The Coconut Tree

In Sanskrit, the coconut tree is called kalpa vriksha, meaning “the tree which provides all the necessities of life.” Coincidence? I think not! Nearly all parts of it are useful, which greatly boosts its economic value. Whether you grind the coconut to make chutney, or you use the coconut tree bark for constructing bridges, the uses of the coconut tree are many and varied. Notably, a husked coconut shell was used in World War II by PT-109, a Patrol Torpedo boat commanded by future president John F. Kennedy, to contact the nearest Allied base when the boat was capsized. The incident has since become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring films, books, even a song.

The coconut hasn’t only affected American culture-it also has affected Indian culture for years. With the majority of the Indian population being Hindu, nearly everybody (myself included) has seen and/or has partaken in a religious ritual that begins with the worshiping of the coconut, which represents the god Ganesh, the god who oversees the completion of any task. This is achieved by symbolically breaking a sanctified coconut in half. This is also why Indians will often give coconuts to each other, to represent success and prosperity.

In recent times, coconuts have been the center of a social issue in India- breaking coconuts with your head. Devout Hindus often practice this for large religious rituals, especially in rural villages. The chief priest that oversees the whole ritual breaks a coconut over each of the devotees’ heads. They take part of the ritual in order to fulfill their vows. Some of them sustain serious bleeding injuries, which they treat with vibuthi, or sacred ash, on the wound.  The injuries that the devotees sustain is where the debate on this topic begins- the State Human Rights Commission in India has frequently spoken out against this practice. The practice has continued on, especially religious, rural villages.

The idea that coconuts can hurt you has echoed all the way back to America. Notably, when President Obama went on his three-day trip to India, he ventured down to Mumbai to visit the Gandhi museum. Anticipating the president, officials removed all coconuts surrounding the museum, fearing that one would drop on his head. The idea may seem comical-we’ve all seen a cartoon where the main character gets hit on the head by a coconut, comically passing out- but every year, people in India are injured or even killed by falling coconuts. If dropping a coconut less than a foot from your head can sustain serious bleeding injuries, a coconut falling from thirty feet above will scientifically injure you more. The White House didn’t take it so seriously, though. White House Secretary Robert Gibbs was quoted as saying, “How am I supposed to take that seriously?”

The coconut tree has myriad uses, everything from culinary uses to construction in rural areas, but more importantly, it has woven its way into the cornerstones of Indian history. If you ever get the chance to go to India, I will guarantee you that you will see the coconut tree everywhere-in the streets and hearts of India.

Author: Apoorva Malarvannan

My name is Apoorva, and I am currently a high school student in the Greater Twin Cities area. I enjoy reading, writing, speaking, and photography. I have a blog here:

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