The highest sights of Tamil Nadu

The first time I see Rasappan, he is about 20-30m up a palm. His agile limbs cling on to the rough trunk, as he perfectly keeps his balance with his feet so that his arms can hack at the nongu fruits and gather them in his arms – a sweat-inducing task in the sticky 40°C heat, but Rasappan looks unfazed. As he sucks the refreshing juices from the jelly-like flesh of some freshly picked nongu, Rasappan informs me that he has been in the palm-climbing profession for 37 years, having been taught the skill at the age of 14 by his father, who was also taught by his father.

In Tamil Nadu, the products that climbers can obtain from the trees are the ‘nongu’ fruits, its juices, and ‘kallu’ – a beverage formed from the palm sap that can be fermented into an alcoholic palm wine. However, in recent years the Tamil Nadu government has imposed a ban on the extraction of kallu, with detrimental consequences for the palm tree climbing communities. The extraction of kallu is a delicate task. The palm flowers are cut so that the palm sap leaks into a special kallu pot – a process known as ‘tapping’. The white liquid which is initially collected is a sweet, non-alcoholic beverage known often as ‘neera’ with many health qualities such as rehydration and strengthening of the immune system (so much so that it would help to cure chickenpox) and was thus even compared to mother’s milk.

Its prohibition is therefore a great shame for communities based around palm farms, as this drink used to be beneficial to all members of the community. Nevertheless, because of its potential to be fermented into a mild alcoholic palm wine (with around four per cent alcoholic content), the Tamil Nadu government has banned its extraction altogether.

The ban was not introduced, as one might expect, due to health concerns about readily available alcohol, but instead is solely economic. Since the Tamil Nadu government runs all of the legal liquor shops and sales in the state, the cheaper market of kallu was a threat to governmental income. As a result, the financial situation for palm tree climbers is ever worsening. The complete lack of consistent rainfall over the last 12 years had constituted the greatest threat to the climbers’ profession, but their problems have only worsened in the face of this new, unnatural obstacle.

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Climbers like Rasappan were promised benefits in order to supplement the income lost since the ban of kallu production, but, rather unsurprisingly, this supplementation has failed to transpire and, as a result, palm tree climbers have had to turn to other means of making ends meet.

Sadly, other forms of farming, such as rearing cattle and bred with the skills that enabled them to excel in such a niche form of agriculture. There is little backing from other communities in the state to re-legalise controlled practices of tapping – seemingly unjust given that it is legal in other states, such as the neighbouring Kerala. Additionally, illicit production of other indigenous alcoholic drinks, such as ‘moonshine’, is said to occur in the absence of cheap kallu. These are often contaminated with dangerous substances such as methanol, which can have deadly health consequences.

It was saddening to leave Rettiapetti, the extremely remote village where I met Rasappan. With a population of about 40 people, it was only accessible via a two-hour motorbike venture from Madurai. Despite his relatively poor English, Rasappan was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and talked to me about his profession with pride and incredible insight. Some local teenagers leapt at the chance to translate for me and even made me a delicious homemade masala served on, inevitably, a palm leaf.

The tradition of palm tree climbing in Indian culture, the health benefits of palm fruits and the welfare of local climbers such as Rasappan all mean that a redundancy of the profession would be a huge shame, and yet its decreasing earnings offer little hope for a revival of the profession.

It seems likely, then, that this tightly-knit community will be forced to find new ways to sustain itself, and palm tree climbing will exist only in stories from the past, of which Rasappan’s tale is only one.