18 • A Magnificent Carved Coco-de-Mer

18 • A Magnificent Carved Coco-de-Mer

Seychelles; 19th century
32 cm high × 29 cm wide

Coco-de-mer is the fruit of a palm tree endemic to just two small islands far adrift in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles. Their name refers to those whose shores they washed up on after being carried across easterly currents, for whom their origin was so mystifying they were assumed to originate from mysterious forests on the ocean floor. They were highly sought after by collectors across Europe from the 16th century onwards and commanded exceptionally high prices, their popularity largely due to their pleasing shape which is paid tribute in its botanical name, Lodoicea callipyge – ‘beautiful rump.’

The entire surface of this example has been carved with extraordinary detail and skill with scenes from the Sanskrit epic of Ramayana. We see Hanuman, the semi-divine being of monkey-like form and one of the story’s central characters, rushing to the aide of Rama, to whom he is devoted. Also central to the story is the world of plants, recognised by lush foliage all along its back, divided by a double row of lotus flowers and a single water-lily covering the underneath of each point. Although the Ramayana is a story which originated in ancient India, the depictions here are clearly south-east Asian, most probably Burmese where we know the story arrived by the 11th century, carried and recounted by traders.

In our increasingly globalised world, this object is a tribute to the more organic travel of both material and ideas from a far distant era, and testament to the beauty and benefits of both.