The Lighter Side of Coconuts By Peripatete


It’s a tropical fruit. Simple, not particularly extraordinary-looking, in its shape and inherent qualities: Shell, husk, pulp, juice. Yet, even the relatively mundane coconut has managed to rack up pretty impressive credentials as a curious cog in our world’s wheel of oddities. From culture to creatures, from movies to museums, the coconut astounds with its versatility, appropriations and unexpected applications.

The amphioctopus marginatus, more commonly known as a Coconut Octopus (or veined octopus), is an amphibious creature with a decidedly odd penchant for the large round seed. Known to forage for discarded coconut shells on the beach, the Coconut Octopus – the only known invertebrate to “walk” on two of its legs – transports them long distances along the sea floor, only to then reassemble them into an underwater shelter.

This 8 centimeter-long tropical species, originally discovered in 1964, was found to dwell in the western Pacific Ocean. Then, in 2009, researchers studying octopus behavior in Indonesia, noticed that the coconut octopus regularly travels – with shells in claw – many leagues under the sea. “While I have observed and videoed octopuses hiding in shells many times, I never expected to find an octopus that stacks multiple coconut shells and jogs across the seafloor carrying them,” said Julian Finn, one of the lead researchers.

Meanwhile, above ground, a very different sort of carrying – and throwing – of coconut shells takes place in Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka. Called, “dashing the coconut,” this ritual is often used for purposes of sacred Hindu ceremony, with devotees breaking coconuts against a stone, a wall or on a road to ward off evil spirits. Some people buy coconuts and smash them outside a temple; a symbolic way of expecting the interior of your soul to be pure and clear likethe insides of the coconut. As if to emphasize the sacredness of the coconut, the fruit’s kernel is eaten after the dashing.

In southern India, it is said that, to worship Shiva, devotees must first purify their body with water before entering the sacred space. Gifts of incense or flowers are then presented to Shiva to symbolize one’s heart and soul. A ripe coconut must be counted among the gifts – which the priest will then dash against a stone surface, spilling its contents in front of the lingam. The nut represents the human skull, or the hardened ego. So the act of dashing the coconut represents the sacrifice of the ego to the greater self.

Dashing coconuts – referred to also as “doing the dash and smash” is a way to invoke blessings from the deities. The Tamil people believe that it is best to have your coconut smashed into tiny pieces because it is reflects the vanishing of all evil in a person.

It was once thought that dashing the coconut, which has (exceptionally) occurred at funerals, was also a form of curse. This may explain how, among some Hindu, shells are also thrown at protests. A story is told about coconuts being dashed against a sacred tree in the belief that, in so doing, an armed conflict would be brought to an end. However, ironically, the curse was reversed resulting in the chief warmonger dying, shortly after the coconut dashing ceremony had taken place.

Cursed deaths and smashed nuts aside, coconuts are employed in rituals and practices on joyful occasions as well. In Karnataka, India, dried coconut (kopparai) is exchanged between a bride and groom. Among Brahmin marriages, the bride’s mother-in-law presents the newlyweds with gifts such as dolls, cosmetics – and a bundle of dried coconuts (known as copra or copara); these full and half-coconuts are decorated with engravings depicting scenes of nature and deities, as well as names of the marrying couple.

In some parts of Asia, coconuts are an integral part of tropical folk dances and cultural performances – such as the maglalatik, for instance, a traditional war dance indigenous to the Philippines: Coconut shell halves are strapped to various parts of a male performer’s hands and body (or sewn onto a vest) and used as makeshift drums. The dancers perform the dance by hitting coconut shells together – their own or those of other dancers – to the rhythm of a fast drumbeat.

The name of the folk dance originates from latik, the Filipino word for “fried coconut milk curd,” a product used in local cooking, particularly in snacks. The dance is intended to impress the viewer with the great skill of the dancer. In some circles, it has been noted that the maglalatik is, in fact, a type of movement that disguises boxing as a choreographed dance – a more palatable form for public viewing and consumption.

The Filipino fascination with all things coconut, including coconut-related paraphernalia, has over time expanded to distant shores as well. The Coconut Mansion – the public face of the Coconut Republic company – is located in Pasadena, California. Set up by a Filipino collective, the lowly coconut is here elevated to the status of a highly-prized indigenous material; symbolically representing a wide array of crafts from the Philippines. The Coconut Mansion showcases the company’s high-end collection of Filipino-made coconut crafts, including lamps, sconces, tables, dividers, beds, chairs and decorative accessories.

No experience at the Coconut Mansion would be complete without a visit to its on-site Coconut Health Spa. Customers are invited to choose among treatments (to be enjoyed in your private quarters, aka the Coconut Casita) that include the Coconut and Pineapple Paradise Massage and the Sea Salt Coconut Body Polish.

As if the Coconut Mansion does not sound opulent enough, it may be worth recalling an improbable exercise in unbridled extravagance; the Coconut Palace, commissioned by the former President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. With an upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II to Manila in mind, Marcos ordered the palace to be erected – to the tune of 37 million pesos (approx USD$10 million). The two-story structure was built almost entirely from chemically treated coconut lumber, while other parts of the coconut tree and fruit were also incorporated into the décor and architecture.

Mansions and palaces may be implausible ways to revere the coconut, but…have you heard of the Coconut Kingdom?

In the southern region of Vietnams’ Mekong Delta, a shrine is one of the only remnants of the short-lived Coconut Religion (Dao Dua) founded in 1963. The brainchild of a Vietnamese former scientist who became a serious meditator, the Coconut Religion attracted disciples from various countries and faiths.

The largely unknown cult’s strictly vegetarian followers would gather at a floating pavilion near Phoenix Island, where they sought salvation through group prayer and conducted elaborate rituals – while the Vietnam War raged on. Devotees of the so-called Coconut Kingdom subsisted largely on coconut meat, milk, juice, oil and leaves.

Among the 4,000 followers of this nutty faith – a fusion of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism and a zealous love of coconuts – were novelist John Steinbeck’s son and the group’s leader, Thành Nam Nguyễn (aka Coconut Monk and His Coconutship), a former scientist and scholar who climbed trees, prayed for the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea, and for three years allegedly survived on nothing but coconuts.

Abolished in 1975 by Vietnam’s victorious Communist government in 1975, the Coconut Religion has largely faded into extinction – save for one elderly woman who still tends to the shrine and flavors her coconut with chili.

Despite the occasional odd and eccentric uses to which the lowly coconut has been put – including mimicking the sound of galloping horses in the opening sketch of the classic British movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail – its status has also been elevated to an item worthy of aesthetic appreciation.

Among its extensive collection of artworks culled from around the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lists nearly 90 objets d’art made of coconut. Included in the list are silver and gilt-edged coconut shells, instruments and vessels dating as far back as the 16th century. In the Middle Ages, coconuts were so rare and so cherished that their shells were polished and mounted in gold; some are included in the Met’s collection. Among the unusual items on display (or stored out of public sight) are ornamental engraved spoons, decorative bowls, bracelets and a Dayak fiddle.

An early 17th century Hungarian tankard (drinking vessel) is made of coconut shell and gilded silver. This ornately engraved and well-preserved goblet reflects the late Renaissance taste for uniting exotic natural materials with artistic craftsmanship. Coconut shells, treasured since ancient times, were thought to have miraculous powers, including the ability to neutralize poisoned wine. With the coconut’s fibrous husk removed, the shell could be polished and mounted as a lavish drinking vessel.

An 18th century Tahitian sculpture made with coconut husk fiber represents a Maohi war god. Composed of a solid wooden core covered by intricately plaited layers of coconut fiber rope, the images of ‘Oro appear almost clublike, with the eyes, ears, and other facial features only lightly hinted at in the outermost layer of the coconut fiber. The practice of wrapping sacred images in layers of coconut fiber cordage or barkcloth was widespread in Polynesia and was often accompanied by chanting. As the artist worked, he or she literally wove the power of the chants into the fiber wrappings, increasing the mana (supernatural power) of the image.

A 19th century Thai stringed instrument, Sō Sām Sāi, is made of a halved, triangular-shaped coconut with three bulges on its back. Ivory and mother-of-pearl are also contained in the piece. Other 19th-early 20th century stringed instruments include those of the Malagasay people from Madagascar; and a ‘tamburi’ from India and – comprised of coconut and bamboo.

Lutes, fiddles and other items – made from coconut and other components selected from nature’s bounty – have emerged from cultures all over Asia, Africa and Europe. In the late 19th century, the Elema people of Papua, New Guinea, made charms of coconut shell, lime and fiber. And in the same period, coconuts were used in the production of ornately engraved vessels in Nigeria’s Court of Benin.

As late as the last century, raincoats were still being produced from coconut fiber and worn in rural China. The Met’s collection contains three well-preserved examples of coconut-husk rainwear – a precursor, perhaps, to efforts by today’s eco-conscious enterprises to manufacture fabrics and clothing sourced from natural materials.

 

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In India’s Sanskrit language, the coconut is called kalpavruksha, which means “a tree that fulfils all desires.” But, after a long and esteemed history as one of nature’s most ubiquitous and regenerating icons, the coconut is facing possible extinction – at least in one part of India. In a strange twist, as of January 2016, coconut trees in the country’s southern tropical state of Goa, are no longer considered trees. Authorities have reclassified them as palms to allow farmers and developers to cut them down more easily.

 

 

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