Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghat Mountain range there is a shrine that every January draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it on bare foot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship the Lord at Sabarimala. This shrine, perched on top of a mountain, is a monument to the unwavering faith of the worshippers of the Hindu deity Ayyappan. Arriving before dawn they approach the great shrine in darkness following the dim silhouettes and travel up the final hallowed eighteen steps carrying their irumudikettu (sacred bundles) on their heads. Tucked inside these bundles they bring the most sacred offering to the Lord – coconuts filled with ghee.
The Hindus believe that the coconut is one of the purest forms of offerings that one can present to God. Small platters of coconuts, incense sticks, camphor cubes, fresh flowers, and fruits are offered at our shrines and temples every single day to request, thank, or appease the Gods. Offerings to Lord Ganapathi, the destroyer of all obstacles, take the form of smashing coconuts to smithereens in front of the deity. Besides any new venture is started with the ritual breaking of a coconut to propitiate the Gods, be it to launch a ship, or at the start of a new project, or construction.
Besides the nut, other parts of the coconut palm are also considered auspicious. Coconut inflorescences containing both male and female flowers emerge from canoe-shaped sheaths among the leaves. An inflorescence perched inside a wooden measuring barrel filled with un-hulled rice makes the auspicious centerpiece at the wedding podiums of traditional Kerala Nayar weddings. Whole bunches unhusked coconuts also double as decorations for wedding venues and temple festivals. Weaving through religious beliefs, mythology and superstition, coconut and rice are the staple foods and the fulcrum of our community. Much more than the perfect adornment for white sandy beaches, the coconut palm plays an important role in the Malayali way of life.
Never does the day dawn in Kerala villages without the sharp crack of a coconut in local homes. Malayalis do not underestimate the gastronomic potential of the coconut in our local cuisine. Combining tropical vegetables, seafood and meats with indigenous spices and abundant coconut Kerala has produced a delicious, bright, and vividly varied cuisine. The sweet and meaty kernel of the coconut palm is an essential ingredient in traditional Kerala cooking -ninety nine percent of the dishes served with rice are made with at least some coconut. Several snacks are served with coconut chutney, and coconut and/or coconut milk is used in making many curries as well as sweets and desserts.
How many coconuts for today? That was the recurrent question of our cook every morning in my ancestral home. And that number of coconuts varied with the menu for the day. The coconuts are then cut open and busily scraped and used in different forms – freshly scraped coconut as garnish for thorans (sautéed vegetables) and as filling for idiyappam, ground smooth with green chilies and ginger into fresh coconut chutney, coarsely pureed with cumin seeds for the quintessential Kerala dish aviyal, or the same ingredients pureed smoothly to make creamy kaalan, toasted along with hot chili peppers and other spices for several other curries- the list goes on.
When the choices for the day included oolan, stew or masalakari, all of them cooked in coconut milk, the number of coconuts to be broken increased proportionately. Coconut milk is extracted in varying strengths. There is the first extract, or the thick creamy milk produced by squeezing the scraped coconut. It is generally used at the final stage of cooking. The second extract or thin milk is squeezed after adding some water to the coconut scrapings from which the first milk was already extracted. This slightly watery milk is used for the actual cooking of fish, meat, or vegetables. The determined souls even attempt the third extract. And when it is festival time, there are creamy paayasams to be made, again with plenty of coconut milk. And the oil of choice in our cuisine of course is coconut oil. Oil extracted from copra, dried coconut, is used in seasoning and deep-frying food. Plantain banana chips deep fried in coconut oil have a special taste of their own.
There would be at least one coconut palm, if not many more, in every back yard in Kerala’s tropical landscape. These palms are grown here not just for coconuts. To us the coconut palm’s usefulness is many-fold. An old saying goes – if you plant ten coconut palms when you can afford, there would be at least ten coconuts when the times are rough. The liquid inside the tender green coconut, coconut water, provides a refreshing drink. The leaves of the coconut palm are braided to make thatch roofs and for mats to sit or sleep on. The center veins of the leaves are bunched together to make very good whisk brooms. The trunk of the tree itself is used in building huts. Cups, spoons, and ladles are made of coconut shell, which also doubles as fuel for wood burning stoves. The coconut residue after pressing out the oil is used as feed for milking cows. The fermented sap from the shoots that bear flowers gives an alcoholic drink – toddy.
And because the nut floats in water, it is also used as a floating device for children learning to swim in rivers. A piece of the fibrous husk is partially torn from two coconuts and tied together to make these floatation devices. The outer fibrous husk of the nut is the raw material for coir. The preparation of Coir is a lengthy process. The fibrous layer of the nut is separated from the hard shell by driving the fruit down onto a spike to split it. The coconut husks are soaked in streams for several days and the softened husk is beaten with mallets against slabs of woods to separate the fiber from the husk. Cleaned fiber is spun into yarn. The major use of coir is in rope manufacture. Coir is also used in the manufacture of brushes, doormats, rugs, and twine. Coir-foam, rubberized coir, is used to make mattresses and pillows. Coir industry occupies a unique place among the rural traditional cottage industries in India. Kerala is the largest producer of Coir in India accounting for more than 75% of the total production.
Coconut oil is considered excellent nourishment for hair; it keeps long tresses of Kerala women black, healthy, and glossy. Coconut, coconut oil, coconut water as well as coconut palm leaves are used in Ayurveda, Indian herbal medicine. In home remedies too the oil has its place of prominence. Coconut oil heated with a couple of unbroken dry hot chili peppers is considered a cure for earache. From sprains to swellings a sure cure in my hometown is an herbal coconut oil. The herbal formula for this oil is a family secret – only one person in a certain family prepares this oil in our village, that too only on Tuesdays and Fridays. The herbal formula remains a secret with her until she passes it on to someone else in the next generation. She never charges anything for preparing it; anyone could take a bottle of coconut oil to her home, on Tuesdays and Fridays only of course, And the reddish herbal oil would be ready for pick up by the same evening.
Kerala is a long strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Forty-four rivers with their tributaries and feeders run across this land like the arteries and veins of the land. Backwaters, lakes, and ocean inlets are reservoirs of water stretching along the coast and they are fed by these rivers. Rainwater from the two monsoons flows down through these rivers to the sea. The tropical warm climate, large network of rivers, lakes and lagoons and abundant rainfalls make Kerala’s landscape the ideal environment for growing coconut palms. Coconut palms love the sun and heat and they compete for direct sunlight- the secret behind the curvy palm trunks we see on picture postcards.
Coconuts require about a year to develop and are produced regularly throughout the year. In Kerala coconuts are still harvested manually. Skilled climbers go up the palms, a curved knife tucked around their waist and their feet loosely tied together in coir ropes, to harvest the nuts. It is fascinating to watch the dexterity with which they move up the branchless palm.
Comparatively little is known about the origin and early distribution of this palm; probably because it was so widespread many years ago. The coconut palm is typically found along tropical sandy shorelines around the world. It is believed that coconut palm is native to the Malay Archipelago or the South Pacific. It was spread largely by man but also by natural means. The nut floats for long distances on water for months and still germinate to form new palms when washed ashore. Whether coconuts were transplanted, or they washed ashore years ago from distant lands, the fundamental attitude of reverence, respect, and gratitude toward this nut of life still remains unabated in Kerala.