Toddy (Ra) is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular drinks. Not only Sri Lankans, this coconut liquor with unusual milky sweet flavor, is loved by visitors from across the globe. Toddy is not a hard liquor and is said to be a healthy drink like red wine. Toddy is produced in many Asian and African countries. In Sri Lanka, toddy is called thal ra, kithul ra or pol ra according to the plant used to make it. Pol ra (coconut toddy) is made with the sap of the coconut’s flower which is produced through an unusual process. The drive from Colombo towards the South is likely to display signs of toddy tapping.
When you travel outside of Colombo reaching Wadduwa area you might catch a glimpse of the toddy tappers walking on ropes tied high up between the trees, and their task is to climb the tree and get the flower from the coconut when the time is right. This can turn out to be dangerous task due to many causes such as use of worn ropes, slippery trunks of the trees and the unexpected wind.
The toddy tapper usually walks a tightrope called “athura” tied high above between two nearby coconut trees. He holds on to one rope and walks on the other carefully, because a single lapse would be fatal. This is a sight familiar in the early morning in western coastal areas in Sri Lanka such as Wadduwa, Maggona, Payagala, Beruwala to Aluthgama. Toddy tapping is the sole profession of many people in the area and they have been climbing trees for years yet the younger generation tends to avoid this profession mostly due to the dangers involved. Toddy tappers are weather beaten but active individuals who are used to doing this dangerous task year after year. The tapper worships the tree before he begins his dangerous climb. Toddy tapping profession is disappearing fast because of the low earnings, and mainly due to people getting short on the skills required.
Before tapping the toddy, the flower must first be ‘beaten’ for three days. The flower is then cut allowing the sap to drain out. The toddy tapper has to climb the tree to tie a container (labu katey) to collect the sap. This is done in the evening. The sap begins fermenting immediately after collection, due to natural yeasts in the air and remaining yeast left in the collecting container and within two hours, fermentation produces an aromatic wine, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger beverage that some people prefer.