Known by the name, Pugur in Toda language (meaning flower), the embroidery tradition has lived through a century of its documented history to manifest today in drapes, dupattas, table cloth, stoles, kurtas, pajamas, skirts and jackets, besides the traditional Puthukuli (shawl), its original place of majesty.
The Nilgiris are home to 18 tribal groups among whom the Todas are the most distinct. Their language, though Dravidian, has no script and their first contact outside their region was when the East India Company annexed the Nilgiris in 1799.
Todas are involved in agriculture and buffalo rearing. The women embroider the traditional draped garment called poothkuli or shawl. It is a thick white cotton cloth used as a mantle by both men and women. The main material of unbleached, white cotton, is hand woven in single width and the embroidery is done by counting of threads.
On one end of the cloth three stripes—two of red and one of black—are woven into it. It is in these stripes that the embroidery is worked before the two lengths of the fabric are sewn together. Wide bands in red and black are woven at the end of the 9 yard long ‘poothkulli’. The women embroider in between these bands creating a striking ‘pallav’. The embroidery is worked on the reverse of the cloth to produce a rich, embossed effect on the surface. The geometric motifs, merging as they do with the woven bands are often mistaken for woven patterns.
The women do not refer to a stitching pattern as we do for creating cross stitch designs. Out of practice, they create the design on the cloth without tracing the pattern or referring to a book. The finished cloth is reversible, in the sense that both sides have a neat design.
The darning stitch is used for embroidering motifs and patterns. While formerly vegetable fibre was used as threads, now embroidery threads are used.
In the last 10 years, a lot of funding from developmental organizations, has been provided to these Toda settlements. Toda shawls are embroidered by women and sold as part of an income generating scheme for the community. The embroidery on the shawl which is done on the left of the black stripe (around the two red stripes), is called the karnol, while the embroidered pattern on the right is called the karthal. Of all the embroideries, the one intended for funerals is usually the most elaborate. The poothukuli is worn by the Todas during their festivals and funerals. Today, the women make other products like bags and bed covers for the commercial market.