The Palmyrah Palm of Jaffna
By S. Katiresu
The Palmyrah palm (Borassus fabelliformis) retains the name palmeria brava bestowed on it by the Portuguese. It grows not only in the Northern part of Ceylon but also in the Southern part of India. It is also to be met with as a natural curiosity in the Straits Settlements in some of the Islands of the Malay Archipalago, in Arabia and even in the Gibraltar where travelers say there is a solitary tree. It requires but little labor and cultivation, except that of planting the nuts and protecting them from cattle till they grow above reach. The growth of the tree is very slow and it takes from 15 to 30 years to bear. It is a very useful palm. There are two kinds of the palmyrah viz, the male and the female. The male tree bears no fruit, but both are used for drawing toddy.
The palmyra toddy is sweet when quiet fresh, but bitter when fermentation sets in. The toddy season is from January to August. The spathes of the palmyrah trees exhibit themselves in January and the toddy-drawer forthwith commences his operations, climbing by the assistance of a loop of naar of the palmyrah stalk, sufficiently wide to admit both his ankles and leave a space between them, thus enabling him to grasp the trunk of the tree with his feet, and support himself as he ascends. Having cleansed the crown from old leaves and fruit stalks and other superfluous matter, he binds the spathes tightly with thongs to prevent them from further expansion, and descends, after having thoroughly bruised the embryo flowers within to facilitate the exit of juice.
For several mornings the operation of crushing is repeated, and each time a slice is taken off the end of the racemes to facilitate the exit of the sap, and prevent its bursting the spathe. In about a week the sap begins to exude. On ascertaining that the first flow of the sap has taken place, the toddy drawer again trims the wounded spathe, and inserts its extremity in an earthen pot, called muddy, to collect the juice. The muddy is tied up to the spathe. Morning and evening these vessels are emptied, and for a period of six months the palmyrah will continue to pour forth its sap at the rate of two to four quarts a day. The juice if permitted to ferment is a slightly intoxicating and unpalatable drink. What cheap drinks such as beer and porter are to the people of Europe toddy is to the people of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The toddy in Tamil is called Kallu.
To sweeten the toddy a little lime is put into the pot before it is tied to the spathe. The sweetened toddy is called Karuppany. If intended to be made into jaggery (Panamkaddy), the sweetened toddy, after being boiled down to the consistency of syrup is poured into small baskets made of palmyrah leaf (called Kuddan), where it cools, and a partial crystallization ensues. If the syrup is of a lighter consistency than jaggery it is called pany which retains its fluid state for years even if cooled. In it is preserved the palmyrah jelly.
If the vessel for drawing toddy which is usually earthened is well cleaned and dried in the sun or heated in the fire before it is attached to the spathe the juice flowing into it is called Neera a very delicious and refreshing drink. Karuppany owing to the existence of lime is not so cooling as Neera, nevertheless it is agreeable to the taste.
The juice of the palmyrah fruit though not very palatable at first to the foreigner has been extensively used by the poor classes as food. It is also spread on nuts dried in the sun and cut up into slices in which form it is preserved for months and used with other food. This jelly is called Panattu in Tamil Mixed with the pany these slices will last for years and the writer has known some foreigners who have taken a great liking to them. The palmyrah fruit however is not very nutritious and even among the poor it is not used extensively as food as in former days.
The seeds, if planted, germinate in three months or so and in the first stages of growth it forms into a pulpy substance called Kilangoe which is also used as food.
The wood of a fairly old tree is hard, strong and durable and is generally used for roofing. The leaf when green is a good food for black cattle. The leaf is a largely used for covering the roof and for screening the fence. Ola books, fans, umbrellas and baskets are made of it. The fibre is used for making brushes. The ridge of the leaf called Ekku and the polished cover of the stalk called Naar are used for making ropes.
Excerpts from: “A Hand Book To The Jaffna Peninsula and A Souvenir Of The Opening Of The Railway To The North,” by S. Katiresu./Printed at the American Ceylon Mission Press, Tellipalai, Jaffna on 1905.
- Asian Tribune -