Village Todas, Nilgherries (now Nilgiri)

19th century

This ethnographic photograph is of the distinctive huts of a Toda Mund (village) at Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu. Traditionally pastoralist, the Todas in the past lived in thatched houses spread over the slopes of the Nilgiris.

This picture is one of many examples of ethnographic photographs captured at the end of the 19th century. One of the factors behind the flourishing of ethnographic documentation in the Indian subcontinent was a growing desire among the British to validate and consolidate imperial control by creating exhaustive visual records of the unknown land they occupied. Naturally, the British started to use photography to gather ethnographic data like that on races, castes and communities to understand the ethnic diversity of the subcontinent better.

Samuel Bourne was a banker with itchy feet. Paintings of India so enamoured him that he quit his job in Nottingham and arrived in Calcutta in 1863. Now regarded as one of the earliest travel photographers in the world, Bourne started exploring Indian landscapes in the hills of Shimla and spent months in Kashmir, returning with incredibly detailed images of the Himalayas and Gangotri glacier. He and fellow photographer Charles Shepherd set up studios across the country. Established first in 1863, Bourne and Shepherd was the most successful commercial firm in late 19th and early 20th century India, with outlets primarily based in Shimla, Calcutta and Bombay. In Calcutta, the studio was in business till as recently as 2016.


Village Todas. Nilgherries (now Nilgiri)
19th century
Samuel Bourne
Albumen print (on card mount)
23.1 cm x 29.1 cm
Accession No.
2016.3.1 (38)