A biography of Kerala’s defining fruit
V Shoba | 27 Dec, 2019
The good resemble the coconut
Others, like berries, are only pleasing on the outside.
MUCH LIKE THE coconut, the Sanskrit couplet is of indeterminate antiquity. For centuries, the tree and its nuts have served as allegorical surrogates for the human condition. In a particularly fantastic legend, sacred trees created by god to bear human children, only to have adoptive parents abandon them in favour of the next crop, are turned into coconut palms. In another, oft-repeated myth, the tree is king Trishankhu, propped up on a new heavenly dimension conjured by the sage Viswamitra to keep him from falling to the earth.
Globular, hairy and hardy, the coconut does lend itself to anthropomorphism. Cocos nucifera, like Homo sapiens, is a monotypic species, which means there is only one of its kind in its genus, despite wide-ranging morphological differences within. As with humans, no two trees are alike. The outliers are downright irresistible, from a Sri Lankan variant whose husk is sweet and edible, to thayiru thenga, whose endosperm is jelly-like, and horned nuts from the southern Andamans. Cross-pollinated and heterozygous, coconuts defy their forebears and go rogue in ways that are all too familiar. Partly due to such uncanny similarities to humanity and partly because of the tangible resemblance of its nut to the human head, the coconut palm has found a special place in the hearts of men. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kerala, where the coconut palm not just lords over the landscape but becomes cultural insignia and a staff of life. Born of the primal sea, a tutelary spirit of islands warmed by other suns, the coconut is a civilisational lynchpin for the west coast of India. It is also a spiritual guide in sacrifice and enlightenment, and a witness to rites of passage. Anyone seeking to become one with Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala, for instance, carries an offering of a coconut, symbolising his body, drained of the sweet water that stands for sensual pleasures, and filled with ghee, synonymous with purity and devotion.
A fallacious etymology of ‘Kerala’, where ‘kera’, derived from the Chera dynasty, is wishfully translated as ‘coconut’, underlines just how integral the palm is to a state that accounts for 40 per cent of the area under the crop across India. So where did the coconut come from? There are three separate theories, each ascribing provenance to a different part of the world: the West Coast of Central America, the Malay Archipelago and the Indian islands. Because there are no extant wild types, nor any pointers to its progenitors, the coconut’s origins continue to be hotly debated. “The coconut is part of the natural vegetation of India’s west coast. There is no question of domestication. It may have floated across the seas to the mainland but it had to have originated in a tropical island close to us,” says NM Nayar, an Indian Council of Agricultural Research emeritus scientist. A straight-talking man in his eighties, he has written and edited seminal works on the palm. “In Kerala, it has always been like a member of the extended family. You don’t cut it down but you don’t pay undue attention to it either. It is a natural part of your homestead.” Nayar’s academic rigour holds him back from betraying any cultural bias but when he talks about growing up in Kuttanad, a low-lying region along the west coast subsuming the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, the coconut palm remains a constant motif. “The copra drying shed was a hundred metres from home. The Alleppey market where we sold the surplus was 15 km by boat—one meant for the express purpose of transporting coconuts.” The women would leave the husk to soak in the backwaters for three-four months, beat it with a mallet to separate the fibre and spin it into coir.
The coconut was a social crop that brought several communities together-upper castes who owned the land, Thandans and Ezhavas engaged to climb trees, Muslims who controlled trade, and money-lenders from neighbouring states
Forty years ago, Nayar’s maternal uncle, Jnanpith award winner Thagazhi Sivasankara Pillai, wrote an epic chronicling the social shifts in the region over a 150-year period. Titled Kayar (coir), it is as open-ended as a length of rope. Had it extended to present-day Kerala, it would be somewhat frayed at the edges. The Malayali’s reciprocal relationship with the land has been morphing over the years and the ontology of the homestead crop is in question. As per Hindu custom in Kerala, when someone dies, a coconut is planted where the head lay before cremation, sugarcane cuttings take the place of the body, and banana and alocasia fan out at the feet. The raised bed, sprinkled with paddy and sesame, promises a cosy afterlife and becomes a living grave where the family can pay tribute. The sustained squeeze on land has made it harder to keep up with such practices, with the result that the memorial coconut sapling is often allowed to die a natural death. “The emotional connect with the coconut is fast fading. Youth do not see the coconut as the life force that it was for us. There was so substitute for the coconut. You oiled your hair with it, cooked, cleaned and worshipped with it, drank from it and made enough money to tide over rough patches through the year,” says P Anithakumari, a principal scientist at the ICAR Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI) regional station in Kayamkulam. “You may be familiar with John F Kennedy’s coconut story. When his torpedo boat sank near the Solomon Islands during World War II, the coconut saved his life, and not only because it was the only source of nourishment for days on end. It was also the reason Kennedy was rescued. The piece of shell on which he had inscribed an SOS message sat on his desk at the Oval Office for years. For Kerala, too, the coconut is somewhat like that. It’s the one tree that has seen us through flood, famine and a great deal of socioeconomic churn.”
In the attritional drama of agro-forestry, it is easy to see why the coconut will be the last one standing. “You could raise two crops of paddy and one of sesame in a year, but what crop would give you a yield every 45 days? It is the closest thing to drawing a salary,” says Anithakumari. “There is a saying in Malayalam: ‘Thengu chadikkilla (The coconut will not cheat you).’ In fact, the reliability of the coconut meant that the merchant often acted as an informal banker, advancing you money should you need it before the next harvest was due.” Across Southeast Asia, the coconut is rarely ever harvested except in plantations, says Nayar. “People wait for the nut to fall from the tree. Only in southern India is the practice of actively harvesting nuts ubiquitous, indicating the importance of the coconut in the household economy.”
IN PATHIYOOR, A panchayat five kilometres from Kayamkulam, an age-old practice of valuing coconut trees as collateral assets for availing credit has survived. An old town in Alleppey district where the coconut flourished—as per an account in Aithihyamala, a string of timeless legends from Kerala compiled by Kottarathil Sangunni a century ago—Kayamkulam and the villages surrounding it are a microcosm through which one can render Kerala’s relationship with the palm. “There was a time when people borrowed Rs 1,000, Rs 2,000, and paid back in coconuts,” says Sasidharan Kuruppu, president, Pathiyoor Cooperative Society. “They gave up the right to harvest their trees, especially the prized high-yielders, which would be marked with a rope or numbered—a practice known as kettu thengu. Now the minimum loan amount is Rs 10,000 and you can borrow up to Rs 10 lakh. We still undertake harvests, either for a commission, or as partial payment towards a loan, but the coconut has shrunk in stature in society. It can buy very little, certainly not a higher education or a trip to the Gulf,” says Kuruppu. On the other side of a wide gate at the back, a yard is piled with over 3,000 nuts. A trader will come by in a day or two to pick them up. At the end of a quick tour of the village, Kuruppu’s scooter comes to a stop at his daughter’s house, where a harvest is in progress. It is like stepping into an old photograph—four lithe young men clambering up 20 metre-tall trees with unhinged flair and knocking down clumps of nuts that land with a thud. The men aren’t so young after all, I find upon probing. N Sivan, the leader of the pack, is 51; T Sankaran is 72; two others are in their forties. Within minutes, they have harvested and cleaned seven trees, counted out 80 good nuts and separated the smaller and odd-sized ones into a pile that will be consumed by the household. They are the last of their kind, hailing from a community traditionally associated with coconut climbing. “Thandans [a Scheduled Caste] have moved on to other, more reliable occupations. We don’t mind the hard work—we could climb hundreds of trees a day—but there isn’t enough work to go around. It is certainly not as regular as it used to be. We prefer working with a cooperative society because the commissions are good and prompt—20 per cent for every harvest,” say Sivan, a primary school dropout whose college-going son and daughter will work in an office. At a time when the coconut is grown more purposefully than ever, the shrinking population of traditional climbers—only a few thousand now—is alarming. A device that reduces the risk and drudgery of climbing tall palms, popularised by the Coconut Development Board which claims to have trained over 30,000 youth to use it, is gaining acceptance but traditional climbers still prefer to go up the old-fashioned way. TP Baskaran, a 72-year-old with chiselled biceps and gnarly hands who has been climbing trees for a living for over 60 years, says his knees have only just started to feel the wear and the tear and that the money is well worth the effort. “We used to get eight nuts for every 100 harvested. Then it became 10. Now the rate is Rs 50 per tree. I have built this house, married off several girls in the extended family, and sent a son to the Gulf—all with money earned by climbing. What is a little pain of the joints—nothing that murivenna (an Ayurvedic massage oil) cannot cure,” says Baskaran. “People like us owe our lives to the coconut. Migrant labourers from Bengal are trying to fill in for us, but tell me, do you think they can eat, breathe and dream coconuts like we do?”
In Kerala, the coconut was a social crop that brought several communities together—the upper castes who originally owned much of the land, the Thandans and the Ezhavas who were engaged to climb trees to harvest nuts or tap toddy from unopened buds, the Muslims who controlled trade, and money-lending merchant classes from the neighbouring states. “You had a special relationship with your climber, who was responsible for taking care of your trees. If you had to sell the land, you owed him a share because you were endangering his livelihood,” says Rohini Iyer, a former scientist at CPCRI who now raises and sells thousands of saplings at her house near Kayamkulam. “Every morning, outside your house, you would hear a melodic call: thondundo thondu (is there any coconut husk?). The chain, from harvest to trade to processing of the various parts, was broken with social reforms and the Land Ceiling Act.”
When the new state of Travancore was established in the early 18th century under Marthanda Varma, it needed to raise resources for expansion and development. Two crops that were endemic to the region came to the rescue. Varma, and his nephew Dharma Raja Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, reclaimed land from the backwaters to increase area under paddy, and promoted coconut growing. Under Dewan Raja Kesavadas, who founded the port city of Alappuzha, coconut trade got another major boost. The city became a global centre for coir manufacturing, attracting the likes of James Darragh, an American who set up the first modern factory in Travancore in 1859. At the turn of the 20th century, Darragh Smail & Company employed over 1,170 people. “In the early 20th century, there was a spurt in area under coconut cultivation in Travancore. Coconut and rubber became major crops. In Cochin, the Dutch introduced the plantation concept but it failed to capture the imagination of the people. Meanwhile, toddy took off as a profitable product and Alleppey and Thrissur became well known for it. All of this meant that there was more money in the hands of the Ezhavas and Syrian Christians,” says Michael Tharakan, Chairman, Kerala Council for Historical Research. At the beginning of the 20th century, the two families who were contributing the highest land tax to the state were the Parayil Tharakans of Cherthala who were Syrian Christians and the Alummoottils of Haripad, who were Ezhavas, Tharakan says. The coconut economy went through further iterations of redistribution in the 20th century. During the Depression of the 1930s, many Nairs and other upper castes liquidated their land holdings, which were bought over and consolidated by other communities. In 1957, with the implementation of the Land Ceiling Act, anyone holding over 15 acres was forced to relinquish the excess, which was then distributed to the landless classes. “Twenty-to-thirty cents was enough for a family to make a living off coconut,” says Tharakan. “With social reform, however, there was another problem. People began to use land as collateral to raise funds for educating their children, and so there was a period where the coconut was neglected,” he says.
India now produces nearly 24 billion nuts a year, with 2.16 million hectares under cultivation. It is a minor crop, accounting for just 1.38 per cent of net cropped area and contributing Rs 34,000 crore to GDP, but over 10 million people depend on it for livelihood. In the current financial year, the value of coconut products exported by India has crossed Rs 3,000 crore. At Rs 1,300 crore, activated carbon from coconut shells is one of the fastest growing export markets. India has also been exporting coconut oil to Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka since April 2017, besides dry coconut to the US and European countries. In Tamil Nadu, now the leading producer of coconut in the country, and Karnataka, the plantation model has helped shore up area and productivity, but in Kerala, where the coconut is still mainly a homestead crop grown for local consumption, adaptation is slower, and informed by past betrayals. A coconut is broken open nearly every day in a Malayali household to be ground into a base for fragrant curries cooked almost exclusively in coconut oil. Refined oils entered kitchens around the 1960s, when the American soybean industry started to make inroads into the oil trade with a campaign to vilify coconut and palm oils as ‘unhealthy’ due to the long-chain fatty acids present in them. The palm oil industry swiftly came up with a solution for fractionating the oil to remove some of the long-chain fats known as palmolein. For the rest of the palm oil industry, the threat of displacement by soybean blew over, aided in part by the low price points at which the oil could be sold. This did not happen with coconut oil, which slipped from being the most traded vegetable oil in the world between 1850 and 1960 to the 11th of 14 major oil crops. “Even Kerala succumbed,” says Nayar, even as the scent of coconut oil tempering wafts into his study ahead of lunch. “My wife insists on using refined oil for the most part but it is always a splash of coconut oil that gives the finishing touch.” The couple lives in a planned layout in Thiruvananthapuram, the most populous city in Kerala. Three young coconut trees take up most of the real estate in their small garden.
Of late, the coconut has shaken off the ignominy of being an alleged messenger of death, but the damage wrought by the soybean lobby may well be irreversible. Coconut oil costs about Rs 200 a litre, whereas other refined oils like sunflower, rice bran and soybean are twice as affordable. The price race has encouraged adulteration, with the Kerala government banning dozens of coconut oil brands found to be guilty of adulteration. There is a minor boom in local small-scale oil mills where one can watch the extraction before deciding to fill up a bottle with fresh-pressed hand-filtered liquid gold. R Jagesh Kumar, 45, runs one such mill on the fringes of Kayamkulam. “It takes an hour to make 25kg of oil, assuming an average oil content of 62 per cent. We sell 300 kg a day. We cannot scale up because there is a shortage of raw material, most of which comes from Tamil Nadu.”
India now produces nearly 24 billion nuts a year, with 2016 million hectares under cultivation. It is a minor crop, but over 10 million people depend on it for livelihood
The research station at Kayamkulam, established in 1948, offers useful insights into cultivation and marketing strategies that worked, at least as pilot experiments, or simply fell flat. Among the latter is neera, or fresh unfermented toddy, which was touted as the next money-spinner that could double farmers’ income from coconut. Product awareness, logistics and a dwindling toddy-tapping culture posed insurmountable problems. Industry experts now say virgin coconut oil, coconut vinegar and other niche lifestyle products present fresh hope. At a family-run virgin oil mill near Kayamkulam, Radhakrishnan Kunjukunju, 62, and Padmaja, 52, say they never thought they could sell a product that cost Rs 1,000 a litre. It takes eight hours to extract oil by boiling fresh-pressed coconut milk in a special cooker that uses husk as fuel. “Twenty-five coconuts make a litre of VCO, and the byproduct, cooked coconut pulp, is turned into chutney powder and a nutritional snack,” says Kunjukunju, who makes Rs 20,000 a month in profits. “When I returned from the Gulf in 2004, the price of a coconut was Rs 5 and it was available in plenty. Much has changed, but awareness about coconut products, too, has grown,” he says. “Virgin oil was traditionally made at home to anoint freshborns with. Occasionally, you would use it in small quantities to impress a guest. The health benefits of VCO have become well known only in recent years.”
The CPCRI has been promoting dwarf varieties like the Chavakkad Green Dwarf and the Chavakkad Orange Dward, primarily grown for their sweeter tendernuts, to reduce dependence on climbers and to ensure quicker yields. Yet, the West Coast Tall, a handsome palm that can live up to a century or more, remains the most favoured variety. Hybrids and dwarf varieties account for just 14 per cent of the total area under coconut. Inter-cropping coconut with fruits, especially exotics, and rearing fish, are the future, says Anithakumari. “The average size of a holding is down to 0.2 hectares. In Pathiyoor, only 9 per cent of farmers hold more than an acre. It is therefore important to use intensive inter-cropping to boost farmer incomes.” The younger generation can see right through the veil of mythology that has enveloped the coconut and helped conserve it, she says. “Perhaps what will work is cultivating a sense of kinship with the coconut palm and encouraging them to adopt a tree.”