Coconut (Giambelli 1998)

Rodolfo A. Giambelli, in his article 'The Coconut, the Body and the Human Being. Metaphors of Life and Growth in Nusa Penida and Bali' (1998) describes the essential role of the coconut and other plants and trees to human (cultural life) in Nusa Penda. End notes by Giambelli have been introduced as footnotes to enhance readibility. Additional notes by Godi Dijkman in square brackets.

The Coconut, the Body and the Human Being. Metaphors of Life and Growth in Nusa Penida and Bali


giambelli1998 coconut00 cover(p.133) The importance of tree symbols in Asia has been acknowledged in the early writings of Majumdar (1927) and Viennot (1954), and its significance in South-east Asia has been recognised in Bosch's (1960) seminal work. However, with the exception of James Fox's (1977) study of the Borassus palm [Palmyra Palm}, there have been very few anthropological analyses of South-east Asian people's pragmatic interest in, and symbolical attention to, specific trees. The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) (1), which occupies a special place in the life of all South-east Asian people, is particularly important for the inhabitants of the island of Nusa Penida and Bali, who extensively use it for practical as well as ritual purposes. Nusa Penida, where the material presented in this chapter has been collected, is a limestone island located between Bali and Lombok. (2) Nusa Penida forms a part of the Klungkung regency, and, as such, is historically regarded as part of Bali. Its 45,000 or so inhabitants consider themselves Balinese. Farming is the main economic activity, with maize being the most important cereal grown on the island. Although Nusa Penida social organisation is modelled on Bali's, the influence of Balinese caste estate groups (brahmana, ksatria and wésia), whose presence in the island is far from being sizeable, is less significant than in Bali itself. However, the hierarchical division between jero and jaba, which reflects the (p.134) division between landowners - who claim former links with Balinese estate groups - and land labourers - with no such claims - appears to be more consequential.

Notes 1. Spelling in the present article conforms to the following conventions: all the Balinese words in the text have been written in italics (e.g. banten); terms peculiar to the Balinese spoken in Nusa Penida are characterized by the code [NP] (e.g. Ienger [NP]); local floral terminology is glossed parenthetically in the text with botanical terms in italics, e.g. ambengan (imperata cylindrica); occasional Indonesian terms such as Pancasila or Camat have been simply underlined; old Javanese words have been printed in bold (e.g. dahana); 2. I conducted fieldwork in Nusa Penida and Bali between September 1989 and January 1992 under the sponsorship of L.I.P.I. (Lembaga llmu Pengetahuan Indonesia [Indonesian Institute of Sciences]) and the local supervision of Udayana University. During the whole period I benefited from an ANU RSPAS Ph.D. scholarship. My special thanks go to the people of Nusa Penida. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the members of banjar and desa Sakti who hosted me during my stay in Nusa Penida.

In this chapter, I discuss the practical and cultural meanings attributed to the coconut, a ubiquitous symbol extensively used in Nusa Penida and Balinese society. I also analyse the metaphors relating the coconut palm and its fruit to different aspects of the culture of these Indonesian islands within the broader context of botanic idioms widely spread throughout Austronesia. The first part of the chapter examines the significance of the coconut palm in relation to forest trees, the economic and cultural importance of its by-products, and the customary laws regulating the ownership of- and access to- coconut trees. The second part considers the relationship between the palm and the person, the meaning attributed to coconut planting, the analogies drawn between the palm and the human body, and, finally, the set of contrasts drawn between the coconut palm and the banyan tree. My main argument is that the coconut palm and its fruit mark people's lives from birth to death. The coconut, prototype of all domesticated and fruit-bearing trees, stands symbolically between the undifferentiated and dangerous forest trees and the conspicuous and socially positive banyan tree. The stream of symbolic associations that links human beings with the coconut, while evoking a constant flow of images principally associated with life-bringing circumstances, characterises crucial aspects of the Balinese and Nusa Penida cultures, in which botanical metaphors play a central role in local conceptions of growth and of the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Tree and Palm Classification

While domesticates and wild plants belong to the same general category, 'kayu', they are contrasted both practically and symbolically. The cultural significance of the coconut palm as a domestic plant can be measured in relation to the status of forest plants. In Nusa Penida all plants with hard stems, whether grown wild or planted, are classified as kayu. This term, which means both 'tree' and 'wood', is polysemic. Moreover, its semantic field comprises two functional and partially overlapping classes: kayu and punyan. In fact, if kayu refers to all hard-stem plants, its meaning is more restricted in practice, as the word punyan is used to refer to live, domesticated fruit-producing plants such as the coconut palm (punyan nyuh) or the mango tree (punyan poh). But once cut down, most plants classified as punyan become kayu. For example, a mango (p.135) tree (punyan poh) becomes kayu poh after felling. But the coconut palm, once felled, becomes seseh nyuh, due perhaps to its special status and fibrous wood - a characteristic it however shares with other palms. Shifts in classifiers are further illustrated in Table 6.1:

Table 6.1 Differences between classificatory terms associated with living and cut trees

The live tree (Balinese name and botanical name) Once cut becomes (Balinese name) English
punyan poh (Mangifera indica Linn.) kayu poh mango tree
punyan nangka (Apotrocarpus integra Merr. kayu ketewel breadfruit (tree)
punyan ntal (Borassus flabellifer Linn.) séséh ntal lontar palu (?)
punyan nyuh (Cocos nucifera Linn.) seseh nyuh coconut (tree)
punyan buah (Areca catechu) seseh buah Beter palm (Pinang)
punyan biu (Musa paradisiaca Linn.) gedebong; batang [NP] Banaua (tree)

The shift from punyan to kayu or seseh is not the only feature that characterises domesticated trees. Classification terminology for particularly important plants is affected by their status as live or dead (with a shift from punyan nangka to kayu ketewel), and also by their developmental cycle. A coconut palm, for example, is known under different terms, according to its stages of growth. Finally, domesticated plants - especially the coconut palm - become symbolically charged in comparison with forest trees. Whereas the coconut palm is associated with attributes pertaining to the social sphere, forest trees stand for the wild. This opposition is manifest during the thanksgiving ritual for all fruit-bearing trees known as 'Tumpek Pangatag'. In this ritual, celebrated every six Balinese months, coconut palms are dressed like people and treated like ancestors. Forest trees are never treated in this way, nor are they directly associated with positive ancestors. On the contrary, they are believed to be inhabited by all kinds of spirits, (p.136) including evil ones. The salience of this contrast may be better appreciated if presented as below:

coconut palm forest trees
domesticated I humanly planted wild
planned growth / planted in a planned landscape naturally grown
tended not tended
fruit-bearing not necessarily fruit-bearing
detailed knowledge of the tree and its fruit lack of in-depth knowledge
treated as ancestors inhabited by all sorts of spirits, among them evil spirits

Importance of the Coconut Tree and its Products

People of Nusa Penida and Bali, whose knowledge of the various types of coconut grown in the islands and of their different uses is highly developed, have a range of specific terms covering all tree parts with great precision. Punyan nyuh is the common term for a fully-grown coconut palm. While punyan indicates that the tree has been planted by a human and is productive, nyuh signals the presence of fruit. Different terms are used to refer to the young non-productive plant, whereas only one term, seseh nyuh (3) is used for a felled coconut tree. A coconut tree can reach the age of sixty or sixty-five, however its productivity generally declines sharply after forty (it starts producing nuts between its sixth and tenth year). Six growth stages (4) are recognised, from the germinating nut to the mature plant. The nut's rate of growth and degree of maturation are also closely monitored, with each stage corresponding to a specific use receiving a different name. In the village of Sakti, for example, five basic stages of fruit development, from pollination to maturity, are differentiated; the first four terms correspond to growth stages in the immature nut, the last one to the ripe coconut. (5)

Notes 3. Only felled palms become seseh; this reflects their relevance in Balinese culture. The term séh, which means 'to change', commonly refers to the changing of clothes. In a Balinese temple festival the gods are always cleansed and their clothes changed before the opening of the festival; the new set of clothes given to the gods is made into a specific offering called séh; 4. The growth of the coconut tree is defined in six stages as follows: I - Pujer indicates a germinating coconut; II - Mapungkil refers to a 4/5-year-old plant in which the start of the formation of the stem above the ground can be observed; Ill - Nyuh tubuh applies to a well-developed palm whose first flowering has not occurred yet; IV - Matlaktak is a 6/7-year-old plant; V - Punyan nyuh is a mature tree; VI - Nyuh tua is an old coconut. On the ethnobotany of the coconut palm and the specific attributes of these stages of growth, see Giambelli (1995, Chapter X); 5. The dimensions of a nut, the consistency of its kernel, and the quantity of water contained in it are all related to the age of the fruit. Nuts are very closely defined, and in Sakti the development of a nut is pictured as follows: I. Bungsil is the first stage of growth in the fruit; II. Bungkak refers to a nut 10 to 13 cm long, almost entirely filled with water; III. Klungah indicates that the nut shows the first signs of endosperm; IV. Kuud designates a nut with a fully formed endosperm; V. Nyuh refers to a mature nut. On the specificities of these stages, see Giambelli {1995, Chapter X).

Every part of the coconut palm is used daily in all sorts of traditional activities. Coconut water, the prime ingredient of the lustral water used in blessing, is extremely important in all ritual contexts. Decorations, offerings, mats, and the walls and roofing of non-permanent shelters are made with the palm's leaves. The pulp of young and tender nuts is eaten; when ripe, the kernel is processed into copra or cooking oil. Oil (p.137) is also used as hair or skin ointment. Freshly grated coconut pulp produces coconut milk (santen), as well as the basic ingredient for numerous culinary preparations, ranging from sweets to saté (a mixture of pounded raw meat mixed with coconut milk, grated coconut and spices skewered on thin pieces of bamboo and grilled). In some areas of Nusa Penida, old dry leaves and spathes are still the main source of fuel, while coconut shells are still made into bowls. Finally, coconut wood is still the main timber for the construction of traditional Balinese houses. The economic value of coconut palms as a cash crop is not negligible either. (6) Whereas nuts and young leaves are directly sold for cash in urban areas, they are bartered or exchanged as ritual prestations in rural areas, where it is copra and coconut oil that make up the bulk of market transactions. In any case, the coconut is so central to the whole utilitarian and symbolic complex that no part of the tree is wasted. Quite clearly, people's real material dependence on the coconut palm in Nusa Penida and Bali is reflected in the palm's cultural importance as well.

Note 6. According to FAO (1992: 10) sources, Bali produced in 1988 59,816 metric tons of coconuts, equivalent to 2.82 per cent of Indonesia's total production. During the 1978-88 decade, Indonesia was the second largest producer of coconuts and coconut by-products after the Philippines. However, during the same period, Indonesia's internal market grew appreciably, and the nation also became the largest coconut consumer. This has influenced Indonesia's ability to export coconut products, so that its share of the world market has been relatively low compared to its productive potential.

Coconut Distribution and Ownership

Access to coconut products, particularly to young immature leaves (busung) and nuts, is absolutely crucial for participating in the islands' religious life. As all important rituals make use of coconut products, no ritual can be performed without coconut fruit or leaves. In certain areas of Nusa Penida, jeroan (houses that claimed higher status within the community), the traditional owners of all coconut plantations, have had a monopoly over the production and distribution of coconut produce; to a certain extent, this is still the case today. Jaba (outsiders, those who do not belong to the jeroan, and hence occupy an inferior position) were either given farmland already containing coconut plantations (whose produce they could lawfully use), or reduced to asking jeroan for coconut fruit and leaves each time they needed them. To this day, jaba from the South of Nusa Penida travel to the island's northern villages before important religious festivals (such as galungan and kuningan) to ask members of the local jeroan for coconuts. They sometimes bring small gifts along to disguise the request as reciprocal exchange. In Sakti (a north-western village), coconut produce is commonly passed from jero to jaba as part of their patron-client relationship. Jaba do not pay for the coconuts, but lend their labour or help whenever asked to in exchange. A few figures will help the reader gauge the level of nut consumption. A very common ritual such as (p.138) 'tutug kambuhan', performed forty-two days after the birth of a child, requires no fewer than two hundred nuts (this includes the nuts needed for prescribed offerings, and those that go in preparing a meal for twenty-five people). This example illustrates how jero status is reinforced by coconut tree ownership, and is tied to the power of bestowing or withholding coconut produce.

Botanic Idiom

In his study of kinship metaphors in one eastern Indonesian society, Fox (1971) documents the existence of a 'botanic idiom' in Rotinese language, by which he explains the fact that kinship relations are expressed in terms of botanical analogies, as well as the nature of ritual chanting, which consists in elaborating an already well-developed plant semiology. As Fox (1992) shows, the linguistic recurrence of this botanic idiom is probably due to the fact that Austronesian discourse has for centuries expressed characteristic Austronesian origin structures and systems of precedence in terms of botanical categories of growth. The concept of a 'botanic idiom' is best expressed as a set of analogies that associate flora and human beings, but cannot be fully accounted for by using a classificatory approach. Nusa Penida society, like all other Austronesian societies, shows a great awareness of plants. Categories central to Balinese life are formed with reference to trees and plants, and it is from this perspective that I propose to analyse the relationship between the coconut palm and human beings. Although my approach to coconut symbolism is semiotic, I do not limit my examination of the coconut botanic idiom particular to Nusa Penida to its linguistic manifestations, but discuss all the aspects of plant semiology in Balinese life. In particular, I consider: (1) the rituals associated with the plant; (2) the analogies between the coconut and the human body; and (3) the ritual use of coconut in some of the most significant Balinese life crisis ceremonies.

Planting a Coconut, the Symbol of Life

People adopt a respectful, polite behaviour whenever they deal with the coconut palm. In particular, a coconut tree is never fully harvested, for it is known that constant and exhaustive depletion of fruit or young leaves causes the tree to stop producing and wilt. The ideal relationship between the owner and the tree is one of balanced and equal sharing of its produce. This is why part of the fruit (especially the young fruit) (p.139) and the unfurled leaves should always be left on the tree. The other reason, of course, is that cutting the unfurled leaves, which contain the terminal bud, causes the palm's premature death. The majority of the coconut palms grown in Nusa Penida are of a tall variety that may take some time before it produces its first fruit. (7) However, tree-owners long for their trees to grow and bear fruit fast, as the symbolism associated with tree planting illustrates. Planting a coconut palm, a traditionally male activity, requires that a special procedure be followed. The landowner, the future beneficiary of the tree and its produce, is responsible for the planting. He first chooses a suitable sprouting nut, digs a hole, and then asks one of his sons (or his male heir) to sit astride his shoulders (ngandong anak cenik), while he squats by the hole, in which he places the nest of a small bird. If unavailable, the nest may be replaced by a layer of short grass, over which the shooting coconut is placed. The hole is then carefully filled up with earth, and the planting ceremony concluded.

Note 7. Different varieties of coconut are grown in Nusa Penida. Local varieties are distinguished by a specific name and recognised by the external traits of the plant and of its fruit, that is, by differences in plant dimensions, leaf colour, and fruit size, shape and colour. The coconut varieties found in Nusa Penida are known locally as: Nyuh Barak, Nyuh Beruk, Nyuh Bulan, Nyuh Enggalan, Nyuh Gadang, Nyuh Gading, Nyuh Jemulung, Nyuh Julit, Nyuh Puuh, Nyuh Sudamala, Nyuh Tabah, Nyuh Udang. On the distinctive features of these varieties see Giambelli (1995, Chapter X).

The key to understanding this procedure rests on a pun and a form of mimicry that is obvious to any local. Coconut planters are said to wish to obtain a small, easy to climb and very fruitful tree. A mature plant with such characteristics is called punyan puuh; it is generally very difficult to obtain. The small bird (possibly a quail) whose nest is used in the planting ritual is called kedis puuh, and the short grass variety padang puuh. As puuh in both terms means something small, by induction the lexical and physical association of the nest of a small bird or short grass inside the planting hole with the growing plant characterises small size as a positive quality. (8) The inductive reasoning behind the man's unusual posture is similar. The other main quality desired from a tree is its fruitfulness. The man who does the planting is himself an example of fertile fruitfulness, as exemplified by the presence of his son sitting astride his shoulders. In Nusa Penida, all men - and women - are expected to be fecund and productive. In a way very similar to the coconut, which is the fruit (buah) of the coconut palm tree, the child is the 1fruit' of his father's belly (niki panak buah basang tiange). With this analogy, the productive power symbolised by the man and his offspring, passed over to the seed through the action of planting, becomes the model for the tree's productivity. Here too we find the belief (and hope) that the positive qualities found in one domain (human, animal or botanic) get transferred by way of physical and semantic collusion to the other (botanic).

Note 8. On the one hand, the nest stands for the bird; but as it is placed on the floor of the hole, it also on the other hand comes to host the seed as if the seed were a small bird.

Coconut planting also refers to the need for securing genealogical continuity, so greatly felt in Balinese society. Planting a coconut is (p.140) mamula nyuh. Mula, the root on which this verb is formed, refers to the planting of a seed that shows manifest signs of roots at the moment of its sowing. Mula is derived from kamulan or kemulan, which, in the Balinese context, indicates the place where a descent group originates, and where it, just like a growing and fruitful tree, has its roots. (9) Coconut planting, with its associated images of future productivity and growth, represents, therefore, a botanical event used to refer to the source of an origin group.

Note 9. On kemulan as 'origin point' of an 'origin group' see also Geertz and Geertz (1975: 64), Guermon prez (1990: 64), Boon (1977: 65-6) and Fox (1992). On mula and mamula as planting see Giambelli (1995: 108). See also Giambelli (1995: 222) for the analogy between coconut and banana planting.

The events surrounding exhumation and the Tumpek Pengatag festival constitute further references to coconut planting as a desire to establish firmly in the ground a lasting symbol of life and productivity. During exhumation (ngebet), a ritual preceding cremation, a shooting coconut (pujer) is exchanged for the head of the deceased, and placed in the grave in its stead. The coconut, which is retrieved from its temporary location by someone who is not a relative of the deceased before the grave is filled, is replanted elsewhere. The nut will grow into a - seemingly- everlasting palm, symbol of the life-potential of the deceased, and, more generally, of life originating within the ancestors. As such, it symbolises the continuity of successive generations, a constant theme in Balinese culture. The same association is particularly explicit during the Tumpek Pangatag annual festival (also known as Tumpek Bubuh or Tumpek Wariga). The link between ancestors and fruit-bearing trees is renewed during the festival, which consists in the ritual dressing of a coconut palm by a married couple. The coconut palm, covered with human clothes, addressed as 'grandmother' (dadong), and presented with offerings and food, symbolises all fruit-bearing trees. The purpose of the ritual is to request of the ancestor-tree a bountiful harvest for the next season. The ancestor-tree, in a reciprocal gesture, is offered porridge to eat. In both instances, the coconut palm is twice the bearer of life: it leads the ancestors to a new life, and provides food for the living. Last but not least, a shooting coconut (pujer) is given by the groom's family to the bride's family during marriage (nganten) ceremonies, as a symbolic exchange for the new wife. The coconut, the living symbol of the daughter who leaves the family's house, is planted in the bride's family's garden. The high-yield plant is offered as a compensation for the new life potential (offspring) that has been given away.

The Coconut and the Human Body

The similarity between the coconut and a person rests upon their analogous life cycles. The time a coconut needs to develop from flower (p.141) to harvestable fruit roughly equals the length of time needed for human gestation; the length of time between planting and the first harvest (i.e. from six to ten years) approximates to the time needed for a child to become an adolescent; and above all, the plant's life-span is almost the same as the life-span of a man or woman. These parallels are especially marked at the time when a first-born child cuts his or her first teeth, an occasion celebrated with the planting of a coconut in a ritual called ngempugin (from empug 'to rise', 'to sprout' or 'to appear'). The child is then given the hard kernel of an old coconut to taste for the first time, chew on, and strengthen his or her teeth. From then on, it is said, the parallel lives of the child and the coconut palm progress' in a similar fashion. The palm becomes a kind of living alter ego for the person it is linked to. If fruitful, it becomes a positive model of development for the human being. (10)

Note 10. In Europe trees were also planted - and still are - to commemorate important events such as birth (Thomas 1984).

Terms That Apply to Both a Coconut and a Human Being

A series of terms that apply equally to the coconut palm and the human body (11) further evidences the cultural significance of the relationship between this tree and the Balinese person. As Table 6.2 (which charts the correspondence between plant and body parts, and the Balinese terms used to refer to them) shows, these terms cover almost all the important botanical parts of the tree:

Note 11. The general equivalence between human body and plant is not a theme confined to Balinese culture; it is also present in ancient Hindu Indian treaties and tradition. In his attempt to formalise these similarities, Madjumdar (1927:27) writes: 'A more elaborate attempt [to formalise plant internal morphology] is seen in Vrihat Aranyaka Upanishad, where the inner structure of plants is described after the analogy of the human anatomy [ ...] The body of the plant is exactly like the body of man; the hairs of man corresponding to the leaves of plants and his skin corresponding to the dry exterior bark of the plants (234-28-1). The flesh of the human body answers to the sakara (soft tissue next to the skin) of plants: his nerves standing for the kinhata (fibrous tissue in sakara as in jute, etc.) of plants, both being equally strong. just as the bones of man lie behind his flesh, also wood, daru, lies behind the sakara (and occupying the centre) of plants and the marrow (pith) is alike in both (236-30-3).

Table 6.2 Correspondences between parts of the coconut plant and body parts and Balinese terms used to refer to both

Correspondences Between Plant and Body Parts
Coconut Tree and Fruit Common Balinese Terms Human Being
sap I lymph getah getih blood
sap I lymph tuak (nyuh) breast milk
leaf canopy bok hair
kernel / endosperm isi flesh
nut nyuh, nyonyo breast
coconut water yéh nyuh, yéh nyonyo breast milk
coconut shell kau cangkok, kaun sirah cangkok sirah skull

(p.142) The lexical rendering of some of the terms in Table 6.2 is identical for both plants and body parts; others (i.e. nyuh and nyonyo) are clearly cognates and, as we shall see, closely related. Looking briefly at the first of these terms, for example, we discover that while the lymph of any tree is engket, that of the coconut may also be referred to as getah, which is similar to getih, the term used for human and animal blood. On the basis of Table 6.2, let us now investigate in greater detail some aspects of the analogy between parts of the coconut palm and parts of the human body. I first discuss the relationship between female breasts and milk and nuts and tuak, and then the links between the coconut palm, the wooden pillar of a traditional Balinese balé, and the self.

Breasts, Nuts and Tuak

giambelli1998 coconut146 figure 62Figure 6.2 A married couple clothing a coconut palm during the Tumpek Pengatag festival (Sakti, Nusa Penida 1990)

A clear equivalence is drawn in Nusa Penida between the coconut fruit and the female breast; both provide food for humans and, in some circumstances, both are thought to have a similar shape. As already mentioned, a mature nut is nyuh, and the water it contains yeh nyuh. The term for female (and male) breasts is nyonyo, and for breast milk yeh nyonyo. Nyonyo is a reduplication of nyo; the pronunciation of nyuh and nyo is almost identical. The analogy between coconut and female breast as food providers is taken further during the first three or four days of the newborn's life, when the mother feeds her baby with the watery, gelatinous pulp of a young coconut (kuud mara ngerepe). Balinese women believe that the first breast milk (colostrum) to appear after childbirth is too dense and raw to be fed to infants. In the period preceding the production of fluid, white milk, mothers anoint their breasts with a local balm (boreh) and wrap them tightly with a sash. According to local belief, the combined action of balm and sash produces the heat that matures and fluidities the milk. (12) To nurse is manyonyo, and a child asking for breast-milk is ngidih yeh nyonyo. This analogical reference focuses on a double equivalence, that between coconuts and nursing mothers' breasts, and that between coconut water and breast milk. In sum, the correspondence between coconuts and breasts is (1) visual (the shapes of breasts and young nuts are explicitly compared); (2) material (coconut pulp and water are used as substitutes for breast milk); and (3) lexical (the pronunciation of the terms nyuh and nyo is almost identical). This far-reaching symmetry once more demonstrates the depth of the connection between the coconut palms and the people of Bali.

Note 12. Due to its density and yellow colour, the colostrum is held to be an inferior type of breast milk and is generally disposed of; the white fluid milk that follows it is preferred.

An additional parallel is drawn between mothers and coconuts as (p.143) life-providers. If a nursing mother needs to leave her child behind for a while, she may ask another woman to breast-feed her baby during her absence, a request known as ngidih tuak, literally 'to ask for tuak'; this special breast-feeding is called nuakin (from tuak). In both instances, while the milk is directly referred to with the word for coconut sap (tuak), the feeding is referred to as 'tapping the sap from the coconut inflorescence' (nuakin). Furthermore, women's breasts are sometimes called tuak in Nusa Penida. Finally, it should be stressed that the tuak analogy (coconut sap = mother's milk) shifts the reference from the nut to the tree, which, from this perspective, virtually becomes equivalent to a nursing mother who provides the 'flow of life' for her children. (13)

Note 13. For a birth ritual in Eastern Indonesia that involves the washing of the child in coconut water, see Jensen (1963:197).

On Saka, Tiang, Tapis and Kamben Adegan

The relationship between coconut tapis, a pavilion's wooden pillars (balé), and the notion of self further illustrates the ways in which humans and coconuts are culturally linked. In some villages of central Nusa Penida, pavilion pillars in a compound or public hall are sometimes wrapped in bast fibre, a fabric-like tissue called tapis that connects the stalk of a coconut palm leaf to its stem. A dressed pillar is perceived to be analogous to a person. Such a perception coalesces a number of relations that are worth examining more closely.

Pavilion and house pillars are lodged in special pedestals made of marble, coral stone or other stone-like materials. These pedestals (sendi) are treated with respect; they should never be damaged or given away. A niche is opened on the pedestal's vertical axis for holding the pillar. The post must n0t touch the hard base of the niche, on which old Chinese coins (pipis bolong) and white thread - signs of purity and value - covered with a section of coconut skin (sambuk) are placed to avoid all contact between the two. The pillar, fashioned in a way that preserves the grain of the wood, is then fitted. Pillars are closely associated with the owners of the particular buildings in which they are found. For instance, the strong unity between a house and its inhabitants is emphasised by the fact that the body measurements of the building's owners are used to determine the dimensions of pillars. All house pillars (saka, tiang or adegan) have a square base whose length and width are multiples of rai, a finger measurement. (14) In cremation rites adegan refers to a small piece of wood on which the image of the person to be cremated is drawn. The piece of wood stands for the person it represents. The pillar is sometimes referred to as tiang, a Balinese term also used (p.145) with reference to the self. Upon completion, buildings (including pillars and other structural components) are purified and inaugurated in a ritual called mlaspas, by which they are brought to life (urip), and endowed with strength (pasupah). A section of the ritual called pangurip miwah pasupatian includes the anointment of a building's pillars with chicken blood (getih), coconut shell charcoal (areng) and lime (pamor, apuh). The respective colours of these elements, red, black and white, are commonly understood as representing the pillar's blood, flesh and bones. (15)

Note 14. A rai is the index finger's length taken from the knuckle to the tip. The term adegan is related adeg ('the shape of' or a 'body figure'), and ngadeg ('to stand'); 15. The three colours are also associated with the Hindu gods Brahma, Wisnu and Siva. Howe (1983: 154) indicates a set of associations relating the elements anointed on the post (blood, charcoal and lime) with specific parts of a living tree:
Table 6.4 Summary of the characteristic elements used to perform pangurip miwah pasupatian and their referents according to Howe and Nusa Penida people
elements according to Howe these elements stand for: colour in Nusa Penida these elements are thought of as:
chicken blood getih the sap of a tree getah red blood. In Nusa Penida only coconut trees are credited with getah. The sap of any other tree is known as
charcoal (areng) the hardwood (duramen) of a tree. In Balinese it is called les. black flesh
lime (pamor, apuh) the new wood (alburnum) which is placed between the cortex and the duramen. In Balinese it is called kubal and has a clearer colour than the inner hardwood. white bones

I found in Nusa Penida several pillars dressed with coconut tapis. Wrapped around the post's central section, the tapis is kept in place with a tightly woven bamboo frame. Once in place, it receives the name of kamben (i.e. kamben adegan), that is, of the long piece of fabric (the Balinese equivalent of the Javanese sarong) which men and women traditionally wrap around their body to cover it from waist to ankles. In former days, women used to wear a black (or dark) woven fabric called tapih (16) under their kamben. The women of Nusa Penida traditionally wove both kamben and tapih. To summarise, house pillars are brought to life and dressed as carefully as humans. And just as tapih, woven with different colours and worn as outer clothing becomes kamben, coconut tapis, wrapped on a bamboo frame on the pillar, marks the pillar's change of status from lifeless to living kamben adegan.

Note 16. Fraser-Lu (1986:21) indicates that in java the kain panjang. a longer version of the sarong used to be worn on more formal occasions, when worn by a woman is referred to as tapih.

Ritual Significance of the Coconut

Coconuts are extensively used in offerings (banten). Whole nuts make one of the components employed in fashioning the symbolic accompaniments presented in all major rituals. Coconut is also used as an ingredient (for example shredded kernel) in the making of offerings. The use of coconut is so widespread in Balinese rituals that it would be impossible to list all the preparations that are found. I focus instead on the use of coconut as a ritual vessel containing parts of the human body, before outlining the symbolic structure that seems to govern the ritual use of coconuts in Bali.

Coconuts, Body Matters and Balinese Life Rituals

In a significant number of Balinese-life crisis rituals, a coconut becomes the vessel for parts of the human body. During such rituals, a coconut is opened, the water thrown away, and the cavity is filled with body remains, after which it is sealed, and, finally, buried or thrown into (p.147) the sea. Coconuts become the containers of human body substances, for they are considered efficient protecting devices against ill-intentioned (human) predators such as leak, who, if in possession of such remains, would harm their owners. I briefly refer to four rituals making use of coconuts as vessels of human substances.

Just after childbirth, the placenta and the afterbirth (ari-ari) are washed and placed in a large coconut buried in front of the kitchen, where births normally take place. The coconut, which is believed to contain the 'four siblings' of the child (kanda pat), and whose content is considered 'polluting', is buried in the compound's most defiled area - the kelod side. This brief ceremony is known as 'to bury the afterbirth' (nanem ari-ari), and the coconut simply as the 'afterbirth vessel' (wadah ari-ari). To secure a person's growth and prosperity, offerings are placed where the kanda pat were buried throughout his or her life.

Then comes the teeth-filing ritual (matatah, mapandes), which marks the transition from adolescence to maturity. During matatah the saliva and any leftovers from the filing are carefully collected in a coconut vessel (wadah pees), which is then buried at the base of the sanggah inside the house compound. As - according to local belief - a man or woman originates from the sanggah (kemulan), all his or her parts must be returned there. (17) In contrast to what occurs in the first ritual, the wadah pees vessel is buried in the sacred ground of the auspicious (kaja) part of the compound.

Note 17. This also applies to the forelocks cut on this occasion. The hair is placed in a small container made of coconut leaves (tipat blayag) and then buried under the sanggah.

During the death rituals, a young coconut (bungkak) is filled with the ashes of the deceased in two different instances, first during the cremation ritual (ngaben), and then during a post-cremation ceremony (ngrorasin) held twelve days after. The ancestor's icon is referred to as sekah tunggal during ngaben, and as sekah kurung during ngrorasin. (18) Both icons are thrown into the sea to allow for the full purification of the deceased body. They are adorned with flowers and other ritual objects, and wrapped in a white cloth on which propitiating formulae are inscribed. The term sekah is similar to seka; it is related to the old Javanese word seka, which means 'one' or 'together', and effectively it refers to the process of 'being one', by which both sekah come to stand for the deceased at different times during these rituals, and to symbolise the unity of humans with their environment.

Note 18. It may also be called sekah asti, for it contains the ashes taken from the bones (asti) of the deceased.

In the deification ritual (nganteng linggih), new divine ancestors, although not directly represented by a coconut, are embodied in coconut water. The material realisation of their blessing sprinkled over believers on all ritual occasions is simply the water of a young coconut. Therefore a young coconut becomes indexical of the god-ancestors, (p.148) for its water (the water of life) is considered to embody their very essence. It is as such that coconut water becomes the prerequisite of any Balinese ritual.

On the basis of these four rituals, it is possible to say that coconuts in Nusa Penida and Bali mark the progress of a person's life from defilement at birth, to post-cremation purification after death. Whereas a coconut filled with 'polluting' afterbirth is buried in front of the kitchen, the water of a young coconut, the purest fluid of life, is used after cremation and subsequent deification rituals as the material manifestation of the blessing bestowed by god-ancestors on their living descendants. The movement from kelod, the cardinal point of the Balinese compass associated with impurity and the sea, to kaja, the cardinal point associated with ancestral purity and the Gunung Agung, the highest volcano of Bali, parallels this transition. Table 6.3 summarises these movements and transitions:

Table 6.3 Use of the coconut as container of human body parts or as representative of the human body and soul to mark the progress of human life from birth to death and deification.

Progress from childhood   to ancestry status
Progress from defilement   to purification
Progress from kelod   to kaja
Birth (lekad): A coconut filled with the afterbirth is buried in the area in front of the kitchen. The icon is called: Wadah ari-ari Maturity: teeth filing (matatah): A coconut filled with the saliva and teeth waste is buried below the house sanggah. The icon is called: Wadah pees Death: cremation (ngabén) and post-cremation (ngrorasin) rituals: A coconut filled with the ashes of a cremated body or its icon (in ngrorasin) is sunk into the sea. The coconut used (kelapa gading) is referred to as kasturi, from the name of a flower (bunga kasturi) associated with it. During cremation (ngabén) the icon is called Sekah tungga or sekah kurung. During ngorasin the icon is called ... Deification: (nganteng linggih): No coconut is used in the iconic representation of ancestors. An ancestor's deified body is represented by a stylised human form called prarai, which is placed inside the sanggah in elevated position. However, the blessing of the ancestor-gods, which is materially sprinkled over believers on all ritual occasions, is composed of the water of a young coconut. Thus, a young coconut is indexical of the god-ancestors, as its water, the water of life, embodies their essence.


(p. 149) The Balinese custom of burying coconuts containing parts of the human body in the ground or sinking coconuts containing human ashes at sea is directly connected to the fact that the coconut - the fruit - is, above all else, the coconut's - the palm's - seed. On a number of occasions, people in Nusa Penida told me that a coconut is like a sibling, for in it are buried the four components of the afterbirth, which, to a Balinese, represent a person's elder brothers. The way in which the afterbirth is disposed of and buried within a coconut, the importance of the burial location, and the continued influence these remains are supposed to exercise on a person's life, are best understood in the context of Balinese beliefs about living beings, including trees and buildings. Central to these beliefs is the notion that all living beings are 'founded' on a seed, which represents their origin. In the same way as a coconut tree is brought to life by the nut that is its seed, so the life of a human being is connected to, and depends on the 'seed' (wadah ari-ari) represented by the coconut containing the afterbirth, which is buried right after delivery. Like trees, human beings need well-rooted foundations in the earth - the earth that, for any agricultural society, is the basis of all life.

The same is true of the foundations of all major buildings and shrines. In Nusa Penida and Bali, an offering called pejati is buried in the ideal centre of a building before it is used for the first time. Interestingly enough, a pejati (pajati), one of the commonest ritual offerings, is composed of a cylindrical container made of coconut palm leaves, in which are placed: raw rice, Chinese coins (pipis bolong), a piece of white cotton thread, a huskless coconut (nyuh gundul), an egg, and the seeds of cereals, legumes and vegetables grown by local farmers. Corn, sorghum seeds, red beans, long beans, and soya beans, as well as a small onion and a small red chili pepper, may also be added. Pejati (from jati, 'true' or 'genuine') is an offering confirming that the intentions of those who sponsor the ritual are sincere. Placing this offering at the foundation of a building reiterates the fundamental idea that the most significant forms of life in a farming society are the seeds that make life possible. Seeds are paradigmatic of life and growth, and tree growth (i.e. a tree grown from its seed) is the developmental model par excellence for both humans and buildings. Thus, a pejati contributes to the development of the building, just as a seed represents the origin of a tree, or just as the vessel containing the afterbirth (kanda pat) relates to a human being's origin and subsequent growth.

The Coconut and the Banyan

giambelli1998 coconut144 figure 61Figure 6.1 Tapis of a young coconut tree (Pikat, Nusa Penida 1991)

(p.150) The role of the coconut as a polariser of metaphors associated with individual human beings is better understood when contrasted with the symbolic role played by the banyan. These two morphologically distinctive trees become the focuses of very different symbolic representations; the coconut as representative of the individual, and the banyan of the village collectivity. All villages in Nusa Penida have trees that do not produce edible fruits, and have neither utilitarian nor botanical use, but are nonetheless greatly significant to the locals. This is particularly the case for the banyan tree (Ficus benjamina Linn.), commonly known as (punyan) bingin.

Throughout Nusa Penida and Bali, the banyan tree marks the banjar landscape. (19) Most villages have a banyan at their centre, which, if old (i.e. over a hundred years), grows very large and tall. An old banyan's massive trunk is never composed of a single stem, but of a congeries of buttressing stalks, its former aerial roots. Its surface roots spread out in every direction, and its branches form a curtain of thin aerial strands descending to the ground. A dome of green leaves covers the massive structure. Viewed from afar, its appearance is one of outstanding unity. Banyans do not grow in village central spaces by chance; they are in fact planted in chosen spots by village priests (pamangku) who perform a special ritual sanctioning the tree-village association. While all banyans are generally known as kroya, the name bingin is reserved for ritually purified mature trees. A young tree still identified as kroya is planted within the village precinct, possibly in an area close to the cockfight pavilion (wantilan), or the village meeting hall (bate banjar). In this early phase, the banyan is not yet considered sacred. Later on, when the tree assumes its more definite shape and features, that is, when its aerial roots begin to appear and when its foliage takes on its characteristic shape, a cleansing rite (meras bingin) is performed. The banyan is then compared to a human being who has reached sexual maturity, and the cleansing ceremony, during which offerings are made to the tree, to a rite of passage. Once purified, the tree is forever called bingin. From that point on, its leaves can be used in any of the community rituals. (20) The cleansing ceremony is justified on the ground that sacred banyan leaves may be used in the post-cremation ritual (ngroras) to make effigies (sekah) of the cremated dead, which are then dispatched to the sea for further purification. Sakti people say that all - and only- those belonging to the village have their sekah made from the communal bingin. The sacred banyan leaves are collected by the (p.151) relatives of the deceased in a ritual called nganggét, in which the men cut the leaves with their long knives, while the women, who hold sheets or mats above their heads underneath the tree canopy, gather the falling ones. Only leaves that do not touch the ground are considered unpolluted, and hence suitable for ritual use.

Note 19. Banjar may refer to a hamlet, to a group of residential units, or, as in Nusa Penida, to a whole village. The term, which is generally associated with administrative (banjar dinas) and customary (banjar adat) functions, also refers to the inhabitants of such a community, as well as their specific institutions; 20. The banyan tree is widespread throughout Java, Bali and Indonesia. Its symbolical importance has been recognised and used by the Indonesian government, for which it is one of the five emblems composing the national Pancasila icon. The tree, which traditionally symbolises the ideal banjar unity, has thus become the symbol of national unity under the slogan 'Persatuan Indonesia' (One United Indonesia). At desa level, banyan trees are not only planted as community religious symbols; they are also planted in public inaugurations at crossroads and other places by state subdistrict and district officers (Camat) to mark the unity of the state. Last but not least, the banyan tree is the symbol of the largest Indonesian party, the Golkar political party, to which all civil servants belong.

A banyan tree is generally endowed with spiritual strength (tenget), and, as it grows, it becomes one of the focal points of village life. Informal meetings, children's games, cockfights and ritual processions take place in the shade of its extended branches. The tree, considered sacred, cannot be climbed by children or adults. Dried parts are cut out to preserve the tree's longevity. In Sakti, a small shrine (pasimpangan Ratu Gedé) is placed under the branches of the sacred banyan to receive the mask of Rangda when the goddess visits the tree for the ritual performance of the Calon Arang play. During such visits, the goddess, who is addressed as 'the great lord' (Ratu Gede), changes from life-threatening to protective deity. Because of its age and the particular use of its leaves, the banyan provides a link between the community of the living and its ancestors. Moreover, its association with the Hindu god Wisnu, the preserver of the universe, further emphasises the tree's role as a continuity marker in village life. Its longevity, the religious practices of which it is a focus, and its botanical peculiarities (i.e. its long-lasting stem made up of single-multiple parts that form a coherent unit) have all joined in making the bingin a unique symbol of the banjar community.

When the coconut palm and the banyan are considered together, the contrast between them appears clearly. It is expressed on two interconnected levels, one physical and visual, the other symbolic. As the following chart illustrates, physical differences underlie tree symbolism:

coconut palm: physical ground banyan: physical ground
single stem fronds congeries of stems and aerial roots
fronds small leaves
clearly defined canopy large and extended canopy
non-visible roots external visible roots
producing edible fruit producing non-edible fruit
short-lived; its life spans the individual human life long-lived; it extends the life of a human being and spans the life of further generations
privately owned public
planted on private ground planted on public ground
object of ritual planting made on behalf of the owner object of ritual planting and life crisis rituals made on behalf of the whole village
associated with the individual associated with the collectivity, it stands for the village and its inhabitants
>associated with the owner's ancestors associated with higher gods
not endowed with spiritual strength tenget (endowed with spiritual strength)
symbolises all fruit-bearing trees symbolises the unity of the community

(p.152) In the light of the ethnographic evidence discussed throughout this chapter, it is possible to say that the coconut palm is generally conceived as the prototype of all fruit-bearing trees (as it is in the Tumpek Pangatag ritual), but not of all trees. The coconut palm occupies in fact an intermediary position between, on the one hand, the undifferentiated, non-domesticated and negatively charged forest trees, and, on the other, the great, long-lasting and positively valued banyan tree. This is not surprising, given that a coconut palm is not as vast or enduring as a forest, and that it lacks the banyan's longevity and composite architecture. If the forest is the realm of undifferentiated negative spirits, the coconut symbolises the complexity of an individual's life from birth to death, and the banyan enshrines the virtues and unity of the banjar collectivity.


I have, in this chapter, sought to outline the cultural importance of the coconut in one South-east Asian society, thereby contributing to asserting the overall significance of trees in traditional societies, and the place they deserve in anthropological studies concerned with the natural environment and the ways in which it is perceived in traditional societies.

For economic and symbolic reasons, the coconut stands out as one of the most important plants in Nusa Penida and Bali. My intention has been to reflect on its significance through concrete empirical and (p.153) symbolic examples. I have argued that the cultural importance of the coconut demonstrates, on the one hand, the place and role of the flora in the lives of Balinese and Nusa Penida people, and reflects, on the other, the pervasive character of the botanic idiom throughout Austronesia. The high symbolic importance of the coconut tree in these islands derives from the fact that it is imbued with life. The coconut palm, with its botanical characteristics, is considered akin to humans and its productivity and root foundation, the model of a successful existence, that perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Nuts are generally associated with female breasts, while coconut water is believed to have nutritional properties analogous to those of breast milk. Leaves are regularly used for ritual offerings and decorations. As lustral water, coconut water is the prime ceremonial ingredient. Coconuts become ritual vessels for human remains and body parts. The palm's life cycle develops in parallel to the human life cycle. In this agricultural society, the coconut, an essential component of rites of passage, is doubly implicated in people's well-being: it provides food for consumption, and metaphors for life. However, far from representing the archetype of all trees, the coconut palm is the exemplar of all domesticated and fruit-producing trees associated with human ancestors. As such, it is prized for its productivity and its extensive association with the human person, in contrast to both the wild undifferentiated forest, and the long-lasting, collective banyan.

References (Giambelli)

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  • Giambelli, Rodolfo A. - The Coconut, the Body and the Human Being. Metaphors of Life and Growth in Nusa Penida and Bali, in: The Social Life of Trees. Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism, 1998 

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