Daredevil Toddy Tappers of Sri Lanka

August 16, 2011

For anybody living in the coastal belt of India, the poor man’s alcoholic drink TODDY is not uncommon. We will also have noticed the way toddy tappers in India collect their toddy from up the coconut tree or the palmyrah tree.

During my recent visit to Sri Lanka, our tour escort insisted that we taste their local toddy, which is known as “Kallu”. Interestingly we found a place quite early in the morning along the west coast in Beruwela, a place where they sold fresh toddy, just brought down the coconut trees. The sweet extract tasted deliciously good but also gave an instant intoxicating feeling.

Toddy is the sap from palm, palmyrah, or coconut trees used as a beverage and sometimes as an alternative to yeast to foment rice flour. To collect the sap, the flower bud is cut at the tip before it blossoms and an earthen pot is hung to collect it. This traditional method of collecting toddy is slowly becoming a rare scene largely due to government restrictions and non- availability of skilled hands to actually do the job.

Toddy tapping was not new to me at all, as I have seen it many times as a child in villages in and around Mangalore. But what fascinated me was the way the Sri Lankan toddy tappers went about with their work. Coconut trees are high and far apart. If one tapper has to cover as many as 10 trees, it is very hard for him to scale the trees repeatedly. To avoid the hassle and to save time, they have evolved a quick but a risky method of transferring themselves from one tree to another without actually climbing down.

They tie strong three-stranded ropes made out of coconut fiber (coir). When the tapper finishes one tree, he races to the other adjacent tree placing his feet on the unsteady rope and a separate rope to hold him from falling. They rely on the speed as it minimizes losing the balance and accidently falling down to the ground. It was a breath-taking event for me to see the toddy tapper criss-crossing the trees on the flimsy ropes just like a circus trapeze artist, but without a safety net below.

Apparently there have been unfortunate events in many cases where they have slipped and fallen down to the ground either to their death or to permanent injury. Unfortunately, even today, toddy tappers in Sri Lanka are some of the poorest people, relying heavily on the income they get from selling their toddy. Taking this big risk is a small price they pay to feed their families.

By Naveen Frank
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Comment on this article

  • Sivanandan, Sri-Lanka

    Thu, Oct 20 2011

    Toddy tappers of SL till 1974 were from Kochin they had extra ordinary tapping skill they legitimately on a work visa worked in SL they were allowed to remit their earnings to their immediate kin in India.
    They were capable of squeezing the palm and extracting a very high yield hence they were in great demand and earned a thumping amount but led a very hard life. They were always up on the tree. preparing the spadix like a wood pecker pecking making a noice wth their special gadjets.
    Life was a tight rope walk for them

  • Ashok Frank, Mangalore / Canada

    Fri, Aug 19 2011

    WOW !!! I did not know it was such a challenging job. I remember those good old days when Mai used toddy to make pancakes ( POLAE )so tasty. Good article Naveen.

  • joseph joe, bangalore

    Fri, Aug 19 2011

    ys. dear... go and taste..........

  • Rudolf, Bantwal

    Thu, Aug 18 2011

    The sap of the palm tree is very famous in Mumbai and sold on railway stations as "Neera", the stock gets consumed before 10 AM, try and u will enjoy it without the intoxication!!

  • T.S.Thomas, Colombo

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    Interesting article. Even being here (Srilanka) for almost two years, I could not explore this. Must see!

  • Ruban, Melbourne/ Udupi

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    Sur and kascho soro aslyasr maagir kaain naka.. thache utu kolaak melyaar serges dusre kaain naka..My mouth's watering as i am typing...

  • Dharma KShetrea, Kinnigoli/Mangalore

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    The article is really good, but there are more places in Mangalore and Udupi, which are very famous to Toddy tapping, you have missed that all. And that is really missed because for any occasion we buy local toddy of Mangalore, so you could have put these poor people photos or life story could have added. One Great News Mr. Rekey Pinto, Kinnigoli, Promoter of Silver Castle and Golden Castle started this tricks , He himself Climb trees and do Toddy Tapping, it’s a hobby He says, it’s our Old People taught us, and we should not forget there tricks. He is the first Catholic NRI tapping Toddy from Coconut Tree, JAI HO Rocky Pinto. Kinnigoli. HemaCharya Knows this all

  • Dexter Britto, Mangalore/Auckland

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    Good Article Naveen. We used to get good toddy at Bikarnakatte, Baithurli about 30 to 40 years ago. Now due to adulteration and profit making the quality is very poor. I remember carrying sweet toddy bottles home from Bikarnakatte for home consumption and also for making sannas. Hope to get some sweet toddy on my next visit to Mangalore

  • E. D'Mello, Mumbai / Dubai

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    Lovely article, Naveen. Sri Lanka's toddy-tapping industry has been well-chronicled and has evolved as a multi-million dollar industry for the country. Unfortunately, toddy itself has received a lot of negative press. Other than its intoxicating nature, toddy has reported health benefits too.

    The bottled toddy available in the UAE comes from Sri Lanka and is excellent for making sannas and other Mangalorean dishes. Just like the Japanese take great pride in using saki (rice wine) to their dishes, toddy needs to receive its due importance.

  • Gration D' Souza, Kulshekar / Muscat

    Wed, Aug 17 2011

    Nice article, with reality.

  • Adam, Udupi

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Nice article Naveen. Could you please mention the address with contact numbber of the resort. I was also planning to visit Srilanka. Thanks!

  • Jaya, Mangalore/ Mumbai

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Naveen, Yes, I agree with you. The Sri Lankan toddy tappers have evolved a very innovative method to save time & maximise their catch, although it appears risky. Yr article is well written, & the snaps are very clear. I got the impression that the tapper , seeing you clicking snaps,has taken some extra effort in showing his tricks by running on those ropes, or perhaps he must have first had a nip from the first collection itself.

  • Wilfred J. Lewis, Manhattan-New York/ Matpady-Brahmavar

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Who says that Toddy is Poor Man's Alcoholic Drink?. I have (had)access to all type of Alcohol, including Scotch since my childhood, never tasted these alcohols yet. However, I have tasted Toddy in 'the mornings' rarely !!!. I discuss Toddy, as a beverage with Americans at work place and many of them think that Mangalore should export pure bottled Toddy to New York...

  • Joel, Mangalore/ Sydney

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    No matter wat every year when i go to India for Christmas Toddy is a must me and my friends make sure we have it no matter wat.. and as Adshenoy said drink when its fresh right under the tree That's it My friend one ll forget his scotch and Rum forever. Now its jus a few more moneths for me before i fly to India and tast the Super Duper Toddy again

  • ashenoy, mangloor

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Toddy is my Buddy. Drink it when it is fresh from the tree right under the tree, one will never leave the tasty drink. Cheers.

  • Anita Cordeiro, mangalore

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    "Necessity is always the Mother of Invention." Proved true in this case too. Wonderful write-up! Informative and interesting...... the pics too are marvellous and the reader is instantly able to imagine the precarious position of the toddy tapper as he moves from one tree to another....Naveen, you've done it again!!!!

  • A. S. Mathew, U.S.A.

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    I have witnessed some tragic death
    to the toddy tappers, but the new
    invention of passing from one
    tree to the next one by the help
    of two ropes is very scary.
    Good article with new information
    about the advancement in the
    most dangerous toddy tapping enterprise.

  • geoffrey, hathill

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    A very interesting and informative write up. As mentioned, the art of toddy tapping isn't to uncommon in our district, even though the shifting from tree to tree is something that I've not witnessed. But I have witnessed an adventure along similar lines and more thrilling in nature in our villages. There are some experts in our villages who use this skill to pluck areca nuts from trees. They just scale one tree in the field any sway the tree itself from tree top and transfer themselves from one tree to another.Areca trees being thin and tall enhance this 'circus'. It's really a feast for the eyes of the spectator. Of course there's lot of risk involved in this art and of late it has almost become extinct.
    Also remember from high school botany/chemistry that pure toddy is glucose, sun rays catalyse the reaction to convert it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Ethanol later oxidizes to acetic acid or vinegar, That's why toddy turns from sweet to sour as the day progresses.

  • mohan Frank, Mangalore / Mumbai

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    CHEERS Naveen, You have brought back our SPIRITS with this lovely article Thanks , wonderful pics and informative article too.I remember Baiturli in Mangalore where we used to enjoy toddy with boti chakna

  • Gary, Mumbai/Sharjah

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Great pictures and a very informative article Naveen and Hats off to the brave Toddy Tappers.

  • ClementCardoza, Kelmbet, Dubai

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Who says 'Invention is the job of brilliant people' ? Everyone is born with talents - if only we try to make use of it. Kudos to these poor but brave "Toddy tappers" and thanks to Naveen and Daiji for this informative article.

  • Niranjala, Sri Lanka

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Thank you Naveen,that you got time to spare for this nice coverage. Excellent job.

  • Jaimini P.B., Manipal,Sharjah

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Is Toddy Tapper from Circus Company ? Really Daredevil act. Excellent coverage. Congrats Mr.Naveen Frank.

  • Dr.Anand and Geeta N Pereira, Sakleshpur/Mangalore

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Thank you Naveen for the informative article. Enjoyed viewing the pictures and the innovative method of harvesting the toddy. Toddy, before fermentation sets in, is a nutritious drink.

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