No other plant stands out as a symbol for the state of Kerala the way the Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) does. In fact, some argue that name of the state is derived from that of the tree (‘Kera’ being the Coconut Palm, and ‘Alam’, land; hence, ‘Keralam’ or the Land of Coconut Palms). While the etymology might be uncertain (with a much stronger case being made for its derivation from the name of the domain ruled by the ancient Chera kings), the reputation is all-pervading. From tourism brochures to the hotel menus, the Coconut reigns supreme, stamping its influence on the region’s geography, economy, society and culture.

A member of the palm family Arecaceae, it is most closely related to grasses (family Poaceae),  bananas (family Musaceae), cannas (family Cannaceae), cardamom, ginger, and turmeric (all from the family Zingiberaceae). Like its relatives, the Coconut Palm is an inhabitant of the tropics. Domesticated specimens are now found worldwide, thanks to human efforts, in a belt stretching roughly between 26′ N and 26′ S. For long, the exact origins of the Coconut Palm were a mystery, with botanists unable to pinpoint the region where it was first domesticated.

Both South and Southeast Asia were considered probable centers of origin. Scientific consensus seems to point to the region of Malesia (comprising the Malay Peninsula and Malay Archipelago) in the southwestern Pacific (between Asia and Australia). It was from here that Austronesian cultures spread the domesticated variety to the rest of the Old World. Indonesia and Philippines (that form part of this region) continue to be the leading producers of coconuts. India comes a close third. In fact, the country had a major role in popularizing its cultivation. Coconuts from the South Asian coast might be the source for specimens planted in Persia, Arabia and East Africa.

It was here that the Europeans first encountered the legendary palm.  Its fibre, known to the world as ‘coir’, was extensively used by shipbuilders of the Indian Ocean littoral, to construct vessels plying between East Africa (Sofala, Mombasa, Malindi, Mogadishu), West Asia (Socotra, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain) and South Asia (Sindh, Gujarat, Konkan, Malabar, Lakshadweep, Maldives, Sri Lanka). The Coconut played a crucial role in the shipbuilding industry, supplying raw material for almost every component – hulls, masts, ropes, sails, and cordage.

The Portuguese, relative latecomers, noticed these crafts, bound together by coir and laden with Coconuts. When Vasco Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of India, he was looking for spices. But the economy of Malabar had much more to offer, including the magical fibre. Known as ‘kayar’ to the natives (who spoke Malayalam), it morphed into ‘cairo'(for the Portuguese) and ‘coir’ (the English). In fact, Portuguese colonists collected tribute from the islands of the Lakshadweep and Maldives in the form of coir rope. Extracted from the nuts’ husk, it is used to make ropes, nets, mats, mattresses, rugs, bags and brushes.

Let’s have a look at the evolution of the word before going back to history.

Definition (from Oxford):  Fibre from the outer husk of the coconut, used in potting compost and for making ropes and matting. Origin Late 16th century: from Malayalam kayaṟu ‘cord, coir’.

Etymology (from Online Etymology Dictionary): “prepared coconut fiber,” 1580s, from Malayalam (Dravidian) kayar “cord,” from kayaru “to be twisted.”

Kerala and Sri Lanka continue to be the leading producers of coir, accounting for as much as 90% of the global output. The Coir Board of India was set up in 1953 to promote the coir industry. It has its headquarters in the city of Kochi (located in Kerala’s Ernakulam District). An international port, it was the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Kochi (or Perumpadappu Swarupam), a tributary state of the Zamorins (or Samoothiris) of Kozhikode. Vasco Da Gama had visited Kozhikode in 1498. But relations soured between the two. The ruler of Kochi was eager to break away, and did so, switching to the Portuguese side after the Europeans’ expulsion by the Samoothiri (who was outraged by their demands).

Having bombed the Samoothiri’s ports in December of 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral (who had stumbled upon Brazil in April of the same year, on his way to India) chose to sail south, to Kochi. The principality welcomed him with open arms, concluding a treaty and making arrangements for the establishment of a Portuguese factory. This marked a new phase in Kerala’s history. Tiny kingdoms dotting the Malabar Coast, chafing under the yoke of Kozhikode, chose to ally themselves with the European intruders. Da Gama visited Kochi in 1502, renewing the alliance. Kozhikode was attacked again, later in the year, in November.

The Samoothiri retaliated, besieging his southern neighbours in 1503. Alarmed by the havoc wreaked on his capital, the king of Kochi allowed the Portuguese to establish Fort Emmanuel, in the vicinity of their factory. Little did he know that he was handing over all of Malabar (including Kochi) to his European allies. In 1504, the Portuguese captain Duarte Pacheco Pereira inflicted a decisive defeat on Kozhikode in the Battle of Kochi. Portuguese influence was to reach its peak. Fort Emmanuel became the new power centre of Malabar, from where the Portuguese expanded their dominion over India.

Halfway across the globe, Brazil (claimed for Portugal, following Cabral’s voyage in 1500) would be colonized. Almost three decades elapsed before the establishment of the first proper Brazilian outpost (at São Vicente, on the Atlantic coast, by  Martim Afonso de Sousa in 1532). Drawn initially by the lucrative European trade in Brazilwood (or Pau Brasil – Paubrasilia echinata), the Portuguese would transform this part of the New World. Martim Afonso de Sousa (who would later serve as the Governor of Portuguese India, from 1542 to 1545) took the first step by establishing a establishing a sugar mill.

It is no coincidence that Sugarcane arrived in Brazil from South and South East Asia (Saccharum barberi of South Asia and Saccharum officinarum of New Guinea) as part of the Portuguese colonial enterprise. Other tropical Old World crops would follow – coffee, rice, bananas, citrus fruits, mango, watermelon. The Coconut Palm also made it across the Atlantic. Today, Brazil is the world’s fourth largest producer of the crop (behind Indonesia, Philippines and India). Portuguese adventurers propagated it throughout their maritime empire. Just the way they made the Malayalam word ‘kayar’ part of the global vocabulary.

Image Attribution: The image above (dating back to 1898), sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a reproduction of a famous painting ‘Vasco da Gama before the Zamorin of Calicut’ (or ‘Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim de Calecute’) by Veloso Salgado, and preserved in the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa. Salgado, a Portuguese artist who lived from 1864 to 1945, was widely acclaimed for his portraits.