Finding Prosperity in a Coconut Tree

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Bali is known for many things: volcanic mountains, sandy beaches, and rice paddies. Think of Bali and you think of a tropical paradise. But this Indonesian island lacks something that many popular tourist destinations tend to have: an identifiable skyline.

With its eleven stories, the Inna Bali Beach Hotel is the tallest building on the island. Because of a zoning law put in place in 1970 restricting the maximum build height to 15 meters, few buildings even reach the fifth floor. Zoning laws that like these are not uncommon. In Athens, 12 floors is as high as you can go without blocking the view of the Parthenon. In Paris, buildings cannot be taller than the Eiffel Tower. To preserve the city’s green space and namesake, buildings in Montreal cannot surpass Mount Royal. In all three cases, building limits are imposed to protect the city’s culture, history, and environment. Bali’s zoning laws exist for precisely these three reasons, plus one crucial component: religion.

Life in Bali operates on the basis of religion and religion operates on the basis of three. Everything can be divided into three levels of sacredness: nista, the less-mundane realm, madya, the intermediate realm, and utama, the highest, most sacred realm. Every aspect of Balinese life can be sorted into these three categories. Temples are divided as such, as is the triad of morning, noon, and night (the sunrise being the most sacred time of day). Even the body is divided into top, middle, and bottom, which coincides with the foundation, walls, and roof of a building.

The most crucial triad is the Tri Hita Karana, a philosophy explaining the three principles for prosperity. One must find harmony with God, with nature, and with people. Restricting the building height so as not to outshadow religious sanctuaries is part of that harmony with God. But the 15 meter limit goes beyond religious respect. All aspects of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy can be explained with something one might think of when prompted with the word “paradise”: coconut trees.

Although the legislation doesn’t explicitly make this connection, the 15 meter build limit is closely tied to the coconut tree. The build restrictions keep construction low to honor the temples and the trees — harmony with God and nature. The Tri Hita Karana explains that for prosperity, one must seek harmony with God, nature, and people. To further this philosophy, one must also find harmony between these three elements. For this reason, the coconut tree is the perfect symbol for the island of Bali. It is the skeleton of the philosophy and the connective tissue between its components.

Parhyangan: Harmony with God

Although the Indonesian archipelago is predominantly Muslim, 83% of Balinese people are Hindu. It is the only Hindu-majority province in the country. With a strong religious devotion, the island’s reverence to Lord Shiva is reflected in the architecture. With the exception of the Inna Bali Beach Hotel and several temples, the Balinese skyline is low and flat, almost inconspicuous; as if bowing to a higher power, the buildings have been levelled into uniformity so as not to exceed the height of the highest temple, the Pura Besakih.

Balinese architecture is steeped in religious tradition and founded upon long standing spiritual roots. The desa adat is a settlement unit that uses traditional codes and guidelines to regulate the construction of buildings and the life of its inhabitants. For the Balinese, desa adat is not only a physical place; it is also a spiritual unit that coincides with the Tri Hita Karana. Harmony with god is found in the sacred house shrines, harmony with the environment is found within the natural spaces, and harmony with people is found in the dwellers themselves. To facilitate these three principles of prosperity, the Balinese follow specific guidelines to inform how they design spaces and buildings. They refer to them as Lontar Asta Kosala kosali and Lontar Asta Bumi. It’s the Balinese equivalent of Feng Shui. Lontar Asta Kosala kosali guides the layout of buildings for the house and shrine. The Lontar Asta Bumi lays out the rules for the division of space, the dimensions of courtyards, shrines, and temples, and the distances between buildings. These guidelines — spatial tools based on cosmic concepts — exist for the sole purpose of promoting a harmonious living space.

Palm leaves are an essential part of Balinese Hinduism. The word “Lontar” from before refers to paper made from dried palm leaf. However, the canang sari is the most ubiquitous example. These small, palm-leaf baskets are filled with colorful flowers, burning incense, and small gifts and placed around temples, shrines, and homes every morning as a selfless act of gratitude to the gods. Four types of flowers are positioned in a specific way to honor Hindu deities: blue or green flowers point to the north as a symbol of Vishnu, red flowers point to the south as a symbol of Brahma, white flowers point to the east as a symbol of Iswara, and yellow flowers point to the west to symbolize Mahadeva.

The act of meticulous positioning based on the points of a compass is not uncommon in Balinese tradition. The theory of Vastu Purushu Mandala connects cardinal directions to the body parts of a giant god. This concept helps manage how space is distributed and used in a residential area or home. With the use of a compass, one can know instantly that the temple must be situated in the Northeast region of the property where the head of the giant god would lie. In this way, architecture and the home desa adat are strongly associated with the human body. The family shrine is the head, the central courtyard is the abdomen, the sleeping quarters and guest reception are the arms, and the refuse pit is none other than the anus. These metaphorical representations of the body are also seen in the coconut. In Hinduism, the coconut is a popular offering gift because it resembles deities or humans. The three characteristic black holes on the coconut represent Lord Shiva and his three eyes. Fittingly, the Sanskrit epithet for coconut “sriphala” means “god’s fruit.” Alternately, the coconut is a metaphorical representation of a human head. The coir (the fiber on the outside of the coconut) resembles human hair, the tough coconut shell is the skull, the white meat inside represents the brain, and the water inside is the blood.

Bali is, at its root, a spiritual place. Architectural practices are steeped in centuries of religious tradition which can be seen in people’s daily offerings, and the spirit of the people can even be seen in the buildings themselves. Traditional houses and their locations are based on the cosmological location of a god’s body, but the spirit of man is imbued in the buildings as well. Instead of meters or feet, builders use their fingers and arms to measure distances. The builder’s head, torso, and legs must coincide proportionally with the roof, walls, and foundation. Since everyone has different bodies, there is the mark of the architect even in the buildings themselves.

Pawongan: Harmony with People

The coconut tree takes center stage in the life of the Balinese people. Not only do they see themselves and their gods in their coconut offerings; they call it the “tree of abundance” because of everything it provides. There is a well-known proverb in the South Pacific: “He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children.” Indeed, the coconut tree is truly a provider on this tropical island; every part of the tree is useful. As the Indonesians say, there are as many uses for coconuts as there are days in a year.

In Indonesia, the coconut tree is called a “three generations tree” because, with a lifespan of 60–80 years, it can support a farmer, his children, and his grandchildren. For three generations, a coconut tree can provide a varied food source. Depending on the ripeness of the fruit, a coconut can be harvested for coconut water and coconut meat. Raw products extracted can be turned into processed goods like coconut oil, coconut butter, even coconut candy, wine, and sugar. On top of its many nutritional benefits, coconuts also have medicinal and cosmetic uses.

Moving outwards from the center of the fruit, the shell can be used to create bowls, utensils, and other handicrafts. The husk and coir that cover the shell are raw materials for mats, ropes, and brushes, and can also be used as fire kindling. Branching out to the palm canopy, coconut tree leaves can be used to make brooms, baskets, mats, and are a popular material for roof thatching. The sturdy trunk is often used to make houses and furniture.

With the help of coconut trees, a farmer can provide a house and food for his family. It can also provide a means of income. Indonesia is the leading producer of coconuts; in 2018, the country produced an estimated 2.9 million tonnes and sold most of it for 1.3 billion USD. Globally, of all the coconut that is grown, 98% of it is produced by more than 11 million farmers, most of which are low-income sharecroppers. For about 6.6 million Indonesian farmers, coconut or coconut-based products are their main source of income. There are also coconut tree climbers who are paid to scale up the trunks of trees to harvest their fruit and trim dead leaves.

For the people of Bali and Indonesia, the coconut tree is a source of prosperity, so much so that there is a day called Tumpek Uduh dedicated to blessing plants and trees, especially those that produce flowers and fruit. On Tumpek Uduh, the Balinese adorn coconut trees with traditional scarves, sashes, and headbands. Families give offerings such as banten, which are small palm baskets similar to canang sari, and a traditional porridge called bubur sumsum, made from sticky rice flour and sprinkled with grated coconut. The environment will treat people as well as people treat the environment; for the Balinese, protecting the environment is a holy duty. From this dynamic ensues a great deal of respect for coconut trees and the natural environment.

Palemahan: Harmony with Nature

The people of Bali see the importance of their natural environment, especially the coconut tree. The coconut tree is a symbol of national, cultural, historical, and practical significance. It is a key component to Bali’s tropical identity, and since almost 80% of the province’s economy is tourism-related, these tall, swaying trees and the fruit they bear are as important for the political landscape as they are for the natural landscape. The way in which the government controls urban development around coconut trees drastically influences the way the island is perceived, and politicians know this. Efforts to extend the building height to 33 meters have garnered little support. Ida Bagus Suryatmadja Manuaba, vice-chairman of the Bali House of Representatives, says that the maximum build height of 15 meters has “become an icon of Bali development.” He emphasizes that “[his] first consideration is the view; people approaching the island from the sea should immediately see rows of coconut palms.”

Perhaps this is the case in beach resorts and parks, but Indonesian forests are at risk because of a culprit we come across every single day: palm oil. It makes your shampoo bubbly, your chips crunchy, and your lipstick smooth, and it’s in approximately half of the products on supermarket shelves. In 2012, Bali hosted the 4th Palm Oil Summit to discuss the economic and environmental implications of palm oil monocultures and the land that has to be deforested to create space for these plantations. According to the World Resources Institute, 65.5% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to land use change and forestry. Indonesia’s palm oil industry is cited as a major contributing factor to this trend.

Indonesia has doubled down on their commitment to palm oil and they already produce half of the world’s supply. Palm oil is often promoted by Southeast Asian governments as a source of biofuel that forms part of their climate change mitigation efforts. Indonesia has shown an interest in increasing biofuel and palm plantations to decrease the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. Paradoxically, despite the success of the industry, palm oil is far from ecologically sustainable. In the coming decades, more and more of Indonesia’s wooded areas will be logged or burned to make space for palm oil. It is an unfortunate fact that despite Indonesia’s rich biodiversity and nature-loving people, lush forests are being traded for monoculture crops at the expense of the environment.

For tourists, coconut trees mean paradise. Planting them around the island undoubtedly adds to the exotic tropical feel that pulls in millions of tourists every year. But for those who live off the island and breathe its air, planting a coconut tree means much more than public image. It means food, shelter, a means of income, a future for their children, and prosperity for the island.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Meliau, a displaced member of the Orang Rimba indigenous peoples, describes her life of poverty since palm plantations took over her ancestral forests. The Orang Rimba are a group of indigenous semi-nomadic forest dwellers who, like many other Indonesians, find their livelihoods in nature. Meliau says, “We miss our big trees, the undamaged forest, being able to find anything we want. That is what I miss the most.”

Life on the Island: a Rule of Three

The Tri Hita Karana guides the Balinese way of life. Seeking harmony with god, people, and nature — these are the three steps that lead to prosperity. The coconut trees on the island are at the center of this triad, and connect the three principles into the philosophy that governs everything from architecture, to religion, to politics. Tri Hita Karana is usually visualized as a sort of three-point star created from one line, which shows how interconnected everything is. The cosmic forces fill the environment with coconut trees, the coconut trees provide for people, and the people use these coconut trees in their religious traditions. The architecture is another example. Traditional Balinese settlements require three important things: a shrine, a large grassy, tree-filled open space, and living quarters for dwellers. These three aspects affect and act on each other. When one part begins to slip, the equilibrium falls into disarray. The burning of forests puts people’s livelihoods at risk which will affect their spiritual relationship with their gods. More and more, life in Bali is shifting towards what is profitable. The palm oil and tourism industries have dramatically altered the island’s traditional lifestyle. But the 15 meter building restriction isn’t only imposed so that tourists can enjoy the coconut trees. It’s an attempt to honor an important symbol of island life — three steps on the path towards prosperity.

Written by

Montreal-based journalist and poet.

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