The strange history of the coco-de-mer from the Seychelles, and our historical imaginings about them, have been widely discussed and published. In India and other areas of South-East Asia, they were valued for their enticing resemblance to a woman’s buttocks, and generally preserved intact. Some were sliced horizontally towards the top and mounted in silver, to appeal to colonial interlopers, often to store their cigars. In the Middle East, however, they were put to a quite different use.
Sliced vertically, each nut provided two begging bowls, which, with chains attached, hung from the shoulders of wandering dervishes throughout the Middle East. In these they received charitable donations of food and water to sustain them on their way. These begging bowls are freighted with significance. Unlike in the monastic tradition of Christianity, begging was a temporary phase in a dervish’s spiritual education that lasted as long as was necessary. The begging bowl became the symbol of the search, and is considered to hold the Baraka of that search. One of the finest of these six kashkuls belonged to Zagraphos-Bey, banker to the last Sultan of Turkey, which suggests the depth to which a mystical tradition was embedded in every level of Middle Eastern culture. We cannot easily imagine this because our views of the spiritual life have been coloured by Christianity, and its particular interpretation of what is required. Most of the Ottoman sultans had a Mevlevi dervish as their closest confidant, while their armies were presided over by Bektashi dervishes. Many are the stories about Sufi teachers who deposited their Baraka in objects such as kashkuls, to be retrieved and used later by whoever had the capacity to do so.
The following story illustrates another symbolic aspect:
It is related that a dervish once stopped a king in the street. The king said: ‘How dare you, a man of no account, interrupt the progress of your sovereign?’
The dervish answered:
‘Can you be a sovereign if you cannot even fill my kashkul, the begging-bowl?’ He held out his bowl, and the king ordered it to be filled with gold. But, no sooner was the bowl seen to be full of coins than they disappeared, and the bowl seemed to be empty again. Sack after sack of gold was brought, and still the amazing bowl devoured coins.
‘Stop!’ shouted the king, ‘for this trickster is emptying my treasury!’
‘To you I am emptying your treasury,’ said the dervish, ‘but to others I am merely illustrating a truth.’
‘And the truth?’ asked the king.
‘The truth is that, the bowl is the desires of man, and the gold what man is given. There is no end to man’s capacity to devour, without being in any way changed. See, the bowl has eaten nearly all your wealth, but it is still a carved sea-coconut, and has not partaken of the nature of gold in any respect.
‘If you care,’ continued the dervish, ‘to step into this bowl, it will devour you, too. How can a king, then, hold himself as being of any account?’
(Idries Shah, Wisdom of the Idiots, Octagon Press, 1970. With kind permission of the Idries Shah Foundation.)