Coconut - Fruit of Lustre in Indian Culture

In every ritual or sacrament, the coconut is omnipresent in Indian culture. It is called Shrifal or fruit of prosperity because the tree yields not only the fruit with refreshing water and tasty kernel which is eaten fresh or dried and as well as for extracting oil, but also because every part of the tree is used for some purpose or the other in India. A coconut tree is often called the Kalpavriksha or the tree that grants all blessings...

One of the first trees to be cultivated by mankind, the coconut palm plays a significant role in the religious, cultural and social life of Indians.  Indeed, as the Kalpavriksha or the tree which fulfils all desires of mankind, a coconut palm plays a very prominent role in Indian community life.  For instance, in religious rituals, the coconut or ‘nariyal’ is used on all auspicious and religious occasions be it birth, marriage, buying a new house or car or at the opening ceremony of a new company or firm.  It signifies prosperity and auspicious events and is offered in every temple as a symbol of the completeness of life. It is always seen in the symbol of the Poornakumbh or the pot of nectar which the Gods obtained from the churning of the cosmic ocean. The pot, with the swastika (symbol of the sun’s energy), mango leaves and a coconut placed in the centre of the leaves is the symbol of immortality and divinity in Indian culture.

According to a myth, in bygone ages, all the seers or Rishis used to sacrifice a goat in order to ward off evil forces during their religious rituals.  As time passed, this practice of animal sacrifice became obsolete and religious rituals became peaceful and non-violent.  The coconut replaced the sacrifice and ever since, the coconut, called Shrifal or fruit of lustre, became an ever present motif in India’s cultural life.  Legend also decrees that the coconut is the primary fruit of the earth.  It is likened to the head of Brahma, the creator of the universe.  Thus Brahma and the coconut are considered primary to creation.

The coconut is a favourite fruit of all deities and is seen in all temple or home worship rituals as an ever present cultural motif.  As an auspicious symbol, the coconut plays a role in many festivals and sacraments.  During the naming ceremony of a child on the twelfth day after its birth, coconuts are given to all the women present.  The guests also put a coconut each in the lap of the new mother with a blessing that her progeny should be healthy and prosperous.  During weddings, coconuts are exchanged by both sides and are often distributed to all guests.  When elders, scholars, teachers, gurus or parents are honoured, a coconut and a shawl symbolise the respect shown to them.  In India, even governmental institutions, art and science academies and universities use the coconut as a motif in honouring scholars and researchers for their achievements in the pursuit of knowledge.

Diwali, Dussera, Ganesh Puja, Durga Puja, Holi - all these festivals mean a gigantic number of coconuts offered to the gods and to guests.  But the day which celebrates the coconut unfailingly is Nariyal Purnima in the Hindu month of Shravan.  Officially, the full moon of this month is the close of the monsoon and the rains begin to abate from that day.  Along the west coast of India, fisher folk offer thousands of coconuts to the sea before setting out in their trawlers to resume their fishing operations.  The offering of the coconut is their prayer for safe sailing and prosperity.

The coconut is imbued with medicinal qualities too.  It is called Arogya Vardhak or health enhancer.  Coconut water is called amrit or nectar. A glass of this sweet water each day cures many ailments and washes out all toxins. The white kernel is grated or ground and used in a variety of luscious curries and vegetable delights. Dry or fresh, coconut kernels make excellent chutneys.

Prasad or holy food is made of coconut chips and distributed to devotees at the end of a worship or festive function.  Dried kernels are used for extracting oil which is used as a cooking medium or for making hair or massage oils. Soaps and candles are also made from the oil.

The coconut palm is called the wish fulfilling tree because each part of it is useful.  Its leaves, dried and woven into a tapestry like design, are used for covering huts and cottages in Indian villages.  The trunk is used for making supports for the huts or as fuel.  The coir taken from the outer covering of the coconut is used in stuffing pillows or mattresses as well as for making ropes.  The shell is cleaned and made into cups or spoons with a handle.  Many handicrafts are created from the leaves of the tree and the shell of the fruit. 

With these myriad uses, the coconut participates actively in every aspect of India’s cultural life!

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