There is a story in the Puraanas that explains why this plant received its Sanskrit name, naarikela (naariyal in Hindi).
The tree was the creation of the sage Vishvaamitra, as he ventured to bring forth a counter-creation to prove himself superior. After the tree had developed, the mighty sage produced a human child from its fruit. Lord Brahma (the creator), worried at this unseemly use of spiritual powers, came down in person with Lord Siva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the upholder), to dissuade him. Lord Vishnu argued,
“O Visvamitra, if your intention of creating a human child from the fruit of your tree succeeds, it will cause havoc in the whole world and a terrible imbalance.There will ensue a supremacy of beast like men, bent on sucking human blood, and there will be no room for the religious. With the intention of doing good, you will actually cause great mischief. ” The sage agreed.
Pleased, Lord Vishnu said: “We shall pay due regard to the tree you have produced. As you planned to create a nara (the human being), we therefore bestow it with the name naarikela. Its fruit will be acknowledged throughout the world. A person who eats it daily will become a great genius like you. He will be spirited and wise. The fruit will be filled with sweet water which will quench the thirsty and cure many ailments.”
This legend emphasises the uncanny resemblance between the coconut and the face of man and the highly useful nature of the fruit as a rich, nourishing food and an invaluable medicine.
The plant is also called a ‘Kalpa Vriksha’, a wish-fulfilling tree as there is literally no part of it that does not find some useful application in food, industrial products, medicine, roofing etc. The whole economy of many islands and states depends on this tree. There is no religious or auspicious function in India where the fruit and its leaves do not find pride of place. An exchange of coconut fruits is compulsory in most ceremonies. Figures made from coconut, the puurna phala’(i.e., the complete fruit), are quite commonly seen in important and sacred places. Worshipping at temples, or welcoming distinguished people as honoured guests, invariably requires a coconut fruit. In Tamil Nadu, it is advised that the owner of a house should never plant a coconut sapling himself; it should be planted by someone else. The first fruit of the tree is greeted with a ceremony of worshipping the tree and distributing curds and rice. In the south, all paandaals (places of gathering), are decorated with a liberal use of its huge leaves. Even the flowers and fruit form inviting doorways. Its tender leaves are woven into fascinating patterns and hung as decorative garlands or toranas. Beautiful patterns are etched on the dried copras and set as inviting articles in a marriage ceremony. To greet the newly-married couple in Maharashatra and north Karnataka there is a festival called Naariyal Poornima, the Moonlight Function of the Coconut, where the coconut tree has the principal focus.
Names The name coconut and Cocos nucifera (nut bearing) are taken from the Filipinos who call it coco. In Sanskrit it is called daakIiKaatrya (from southern parts); drohaniira, dridhaphala (fruits firmly attached and yielding water), Karakambha, kaushikaphala (the fruit of Kaushika, a name of Vishvaamitra), Vishvaamitrapriiya, naarikelam, naarikari, kuurchashekhara, kuurchashiraska (with a brush-like tuft of leaves at the head); mahaa phala (great fruit); mrduphala (sweet fruit); maangalya (auspicious); payo-dhara (bearing milk); phalamunda, shiraphala (fruits borne in a clump at the crest); rasaphala (full of juice), sadapuIpa (always flowering); toyagarbha (with water in its womb), shubhaanga (sacred all over); trinaraaja (king amongst plants), trayakshaphala, trayambakaphala (bearing fruits with three eyes, like Lord Shiva), uccataru (lofty tree), varaphala (sacred fruits), rasayaanataru (a tree yielding elixir).
The plant is called narakel, narikel, nariyal in Bengali; naliyer, naryal in Gujarati; nariyal in Hindi; naral in Marathi; narla madde in Konkani; tenginakayi in Kannada; tenkayi chettu in Telugu; tengai in Tamil; ten in Malayalam. ‘Ten’ means ‘coming from the south’.
The Arabs call it sharjatuna narajila, while Persian refers to it as drhakat narejile. In Urdu, it is nariyel. The dried inner portion of the fruit is called copra in English after its name in Kannada, namely khobbari. Kannada has one more name for this, i.e. gitaku.