Coconut shells initially were used as a flammable material for outdoor stove fire. But as this craft form got soon established and started flourishing in this state, the usage of coconut shells also changed. At present, this craft is used to make different types of items like desk-top accessories, lifestyle products like paperweights, serving bowls, mobile stands. These products are now kept at famous handicrafts stores of Kerala. There is nowadays a huge demand for this craft in foreign countries. Several online markets are also helping to increase the marketing reach of this craft.
Coconut shell craft is used to make every product out of it not only eco-friendly but is also durable despite being light in weight. Recently, it can be observed that there is an increase in awareness to use green and sustainable projects. Apart from traditional cooking utensils, So many handicraft manufacturers develop uniquely designed coconut shells products like products made from coconut shell crafts for example- from keychains, other household items (bowls and utensils) to making jewelry. This craft is gaining popularity slowly which will due to its high demand keep increasing with time.
The coconut palm is considered as one of nature’s wonders. In India, the plant is termed in Sanskrit as ‘Kalpavriksha’, which is a mythological tree supposed to grant all desires, meaning the tree that gives all the necessities of life. Not only in India, for Malasiyans, it is ‘Polok seribu guna’, meaning the tree of a thousand uses; for Filipinos, it is ‘Tree of heaven’ and for Indonesian it is ‘three generations tree’. These variety of names are reflective of its uses and essentially in everyday life of people in the tropics. Most significant element of this plant is that every part of the coconut plant is useful in one way or another and not even an inch of the tree goes in waste. This plant is intertwined with life itself, from the food they eat to the beverages they drink and derive everything required to sustain life. All the daily needs such as household baskets, utensils, cooking oil, furniture and even cosmetics are made from the coconut. Its usefulness and multiplicity of uses has earned it epithets like ‘Kalpavriksha’, ‘tree of life’ and ‘tree of heaven’. Besides its signifying the food value, it also has medicinal and health value. This plant occupies a special and higher place among the many articles used in religious offerings to God. In India, no religious offer is made without a coconut. It is used in all religious and social ceremonies even in areas where it is not grown. As mentioned above, not even a single inch of this plant goes in waste, all parts are put to working use. Because of its innumerable working utilities and direct use in food, feed and drink, coconut has penetrated the cultural, religious, social and lingual matrix of people of various countries.
It is considered as one of the ten most useful trees in the world, and in India among the five Devavrikshas (God’s trees), which provides food for millions in the tropics. This versatility of coconut plant can be aptly judged by an Indonesian saying that goes, “There are multiple uses of coconut as there are days in the year”. There are around 83 functional uses of parts of coconut which are listed ranging from food to stuffing of coir in pillows, preparation of beds, ropes, mats, utensils of daily use like spoons, drainers, brooms, toddy drawers, chains, door mats, floor mats, musical instruments, furniture, cots, rosary boxes, fuel, scoops, oil bottles, toothbrushes, and different types of containers.
The shells of coconut are used for various purposes for instance as a bowl and utensil. It is considered that the unused shells make good flammable material for an outdoor stove fire. Earlier, these coconut shells were generally discarded, but today they are in great demand and have become one of the important raw materials for many products. These shells are most used in today’s time in handicraft and cooking industries to make unique pieces of utilities and art. One of the importance of using coconut shell craft is, they can be safely used with stick resistant coated cookware. Unlike metal utensils, the texture of coconut shell utensils is much less likely to create scratches or damage the coating in any manner. For people who prefer to use stick and stain resistant coated cook wares, for them coconut utensils are an obvious choice. The most common among all the coconut kitchen utensils are large spoons and spatulas. The spoons are usually solid enough to be used, even when making large quantities of soups, broths and stews. It is a matter of wonder that coconut shell utensils help us maintain good health. Many scientists believe that eating regularly in a coconut shell can help you keep your cholesterol in control and in the long run, it is good for your heart. One major positive change is that coconut shells are 100% biodegradable. They serve as an excellent manure for the plants and trees. The shells create very minimum or nearly zero wastage when they become obsolete. Not only, coconut shells make your kitchen surroundings pleasant but it is better for the environment as it promotes sustainability by repurposing waste rather than consuming new natural resources. By making use of discarded coconut shells instead of ceramic, metal, plastic and other materials these coconut bowls avoid depleting raw resources. Thus, coconut shells perfectly suit a sustainable lifestyle by giving a new purpose to coconut waste. The coconut shell craft of Kerala is one of the most significant eco-friendly craft forms of India.
There is no written evidence or record regarding the origin of coconut in Vedas. However, it is believed that several references occur in post-Vedic works such as the epic of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas and Buddhist stories of Jataka. Other sources of information on this plant include Ayurvedic and agricultural treaties and Sanskrit literature. According to many scholars, the term coconut is mentioned in the 2nd-1st century BC in the text of Mahawasa, the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka. It is said that, it was in the earlier part of this period that coconut milk began to be used as an article for the sacred bath of deities in temples and received agamic sanction for its role in ritualistic practices. This plant also found entry into various domestic rituals, attained sanctity as an offering to God and also stabilized itself as an object of gift to guests on occasions like marriages and other ceremonies and festivals.
Focusing on the references of coconut plant in Puranas, it first occurs as a forest plant in Matsya Purana, Brahmavaivarta Purana (8th century AD) and Brahma Purana (100-1200 AD). It is referred to as a medicinal plant and as a necessity in religious rites. According to Matsya Purana, it is said that planting coconut among the other trees in gardens attached with a house brings prosperity. According to early Tamil: Sangam literature the people of South India were familiar with the coconut plant from antiquity. The earliest poem written on this plant is ‘Tholkappiyam’ which was written by Tholkappier during the 200 BC. This poem is about crop rotation and intercrops of ginger and turmeric in coconut plantations. In the later period, the Sangam literature too makes reference to this plant.
The coconut shell and the plant itself at various stages is used in different religious and social ceremonies. A green coconut stalk is considered as an essential object in Hindu religious ceremonies. In India, astrologers generally advise people born in specific nakshatra to plant some prescribed plant for instance those born in Chitra are asked to plant coconut. According to astronomy, this plant is used to propitiate the Rahu planet. Apart from India, this plant too holds religious and cultural significance. In many parts of Africa, Asia and Pacific the coconut palm represents birth and the tree is thus planted for every newborn. It is said that the first solid food eaten by a Thai baby is three spoonfuls of the custard-like flesh of young coconut fed to him or her by a Buddhist priest. Another interesting story goes that these priests transfer the souls of their newborns to coconut shells to protect them for the first year of life. These shells are used to bury the afterbirth in the Philippines.
Regarding the origin of this craft in Kerala, it was believed that the craft was first being practised and experimented by the craftsmen from Vishwakarma community of Kerala. This community was traditionally involved with sword making and carving ivory and wood. It is said that while making these weapons the Vishwakarma community also experimented with making a few products from coconut shells.
The term ‘coconut’ pertains to the seed or the fruit of coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). The plant Cocos is a monotypic genus of the family ‘Arecaceae’. It is said that, often termed as ‘nut’ for plant coconut, is a misnomer, as the fruit is a drupe botanically. Early Spanish explorers called this plant as ‘cocos’ or ‘monkey face’ because of the three indentations (eyes) on the hairy nut which resembles the head and the face of a monkey.
The origin of this plant is still a mystery. According to Indian mythology the creation of palm is credited with its crown of leafy fronds to the sage Vishwamitra, to prop up his friend King Trishanku when the latter was thrown out of heaven by Indra for his misdeeds. In Vada Kurung Aduthurai, the lord Kulavanangeesar is believed to have taken the form of a coconut tree to help quench the thirst of a pregnant woman. In the state of Kerala, the goddess Bhagavati is believed to be the soul of the coconut tree. It is believed that one of the goddess’s common epithets is Kurumba which means ‘tender coconut’. Folktales of Kerala state that coconut originated from the head of a dead man or from a dead eel.
However, contrary to this popular folklore, botanists place the origin of this plant in the Papua New Guinea area, in some distant past, on the basis of occurrence of the nearest botanical relatives. Some botanists argue its origin in Malaysia and stated that the distribution of this plant is a relic of Gondwanaland. The current theory also suggests that it is native to Malaysia which is a bio-geographical region that includes Southeast Asia, Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and several Pacific Island groups. One of the interesting aspects about the history of this plant is that there is no role of human beings in the spread of coconut to various places as it is considered that coconuts can float for very long periods, and then sprout when they lodge on the shore. This was distinctly demonstrated when the coconuts were found growing on an island created by volcanic activity in Krakatoa in 1929-30.
Besides the botanical evidence about the history of this plant, according to the archaeological record, the fossil remains indicate that the plant evolved as far as 20 million years ago, long before man appeared on the earth. Fossil records excavated at New Zealand shows that small coconut-like plants grew there as long as 15 million years ago. Even older fossil fruits have been uncovered in Kerala, Thennai in Tamil Nadu at banks of river Palar, Rajasthan, Then-pennai, Cauvery and mountain sides at Kerala borders, Maharashtra and Khulna in Bangladesh. In ancient India, it was believed that coconut was used extensively by the Indus Valley people. The earthenware vases shaped similar to a pomegranate and a coconut suggest that these fruits were known to the people of Harappa.
Focusing on the coconut shell craft, though its history remains blurry, there are certain historical records which hints that this craft of coconut shell traveled from Iraq around 900 years ago. It is believed that the wood carving craftsmen from the Middle East and Persia were the first ones to develop the trend of carvings on coconut shells. From there, this craft form flourished and soon was being practiced in India, majorly in the state of Kerala.
In order to make this craft, designs are engraved on the shell using a fire. It should be noted that one cannot see the traditional designs on the shells of coconut. Only contemporary designs are engraved on it. These contemporary designs are used to make basic jewelry like earrings, pendants, necklaces and keyrings. Apart from the jewelry, various household items are also made like ice cream cups, spoons with a coconut wood handle, incense holder and penholders. The price of these products depends on how intricate the design is and on the type of products
There are few main processes involved in making coconut shell craft like sketching, cutting, and buffing to create beautiful finished products from coconut shells.
– The main raw material required in order to make this craft is coconut shell. The coconuts are first collected of different sizes. A mature coconut is selected because it is lignin and hence the chances are low of germs breeding. The kernel part of the coconut is removed, cleaned to get the shell. This shell is sanded multiple times to get a smooth finish. After the shells are sanded, the shells are cut into desired shapes and sizes with the help of a coping saw. The design is then sketched and marked with a marker and a coping saw is used to create designs on this shell.
– Aradlite (Quick Adhesive): It is used to stick various kundan used to decorate these shells.
– Varnish (Wood Polish): Used to give the finishing touch to the coconut shell.
Broken shell & dust
The various tools and techniques used for this craft are mentioned below:
-Hacksaw Blade: Used to cut the shell of a coconut.
-Emery Sheet: Used to smoothen the outer furnace of coconut shells.
-Buffing Machine: Used to smoothen the outer surface of the shell.
-File: A type of tool used to carve the coconut shell into required shape.
-Hammer: Another tool of a heavy metal head which is mounted to beat repeatedly.
-Sleek Glossy Top Coat: Used to give a glossy effect to finishing product.
The process of making a coconut shell to a finished product includes sketching, cutting, sanding and buffing. In order to make the finished product from the coconut shell it involves different steps. Earlier, hand tools were used to carve, cut and finish the edges of the shell. However, with the advent of machines, at present lathe machines have now been replaced with all the hand tools. This makes the process much faster.
The process starts with cutting off the coconut shell by using a band-saw tool which helps to reveal the interior of the coconut. After the cutting process, the next step is scooping the flesh of the coconut with a chisel tool. In order to scoop, it should be dry and easy to remove. At every step, the sanding process is done in order to make the surface of the shell smooth. Finally, at the last step buffing is done for the inside surface of the shell to make a hollow product and serving bowl. The edges of the coconut shell are then made smooth by filing or by sanding with sandpaper. This method is followed repeatedly till the finish is satisfactory. Outer surface of this shell is cleaned using a buffing machine and then the inner part of the shell is then smoothened. Using a file tool, a half sliced shell is then engraved into a required design. Once the shell is carved with a design it is then the artisan starts working on the base part of the instant stick holder by cutting off the small circle out of this shell. In order to make the base part of the holder they first clean the outer and inner surface of this shell by using an emery sheet. After the surface is cleaned a circle metal tool is hammered by placing over the center coconut shell. Once the shape is cut out, the edges of the shell are made smooth by sanding with a sand paper.
While making products like incense holders, the base part is then made holes by piercing with chisel. Once all the parts of this incense holder are carved, it is then fixed using a quick adhesive. The product is then given wooden polish. Additionally, if a glossy finish is desired it is then given a coat of synthetic varnish. It should be noted that, if the surface is to have a dark finish, then it is painted before the varnish coat is applied. In this case, the inside of the object is first rubbed with sand paper to get the desired smoothness and then it is buffed on the machine.
Therefore, to sum up the steps of making the coconut shell craft:
Step 1: Artisans begin with cutting coconut shells with a band-saw.
Step 2: Outer surface of the shell is cleaned by using a buffing machine and then the inner part of this shell is smoothened.
Step 3: By using a file tool, a half slice shell is carved into a required design.
Step 4: On the base part of the instant stick holder, holes are made by piercing with a chisel.
Step 5: After the shape of coconut shell is cut out, the edges are then made smooth by usually sanding with sandpaper.
Step 6: The base part of the instant stick holder is then made holes by piercing using a chisel tool.
Step 7: Once the required part is carved out it is then fixed using a quick adhesive.
Step 8: The product is then polished by using a wooden polish.
List of craftsmen.
1. Ahuja S., “Coconut-History, Uses, Folklore”, Asian Agri History, (18) (3), (2014), pp. 221-248.
2. Baral and Manasa K.H., “Coconut Shell Craft, Kerala”, D’scource website.
3. Tatum M., “What are Coconut Kitchen Utensils”, Delighted Cooking website, (September 27, 2022).
4. Kesari K., “Why are coconut shell cookware special?”, Kraft Kesari website, (August 16, 2022).