December 23, 2000: Day 19, Ooty
Date: 12/23/00, 10:13 AM EST (8:43 PM in India)
Re: Message from Internet
Thought I'd stop to describe our amazing experience today witnessing a Toda tribal wedding. As noted yesterday, we spoke with some Toda villagers in the small settlement near the botanical garden here in Ooty, and bought a bunch of their hand-embroidered shawls from them. Apparently because we asked them so many questions about their temple, religion, life style, and so on, they invited us to a wedding that took place today in a tiny village about 17 km from here.
We ended up accepting the offer and hired a car for the day to take us and a guide from the village here out over some amazingly bumpy roads through a beautiful landscape of terraced mountainous tea plantations, potato and cabbage fields, and small villages nestled among the hills. Gina took some Imodium since she wasn't quite well enough for this trip (but how could she pass it up?) and Rashmi strapped on her motion sickness zapper bracelet and we bumped along for about an hour or more very slowly.
I have to admit that at first I thought this might be staged or a front for robbing us somewhere in the boonies, but no it was the real thing. We came into the village and all the little kids swarmed around us, one taking my hand to lead us up to the area behind the groom's house where tea and food was being served (we ate only some packaged biscuits since we're all still a bit quesy). It was immediately clear that their offer for us to join this event was completely genuine and friendly in a way that is hard for us americans to understand. This all seemed like something straight out of national geographic to me!
They even encouraged us to take photos, and helped us by taking some photos for us, and later even practically dragged us down to the front during the ceremony so we could photograph it along with the hired professional that they had there! It seems that the Toda are very mellow and friendly and strict only about a very few things, like no outsiders inside or near their temples, which unfortunately some tourists do not respect (the village by the botanical garden used to be more open to visitors, but they had a lot of problems so put up 'no visitors' signs, and now only let people in selectively upon request).
The village where the wedding was held had maybe 8-10 houses, most in the new concrete style but at least one with the arched traditional style thatched roof similar to that on the temple we saw yesterday, with a tiny doorway about 2x2 feet in size at one end. This one was a house, however, and there were very cute kids playing just inside the doorway as I passed.
Once in the reception area, we were introduced to the bride and groom, their parents and grand parents, and many others. The elder from the village by the botanical garden explained to us that this was actually one of several wedding ceremonies for this couple. The first one happened about 8 months ago and is followed by another once the bride is 6 months pregnant. If this never happens, then the bride may be sent back to her parents and is free to remarry. Otherwise, they do the ceremony we saw today to seal the deal (and another at 8 months or so, but I don't know the details of that one).
After talking for a while, everybody (about 200+ villagers from this village and others around the area) walked down about 250 yards to the forest where the ceremony was held on the edge of a buffalo pasture, under a large tree. Many were dressed in the traditional Toda shawls, and there were also many others in fancy and beautiful saris and other traditional indian costumes (these were neighbors and friends). Rashmi, Gina, and Guru wore the shawls we bought yesterday just for fun, and this was a source of amusement for all. After some obligatory picture taking and being-taken, we went down to the big tree to see the niche that had been carved into its trunk for this ceremony. Each wedding adds a niche to the tree, in which an oil lamp burning ghee is placed during the ceremony. Clocks and stainless steel cookware of all types given as gifts were placed all around the trunk.
After some time the groom came down the far hill (everything is hilly here in a very picturesque and steep way) with a bow and arrow freshly made in the other forest above. This was then given to the bride later in the ceremony as the final symbol of the union, sort of like rings for us.
But before the actual ceremony, first the bride and groom circulated among the guests to pick up presents (mostly cash; the rest were piled by the tree). We gave 100 Rs to each, plus two of the new 1$ coins, since it's traditional in much of india to give 101 or 51 or 1001 or 10001 of whatever one is giving (instead of round numbers because the round numbers would be viewed as less generous).
Then there were two dances with chanting by the men, who circled in an ever-increasing circle singing good wishes for the bride and groom while the children stood in the center of the circle (just for fun, we were told, because they like doing this, not because this has any significance). Then a similar dance by the women, and finally the ceremony. I held back a bit so didn't see too much of what went on but relented to their insistence that I go down front to take a couple of photos right when the freshly made bow changed hands (and everybody clapped).
[I should stop to note that while I type this the power is turning on and off in this internet cafe and they are struggling to bring back up their internet link... luckily I typed this in Notepad and saved to disk!]
After that, everybody went back up to the village to eat. We declined and sought out some bushes for other pursuits, both as a result of lingering illness and a wish to avoid more diseases in the future. We waited around for an hour just enjoying the beautiful vistas and fresh air, while our guide joined the eating. Then back into our car and another bumpy ride home.
Can't say that the above really captures the experience, but it was worth a try. Our slides should help to explain in more detail what we saw, and I'll have to try to make more detailed notes on the many things we learned about Toda life from our clean cut and intelligent guide, and from the village elder, and from the somewhat inebriated guest that talked to us for quite a long time. For example:
Well, I better stop... my head is spinning and Rashmi and Guru are waiting for me to finish.
Hope all is well!
- Stephan and Gina
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