Coconut courier service
It’s early morning. As a speeding passenger bus approaches the Acharya Vihar crossing in Bhubaneswar, a man on the roadside waves a coconut wrapped in a piece of red cloth. The bus screeches to a halt. The conductor hurries down and accepts the fruit. Barely after a kilometre, the bus stops again. This time to collect a bunch of red cloth-wrapped coconuts from a woman. By the time the bus reaches Cuttack, the driver’s cabin is stacked with coconuts.
“These are the votive offerings to Goddess Tarini at Ghatagaon,” said Vijay Kumar, the driver. Every alternate day his bus courses through this village in Kendujhar district, on its way to Rairangpur town in northern Orissa. It is surrounded by lush green sal forests along National Highway 215. “No bus driver ever refuses to carry offerings to the deity,” said Kumar who believes service to devotees brings the blessings of the deity and ensures a safe journey. This faith among bus and truck drivers plying the highways of Odisha has created a volunteer courier service that runs with utmost efficiency and free of cost.
“Sometimes devotees leave sackful of coconuts along the roadside; we always stop by to pick them up. Some even send money as offerings and it reaches the temple,” said Kumar. Even if the bus is on a different route, the driver makes sure to drop the coconuts in a collection box en route or pass them on to a bus headed for Ghatagaon. It is like baton change in a relay race, said Kumar as he received a bagful of coconuts from another bus at Ghasipura, about 50 km from the shrine.
On an average, 30,000 coconuts reach the temple for offering every day through the bus network, said Ajay Kumar Bej, accountant at the temple; the figure crosses 50,000 during festivals. There are about 100 Tarini temples across Odisha, which also serve as collection centres for the fruit headed for the main shrine.
The temple also gets its own supply of 2,000 coconuts every day through a local contractor, said Bej. But often this fails to meet the demand of growing number of devotees visiting the shrine from across the country. To keep the supply flowing, Ghatagaon residents have established six godowns that receive 24,000 coconuts every day. A bulk of it comes from Puri—a coastal district that accounts for 30 per cent of the state’s total coconut yield.
At the busy temple, priests take turns to break these tens of thousands of coconuts in front of the deity. A few hundred coconuts find their place near the deity’s feet. One-third of the rest is taken by contractors, nominated through bidding process, who usually supply the fruit to oil mills.
The rest are sold cheaply to Ghatagaon residents; the husks are given free for making fire. This earns the temple more than Rs 30,000 a day while offering the villagers a source of income, said Bej.
Though very few coconut trees are seen in the region, the economy of the village thrives on coconuts received from the temple. Residents usually prepare coconut oil and sweet coconut balls, called kora, and sell them to visitors. More than 100 shops in the village are engaged in the business. “Kora is a delicacy every visitor wants to take home. It is made by adding sugar to grated coconuts,” explained Umakant Nayak, a vendor outside the temple. “Dry it in the sun so that the kora lasts longer,” Nayak suggested, adding that their home-made coconut oil is also in high demand.
The cottage industry now sustains a few thousand people from Ghatagaon as well as from neighbouring villages like Upardiha, Binajhari and Mukundpur-patna. “A litre of coconut oil sells for Rs 120 and a packet of kora at Rs 10. We manage to make a good saving,” said Pratima Nayak, sitting with other villagers on the road outside the Tarini temple, selling oil under the blazing sun.
Since 2000, several non-profits have pitched in to help the women expand their scale of operation and promote the coconut-based cottage industry. “Earlier, they used to make oil in small quantities by heating the ground coconut in pans,” said Purna Chandra Mahanta of Utkal Women Activists Forum, a non-profit in Kendujhar. They now extract oil at a mill in neighbouring village. Back home, they only purify the oil by straining it and pack it for sale. The increased production has boosted their profit, said Mahanta. A few non-profits are also training them in making other products, such as sweet paan masala prepared by cutting dried coconuts into tiny bits.
Their business could flourish further, said Mahanta, if the administration allots land for a sales centre so that they don’t have to sit in the open. The women are optimistic; they have their faith in Goddess Tarini.