Saturday, April 23, 2016

Unusual Occupations - The Toddy Tapper

The Toddy Tapper

 The Chethukaran comes around thrice a day without fail, assures my host as I impatiently wait for him to arrive.  He would come around by 9.30 am normally,  she says as she looks out into the street when the clock strikes 10 in the morning.  

It is a hot and humid day although there are clouds looming large on the grey sky promising some rain later in the evening that would cool down the sweltering heat.

I am sitting in an ancient and traditional house in kerala that has a backyard with variety of trees, plants and shrubs. In the center of the backyard is a well, covered with an iron mesh that looks like it has seldom been used to draw water.  A cat is snoozing on the compound wall, oblivious to the world around it.    

Amongst all other things in my host’s backyard are two coconut trees. One of them is slightly bent and looms over their corrugated tiled roof. The other one faces the backyard.  Early on, my host and their family realized that if the coconuts mature, they could fall bang on the corrugated tiles and with a force that could potentially break open the roof and hit one of them sleeping inside the house.  This would pose a serious safety hazard.
That is when they decided to lease this coconut tree over to the Toddy tapper.
The other one,  gives them plenty of coconuts for the family and the extended families throughout the year.
‘His daughter delivered yesterday, a girl child’ says my host as we wait at the appointed time for the Toddy Tapper to arrive. ‘ He has become a grandfather, but that is no reason why he would not come today’, reassures my host once again. 

We have run out of conversation after she has shown me around the house, the backyard and repeated attempts at asking me if I wanted coffee or tea. I was referred to this place as this was the house of an acquaintance of my original host and they had agreed to introduce me to the Toddy Tapper. I am at their place to trail a day in the life of, the Toddy Tapper.

There is a sudden flurry of activity and the Toddy tapper has already arrived unannounced at the backyard and is going about his job.  

Manian has been tapping toddy ever since he was a boy. 

He learnt the art of Toddy tapping from his father who learnt it from his father. Though the occupation itself is passed on from one generation, since 1957 when the local state government regularized the occupation, one requires a licence to be a Toddy tapper. In the early days, Manian got his licence as he was listed to belong to the family of Toddy tappers. 

They come from a caste called the ‘Ezhuva’ community whose primary occupation was Toddy tapping a few decades ago.  A lot has changed now and the men in the community have taken to other occupations.

When a mature coconut tree blooms with tiny flowers it is picked up for Toddy harvesting.  The one’s that are not, then go on to fruit in the form of coconut.  It is at this point that the tree is licenced to the Toddy tapper.

Inorder to make it convenient to climb the tree everyday, the Toddy tapper prepares the coconut tree by tying coir ropes along with coconut husks at every two  to three feet interval.  This is the ladder that would take him up and down the coconut tree thrice everyday.   Manian climbs the same tree thrice daily – early in the morning and later in the evening to collect the produce and in the mid afternoons to slow down the sap from dripping.  

The new unopened buds of the palm flower are slightly opened up with a knife  leaving 95% remaining on the tree inorder to make an opening or a perforation from where the Sap could ooze out. The whole bud is then  beaten and pound. Traditionally the femur bone of a deer would be used for the process, but with the dwindling Deer population, a normal iron hammer with a wooden handle does the job just as well.
The process is repeated for each new bud . Every bud  can usually ooze out sap until it ceases to provide sap or if it gets infected. A good bud usually produces good sap for atleast two months before it dries out.

Every new flowering bud that would have otherwise turned into a mature coconut, begins to ooze sap which can be collected daily.  

Manian repeats the same steps of cutting, beating, applying the paste of Taali leaf inorder to get a better yield of toddy before covering over with a mud vessel into which the toddy drips over throughout the day.

About 1 to 1.5 liters of Toddy can be collected from each tree everyday. It is in its fermented version, that Toddy fetches its premium price . However the price is regulated by the government.  It is sold to contractors who inturn sell it to the toddy shops that are regulated by the government. In parts of kerala, in India, it is illegal for the Toddy tree owners or toddy tappers to sell toddy directly.   

The Toddy Tapper’s occupation demands a very nimble and agile body.  Manian currently has about 9 trees that he has contracted for.  They are spread all over the neighbourhood .  He walks down to each of the houses in the neighbourhood,  climbs the trees and taps Toddy unfailingly everyday of the year.  When he takes a break is when the new flowers bloom and then turn into a ripe cononut. 
I can see two ripe coconuts on the otherwise barren tree. Manian tells me, this was when he fell ill  and was unable to come over for almost a week.

His job is not without its share of danger.  A lot of insects, get attracted to the drink.  An insect bite or a sting can be excruciatingly painful or even poisonous at times.  Manian says he has been stung by honey bees and other insects.  At times he would go and take a tetatnus injection just so they do not turn septic and poisonous. 

If and when he spots honey bees humming around, he spits out a large portion of betel nut juice from his mouth, that distracts and ruffles the honey bee.  A slightly ruffled honey bee thus keeps away from him tills he ascends down.
It was a trade secret he learnt from his father, says Manian.  It may not be something other Toddy tappers adapt, but it seems to work for him .

I ask him if there have been serious accidents of Toddy tappers falling down from coconut trees, when they sit on the branches to cut open the sap. He says there may have been a few here and there although he has known only one who has met with a serious accident that has left him paralyzed waist down. 

 The government ensures that they are covered for accidents and insured for life, which he says is a blessing as this kind of a benefit comes only from the holding a government licence. 

When he retires at 55, which incidentally is the age of retirement by government standards, he would sell his licence  to any other interested toddy tapper. When he retires he would be eligible for a government pension. His, is the only unusual occupation where the benefits of a retirement fund and medical insurance are available to the person undertaking the arduous task. After all, it is what he produces,  is what keeps the vote bank going for the politicians who run the government !!!.  

Manian’s family consists of his wife and two daughters, who who are now married. He has no sons and so he does not foresee the occupation passing on to the next generation of his family.  He is skeptical that even if he did have a son he would want to be a Toddy tapper.

Younger men would rather pick up an occupation that is less strenuous in an office or something like that.  These days they would rather go to the gulf and earn than work here as a Toddy Tapper, he says. 

But the most compelling reason for why this occupation is dying, is because no girl would like to marry a man who does such a risky job and would be tanned ( a fair skin colour is far more valued amongst both men and women in india) and with scars all over his body climbing trees. This he says with a smile on his face.  

Also, Toddy drinking is addictive and is known to be a bane on family life. With so many turning into wife beaters girls would hesitate to marry someone who makes a living out of it.    

Quite the contrary toddy tappers themselves seldom turn out to be such obsessive drunkards he clarifies. 

'It is an occupation that requires us to be mentally and physically agile. Moreover we would rather sell the Toddy and make money out of it than drink the produce, would we not', he asks and lets out a hearty laugh.

After a while, he asks me if I would like to taste the drink.  

It is fresh, he reassures me as though I had doubted it. I have obviously been trailing him throughout while he was tapping it from the tree.

Before I could decline his offer, I am offered a glass of the drink from his container.

Kallu (Toddy) is also offered to Gods,’ he adds and laughs at my perplexed look.

A local folk art form called Theyyam is usually performed by trained men as an offering to the Gods.  The performing artists would fast for the entire day of the performance and consume only Kallu until their performance is over, Manian explains.     
I thank him for his time and the glass of Toddy which I am still reluctantly  holding, asking him if he would be ok if I publish his pictures and video over my blog.  ( I avoid the word Blog and say internet, since I suspect he may not really know what a blog would be) . He says he would be delighted at the thought  that someone as insignificant as him was getting featured on the internet.

It is almost mid-day and the afternoon sun is scorching. The Toddy tapped in the early morning is sweet and has medicinal effects.  But as the day wears on , the sun kissed sap ferments over and acquires a sour taste.  I take a sip and realize that it has indeed fermented over.
Do not worry, have it , it won’t harm you, he says and asks if he could take leave. 

Too much toddy is not good for health.  But that much once in a while would do, he says cheerfully as he takes leave.   

It is just another day in the life of Manian - the Toddy Tapper. He would come back in the evening after he finishes collecting the toddy from the other 8 trees that are spread across a vast area in that neighbourhood.

Click here to watch a one minute snap shot of a day in the life of a Toddy Tapper 



  1. Wow, that is an interesting thing to see once but I can agree that it would be a hard profession to go into these days! Fascinating!!!


  2. Thanks for the introduction :-)

  3. The life of Toddy Tapper is fraught with danger but it's good to read about it. You've narrated it so well describing the entire process. A super duper post, Jayanti:)

  4. Fascinating indeed. Whilse not really knowing what he was doing, I had the privelege of seeing an elderly man climb a coconut palm while on holiday in Tunisia. Some years earlier, in eastern Malaysia, we were spending a day with a family in a village, when their oldest male member climbed the coconut palm while the rest of us were inside, talking. When he came down, we were offered a glass each of coconut water. Notthe same stuff as Toddy, but thanks for bringing back the memory.

    Keith Channing A-Zing from

  5. Great blog created by you. I read your blog, its best and useful information. You have done a good work. Thanks.
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