Conquering the realm of Taalavaasini | Sunday Observer

Conquering the realm of Taalavaasini

11 August, 2019

For centuries the tall palmyrah trees have given us that picture perfect image of the Northern skyline. The resilient palmyrah tree or ‘panaimaram’ in Tamil, is a tree that sustains life and provides shade. Almost every part of this tree can be gainfully used by man.

This life giving attribute made ancient poets to bestow the name Taalavaasini on the clusters of trees, wherein the forest deity was said to reside. To those from Colombo the tree is often synonymous with thal raa or palmyrah toddy, a nectar compared to almost divine flavours by those who enjoy it. Perhaps it is one of nature’s own eco friendly totally green beverages!

The men who risk their lives, every single day to climb these trees and gather the sweet toddy are still segregated by a cruel caste system. The men who have dreams and aspirations like all others. I cycled along from Araly to Vaddukodai town searching for these men who work alone. The first person I spotted around 7 am was a robust young man in a blue sarong. He was pouring the toddy from a plastic bottle into a gallon. He studied me cautiously, until I greeted him in fluent Tamil. Balasingham explained, “This is hard life. Every day is a challenge. I am 34 years; I climbed my first tree when I was 12 years. I could not study due to poverty. This was the trade thrust on us, as was thrust on my forefathers. I start the day at 5.30 am and work till 7.30 am, before the sun gets too hot. Each tree varies from 60 to 80 feet tall. As you can see we don’t wear safety shoes or helmets”. I looked at his fore arms stained black from rope burn, just like the two large marks above the ankles, parts of the body that rub on the rough bark. In the Northern Province these marks, sadly are the tell tale signs of the toddy tapper.

A few cyclists pass by as people go to get drinking water from a clean well. Balasingham said, “in the morning round I climb about 20 trees, and again in the evening I work from 4.30 to 7pm and climb another 20 trees, when it’s much cooler. I don’t take a flashlight, having two decades of experience I can climb the tree in the dark, with the faith that God will protect me as we have no one.”

During the monsoon period there is rain with high velocity wind. The rain is welcomed by the paddy farmers, but dreaded by the toddy tappers. The rain tends to spoil the toddy and increases the risk of an already daunting climb. Balasingham who is married and has a daughter owns a sturdy bull. I walked to his mud hut to meet his family. The white bull with black markings is his only earthly possession. He uses the bull to take part in the village bullock cart races, where he had secured first place. These races don’t offer grand prizes but offer a dignified title to these poor men, rejected by the rest of the self-righteous community. Balasingham works as a part time butcher - at kovil festivals. Some kovils in the Northern Province have the traditional practice of kiddai vettu - slaughtering a goat as a blood sacrifice.

Here again the ‘low caste’ men like him are joyfully used by the pious high caste families, who later indulge in the fruit of his labour at a grand lunch. On a positive note it was good to see the young toddy tapper using a smart phone and sharing photos on Whatsapp!

The next morning I spotted another solitary old man climbing a palmyrah tree, and waited patiently for him to finish. He had a green rope dangling round his waist and a wooden sheath from which glistened two sharp bladed knives. He had the traditional clay pots suspended on the crown of the tree. After about 15 minutes he climbed down. Paramaguru is 60 years old. His body is in good shape, though his eyes display weariness. Both his feet are covered in varicose veins, from nearly 40 years of climbing the palmyrah trees.

The old man said, ‘When I was young I would climb around 25 trees every morning. Now I can manage to climb only eight trees. I dedicated my entire working life to this job. I wonder what would happen to me when I can’t climb anymore”. Paramaguru carefully poured the clear liquid into a gallon. The tappers select male and female trees during different seasons. They often sell their toddy to locally licensed taverns, and get about 40 rupees a litre. The toddy tapper must pay 250 rupees per tree per year to the landlords who own the large acres of land containing about 60 to 100 trees.

When I asked him about the use of plastic bottles he commented, ‘In our days we used clay pots. Today young tappers use plastic bottles to collect the sap. It is the trend and I don’t know if that has any scientific effects on the toddy.”

Around 5pm I walked into the local toddy tavern. The presence of a ‘Colombo man’ sparked some alarm among the regulars, mostly pot bellied old men. I broke the ice, talking in Tamil. I was offered a three legged chair, which I positioned on a block of cement. The old men were earnestly engaged in village gossip, and a glass of toddy (served in a jam bottle to be precise) was extended to me. One of the garrulous seniors lamented: “Last month a young toddy tapper fell from the tree, about 70 feet high. He was unconscious.

We had no vehicle or ambulance. By the time we managed to stop a vehicle the poor man was dead.

His widow has to look after their two children.” As we chatted a luxury vehicle stopped near the tavern, and a Tamil man got down and purchased some bottles of toddy.

He was apparently on holiday from overseas. His children talking in English with a foreign accent took a few photos, and hurriedly began their instagram updates. The vehicle then sped off.

As the sun receded another young tapper sporting a red T-shirt came along on his bicycle. He didn’t want to give his name. He said, “Toddy is like the symbolic beverage of the Northern Province. We have never tasted western wine, but we know how it is marketed and sold in hotels and restaurants.

Why not give our hard work some respect? Why is toddy relegated to cheap taverns and served in coconut shells? We don’t have any system of labelling our bottles, or even a brand name. If nelli crush is sold in Europe why not sell toddy in Colombo? It’s ironic, rich people from all races drink palmyrah toddy, yet they look down on us.”

This statement drew the applause of all those present in the tavern as it was the plain truth. The toddy tappers survive overcoming many challenges. Though the resilient palmyrah trees will stand proudly for decades, the fate of the toddy tapper remains uncertain.