Friday, December 16, 2011

How people use the coconut palm in the Maldivian culture

Maldives is an island nation located very closely to the equator. This nation is a cluster of more than 1190 islands. In the spectacular view of these beautiful islands from above, one would see the decorative lush vegetation of coconut palms. Coconut palm locally known as ‘Dhivehi ruh’ (scientifically Cocos nucifera) is a good natural resource to the Maldivians, linked to their everyday lives. This is the most commonly grown tree in the Maldives. Coconut palms, found in abundance in all the islands, are declared as the national tree of the Republic of Maldives. The national emblem of Maldives also contains a coconut palm embedded in it.

The coconut palm is cultivated on a large scale and also grows in the wild forming forests. It grows in warm and humid soil. The taller varieties can grow to heights of 20 to 30 meters while some varieties reach up to about 5 to 6 meters. There are 5 main varieties of coconut palms that grow in the Maldives. These are Nulu ruh, Rathu ruh, Dhanbu ruh, Jafanah ruh and Kuhi ruh. As the coconut can float on water it is dispersed in the ocean by ocean currents. This type of dispersal accounts for the coconut trees that are the initial vegetation during island formation.

Coconut Palm

The coconut palm has a large base with the roots growing into the soil. It has a single stem (the trunk, which is grayish brown in color) that grows upwards, straight or slightly curved leaving rings of scars made by the leaves as the tree grows. The leaves are found at the top of the palm and are pinnate. At the centre of coconut palm (the crown) coconut leaves grow replacing the ones that falls off below. There are several leaves at the crown with leaflets that are found on either side of the leaf stalk. The leaf stalks are smooth and about 1 to 1.5 meters in length. The flowers which eventually become the fruit (coconut) are found inside a canoe shaped covering called ‘fulhafi’.
Crown of the coconut palm
Coconut palms are considered as a useful natural resource economically as well as medically and nutrition wise. Almost all parts of the coconut tree, from its roots to its tip, are of use to the Maldivians. Coconut is essentially one of the most nutritious foods one can find in the island nation of Maldives. The health benefits of coconut and its medical usefulness is greatly utilized by the Maldivians. Coconut water, traditionally, was used as a remedy for upset stomachs, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, weakness etc.

The flowers of the coconut palm are used for decorations such as in wedding parties or as substitute for other types of flowers in a bouquet. Before the flowers open, the sweet nectar from the young bud can be extracted. This extract called ‘raa’ which has a unique and delightful taste to it, can be drunk as it is or made into a more sugary, thick, golden syrup (coconut molasses) by boiling. The syrup can be used to sweeten food or make desserts. When raa is left standing for few weeks, it turns into vinegar which is also used in cooking.

In earlier days, the fruit was an important source of food to the Maldivians. The coconut is basically a nut. The husk covers the inner stone (with a hard shell that is not easily broken) of the coconut, inside which the kernel (endosperm) is found. Young, unripe coconuts locally known as ‘kurumba’ are usually used for the coconut water. The water which is the liquid endosperm in young coconuts is sweet and a very refreshing drink that provides an isotonic electrolyte balance. The sick that are unable to eat solid foods are usually given young coconuts as they contain sugar, minerals, vitamins, proteins and fiber.

The thick, white, fleshy, edible part of the coconut (endosperm) can be eaten while drinking the coconut water. As the coconut matures the endosperm becomes harder and more solid. When the coconut meat is not very mature it is called ‘gabulhi’. Gabulhi is used to make local cakes and other desserts. The mature endosperm can be grated and mixed with water which results in a thick, white, creamy liquid called coconut milk. Coconut milk is used in curries and to produce coconut oil. The oil extracted from the dried kernel (copra) is rich in glycerin. It can be used as cooking oil, hair oil or to make soaps, lotions etc.

The coconut falls after a few months of maturity. The endosperm of the mature coconut hardens and the husk turns brown and dry. If the coconut is left in damp ground for a month or so, the liquid inside turns into a round or pear shaped formation that resembles a fruit. This fruit like formation is yellowish on the surface and white on the inside. This part of the coconut is also edible and has a consistency that makes it suitable to be given to little children as well. It is sweet, soft and melts in the mouth.

Coconut shell which is hard and fine grained, found its uses in being carved into useful objects like souvenirs. The sweet sap (raa) of coconut flowers are collected in containers made using coconut shell and coir. Cups, kitchen utensils like spoons, ladles, spatulas, scoops and smoking pipe bowel etc. were made using coconut shell. The charcoal from coconut shell was used in forges, smoking pipes, hookahs, grills etc.

Dry coconut leaves, husk, shell etc. can be used as fire wood and as a source of charcoal. Traditionally coconut husk was used to make coir ropes. The process was locally known as ‘roanu veshun’. Husks are buried in the beach where the waves can reach them. After a few weeks, they are dug and beaten and the fiber within the husk is removed and woven into ‘roanu’ (coir rope). Coir ropes is used in coconut matting and as cables in ‘dhoni’ (traditional vessels used by Maldivians for transportation). Coir is also used to make bags, rugs, mats, brooms etc.

Traditional hammock (Joali)
           The mature leaves or fronds of the coconut palm are used for multipurpose. Maldivians use palm leaves for thatching and mat weaving. Mat weaving used to be a traditional work done by Maldivian women as a mean of livelihood. One would still see the art of thatching in Maldivian resorts and local islands. In many resorts the rooms and water bungalows are made by woven mats and palm leaf thatching. Traditional houses were only built using palm leaves. Thatching was used to line fences, for the walls of houses and temporary buildings. In early days, some people used the midrib of palm fronds to make the walls of kitchens. They also used coir rope to keep the stalks or fronds together and hold firmly.

Wall of a house decorated by coconut thatching
Palm leaves are still used in decorating events like wedding parties held on the beaches. The leaves are plaited into various designs. Similarly household items such as baskets, mats, kitchen ware and other works of art including hats, fruit trays, balls, fans, and shapes of birds, animals, fish etc. used to be made by woven palm leaves. Stripping the leaflets of fronds to their midribs give eekle, used to make eekle brooms, a local broom used for sweeping the floor. These are still used in some households for cleaning. In festivals and special occasions objects such as the famous fish (‘bodumas’) were made by woven coconut leaves.

The branchless trunk of the coconut palm is very strong, hard and heavy and was traditionally used in the construction of houses and building dhoni (boats). The wood from the coconut trunk is used in roofing layouts. The strength, straightness, weight and its salt resistance makes it suitable for building boats. Palm wood is also used for making furniture such as tables and benches and other objects such as tool boxes, carvings etc.

Young leaves of the coconut palm were used to make a traditional medicine called ‘ruggalu beys’ which was used to treat bone fractures. This is a very famous treatment still used by traditional healers in the islands. The roots are also used in preparing some of the traditional medicines. They are also used as dye, mouth wash etc.

Maldivians had a strong bond with coconut palms since their very beginning. Their arts, culture, history, economy and nutritional security were once greatly linked to the benefits brought by the tree. Though modernization has lessened its uses today, the coconut palm still stands to be the most important and valued tree in the republic of Maldives.

No comments:

Post a Comment