When eight-year old Akkamma Devi walked the long road from Bearhatti to St. Joseph’s Convent in Coonoor, it was not just an 8 km walk; she was a blazing trail for other Badaga women.

It was her father, Motha Gowder, a lab technician at Pasteur Institute, who was determined that his daughters should get a good education. So, one winter morning, he walked through the imposing gates of this European girls’ school, up the cobbled drive to meet the French Mother Superior, and fulfilled his dream of securing admission for his eldest daughter, Akkamma. His younger daughter, who also joined the school, would travel on her father’s shoulders. Akkamma was the first Indian girl to join this missionary school and the first Badaga woman to graduate.  She had an active political career winning the Nilgiris seat in the 1962 Indian General Election.

Many years later, Akkamma Devi, in an interview to The Hindu, attributed her success to her father who had made a number of sacrifices to ensure she would get the best education available. His dictum, she said, was ‘educate a woman and she will educate her entire family’.  

The early years of the 20th century saw the Badaga community, which was secluded from the rest of world until the advent of the British in 1819, harnessing the winds of change which were blowing across the hills.

Paul Hocking in his book Ancient Hindu Refugees: Badaga Social History, writes, “… it was only after 1856, that the Badaga perceived some value in education. This value lay in Tamil literacy which was slowly becoming the one sure passport to coveted official positions.” Once the earlier reservations were overcome, the Badagas threw themselves into the maelstrom and merged into the mainstream of Indian ethos.

“The Badaga community is a territorial group confined to the Nilgiris. There is no other place outside the Nilgiris where the community shares a definite locale,” writes B. Balasubramaniam in his book, Paame – The History and Culture of the Badagas of the Nilgiris.

Balasubramaniam calls the Badagas ‘the largest group of indigenous people in the Nilgiris’. Their origin is a hotly debated topic among historians and anthropologists. There are a number of theories; the most prevalent being the migration of people from the Mysore plateau to the hills. The word Badaga means “northerner” which supports the migration theory.

Balasubramaniam dates the first Badaga migration with the incursions into South India in 1311 AD by Malik Kafur, one of the generals of Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi. Initially, the migrations to the hills were small in number but the subsequent ones were larger.  Doubtless, they were encouraged by the Vijayanagara Kings of the Deccan Plateau region, so that their economic activity, either by agriculture or prospecting for gold, would benefit the rulers by way of taxes.

Archival photos of Rao Bahadur Ari Gowder and his father, Rao Bahadur Bellie Gowder. Photo courtesy badaga.co Archival photos of Rao Bahadur Ari Gowder and his father, Rao Bahadur Bellie Gowder. Photo courtesy Wing Cdr Bellie Jayaprakash.

The barter system gave way to a cash economy, followed by World War I, which saw the Badaga shift cultivation from the traditional millet to potatoes and by 1920, to tea. Hocking says that their initial interest in tea cultivation was merely a method of increasing the value of the land before selling it off to an English planter.

Real progress, however, came with education, especially, of women. The Badaga community owes a lot to leaders such as Rao Bahadur H. J. Bellie Gowder who played a pivotal role in steering the Badagas into the modern age. 

Rao Bahadur Bellie Gowder’s story is one which is often told and retold in the Nilgiris. As a young lad of 14 he was able to negotiate a contract with the British to supply labour to build the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Later, he became a major railway contractor. A great believer in education, he encouraged the Badagas to educate their children. He was acknowledged as the leader of all the hill tribes in the Nilgiris and in 1916 organized the first conference of hill tribes to highlight their problems. After his time, the mantle of leadership fell to his son, Rao Bahadur Ari Gowder, who continued the social reform started by his father.

He had placed great importance on the value of education and insisted that the Badagas educate their children. Balasubramaniam talks of how Bellie Gowder hired a minstrel to visit each of the 370 Badaga villages and sing songs creating awareness about the importance of education. He established a school in his village, and housed and paid the scholarly Brahmin teachers from his earnings.  

Rev. Philip K. Mulley, anthropologist, historian and a Badaga himself said that one of the reasons for the high literacy rate among the Badagas was because of the 30 village schools established by missionaries of the German Basel Mission.  Besides village schools, English medium schools for the children of the English, Anglo Indians and affluent Indians sprang up all over the Nilgiris. This proved beneficial to the Badaga community as well. These schools, most of them modeled on British public schools, were the making of many Badaga sports men and women.

But it is the Badaga women who were the mainstay of the community and known for their hard work, both at home and in the fields.  “In the old days, groups of women from the hatti (village) would walk all the way to the temple at Nanjungud near Mysore and back, a distance of 200 km or more, depending on where their villages were. This walk would take nine days and was considered a holiday away from house and field work,” says Gayatri Balasubramaniam, school teacher and artist.

Rao Bahadur Bellie Gowder also told the Badaga women “to change their traditional dress – the thundu mundu – the white unstitched waist cloth, upper body cloth and head dress – and adopt the sari”, says Balasubramaniam. Most of them did listen and changed accordingly. Today, the traditional dress is seen only in some hattis and that too worn by older women.

A view of a traditional Badaga home. Photograph by Mahesh Bhat.
A view of a traditional Badaga home. Photograph by Mahesh Bhat.

Unlike the other hill tribes: the Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas and the Irulas, the Badagas embraced change that came with the British. The Todas, who had top ranking in the order of things, have not fared as well, socially or economically. Their numbers are dwindling and they are in danger of becoming extinct. The Badagas, on the other hand, have been inter-marrying with later immigrants such as Wodeas, Haruvas, Toreas and some Lingayat sects such as the Adhikaris, Kannaks and Kaggusis for a long time, hence their larger numbers.

As you drive around the Nilgiris, you can see the small hattis; the picturesque clusters of houses nestling on the slopes surrounded by tea and then you notice the women working among the tea bushes and in the potato and cabbage fields. More than 80% of the community still remains connected to tea. On an optimistic note, many Badaga youth who had left the Nilgiris to lead lives in city are now making their way back home, ready to take up the mantle of their unique identity once again. 

Photographs in the featured banner by Mahesh Bhat.

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  1. Ian Bersten Reply

    This is a great story and should be told to the whole Third World that the way to progress is to empower women.

  2. Gopi Warrier Reply

    Nina, I liked this interesting piece. Unlike the other indigenous communities in the Nilgiris, the Badagas perhaps do not share a common gene pool, for they came to the hills in different times of history, and they may have been from different communities. They could have picked up the common Badaga (those from the north) identity later. Having established themselves in settled agriculture and education, they went on to become the dominant community of the Nilgiris. I have some doubts about the dates, however. One, the British came to the hills in 1821 or 1822. Two, from my understanding, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was already running by the 1880s. So the railway contract could have been less for construction and more for maintenance. I could be wrong in my understanding, though, and am open to be corrected.

  3. Dr. George Jayaprakash Reply

    So comprehensively written with life in each and every sentence; Nina you have brought out the real inner strength and the meaning of the words ‘educate a woman and she will educate her entire family’. One can literally “see’ the Badaga life in your article- Many thanks for this and may you continue in your contribution in educating the peoples of the world.

  4. Surendranathan Viswanathan Reply

    Thanks Nina, brought back alot of memmories I was a boarder in Laidlaw Memmorial School SGH, Ketti from 1956 to 1962. Akkama Devi’s son J C, was my classmate in Madras Christian College, Tambaram in ’63-64.

    Keep writing.

    Dr V Surendranathan FRCS
    Kuala Lumpur.

  5. BEULAH shekhar Reply

    Thanks Nina
    So this is what is called picturesque writing is it ?
    Throughly enjoyed literally seeing them in your words it and is there a sequel ? About their music and dance form ? Waiting 🙂

  6. Surya Rajan Reply

    Hello Nina.

    Wonderful story. With all the awesome research work you have done about The Baduga’s community I guess you would be able to clarify my doubt on the intermarrying part here. It’s been said that the Badugas had encouraged intermarriage with Thoraiyuru and other immigrants. But in the modern era Badugas are very much conservative about inter-cast or inter-religion marriage. In some hattis an inter-cast marriage is considered equal to a sinful act having let down the community. With such graceful history I clearly don’t see the connect between the two eras about the idea of intermarriage here.

  7. preetha nanda Reply

    I am a badaga and it feels good to read about our history and the empowerment of women in our community which is 100%true. I only wish the last few lines of the article comes true which as of now looks bleak due to lack of employment opportunities in the hills.

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  12. Ravikumar Joghee Reply

    Badagas history is known only through their ancient celebration ‘ Devu Habba’. Since Badugu language has no script, the prayers are passed on verbally from one generation to another. Every village invoke God and their ancestors. While invoking they mention the place of origin. This is the only source of information of where they came from. If a research work is carried out to collate the data of origins, the dots may be joined.

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