Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Tapping for toddy

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Amongst the various novelties which astonish and amuse the “griffin” at Madras, is to stroll in the morning down the tope, (invariably situated in some portion of the extensive compounds) and witness the operation of tapping the cocoa-nut trees for the delicious toddy they yield. Talk about agility being confined to the monkey tribe, or lamplighters shinning up and down the lamp-posts,—why, the toddy-man far surpasses the latter and fully equals the former. To see him climb up a cocoa-nut tree somewhere between sixty and seventy feet in height, and to witness his lightning-like descent, despite the coarse nature of the bark of the tree, is marvellous. It is difficult to conceive how human flesh and blood can accomplish such feats without being literally made mincemeat of. But he does it; and I never remember hearing of any accident during twenty years’ residence in India. Long practice, however, and the natural suppleness of the Indians’ limbs, enable them to accomplish what constitutes them, almost to a man, acrobats; and from early childhood they are reared to gymnastic exercises, which impart immense muscular power. Even the Nautch girls, when dancing, are as supple as india-rubber, and can dance with facility, though actually bent double backwards, and with their heads touching their heels.

The only assistance or helping medium employed by the toddy-man consists of two long and strong belts made out of coir, twisted into stout ropes, and covered over with hides, to prevent the friction too speedily wearing away these supports, on the durability and strength of which the toddy-man’s life or safety of limb depends. The largest of these belts, which open and shut with a powerful iron hasp, passes under the toddy-man’s armpits, and is so large as to admit of his leaning back against it sufficiently to enable him to give every successive throw or climb he makes upwards a sufficient impetus from the clutch of his powerful hands and the encircling strength of his arms. The smaller belt is in like manner attached round his ankles. With these safeguards he throws up his arms as high as he can, and, getting a firm hold, hauls himself up rapidly: the naked toes of his feet help him materially in climbing up against the side of the tree, the two girths that bound him round the tree gliding up easily with him, and, when he at length reaches the top, constituting a species of easy-chair for him; for he rests his feet firmly against the lower one, and, leaning back against the upper, has the free use of his arms and hands whilst he detaches the toddy-pot from the sprout to which it is attached, and which, but for the operation of tapping, would have produced fruit in abundance: in short, the juice that oozes through the sprout is the sap that would have composed the pith and sweetness of the cocoa-nut and the delicious water which this fruit contains. The toddy-man carries a sharp knife in a girdle round his waist, and slung over his shoulder a large brass pot, into which he pours the toddy as he passes from tree to tree, and, possessing perfect knowledge of the exact quantity which his line of tope will produce, the brass receptacle is always large enough for the supply. Having emptied the toddy-pot, before replacing it he unsheathes the knife at his side, and cuts a small slice off the protruding sprout, and fastening the toddy-pot to it securely, slides down again to terra firma.

But, whilst our toddy-man is disengaging himself from the hoops that bound him to the tree, we cannot help gazing at the noble tree itself, and thinking over its marvellous adaptation to the wants of the people inhabiting those climes to which it is indigenous. Apart from the toddy and the ardent spirit, arrak, into which it turns when kept some days and allowed to ferment, the farinaceous matter contained in the stem is a good substitute for sago; and a coarse, dark-coloured sugar, called jaggherry, extracted from it, is the only kind of sugar which hundreds of poor half-castes and Portuguese can afford to use with their tea or coffee. It is used also in the construction of some of the best-flavoured sweetmeats sold in the bazaars: moreover, when mixed with lime, it forms a powerful cement, and (whilst it resists moisture, and endures great solar heat) takes that beautiful polish which is so striking a characteristic of the European houses at Madras, and makes the lofty pillars of the verandahs look like pure marble.

Then, again, the fibrous bark is used for brushes to polish furniture, and to form the valuable elastic cordage called coir: the fibrous matter is also employed to stuff mattresses. Aqueducts, drums, and the posts of huts are formed from its trunk, and the latter thatched by its dried leaves. In such a house lives yonder toddy-man, and he says that it keeps out both rain and heat. The young buds are a delicate vegetable. The cocoa-nut shells are manufactured into drinking vessels and measures; the solid fruit within the shell, besides being a delicate relish of delicious flavour, and constituting the main support of hundreds of poor natives in Ceylon and other parts of India, is compressed into an excellent transparent oil, used by Europeans for lamps, and by the natives to mix with sweetmeats or curry, whilst their women apply it to the hair; and the seams of boats and ships in India are greased with a substance made out of the cocoa-nut oil mixed with dammers.

Our toddy-man’s wife, on festive occasions, sports head-dresses manufactured from the leaves of the cocoa-nut; uses baskets made of the same material; draws water with buckets, and lights her tent with a lantern manufactured from these leaves: whilst the toddy-man himself converts the leaves into books, in which, with a steel prong, he keeps reckonings of his daily sales. Their ashes yield potash; their midrib forms vases; and soft brushes are made by bruising the end of a leaf with a portion of the midrib adhering to it.

The toddy-man’s greatest enemies, in places up the country, or isolated topes, are legions of monkeys, who not only drink all his toddy, and break the pots into the bargain, but twist off the heavy fruit and pitch them down upon his head if he shows any symptoms of remonstrating with a gun or a pellet bow. Indeed, their great predilection for the cocoa-nut is supposed to be the origin of that name being applied to this gigantic and elegant tree, it being derived from the Portuguese “macoco,” or “macaco,” which signifies monkey; and a monkey’s skull bears always a resemblance to a cocoa-nut in that part of the shell where the three dots or scars indicate the spots through which the three embryos of the fruit would have been equally developed, but for the fact of two of them being constantly abortive.

And now for a glass of this exquisite toddy, after it has been duly strained through a sieve, to clear it of the thirsty flies that have tumbled in during the descent of the toddy-man. It is sweet; it is transparent; it is cool and harmless in the fresh state; and if you ask the toddy-man, he will tell you that the nectar of the gods of old never surpassed the toddy which his tope of trees produces.