The tradition of chewing
betel leaf or paan as it is commonly known in Hindi is age-old and
deeply rooted in India. It seems likely that the habit was
originally developed in the south east Asian island region in the
moist tropical climates. Its basic quality is best described in a
stanza from the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana saying: After cleaning
the teeth and having looked into the mirror and having eaten a
tambula to render fragrance to the mouth, should a person start his
Tambula, as the betel
preparation is called in Sanskrit, is derived from the term tamra
meaning copper indicating red colour. This red colour is alluded to
because of one of the most popular ingredients of paan namely catechu
or katha. According to Sushrata, the patriarch of ancient Indian
medicine, paan keeps mouth clean strengthens the voice, tongue and
teeth and guards against diseases. It is also said to aid in
digestion and purify blood.
betel-leaf, or piper betel, is preferably plucked when it is till
young and tender and its taste is the best. The cultivation of this
creeper needs a lot of care and attention. Dryness and exposure to
the sun for too long a period can harm and plant. The betel creeper
are usually cultivated under the shade of large trees or under the
protection of high bamboo or thatched roofing.
feel that the effect of nearby trees on the soil influences the taste
of the betel leaves; kapok trees or coconut palms are preferred for
shade. After about 20 years of productivity, the leaves of the
creepers no longer grow to the desired size of about 14 centimetres
length and eight centimetres breadth and lose their spicy, astringent
taste. While harvesting, not only single leaves are plucked, but the
full creeper with its 15 to 20 leaves.
One of the most important
ingredients of a betel preparation is the areca nut (which in
botanical terms is not a nut, but a seed) the fruit of the areca
palm, areca catech, has a slender growth and is often considered to
be the most beautiful of the palms. The orange-coloured conical
fruit (about six centimetres long) is the most important part of the
betel preparation. It is enjoyed both as a raw and soft fruit, and
when it is dry and hard. The fruits are harvested just before their
complete ripeness, because that is when the active ingredients are
most potent. This sed, locally known s supari is the most popular
substance in a paan. Its narcotic value, which is appreciated by
all chewers of paan is due to an alkaloid called Are Colin which is
produced when lime is added to paan. Its stimulating effect
increases with excessive chewing. These chemical substances reduce
inner restlessness and tensions in habitual paan eaters. However,
these ingredients can also cause nausea, giddiness, perspiration and
initial symptoms of poisoning in those who are not used to paan.
A small content of a
volatile oil called betel-oil, in the leaf creates the desired spicy,
aromatic and fresh taste in the mouth. In classical literature these
effects have been appreciated and it is suggested that one should
chew a tambula.
beauty to the mouth and purify it, to destroy all foul odour
The oils contained in the
betel leaf support the stimulating effect of the other ingredients.
The other contents of a
prepared paan-roll are basically added for their flavouring and
refreshing value. Of these catechu might be the most popular. It is
a reddish solution of the heart-wood of the tree Acacia Catechu Wild,
locally known as katha. Its astringent and disinfecting principals
are the ctechin and catechu tannin causing contraction of the gums.
It is therefore, considered a means of preserving and cleansing the
mouth and teeth. This liquid causes the redness of the mouth and
saliva while chewing the betel leaf.
There are a variety of
betels leaves grown indifferent parts of Indian and the method of
preparation also differs. The delicately flavoured paan from Bengal
is known as Desi Mahoba. Maghai and Jagannath are the main paans of
Benaras. Paan prepared from small and fragile leaves from south
India is known as Chigrlayele. The thicker black paan leaves
the ambadi and Kariyele are more popular and are chewed with tobacco.
The earliest known
inscriptional reference to tambula is in Mandasor in Madhya Pradesh.
It says (just as) a woman endowed with youth and beauty (and)
adorned with the arrangement of golden necklaces and betel leaves and
flowers, goes not to meet (her) lover in a secret place until she has
put on a pair of coloured silken clothes...
Early Sanskrit texts
mention the consumption of betel leaf among the eight enjoyments
incenses, women, clothes, music, bed and food. Since it was deeply
connected with enjoyment and erotic play, it is not surprising to
find frequent depiction of lovers sharing a betel roll or offering it
to each other, or all the necessary utensils and implements for
betel, specially in those miniatures depicting romantic themes.
These containers are shown lying on the floor near the bed or a couch
and in most cases showing decorative perforations which keep the
leaves fresh due to the circulation of air.
Vatsyayana included betel
leaf in the solah shringar, one of the 16 toiletries. It was and
still is a part of the religious ritual and is offered to the gods.
Pan was however forbidden to widows and students. Ascetics also
could not partake of paan because it ws considered an item of
enjoyment. Only married men and women were allowed to eat tambula.
Betel leaf eating has
great significance in the wedding rituals of most provinces of India.
Folded betel leaf containing lime, catechu, areca nut, cardamom,
etc., are distributed at wedding parties. The Kathi women of
Saurashtra make highly ornate bags for keeping areca nuts to be
distributed to the guests at wedding parties. In Maharashtra there is
a special wedding custom in which the bride holds a betel roll in her
mouth half of which the bridegroom bites from the other end. Betel
boxes also were commonly a part of the gifts to the bride and
bridegroom from their respective fathers-in-law.
Betel boxes today have
become a part of Indian artefacts. They were once an integral part
of the household. The most characteristic feature of all of them
away the perforation work either in the lid or in the entire case.
The perforation added beauty and ornateness to the betel boxes and at
the same time kept the leaves fresh for a longer period. Some betel
boxes were recreated in shapes, like that of a pumpkin, a melon, a
flower, a mango etc., other were shaped like peacocks and parrots.
Boxes re made with or without inner compartments. Usually there is a
flat tray inside on which betel leaves and the nut-cracker are
placed. Underneath the plate there are different compartments for
the various ingredients.
Before the introduction
of sophisticated materials and methods of construction, often the
betel boxes were made of khas grass or even terracotta which were
kept wet by sprinkling water so that the leaves remained fresh.
A combination of charming
forms and functional devices made the everyday life of a traditional
house much richer and devoid of the jerky dichotomy of art and
utility. Art was separated from the conviviality of its users. It
was certainly for the rasika, and not only for the elite.
Preparing paan at home
may be out-dated and considered a time consuming process today but
eating paan is still apart of Indian habit. After lunch and after
dinner people inevitably make their way to the tiny paan shops
located at every street corner.
Paan shops are a part of
the Indian culture. Paan sellers with their makeshift kiosks are a
source of entertainment and information. Come evening one finds
youths of the neighbourhood converge at this small corner to discuss
the days events or hold a heated discussion on the latest
national or international happening with the paan wallah,
as the paan seeler is called, pitching in actively. But business is
never forgotten. Bidas of paan are briskly passed around to
liven up the discussion and profit.
It is surprising how
these little commercial set ups with their brass containers lined in
front are keeping alive a culture that originated centuries ago.