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NEWBORN babies are blessed with its oil. Blushing brides make vows on its shell. Cremation fires are fuelled by its hairy outer husk. In Kerala, the fertile region that stretches along the southernmost tip of India, the coconut accompanies people from cradle to grave - even the name Kerala means "land of the coconut". In this off-the-beaten-track paradise (increasingly favoured by discerning travellers in preference to the package deal beaches of the Costa del Goa), the climate and environment combine to create a real-world Bounty ad. Coconuts are everywhere: not just on trees, but at the heart of the economy, even at the heart of much local religion.

Scientists believe that coconut seeds from Malaysia were washed on to the shores of Kerala about 3,000 years ago. Most of the 30 million inhabitants of Kerala prefer a more romantic theory: their folklore tells of Parsurama, a Hindu mystic with spectacular god-given powers, retrieving Kerala from the sea and sprinkling the land with coconut palms in order to provide food and shelter for its people. The coconut trees were gifts from the gods: hence their spiritual significance today. Coconut shells and flowers decorate temples and shrines, and play an important part in many Keralan religious ceremonies.

The coconut is central to secular life, too. Nearly half the population earn their living from something connected with the fruit. Every part is used: in the kitchen, coconut flesh, milk and oil are always at hand, fundamental ingredients for the aromatic local cuisine; in the boudoir, when made into soap or massaged into hair, coconut oil is a great natural emollient (a quality not lost on The Body Shop, which sells a highly successful Coconut Oil Shampoo). Once the inside has been devoured at the dinner table (never mind its high cholesterol levels) or smoothed on to sun-beaten skin, the coconut's protective shell comes into its own. It is crafted into household utensils; it functions as "coal" for Kerala fires and stoves (above). Even the apparently superfluous outer husks are used: they provide the raw material for one of Kerala's biggest exports - coir - a spun, hard-wearing twine used to create organic carpets and practice cricket surfaces. In Kerala, the coconut husks have to be laboriously pro-cessed before they are transformed into twine suitable for matting. Discarded husks are split by workers with sword-like tools and bound together to form the sort of temporary floating island pictured on the right. Moored to the banks of Kerala's immense network of waterways (Kerala is known as the "Venice of the East"), they are left to soak for at least three months so that, when they are eventually dragged back to shore, they are soft enough to be threshed and spun.

There is competition, though. Other coir-producing nations - the Philippines, Indo-nesia, Sri Lanka - use more advanced production processes, and there is therefore pressure to modernise in Kerala, too. But the otherwise open- minded Keralans are wary of doing anything to change their way of life, because the paradisical region is in many ways a model Indian state. It has 70 per cent literacy (compared with a national rate of 36 per cent) and an outstanding health-care system. It was also the first democratic state in the world to vote in a communist government. Today it enjoys a political stability that is the envy of other Indian states.

Perhaps Kerala's progressive thinking stems from its cosmopolitan history: Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas) is said to have established one of the world's first Christian communities here in 52 AD; the Jews who fled from Nebuchadnezzar arrived in 587 BC; and traders from China, Arabia and the Mediterranean followed, bringing with them new cultures and creating a tradition of tolerance that survives today.

And, however threatened the people of Kerala may feel by the burgeoning industrial nations, one thing they don't have to worry about is a shortage of coconuts. In this densely populated coastal state, the coconut trees outnumber people by two to one. !