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The Tradition of Chewing Paan

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 day’s work”.

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.

The heart-shaped 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.

Connoisseur, however, 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.

“…To lend 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 day’s 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.