The Toda people designates a small pastoral community that live on the isolated Nilgiri plateau of Southern India. Prior to the late eighteenth century, the Toda coexisted locally with other communities, including the Badaga, Kota, and Kurumba, in a loose caste-like community organization. The Toda held the top ranking among those communities. The Toda population has hovered in the range 700 to 900 during the last century. Although an insignificant fraction of the large population of India, the Toda have attracted (since the late eighteenth century), "a most disproportionate amount of attention because of their ethnological aberrancy" and "their unlikeness to their neighbours in appearance, manners, and customs." The study of their culture by anthropologists and linguists would prove important in the creation of the fields of social anthropology and ethnomusicology.
The Toda traditionally live in settlements called mund, consisting of three to seven small thatched houses, constructed in the shape of half-barrels and located across the slopes of the pasture, on which they keep domestic buffalo. Their economy was pastoral, based on the buffalo, which dairy products they traded with neighbouring peoples of the Nilgiri Hills. Toda religion features the sacred buffalo; consequently, rituals are performed for all dairy activities as well as for the ordination of dairymen-priests. The religious and funerary rites provide the social context in which complex poetic songs about the cult of the buffalo are composed and chanted.
The Toda dress consists of a single piece of cloth, which is worn like shalya wrap over a dhoti for men and as a skirt for women along with shalya wrap. The symbols from traditional costumes.
They once practised fraternal polyandry, a practice in which a woman marries all the brothers of a family, but no longer do so. All the children of such marriages were deemed to descend from the eldest brother. The ratio of females to males is about three to five. The culture historically practised female infanticide. In the Toda tribe, families arrange contracted child marriage for couples.
The Todas live in small hamlets called munds. The Toda huts, called dogles, are of an oval, pent-shaped construction. They are usually 10 feet (3 m) high, 18 feet (5.5 m) long and 9 feet (2.7 m) wide. They are built of bamboo fastened with rattan and are thatched. Thicker bamboo canes are arched to give the hut its basic bent shape. Thinner bamboo canes (rattan) are tied close and parallel to each other over this frame. Dried grass is stacked over this as thatch. Each hut is enclosed within a wall of loose stones. The front and back of the hut are usually made of dressed stones (mostly granite). The hut has a tiny entrance at the front – about 3 feet (90 cm) wide, 3 feet (90 cm) tall, through which people must crawl to enter the interior. This unusually small entrance is a means of protection from wild animals. The front portion of the hut is decorated with the Toda art forms, a kind of rock mural painting.
The Todas are vegetarians and do not eat meat, eggs that can hatch, or fish (although some villagers do eat fish). The buffalo were milked in a holy dairy, where the priest/milkman also processed their gifts. Buffalo milk is used in a variety of forms: butter, butter milk, yogurt, cheese and drunk plain. Rice is a staple, eaten with dairy products and curries.
According to the Todas, the goddess Teikirshy and her brother first created the sacred buffalo and then the first Toda man. The first Toda woman was created from the right rib of the first Toda man. Many rites feature the buffalo, as its milk and other products form the basis of their diet. The Toda religion exalted high-class men as holy milkmen, giving them sacred status as priests of the holy dairy. According to Frazer in 1922 (see quote below from Golden Bough, the holy milkman was prohibited from walking across bridges while in office. He had to ford rivers by foot, or by swimming. The people are prohibited from wearing shoes or any type of foot covering. Toda temples are constructed in a circular pit lined with stones. They are similar in appearance and construction to Toda huts. Women are not allowed to enter or go close to these huts that are designated as temples.
The Toda language is a member of the Dravidian family. The language is typologically aberrant and phonologically difficult. Linguists have classified Toda (along with its neighbour Kota) as a member of the southern subgroup of the historical family proto-South-Dravidian. It split off from South Dravidian, after Kannada and Telugu, but before Malayalam. In modern linguistic terms, the aberration of Toda results from a disproportionately high number of syntactic and morphological rules, of both early and recent derivation, which are not found in the other South Dravidian languages (save Kota, to a small extent.