April 2, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Toto Tribe


A Tribe on the Verge of Extinction

The Toto people are a small, isolated tribe of the sub-Himalayas that live a primitive, simple life with only the use of locally available resources.

They are known as one of the smallest primitive tribes left in the world, and are currently considered endangered.

straw hut and tribal woman with child split image

Who are they?

The Toto people are one of the world's smallest indigenous ethnic groups, living in the village of Totopara on India's border with Bhutan, in West Bengal (India).

Toto tribeDooars Tours Travel

How big is their tribe?

Totos were nearly becoming extinct in the 1950s, with only 321 tribe members left. However, recent aid to safeguard their homelands have helped the population grow.

By 2001, their population had grown to 1,184—all living in Totopara.

Totopara villageFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What do they look like?

Toto people are traditionally described as Mongoloid—a term used for some indigenous peoples characterized by reddish skin tones, fairly thick lips, wider nose and straight hair.

Toto tribeED Times

What language do they speak?

The Toto language is also endangered, as it has been lost along the years. Their native language is unique to their tribe, and referred to as the Toto language.

Toto tribeED Times

What is their naming tradition?

Toto people are divided into 26 different clans in total, but each of them has the surname of Toto.

Toto peopleFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What do they live in?

A traditional Toto hut is elevated above the ground, and built with bamboo, straw and clay. The walls are made of bamboo, the roof is woven together using straw, and the clay is used to hold everything together.

Toto HouseRajibnandi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

How many huts do they have?

They typically have a sleeping hut—which is their main living house, and a kitchen hut and a cattle-and-poultry hut that is separate from the main living house.

Toto House in forest, male and female toto peopleFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What else does their home have?

Each family home has a garden, protected by bamboo fences, where they grow potatoes, bananas, and various other vegetables for their personal supply.

toto tribeMid Day

What else do they eat?

In additional to cultivating fruits and vegetables, Toto people eat pork, venison, poultry and fish.

Toto people. Toto woman preparing foodFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Do they drink?

The indigenous communities in the area do not drink western beverages, such as liquor. They make their own version of it called Eu—which is made from millet, fermented rice, marua, malt and powder. It has a medicinal value as well.

Toto women preparing a drinkFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

How do they hunt?

Today, most of their animals for meat consumption are raised for that purpose, which takes away traditional hunting methods.

Toto people. Toto woman milking cowFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

How do they raise their animals?

The Totos homes are built on elevated stilts. The ground level is where they keep their pigs, and sometimes smaller cattle—this is because it is easier to monitor their safety.

Toto people. Toto woman giving food to animalFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What are the pigs used for?

Pigs are fed a high-quality diet, and after 2-3 years they are slaughtered and the meat is sold in the market. The pig fat is melted down and used in food preparation and also to make pain relief oils.

Pig in yardFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Are they a nomadic tribe?

No. The Toto people live in a permanent village called Totopara, consisting of about 200 houses belonging to the Toto tribe. There are small sections of other tribes as well, but very few.

Entrance Of TotoparaSimchinrai, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

What does their village have?

In recent years, modernization has made its way into their village. The community now has a primary school, a high school, and a primary health center—though many of the older generations hang tight to their primitive traditional lifestyle.

Toto tribeED Times

What are the schools like?

Traditionally, children were schooled at home by their parents with very little educational resources. Today, the village school is formed by local Totos who have any type of knowledge to offer. Funding comes from donations and crowdfunding.

Toto people. Kids of toto people at schoolFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What is their family structure like?

Traditionally, a Toto family is patrilocal in nature—meaning they reside with or near the husband’s family. A typical Toto family is nuclear, consisting of parents and their children.

Toto people. Family in their homeFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What is marriage like?

Unlike other similar tribes, the Toto people are typically monogamous—the men only have one wife, and do not partake in a dowry system.

Toto people, Wedding Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

How are spouses chosen?

There are various ways of acquiring a partner: (1) marriage by negotiation (Thulbehoea), (2) marriage by escape (Chor-behoea), (3) marriage by capture (Sambehoea) and (4) love marriage (Lamalami).

Toto women at a weddingFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Can they marry outside of their community?

Totos are very much conscious and conservative about their tribal identity, and marriage with other community people is not acceptable.

Toto people. Toto bride in dress walkingFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Does marrying within their tribe only cause any problems?

Because they will only marry within their community, it is common for cousins to marry. However, this causes a concern in regards to procreation, as interfamily relations have led to children born with Thalassemia disease—an inherited blood disorder—which cannot be treated without blood transfusions.

Toto tribeED Times

Do they believe in divorce?

No. The Toto people do not practice divorce. The only way out of a marriage is through death.

Toto people, Toto familyFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Can a man have more than one wife?

Although most Toto men prefer monogamy, polygamy is not prohibited. If a man’s wife passes, he may marry the wife’s younger sister—but a woman cannot marry her late husband’s brother.

Toto people, Toto man sitting in hutFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What happens when a spouse passes?

On the passing of a spouse, the husband or wife must remain single for twelve months before he or she is free to remarry.

The Toto people bury their fallen members, as they do not believe in cremation.

Toto tribeED Times

What is the average life expectancy of the Toto people?

Recently, the Anthropological Survey of India observed that an average Toto person only lives to be about 35 years old—unless struck with disease earlier—which is a great cause of concern for their existence.

Though some of the older generations seem to be living longer as they still practice a more traditional way of life.

Toto tribeIndian Express

What are their beliefs?

Toto people consider themselves Hindus who also worship nature. They worship and fear many gods—to whom they offer sacrifices to keep peace and order.

Toto people. Toto people in temple Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Who is Ishpa?

Ishpa is a god that lives in the Bhutan Hills and causes illness when displeased. They offer animal sacrifices and a fermented drink called Eu, to restore balance with Ishpa when needed.

Ishpa is worshipped outside of their homes.

Toto people and livestockFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Who is Cheima?

Chiema is a god that keeps the village and its people safe. They offer Cheima rice, poultry and their fermented drink.

Cheima is worshipped inside of their homes.

Toto people, Toto woman offering food Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Do they have religious tribe members?

The Toto people have priests, who also offer worship and sacrifices on their own to the gods on a regular basis.

Toto people in templeFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What is their biggest religious festival?

The biggest festival celebrated by Totos is called Angchu Puja–which lasts between August and October 18. They give hens and pigeons as gifts to gods and goddesses during this time.

Toto tribeMid Day

How do they perform sacrifices?

Their traditional tool used for sacrificing animals (typically a rooster) is called a Goshu—which is a three-foot-long piece of iron used to end the life of the animal sacrifice.

Toto tribeED Times

What is Bhado month?

Bhado month is September, when they celebrate Pongchu, a festival in which they worship monsoon and khula nala—which is monsoon season. During this time, they express gratitude for the rainy season.

Toto people. Toto people in temple Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What other religions do they practice?

In recent years, Christian missionary works have made their way into the village and a small portion of the Toto population have converted to Christianity.

Toto people. Toto people in  Cristian templeFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

How do they make money?

Toto people earn money through trade—usually their personal crops as they are not active farmers and only cultivate for personal use. They also sell betel nuts.

Some Totos raise cows and pigs as an occupation.

Toto people. Toto people carrying things Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Do they practice medicine?

Traditionally, the Toto people used plants found in nature as medicine for illnesses such as diarrhea, diabetes, dengue, etc. and practiced the Ayurvedic method—which uses treatments like yoga, massage, acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Toto people and modern medicine Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Are they friendly with other tribes?

Totopara—where the Toto tribe lives—is located around the corner from the Bhutan border, which has cultural differences with the Bhutanese people.

These differences are a major reason for constant clashes between both communities.
Pictured here is Bhutan. 

Totopara villageFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What happens between the Totos and Bhutanese?

The clash between the tribes has resulted in many losses of life, particularly with the older males. This is what caused the specific decline in population in the 1950s as Toto families were not repopulating the tribe.

Toto people. Toto man and a childFilms Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

What else affected the declining population?

Between 1982-1985 a deadly epidemic occurred, which wiped out half of the Totos population. The tribe was infected by several diseases, such as: tuberculosis, diabetes, thalassemia, pneumonia, measles, rubella and hepatitis.

Toto tribeNews Click

How were the diseases introduced?

It only took one sick outsider to get too close to introduce disease. Once one person is infected, the disease can quickly spread, and due to a lack of modern medicine, most tribal members passed within a week of becoming ill, including many children.

Toto tribe kidsIndya Tour

How do people get to the village?

The entire Totopara-Ballaguri area doesn’t have any kind of road connectivity. In order to reach the area, you have to cross several rivers that are typically dried up—except for during monsoon season when the pathways become inundated with water.

road to  Totopara crossing rivers Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Does the village have electricity?

There is no supply of electricity to the area. All important activities has to be done during the daylight hours. This includes inside the schools and medical facility.

toto tribeDoorstrip

What is their infrastructure like?

Aside from the few buildings mentioned before, like schools and the medical facility, there is no infrastructure in Totopara. Given that there are no roads, there is also limited transportation—however there is also no need for it.

Toto tribeED Times

What is the future like for the Toto People?

In recent years, modernization has creeped its way into the Toto community. As more and more villagers have become educated, they have started traveling for migrant work, making money and bringing home modernized materials, such as clothing, tools, and even some technology.

 Toto woman speaking on cell phone Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Are they protected?

Yes, the Toto people are considered on the verge of extinction, with a dwindling population even today. They are currently covered under Scheduled Tribes and given legal protection under the Indian Constitution—though this does not help avoid globalization.

 Toto people at event Films Division, Government of India, The Wind in the Maruwa Field (2016)

Final Thoughts

While the Toto people are slowly transitioning into mainstream living, their village remains isolated and remote, allowing for their traditional lifestyle to continue.

Sadly, with the introduction of disease, a clash with other communities, and a hereditary blood disorder, the population of the Toto people is quickly declining and may cease to exist in the future.

Towards TotoparaRajibnandi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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