Siri of the Tulu land

(This article was created for and is published in Deccan Herald. The Spectrum supplement has ownership.)

Heritage of a land sure represents the advancements of its civilization, but it is also the roadmap to its very roots. Heritage derives from the most natural parts of life and elevates the ordinary into aesthetic and culturally significant. Should the tangible aspects of tradition be unravelled from the gunny bag of Tulu heritage, we shall find the most naturally occurring, utility oriented materials of everyday life like the ‘Siri’ accounting to larger stories.

Coconut is one of the staple crops of Coastal Karnataka and hence forms a large part of its geographical and cultural identity as well. ‘Siri’ is the local name for the foliage of the youngest leaves of a coconut tree, immediately after the vernation phase, found at the top most part of a coconut tree. This foliage is a tightly packed collective of vertically aligned, light green coconut leaves that are tender to the touch, have a light smell of freshness and is raw and beautiful to sight. Once carefully removed and disintegrated, the foliage reveals a large number of young coconut leaves called ‘Siri’, which find a wide usage in the culturally important practices of Tulunadu, mainly the Bhoota Kola.

‘Siri’ can be found at use at events such as Bhoota Kola, Kangil, Kambala or temple fairs in Tulunadu and parts of Kerala donning many hats for aesthetic appeal and ritualistic importance. It can be found worn as attire by ‘paatris’ who perform Bhoota Kola or other similar ritualistic practices, or as beautifully customized items of decoration at religious events. Though a common sight at cultural and religious events at Tulunadu, the skills required to extract Siri from coconut treetops and design it to take decorative forms are not so commonplace after all.

Extracting Siri is a delicate process, done usually in the mornings to avoid climbing treetops under the scorching sun, as well as to find the foliage in its rawest form. Siri originates from the centre of the coconut tree shrubbery and grows upwards before it grows large enough to bend to the sides. The foliage is extracted manually by expert climbers by chopping it off from the bottom most part, but extreme care must be taken as to not harm the vernation that lies underneath – which is basically the next Siri in making. Some people believe that chopping of the vernation, even accidentally harming it can kill the tree; which is why there are a number of households in Tulunadu where removal of Siri is not permitted by the owners.

Once extracted, Siri is disintegrated by hand and then begins the long process of slicing individual leaves into thin wires or decorative patterns, depending on what it is being used for. If the Siri is used for decorative purposes, the central part of each leaf, the thickest part that could be used for indigenous broom sticks, is removed and the leaves are used with their natural thickness. If the Siri is used as a part of the attire for a paatri performing either Bhootakola or relevant ritualistic practices, it is thinly sliced to resemble wires. Siri is worn around the waist of the paatri, sometimes also over the shoulder (for Kangeelu) and as a headgear. It is also prominently used to prepare the ‘Ani’ during Bhootakola – a large rectangular accessory worn at the back that adds great value to the aesthetic component of the Paatri.

The usage of Siri for ritualistic practices is based on an idea as old as evolution itself. Man learnt spirit worship at an early stage of civilization; back when leaves were the only form of clothing known. Shrikanth Shetty, an expert in Tulu heritage states that Siri thus made its way into Tulu culture naturally as a part of the native geographic identity of the land. While there is no documented reason as to why Siri is specifically used; folklore states that Siri is one of the coolest, most healing ingredients of nature – so much so that birds that end up eating poisonous insects insert their beaks in Siri to heal their system. This calming effect of Siri is in contrast to the fierce, heated nature of the Paatri during Bhootakola; which is why he is clad in Siri to be protected from overexertion. Ingredients such as milk, tender coconut water and the shoot of the banana tree, alongside Siri are also offered by devotees to Bhootakola for the same purpose – which is now a part of the ritual. The same logic is applied to using Siri for decorative purposes at large gatherings – it helps keep the atmosphere from heating up.

Experts who can extract and design Siri to fit traditional needs are rare today; but it has not led to Tuluvas forgoing the custom. Extraction and usage of Siri for any purpose is a rather expensive process which involves an elaborate search for expert hands. Despite its ubiquitous availability in Tulunadu, Siri is a cherished treasure whose delicate handling is currently mastered mainly by the communities that perform Bhootakola. Siri makes for a highly sustainable option for decoration – one that connects to the native population and poses no threat to the environment. Recognition of its market potential on a larger scale could be a beneficial development in numerous ways.

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