Thursday, November 11, 2010

Betel leaf — much maligned, yet valuable

It was but a little more than a year ago that the government in Dubai decided to ban the import of ‘ Paan' or betel leaves.
Reason: it wanted to stop people eating Paan with areca nut, lime and tobacco (the folded packet is called the betel quid), and spitting all over. This sight is, alas, only too familiar to us in many parts of India.Despite the placing of spittoons, many tend to ignore them. It is this unseemly practice that has made Paan or the betel quid a much maligned item.But think of the leaf alone — sans the tobacco, lime and even the areca nut. The betel leaf — called Tambula or Nagavalli (in Sanskrit), Paan (Hindi), vetrilai (Tamil), or Tamalapaku (Telugu) is a much esteemed leaf across the dozen nations of South and Southeast Asia.
It is used not only in Hindu ceremonies, but also as an auspicious exchange material. Deals, business transactions and even marriage alliances are made using tambulam exchange.The Vietnamese saying “chuyen trau cau” means matters of betel and areca nut.Eaten by over 600 million people daily in a geographic area measuring 11,000 x 6,000 km, the betel leaf symbolizes not mere botany, but culture, tradition and even the sacred.The plant itself seems to have originated in Malaysia or India; the exact site of origin is yet to be established with certainty. The Harappan civilization, 4600 years ago, cultivated and used the betel leaf.The Vedic people were familiar with it, and both Suruta and Charaka, the great medical experts of pre-Christian India wrote of its virtues.
Two excellent reports, one from Dr. P Gupta of IIT Kharagpur (J. Human Ecology 2006,19, 87-93) and the more recent one from Nikhil Kumar and others from Lucknow (Current Science, 2010,99,922-932), offer excellent summaries of the cultivation, chemical and medicinal aspects of this green gold of Asia. Both articles are downloadable free on the net.
And the sheer variety! The pale Banarasi, the green Magadi, Kerala's Tirur, Kumbakonam light, pungent Mysore, non- pungent Ambadi, Hinjili cut of Orissa, special ones from Dhaka, the list goes on.
Songs and movie ditties are written about the paan ( Khaiyike Paan Banaraswala Khul Jaye Band Akhal ka Taala, and Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaro, Saavali suratiya Honth Laal Laal). Paan culture rose to its elegant heights in the courts of Lucknow nawabs, with special area nut cutters, handcrafted silver boxes called Paadaans. It was at once an aphrodisiac, attention getter and status settler.But what then gave Paan the bad name? Besides the disgusting habit of spitting wherever, and the abuse and addition, early (Western) literature up to the mid-1980s suggested that the betel quid causes oral cancer.It was left to the work of Dr. S.V. Bhide and others at the cancer Institute, Bombay, to show that it is not the leaf, but some contents of the areca nut (notably safrole), and of course the tobacco which are the culprits.      

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