Saturday, October 15, 2011

Paan a traditional custom of Southeast Asia

    The tradition of chewing paan (betel leaf) is deeply rooted in India, but also found in Bangladesh, Pakistan and some other southeast Asian region. From times immemorial, pan has remained a part of sacred Hindu rites and is always offered to the deities. It is also offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality. Paan has great significance in the wedding rituals and all other important functions where its offering is a mark of respect for the guests. Paan popularly known as tambula in Sanskrit is often consumed after the meals as it helps in digestion, also it gives fresh feeling the mouth and relieves the bad breath.

Chewing the mixture of paan and areca nut is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years (circa 2600 BC to the pre-Vedic Harappan Empire) from India to the Pacific. Ibn Battuta describes this practice as follows: "The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the same manner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruit and is grown only for the sake of its leaves … The manner of its use is that before eating it one takes areca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel."

It has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in India and southeast Asia . Most paan contains areca nuts as a filling. Paan makers may also use mouthwash or tobacco in paan fillings. Other types include what is called sweet paan, where sugar, candied fruit and multicoloured, sweetened, candy-like fennel seeds are used.
Paan may be prepared at home or bought from the ubiquitous paan shop. To serve, a leaf is washed carefully and then dried with cloth and kattha and mineral slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) paste is generously applied on its surface. This is topped with tiny pieces of areca nuts, cardamom, saffron, roasted or unroasted coconut pieces or powder, cloves, tobacco, etc., according to the eater's personal preferences. The leaf is then folded in a special manner into a triangle and is ready to be eaten. To serve, paan makers insert a pointed end of clove to prevent it from unfolding. Alternatively, it is sometimes held together by a paper or foil folded into a funnel with the pointed end inserted inside it. When Paan is chewed, a red food dye inside it makes the mouth red. Many people do not swallow much of Paan; instead, they chew it, enjoying its flavours, and then spit it out.

Formerly in ancient India and Sri Lanka, it was a custom of the royalty to chew areca nut and betel leaf. Kings had special attendants carrying a box with the ingredients for a good chewing session. Considered an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism, the areca nut is still used along with betel leaf in religious ceremonies and also while honouring individuals in most of South Asia. In Bangladesh paan is chewed all over the country by all classes of people. Paan is offered to the guests and used in festivals irrespective of religion. Adult women gather with pandani (metal casket containing paan) along with friends and relatives in leisure time.A mixture called Dhakai pan khili (Like a Roll) is famous in Bangladesh and the subcontinent. The jalapeno paan of the Khasi tribe is famous for its special quality.

It constitutes an important and popular cultural activity in many other Asian and Oceanic countries, including Myanmar (Kun-ya), Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, the Philippines (nga-nga), Laos, and Vietnam.

It is not known how and when the areca nut and the betel leaf were married together as one drug. But considered an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism, the areca nut is still used along with betel leaf in religious ceremonies and also while honouring individuals in most of South Asia. Hence, there was a sexual symbolism attached to chewing them. The areca nut represented the male and the betel leaf the female principle !
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