of the Toda tribe or race, photograph dated 1871.

book, which was titled “Isis Unveiled” and bore the subtitle “A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology.” Both volumes of the book are well worth reading and carefully studying in full but perhaps the closing chapter of the second volume is of the most immediate interest to readers.

Between pages 613-615 of that second volume, HPB writes the following:

“Hardly fifty years ago, in penetrating the jungles of the Blue or Neilgherry [i.e. Nilgiri] Hills in Southern Hindustan [i.e. South India], a strange race, perfectly distinct in appearance and language from any other Hindu people, was discovered by two courageous British officers who were tiger-hunting. Many surmises, more or less absurd, were set on foot, and the missionaries, always on the watch to connect every mortal thing with the Bible, even went so far as to suggest that this people was one of the lost tribes of Israel, supporting their ridiculous hypothesis upon their very fair complexions and “strongly-marked Jewish features.” The latter is perfectly erroneous, the Todas, as they are called, not bearing the remotest likeness to the Jewish type; either in feature, form, action, or language. They closely resemble each other, and, as a friend of ours expresses himself, the handsomest of the Todas resemble the statue of the Grecian Zeus in majesty and beauty of form more than anything he had yet seen among men.

“Fifty years have passed since the discovery; but though since that time towns have been built on these hills and the country has been invaded by Europeans, no more has been learned of the Todas than at the first. Among the foolish rumors current about this people, the most erroneous are those in relation to their numbers and to their practicing polyandry. The general opinion about them is that on account of the latter custom their number has dwindled to a few hundred families, and the race is fast dying out. We had the best means of learning much about them, and therefore state most positively that the Todas neither practice polyandry nor are they as few in number as supposed. We are ready to show that no one has ever seen children belonging to them. Those that may have been seen in their company have belonged to the Badagas, a Hindu tribe totally distinct from the Todas, in race, color, and language, and which includes the most direct “worshippers” of this extraordinary people. We say worshippers, for the Badagas clothe, feed, serve, and positively look upon every Toda as a divinity. They are giants in stature, white as Europeans, with tremendously long and generally brown, wavy hair and beard, which no razor ever touched from birth. Handsome as a statue of Pheidias or Praxiteles, the Toda sits the whole day inactive, as some travellers who have had a glance at them affirm. From the many conflicting opinions and statements we have heard from the very residents of Ootakamund and other little new places of civilization scattered about the Neilgherry Hills, we cull the following:

“They never use water; they are wonderfully handsome and noble looking, but extremely unclean; unlike all other natives they despise jewelry, and never wear anything but a large black drapery or blanket of some woollen stuff, with a colored stripe at the bottom; they never drink anything but pure milk; they have herds of cattle but neither eat their flesh, nor do they make their beasts of labor plough or work; they neither sell nor buy; the Badagas feed and clothe them; they never use nor carry weapons, not even a simple stick; the Todas can’t read and won’t learn. They are the despair of the missionaries and apparently have no sort of religion, beyond the worship of themselves as the Lords of Creation.” [“See “Indian Sketches”; Appleton’s “New Cyclopedia,” etc.”]

“We will try to correct a few of these opinions, as far as we have learned from a very holy personage, a Brahmanam-guru, who has our great respect.

“Nobody has ever seen more than five or six of them at one time; they will not talk with foreigners, nor was any traveller ever inside their peculiar long and flat huts, which apparently are without either windows or chimney and have but one door; nobody ever saw the funeral of a Toda, nor very old men among them; nor are they taken sick with cholera, while thousands die around them during such periodical epidemics; finally, though the country all around swarms with tigers and other wild beasts, neither tiger, serpent, nor any other animal so ferocious in those parts, was ever known to touch either a Toda or one of their cattle, though, as said above, they never use even a stick.

“Furthermore the Todas do not marry at all. They seem few in number, for no one has or ever will have a chance of numbering them; as soon as their solitude was profaned by the avalanche of civilization — which was, perchance, due to their own carelessness — the Todas began moving away to other parts as unknown and more inaccessible than the Neilgherry hills had formerly been; they are not born of Toda mothers, nor of Toda parentage; they are the children of a certain very select sect, and are set apart from their infancy for special religious purposes. Recognized by a peculiarity of complexion, and certain other signs, such a child is known as what is vulgarly termed a Toda, from birth. Every third year, each of them must repair to a certain place for a certain period of time, where each of them must meet; their “dirt” is but a mask, such as a sannyasi puts on in public in obedience to his vow; their cattle are, for the most part, devoted to sacred uses; and, though their places of worship have never been trodden by a profane foot, they nevertheless exist, and perhaps rival the most splendid pagodas — goparams — known to Europeans. The Badagas are their special vassals, and — as has been truly remarked — worship them as half-deities; for their birth and mysterious powers entitle them to such a distinction.

“The reader may rest assured that any statements concerning them, that clash with the little that is above given, are false. No missionary will ever catch one with his bait, nor any Badaga betray them, though he were cut to pieces. They are a people who fulfill a certain high purpose, and whose secrets are inviolable.

“Furthermore, the Todas are not the only such mysterious tribe in India. We have named several in a preceding chapter, but how many are there besides these, that will remain unnamed, unrecognized, and yet ever present!”

It’s perhaps needless to mention that such an exalted and metaphysical view of these people is not accepted or endorsed at all by the scientists, ethnologists, anthropologists, etc. of either the past or present. However, if one works one’s way through many of the various articles, studies, and reports that have been written about the Todas, one discovers that none of them are in agreement, all contradict one another on various points, sometimes on those that are most important, and all ultimately admit confusion and ignorance as to the real origin and nature of the tribe.

HPB’s confident and definite assertions stand as quite a contrast to this! Students of Theosophy are assured that she knew exactly what she was talking about and revealed as much as she was permitted to reveal, in this as in other matters.

In transcripts of some of her teachings to the Blavatsky Lodge in London, published in their full and unedited form only in 2014 in the book “The Secret Doctrine Dialogues,” she sheds a little more light on the subject, explaining that “they are of Lanka descent, not Greek. They have got their own things. I have written all these legends that they gave me themselves, and what I heard of all these I have written in Russian. They say by the calculation of the Moon it comes to something like 22 thousand years that they came on the hills, the blue hills of the gods, and that their forefathers were in the service of Rama. This is their story, and that they come from Lanka; but it was not what it is now. It was enormous. It was a part of the continent of the Atlanteans when it sunk, but they are the most mysterious race. I wish you had an opportunity to see them, what handsome men, all with long, beautiful wavy hair, even their old men.” (p. 453 – for more about Rama, Lanka, and Atlantis, please see Theosophical Light on The Ramayana)

Today, there are numerous modern articles on the internet about the Todas, such as on this Indian tourism website. Some of the details and some of the photos that can be found would suggest or imply inaccuracy on HPB’s part. But is this really the case? Do the researchers and travel writers really know what they are talking about? Or are they deliberately fed harmlessly misleading information by today’s “Todas” in order to thus keep the real facts and the deeply esoteric secrets hidden well away from prying eyes?

Consider these words written by the late Dallas TenBroeck, a Theosophist who lived much of his early life in India in the regular company of B. P. Wadia, an influential Indian Theosophist who played an important and prominent role in the work of the United Lodge of Theosophists. In his biographical notes about Mr Wadia, he briefly mentioned the Todas and wrote:

“Mr. Wadia knew more about those mysterious personages than many. He stated one time that the “real Todas” had retired to secluded and secure places shortly after the British started coming there. They had “had themselves replaced” with others who looked like them, but were not Todas. An incident in 1937-40, when walking in the afternoon (as was usual) between tea-time and dinner, with Mr. Wadia and others of his household, comes to mind. We saw on one of rough access forest roads on the high hill backing Gurumandir, some distance ahead, a person dressed in the customary white wool, toga-like attire of a Toda. He was apparently waiting for Mr. Wadia. BPW asked us to wait for him and he walked alone up to this personage who was a few hundred yards away. They exchanged some words. The “Toda” turned and left, walking up into the jungle of the mountain above. Mr. Wadia then waved us up, but he did not explain the encounter, nor allay our curiosity until several years had passed.”

Two well known phrases come to mind: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are even dreamed of in your philosophy” and “Truth is often stranger than fiction”!

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