The Toda, a tribal group in South India, have lived high in the Nilgiri Hills for centuries—their first recorded contact with civilization was in the late 1700s, when the East India Company annexed the Nilgiri region. Their population has varied over the years, dropping to as low as 700. The Toda people are vegetarians who once practiced fraternal polyandry, a practice in which a woman married a set of brothers. The children born from these marriages were then considered the oldest brother’s children.
Though they no longer practice fraternal polyandry, the Toda, whose facial features look more like those of indigenous people in South America than Indians, are trying to hold on to many of their customs in a rapidly modernizing world. Neighboring Ooty, a popular hill station and hot spot for tourists, has been developing quickly and encroaching on open lands used by the Toda.
While the tribe has historically made its living off of the land, the women are known for a unique form of embroidery that uses only black and red thread. They have struggled to take their creations—shawls, bags, tablecloths—to larger markets beyond the Nilgiri Hills. Traditionally, the women draped themselves in the fabric for special occasions. But could they make a living from it?
Based in Coimbatore, ROPE, a social enterprise that works with artisans to promote Indian handicrafts, has started purchasing from the Toda women. And Mela Artisans, a New York–based social enterprise, is working with the women to amend the Toda designs, experimenting with different base colors (aside from just white) and variations on the classic Toda patterns. The new renditions of the Toda embroidery will be sold to American retailers, creating a global market for the tribe.