The Story of the Coconut

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In ancient times human sacrifices were a part of life. Propagated by Adi Sankaracharya, who was against the practice of ‘Bali’ or human sacrifice, the coconut perhaps because it resembled a human skull or head replaced the human as an offering. The three eyes were believed to be the eyes of Shiva. Sreelata tells us about this miracle fruit, exclusively in Different Truths.

The ubiquitous coconut is back in the news again.  “Coconut oil is as unhealthy as beef dripping and butter. It is packed with saturated fat which can raise ‘bad’ cholesterol, says the American Heart Association in a recent .  Though it has been contradicted immediately by other experts,   “lumping all saturated fats together, and drawing conclusions about coconut oil from a study that had nothing to do with coconut oil is simply wrong,” we thought we had set that bogey to rest for good when medical experts had claimed “Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.” From healing skin conditions to Alzheimer’s, coconut oil was touted as the next best thing to a miracle cure, which in all actuality, it probably still is.

Yet at the time the Western world discovered the of virgin coconut oil and acclaimed it as  the‘World’s Healthiest Dietary Oil’ , the coconut and its oil had already been a part of coastal India’s diet and medicine chest for centuries and we have been none the worse for it. Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, saturated fats, unsaturated fats the medical experts aren’t quite sure how much is good or bad for you. So while they make up their minds  let’s take a look at the life and times of this white centered three eyed brown and bristly hard shell, which has been so much a part of life for the past more than twenty centuries.

We stood patiently, my son and I, as the pujari (priest) smashed one coconut after another –eleven of them – on the large granite fixed firm for just this purpose on the grounds of the family Ganesha temple. It was part of our thanks giving ritual for having got my son through to the next phase of his life. As the pieces flew far and wide, local lads scrambled to pick them up gleefully. Soon after, from inside the sanctum we were given the prasaad – a few bananas, some flowers and two perfect halves of another coconut, which had been offered to the deity as part of the puja. Happy, we were set to go.

We don’t quite know when and how exactly the coconut made its appearance in India but we do know for sure that the narikela or sriphala (auspicious fruit) or mahaphala (great fruit) – Sanskrit for coconut – is and has been an intrinsic part of Hindu life, maybe like forever. It is considered auspicious and the breaking of the  fruit before and after any achievement or endeavour is believed to be a symbolic act of asking God to remove any obstacles that might pop up on our paths and then once successful, a complete surrendering of ourselves to Him in thanks giving. In fact there is no auspicious occasion without the coconut. The coconut is considered a guarantor of good fortune.

Why a coconut? Why not another fruit?

In ancient times human sacrifices were a part of life. Propagated by Adi Sankaracharya, who was against the practice of ‘Bali’ or human sacrifice, the coconut perhaps because it resembled a human skull or head replaced the human as an offering. The three eyes were believed to be the eyes of Shiva and during pujas, they – the three eyes – took on the symbolic forms of the trinity of Brahma, , and Shiva. Hence you will always find a coconut framed with mango leaves atop a kalaash or pot at every puja.


It also came to signify a man’s ego. And unless one surrendered one’s ego to God completely, it was no surrender at all. So the smashing or breaking symbolised among other things letting go of our ego and pride. By offering it to God one was also symbolically offering one’s head to Him. What better way to show your gratitude and humility? Also, the coconut tree’s property to bear fruit throughout the year and the ability of the unshelled coconut to stay intact and fresh for months probably played a big role in it being chosen over other degradable fruits. So soon enough it became an auspicious presence in every aspect of Hindu life including its cuisine. From weddings to funerals it is today a part of the festivities in more ways than one.

Oddly, the coconut for all its auspicious uses is not native to our country. There is no mention of the fruit in the Vedas or early spiritual texts. Its first mention appears only in Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Puranas. Hindu mythology tells us that Raja Satyavrata, a pious and holy King, hoped to enter Swaraloka in his human body. The Gods would have none of it and threw him out at the gates. So Sage Vishwamitra is supposed to have created the coconut tree to break his fall and save him.

However, historically it is believed that due to its ability to float it is supposed to have float distributed itself and arrived in India from Indonesia sometime during the first century even while taking root in Malaysia and the Philippines before carrying on to Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Unknown to medieval Europe till then, there are later 13th-century records of Marco Polo referring to the coconut as Nux Indica – Indian nut and sailors stumbling upon it during their Asian travel – probably Kerala – alluding to a scary ‘ghost’ head fruit. A ghost or the bogeyman that had a creepy pumpkin head akin to the coconut with its hirsute shell and three eyes was ‘Cocos’ to the . Hence the coconut became ‘Cocos Nucifera’, which may have then developed into the English ‘Coconut’.

Ludovico di Varthema, the Italian traveler, in 1510, also uses its Malayalam and Tamil moniker ‘Thengaa’ in his travel diaries ‘Itinerario’, while the later 17th century ‘Hortus Indicus Malabaricus’ (Garden of Malabar) a grand Latin work under the aegis of the then Dutch Governor of Kerala, Hendrick Van Rheede, detailing the medicinal flora and fauna native to Kerala confirms its presence in coastal Malabar. Interestingly in the Arabian Nights too, Sinbad the Sailor is shown bartering coconuts – ‘Jawaz Hindi’ – during one of his .

Today, Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and India dominate the world in coconut farming. In fact, the coconut tree is one of Maldives’s national symbols. As for India, it is Kerala’s lifeline. Malayalees believe that ‘Kerala’ itself denotes land of the coconut. From the coir on the outer surface to the fruit inside, theThengaa, its oil included, fertilizes a major part of Kerala’s economic wherewithal. Its uses are myriad. Its oil discovered to have among other things medicinal properties (Ayurveda) is used for anointing (massages), lightingdiyas (oil lamps), and cooking. In fact, no dish is considered complete without a dollop of coconut oil in it. From cosmetics and decoration to construction and as a food to a drink, every part of the coconut is put to use in one industry or the other.  It is also unequivocally considered a harbinger of good health and prosperity.

So while the jury is still out on the health benefits of the oil of the Portuguese Bogeyman and the rest of the world debates upon it, the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community (APCC) headquartered at Jakarta, Indonesia will celebrate 2nd September as the World Coconut Day.

“He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself and a heritage for his children,” is a South Seas saying.

Unlike the bogeymen of the West, they knew a good one – oil included – when they saw it.

©Sreelata Menon

Photos from the internet.

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Sreelata Menon

Sreelata Menon

When computers hit the scene, life changed for Sreelata Menon. A Masters in History (Mumbai University) she was with the Onlooker and world Trade Magazines before teaching History to undergraduates and doing a stint in an advertising agency. A web content writer, she wrote blogs on freelance , and current happenings for online and print publications. Author of ‘Freelance for the Newbie Writer’ her books also include Guru Nanak and Indira Gandhi for Penguin-Puffin.
Sreelata Menon