Nature is god’s gift to mankind is a popular saying. In the south of the Indian Peninsula where the coastal ranges converge, there lies the hilly plateaus called the Nilgiris. Far from the maddening crowd and described by many as the paradise on earth, The Nilgiris or blue mountains of South India have developed into a niche for several ethnic groups. They are the kothas, Todas, Kurumbas and Irulas. Coexisting amongst them are the “Badagas”. The unevenly documented history does not give a clear picture of how these people settled here. There have been serious attempts by a number of scholars like Paul Hockings, David Goodman Mandelbaum, who have done original research on the anthropology and geography of the Nilgiris. The “District manual of the Nilgiris” describes the meaning of Badaga as “Northerners who are believed to be settlers from Mysore.”
One can thus say that virtually everything we know today of cultural tradition of the Badagas relates to the period when the British Government and interests were already present in the background. Scattered over the eastern half of the Nilgris Mansif are nearly 370 hamlets of the Badaga Community.
A village or otherwise known as hatti typically consists of several lines of houses ranged one above the other on the protected easterly slopes of a hill. Each of the streets is called a kerri. Every hamlet is surrounded by its fields and plantation, many now terraced to eucalyptus complete the rural scene in most areas of the Badaga habitation today. Each village has its own traditional headman who works with a small council made up of male elders of such lineage or a dominant family.
Important as this particular setting has been for their economic pursuits, first as refugees, buffalo rearers and millet cultivators, then more recently as potato, cabbage and tea producers, it was never the total environment in any sense for the Badagas. It has always been complemented by a social environment consisting of the Kotas and Todas.
Until the British established such towns as Ootacamund, there were no markets in the district. It has been noted that the Todas regularly supplied dairy produce and jungle made artefacts to their Badaga associates in return for grain ; while the kotas proved even crucial , since they also acted as blacksmiths, carpenters, gold and silversmiths, potters, leather workers, musicians, builders to the Badagas in return for regular gifts of grain and cloth. With the setting of the East India Company by a treaty of Seringapatna in 1799, the market economy started booming. Furthermore, John Sullivan, the first European explorer of the Nilgiris, pioneered the effort of development in the areas of agriculture and education. Tea and coffee plantations enveloped the areas for many areas since. With Industrialization and technological developments, hundreds of Badagas have left cultivation altogether and now work in urbanized professions such as law, medicine, administration and teaching.
Unique as are the Nilgris communities in many respects in India, they are unique too linguistically. The communities Toda, Kota, Badaga speak different languages. These diverse languages are Dravidian in nature, most references to Badaga have been classified as having a dialectal status of Kannada, Irulas or Todas have their language closely related to Tamil.
Music and dance are an integral part of Badaga culture. Their tunes are quaint and original and when heard from a distance have a sweetness about them in keeping with the soft colour and wild beauty of landscape which is their home. Marriages and funeral processions are incomplete without music and dance. The entire village participates in the celebration showcasing unity which is their strength.
Most of the Badaga villages worship an ancestress called hette and hold an annual festival in her honour. She is regarded as the mythical founder, associated particularly with the fertility of women and crops. The vast majority of Badagas accept Lord Shiva as the dominant deity.
The marriage ceremonies ae quite simple, they take place in the bridegrooms house with the custom of the bride having to fetch water thereby taking charge of her household responsibilities. There is also a background of payments that are made at the time of the wedding. A bridewealth or Honnu of Rs. 100 to 200 is paid to the bride’s parents from the groom’s side. This money is to be used for the arrangements for the wedding like the gold ornaments and attire. Over a period of time, with the influence of media exposure, the marriage ceremonies are an extravagant showcasing of wealth with the traditional practices still followed
The Badagas can be recognized at a glance by their costume. The traditional badaga man wore a white mundu- dhothi and a white shawl called seelay, which is a long piece of thick special weave of cotton with distinctive borders in black and zari and a white turban. The Badaga woman’s attire consisted of white thundhu, Mundu and pattu. The thundu is a piece of white rectangular cloth wrapped around the body and reaching a few inches below the knees. The mundu is a piece of finer cotton cloth worn like a shawl over the shoulders. The pattu is a scarf – like piece of white cotton cloth, worn square across the forehead and tucked at the back of her head. The colour is always white and many still wear them. Every woman of marriageable age is tattooed on the forehead and upper arm in simple designs of dots and lines.
Food habits form an important part of the traditional culture. The varied cuisine includes a balanced diet of vegetables which are locally cultivated. Some of the delicacies are the thuppathittu, erigittu, kanjikke and avarai which are regularly consumed. Though the changes have been inevitable over a period of time, the uniqueness of the Badagas lies in the fact that many of the customs are still in practice.
UNESCO recognizes hospitality as being the unique character of the Badagas . With hospitality and grace adding to the charm of the lives of the Badagas, it is an enviable jewel underlying the essence of ethnicity in India.