Toda Embroidery: neutral black and bold red meet the elegant white

The advent of textile mechanization has peeled the death knell on cultures and hand crafted traditions. One such indigenous culture fading away slowly is the pastoral tribal community of ‘The Todas’. They reside amidst the rumbling hills of Nilgiris, meaning ‘Blue Mountains’ and communicate in Toda language, belonging to the Dravidian family of languages.
Apart from being herdsmen and farmers, involved in small time cultivation in grasslands, they also deeply engage themselves in the tradition of handicrafts and are experts in a distinct style of embroidered shawls, cloaks, and silver jewelry. In the Toda language, they call this tradition of embroidery as ‘pukhoor’ which means ‘flower’.


What is particularly remarkable about the Todas is that they lead their lives as an intimate, close-knit community which is interwoven with the natural environment. A social streak that reflects rather immensely on the handiwork itself. Essentially characterized by the usage of red and black (with occasional blue) threads, worked together with intricacy and harmony on a white cloth, the embroidery quite unsurprisingly, achieved its rightful Geographical Indication status in 2012.

It is the women of the tribe who carry forward this age old practice of, highly nuanced and distinctive embroidery which represents the quintessential characteristics of the Toda tribe, The local terms used to describe the embroidery work are ‘kuty’ or ‘awtty’ meaning “stitching” and ‘kutyvoy’ meaning the embroidered piece. The fabric used is coarse bleached half white cotton cloth with hand; the woven bands on the fabric consist of two bands, one in red, one in black spaced at six inches. ‘Karnol’ is the name of the embroidery done on the left part of the fabric, whereas the right part is known as ‘Karthal’.

They do the embroidery on reverse, in order to produce a rich, embossed effect on the surface. The entire process is based on counting. The women do them out of practice without tracing the pattern or referring to a book. Each woman who engages with this practice, does the embroidery according to her interpretation of the surroundings. This, ultimately results in each product being one of one.


The tribal women consider their work as a tribute to nature. Hence, the inspiration of the developed designs comes from nature, day to day life activities, mythological stories and reflects colors of flora and fauna. Since, the embroidery of a particular region conveys the story of that region. In this case, it is the embroidered motifs that depicts their story

‘Buffalo horn’ being the most important motif because of the religious significance that buffalo holds for the tribe. ‘Izhaduinpuguti’ which is a motif, named after their priest. The celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars) helps them in determining the time for their elaborate rituals. Other inspirations include the Peacock feathers, flowers, rabbit ears and many more.

The Toda embroidered shawls, ‘Poothkuli’, play an important role for all occasions, like the weddings, festivities or even funerals. The elders of the Tribe, wear it religiously as a traditional garment. While the Toda bride and groom drape themselves with the embroidered garment during weddings. They even use it to cover the dead before performing the funeral rites. Even the wedding guests must wear ‘poothkali’ during the wedding, or the elders of the community fine them for not wearing one.


The women, using their age-old skills and finesse have managed to convert their practice as a source of income. Not only this, they also garner the recognition for their art. Of late, the embroidery has found itself incorporated in many spheres, lifestyle (tablecloth, mats, cushions etc.) and fashion (shawls, tunics bags etc.) being one of them. Several organizations are taking initiatives to revive this art, but it will only have an impact, if we reposition the embroidery as an appropriate modern-day depiction of its past.

“Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced. Let us learn to see not just craft as a product but as an embodiment of human feelings, human creativity and human labour”

Leo Tolstoy

Muskaan Batra
Muskaan Batra

3rd year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Reena george says:

    Beautiful handiwork.

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