Saturday Magazine
A cardinal pleasure
Betel chewing

By A. C. B. Pethiyagoda
Bulath in Sinhala. Vettila in Tamil and Malayalan, Paan in Hindi, Plu in Thai, Sirih in Malay are local names for betel (Piper beetle) the tender leaf of which is the main ingredient in a chew. The other common and main additions are arecanut (Areca catechu), either raw or dried, sliced, shredded or cut into pieces and chunam from burnt chalk, coral or sea shells (slaked lime) and a piece of sun dried tobacco leaf for an added ‘kick’. The tobacco is said to have been introduced to the chew, also called a quid, by the Dutch when they were in these parts of the world as traders or rulers.

According to the region and availability fennel, turmeric, cumin, melon and cucumber seed, tamarind juice, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and grated copra are added as desired. Since of late, particularly in India, menthol, rose water and mint essences are added. In Sri Lanka ‘Saravita’ with many of these spices are sold off lighted trays by men singing songs with catchy tunes during peraheras and other similar events. High class Indian hotels offer such spiced and fragrant ‘vitas’ in place of After Eight Mints.

Some authorities believe that about one tenth of the human race is in the habit of chewing betel - some from morning to night, others at frequent intervals or after their main meals and still others on occasions only. The estimate is plausible as the habit is common throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Fiji, Maldives, Carolene Santa Cruz Islands etc. Asian migrants have introduced the use of betel to the Middle East, some African and European countries and the USA as well.

For how long has the use of betel been known as a masticator - things people chew? A very long time indeed; well before smokes or fumitories known in the Eastern World for about ten centuries before the 1600s when Columbus introduced it to the West.

The Buddha in one of his reincarnations as a hare, according to a Jataka story, offered himself to God Sakra. The God was so moved that he painted the likeness of a hare on the moon and threw away the brush which fell on the world of Nagas or snakes. The King of the Nagas swallowed the brush ( for what reason we do not know) and due to the consequent unbearable pain in his throat he died a few days later. A plant sprouted where he died and it was called giri-da-dalu (throat burning leaf) now known as the betel vine. Another origin of betel, according to others, is that it was created from the tip of a little finger of a Naga Queen. Irrespective of the origin it is said that the leaf was brought to the world of humans from the Naga’s world, thus called Nagavalli, by a snake holding the stem and leaf tip by its teeth. Others believe the snake held the leaf tip only. Whichever it was the older generation of betel chewers particularly in India and Sri Lanka, through fear of snake poison, discarded the leaf tip or both stem and tip when preparing a chew. Some removed even the prominent leaf veins close to the stem.

Just as much as betel is mentioned in the Jathaka story mention of it has been made in the Mahabaratha, Ramayana and Mahavansa.

Anthropologists have found traces of betel in the Spirit caves in Northwest Thailand dating back as to 5500 - 7000 BC, which is even before systematic and organised agriculture came to be practiced. There have been similar findings in Timor in Indonesia going back to 3000 BC and in the blackened teeth of a human skeleton in Palawan in the Philippines going back to 2600 BC. Even today some hardened betel chewers in Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia with black teeth as a result of long years of chewing are proud of the discoloration as they say only animals have white teeth!

Betel chewing was prevalent in many parts of China up to about the 19th Century when the use of opium took its place. That was with the kind assistance’ of the British for their ultimate benefit.

Even in the ancient Islamic civilisation betel was known in Persia and some Arabic countries. But the habit died a few centuries ago as the leaf and ingredients had to be imported at great cost and it was also considered to be against Islamic teaching. However, followers of the religion in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan etc. are known to chew betel. In fact Sri Lanka exports considerable quantities of leaf and arecanut to Pakistan, the Maldives etc.

Betel has been a great social equaliser since ancient times - emperors and their subjects, landlords and their tenants, high officials and their subordinates all indulged in the habit without restrictions. Then and now it is not subject to taboos by any race such as various kinds of flesh and alcohol are. Even priests are allowed its use. To unmarried Brahmins it was taboo while Burmese children were encouraged to chew in the belief that they would speak their language well. However, some Sinhala elders of a few decades ago discouraged children from chewing in the belief that it would hinder their ability to pronounce English words correctly!

In India in early times betel chewing was considered one of the eight cardinal pleasures of a man or woman. Its value to enhance the quality of life was considered equal to food, sex, music, sleep, incense, flowers and perfume.

The Father of Indian Medicine, Sushruta in the first century AD said betel chewing tends to "cleanse the mouth, imparts a sweet aroma to it, enhance its beauty, cleanse and strengthen the voice, tongue, teeth, jaws and sense organs and acts as a general safeguard against diseases." An ancient writer in Sanskrit wrote that betel has twelve desirable qualities which are pungency, bitter, sweet, spicy, salty, astringent, it expels wind, kills worms, removes phlegm, eradicates odours, purifies all organs of the body and even induces passion!

A chew of betel is said to kill hunger and relieve tiredness which perhaps is the reason why some manual workers are often found chewing throughout the workday. This is certainly true of plantation workers. Robert Knox wrote that Sinhala men and women indulge in betel chewing to while away the hours of darkness before they went to sleep. He also had noted that an illicit lover indicates to the other their secret rendezvous by placing a betel leaf there. In the Caroline Islands experts were able to establish from fresh betel spit the sex of the spitter, what and when the last meal was, whether the person was walking leisurely or running and even more.

What is the modern thinking on betel chewing? Extracts from the lengthy essay ‘Betel Nut’ by the poet, scholar, script writer and critic Stephen Fowler are quoted below to give the views of a present day American.

Quote "Maybe you’re an ageing speed freak, too paranoid and out-of-touch to score the hard stuff anymore. Maybe you’re a khaki preppy looking for an alternative to espresso. Maybe you’re the hippie type optimistically attracted to a multi-cultural lift. Or maybe you just like to salivate. However you kick it, betel is the ticket.

I was introduced to betel chewing six years ago in a bookshop in San Francisco’s Mission district. My instructor was a cynical young bohemian type prematurely returned from a visit to India.

The active principle in areca is the alkaloid arecoline. In pharmacological terms, arecoline stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a contraction of the pupils and an increased secretion of tears and saliva. The latter is especially encouraged by areca, as is evident from this description of an early 20th century experiment in which a horse was injected with pure arecoline, " the saliva gushes forth from the animal’s mouth in a solid stream". (Erich Hesse, Narcotics and Drug Addiction)

The acreca’s sister in crime, betel leaf, comes from a tree climbing vine (piper beetle) of the pepper family. The shiny green leaf is heart-shaped, and about the size of the palm of your hand. Its essential oil contains a phenol (betel-phenol) similar to the aromatic eugenol found in the oil of cloves. Betel-pheriol probably contributes stimulant properties of its own, but scant information is available on its pharmacology.

Like the coca-chewers of the Andes, betel users somehow discovered that the addition of lime helps to extract the vital essence of the plants into the saliva (and from there, of course, through the mucous membranes of the mouth and straight into the bloodstream). The catalytic lime is either powder (calcium oxide) or paste (calcium hydroxide). In either case, it is typically made from kiln-baked seashells.

What is it like to chew betel? Enthusiasts recognise three delightful aspects of the experience; the exhilarating lift; the mysterious flavour; and the cleansing; compelling salivation.

In the rare instances where scholarly literature mentions its subjective effects, the news about betel is uniformly good; "it imparts the repeatedly described sensation of wellbeing, good humour, excitation and comfort. The consciousness, of course, remains unimpaired, and the chewer’s capacity for work is in no respect affected. "(Hesse)" It creates a feeling of energy, appeases hunger and assuages pain. " (Henry Brownrigg)