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Kithul Palm Treacle and Jaggery Cottage Industry

Photographer: M.A. Pushpa Kumara


'Kithul' treacle and jaggery, a sought after sweetener for Sri Lankan traditional sweetmeats, are products of high-risk and time consuming labor. The process which once was a robust cottage industry is gradually dying out due to the lack of Kithul palms as well as newer generation tappers.


However this traditional industry is still alive in remote hamlets abutting forests where tappers like 42-year-old Dingiri Banda venture into the jungles to tap the wild palms. They trek long distances, prepare the tree by tying wild vines as hand and footholds, climb the palm, lightly tap the yet to bloom Kithul bud, cut off the top part and tie a pot to collect the slowly oozing sap.


When fresh, this sap called 'Telijja', is sweet and a bit sour in taste, but if drunk in excess may cause alcoholic stupor. It is freshly taken to make the treacle, a favorite on Sri Lankan breakfast tables and jiggery, which is claimed to be a substitute sweetener for diabetics, but that has yet to be proved. When the Telijja matures it becomes toddy, similar to cider. The toddy sediments are used in the making of onion and chilli pickle.


Village tappers like Dingiri Banda tap this nectar sometimes at the risk of their lives. The Kitul palms are moss laden throughout the year due to the humidity. Hence, one wrong step could make the tapper tumble down the 25 to 40 meters palm with nobody around for miles for assistance. Deaths by falling, broken limbs, spinal injuries are not strange among them.


The cottage industry gradually is going extinct as younger generations leave their remote villages for the cities in search of employment following completion of their basic education, provided free by the government. Dingiri Banda and Kumarahami, parents to two growing up children, still carry on this traditional tapping and treacle/jaggery making to supplement their cultivation of rice paddy, vegetables etc. but also due to their close affinity and love to the dense rain forest and nature, which they say has always sustained them.