There is a lot of history associated with the consumption of coconut toddy and the products made out of this toddy is enmeshed in the culture of Sri Lanka from the era of ancient kings. The ‘Mahavamsa’, the historic chronicle of this country, indicates that King Dutugemunu rode Kandula the elephant to the frontline during [...]

Business Times

Saga of the toddy drinker and the toddy tapper

Kassippu product called ‘gahapang machan, katu kammbi”

There is a lot of history associated with the consumption of coconut toddy and the products made out of this toddy is enmeshed in the culture of Sri Lanka from the era of ancient kings. The ‘Mahavamsa’, the historic chronicle of this country, indicates that King Dutugemunu rode Kandula the elephant to the frontline during the war with King Elara and the legend goes that these elephants that were deployed in the war were fed with toddy for energy and strength.

The tapper meticulously cuts the coconut flower at the top of the tree

Such is the richness of this popular drink which came into prominence recently after the Government brought in regulations to limit toddy tapping unless with a licence.
A Gazette notification issued on October 20, 2017 states that no tree producing toddy, other than kithul tree shall be tapped and no toddy shall be drawn or lowered from any tree other than the kithul tree’ to be effective from January 5, 2018.

The notification sent ripples and jolted the entire spectrum of the coconut toddy tapping industry not because it is consumed raw as a liquor and distilled to make hard liquor, but because coconut toddy transforms into sweet treacle to make sweetmeats like Kavun, Athiraha, Mungkavun, Sawdodol, Kiripeni and a whole plethora of sweetmeats that have been served during Sinhala New Year and every single function in this country that goes along with the traditional coconut oil lamp.

It is also the practice in Sri Lanka in time immemorial to make vinegar out of coconut toddy, specially for the renowned traditional Ácchtharu’ the pickle that goes with every function may it be a wedding, funeral, etc. Even some tourist hotels down South use pure coconut toddy to make cocktails which some travellers cherish.

However possibly due to the Business Times exposure of this amendment, a subsequent amendment was made to that gazette notification which implied that a license is required for tapping any palmyrah tree and coconut tree which produces toddy.

Earlier for many years arrack distilling was done by the government and the Sri Lanka Distilleries Corporation manufactured arrack distilling coconut toddy, but with the advent of illicit liquor breweries – ‘pot arrack, kassippu with odd identifications like ‘gahapang machan, katu kammbi” etc, the adulteration of coconut toddy too commenced.

Like drug peddling, whatever the government says, illicit liquor brewing goes unabated and the system of detecting illicit brewing and apprehending the sellers are paralysed due to corruption infested-law enforcement authorities. If one listens to what transpires in some Divisional Secretariat monthly coordination meetings, selling of illicit liquor and drugs are reported.

Though earlier huge patches of trees in coconut land were tapped, now tapping is carried out in areas like Katana, Madampe, Wadduwa, Kalutara, Mukunuwatawazna, Galgamuwa, Piyagala, etc and there are large toddy collecting centres of pure coconut toddy.

Placing the clay pot (Gasmuttiya) to the scrapped coconut flower to collect the sap

Bottling plants
With time a large number of toddy bottling plants have emerged. The sorry state of affairs is that most of these bottling plants do not bottle pure coconut toddy, but a different form of toddy made out of poisonous substances said to be methyl alcohol.

Even the genuine coconut toddy suppliers to the toddy taverns spread all over the country admit that their toddy taverns sell adulterated stuff. Thus for the bottlers and the taverns scarcity of pure coconut toddy is not a matter for concern. Large quantities of this bottled toddy is transported to the upcountry and it is reported that many of those who consumed this bottled toddy have fallen ill.

Though there are a few genuine pure coconut toddy bottlers, suppliers of the bottles containing toddy made out of different substances have made it a very lucrative business and it has become a monopoly. So much so that liquor distillery companies that were purchasing coconut toddy to manufacture hard liquor now found the toddy is not genuine coconut toddy and thus stopped buying.

Today what is plaguing this country under the pretext of good governance is that an obsession has taken over to ban various products such as asbestos, chemical fertilicer and now an attempt to stop coconut and palmyrah toddy tapping, which apparently is baseless as the decisions are taken without sufficient data and research.

In a democracy the government is by the people and not by the representatives of the people as the constitutional experts indicate that the country’s constitution explicitly provide for people’s participation in all spheres of governance. A democratic government thus should be mindful of the complete life of the citizen where entertainment, leisure entailed with little bit of pleasure such as dancing, etc is permitted.

The history of any country or human life throughout their existence shows that consuming liquor is part of life and banning this would encroach on the freedom of the citizens. Therefore any democratic government should do extensive research before deciding on any ban and the first and foremost requirement of such a government should be to first introduce an equivalent substitution in place of the banned item.

Fishermen enjoy a jug full of toddy at the Kepungoda toddy tavern

Speaking of liquor drinks like beer, red wine, etc are said to be healthy and even pure coconut toddy and for that matter even palmyrah toddy is supposed to be a healthy drink and not much intoxicating like hard liquor.

The sky rocketing prices of hard liquor has compelled the habitual liquor drinking people to invariably get addicted to poisonous illicit liquor. The poorer segment of the drinkers have been used to consume coconut toddy as a bottle of toddy in the taverns is available at the rate of Rs. 100 whereas they say that the closest cheaper drink, a can or bottle of beer is expensive.

To ascertain the situation pertaining to toddy, the Business Times (BT) travelled to different locations to explore coconut toddy tapping and the toddy is consumed in taverns. Toddy taverns are visible in many parts of the country and especially in the coastal areas where the fishermen live.

The Kepungoda toddy tavern is located along the Ja-Ela Pamunugama-Negombo Road where fishermen have been drinking toddy for the last 35 years. They say they drink toddy everyday once they return to the shore after catching fish. They say that the toddy drink quenches their thirst and supplements their energy after a hard day’s work in the sea.

Struggling business
In the Katana area there are several large coconut estates where a portion of the coconut trees say about 300 trees are apportioned to continuously tap toddy and one such estate owner said that a tree per day on average provides 1.25 litres of tapped toddy. What is collected in these estates, the tavern owners come and purchase them.

They say that earlier the whole area was under toddy tapping but now it is not to that extent and some are continuously go out of business.

But the most dangerous part of the toddy and tapping game is that when the coconut flower is tapped, it is a game of life and death. The tapper first climbs the tree through a ladder created by coconut husks tied to the tree. They then reach the next tree to tap through walking on a rope tied between two trees while holding another rope above chest high. There have been several instances where the tappers have fallen while walking the tightrope.

These estate owners indicated that during 1970 to 1977 when Dr. N. M. Perera was the Minister of Finance, toddy tappers were trained by the Coconut Research Institute. That’s no more and thus there is a scarcity of tappers, as locals are reluctant to take up the job as they consider it a below-dignity job like rubber tappers and tea pluckers.

Like preventing drug peddling and selling illicit liquor, the government appears to be in a dilemma on how to stop the making of toddy with other substances other than coconut toddy.

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