The World's Most Romantic Leaf is Heart-Shaped

In India, offering a Paan (betel leaf) or  Beeda to a lover is an invitation to erotica. It is an honor when offered to  welcome guests. It is graceful hospitality when it is served at the end of a  festive meal. It is devotion when offered to the gods. And finally, it is pure  romance when it is used in wedding games between newly-weds!

Go  to any Indian social, festive or religious function and you will certainly see  the heart-shaped betel leaf used in many interesting ways. A fresh-looking,  deep green leaf, the Paan or betel leaf has been an integral part of Indian  erotica, religion and culture for millenniums. The earliest records such as the  Rigveda and the Puranas show that it was considered medicinal with its  bitter-pungent taste and digestive qualities. In several of the ancient texts,  there are references to a Paan bida being offered to deities during the rituals  of worship. During the Mughal and Rajput eras, a large number of miniature  paintings are reminiscent of the romance of Krishna and Radha in which Krishna  offers Paan bida to Radha. All these indicate that offering Paan and betel nut  has been a custom for thousands of years in India and has been an integral part  of religious rites, cultural vignettes and social graces in all communities  that have lived in the sub-continent.

However,  there is no clue in history to solve the puzzle as to why India’s neighbouring  countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Viet Nam or Malaysia and others have  few such traditions. Paan eating is thus majorly restricted to the Indian  subcontinent and is widely seen in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is  sometimes seen in Sri Lanka and increasingly in Western countries where there  are Indian, Pakistani or Bangla Deshi populations.

This  ever-popular leaf, which is as traditional an end to a festive Indian meal as  are many mouth-watering desserts, is grown all over India – especially in  moist, shaded landscapes where the rainfall is abundant. The creepers of Paan  are usually cultivated around betel nut palms in plantations in most states of  India. And naturally, depending on where they are grown, there are varieties of  Paan which taste and look different in shape and colour. For instance, the  famous Paans offered in Uttar Pradesh – especially in Varanasi – are the Maghai  and Jagannath. Maghai is small, delicate and sweet to taste. It is almost  always eaten in pairs. Most connoisseurs choose this gentle variety, stuffed  with mouth-freshening fennel, a touch of mint, betel pieces and fragrant  saffron or dry fruits. The Jagannath variety is for more ardent lovers of the  Paan and is large and dark green. Bengal grows the Mohoba which is thicker and  good for a bite when stuffed with scented betel nut slices. Other than this,  the Madrassi and Ambadi varieties of Paan eaten commonly in peninsular India  are more for habitual eaters of Paan who patronize Paan stalls in cities and  villages in large numbers.

Most  lovers of Paan know the varieties and are particular about the ingredients and  choose their bidas with care just like wine lovers make their choice carefully.  The ingredients also differ depending on the buyer. Many stick to the innocent  fennel, peppermint, rose petals in sugar and a bit of catechu or katha. Others,  who are addicted to tobacco, add a lethal mixture of betel powder, catechu and  tobacco paste to enjoy their treat. The last mentioned is considered dangerous  and carcinogenetic. All other non-tobacco versions are served at religious,  cultural and social functions.

There  is a general belief that eating Paan reddens the lips like lipstick. Indeed,  there are miniature paintings and poetic references to the lips of Radha, red  from chewing Paan in many books. However, it is important to remember that the  Paan itself does not create the redness. It is the catechu and lime mixture  which colours the mouth and lips of the eater.

The  mouth-reddening quality of Paan has an interesting anecdote. There are  references to the Paan eating habit of the Moghul Queen Noor Jehan, the  step-mother of Emperor Shah Jehan. Paintings of the era show her holding a Paan  bida and quote her as being thrilled with the ‘red lips’ effect of this  delicacy. Perhaps as a tradition from this anecdote, the Moghul court was known  for its luxurious Paan bidas and the Nawabi culture of Lucknow and Hyderabad  featured not only Paan parties but also the creation of artistic containers  called Paan Daans to carry the fragrant parcels wherever the courtiers  gathered.

Today,  Paan Daans in silver or other metals, or cloth chanchis or bags with pockets  for different ingredients are used by many Paan lovers. Paan bidas have been  the theme of many folk songs as well as classical literature because they are  considered to be aphrodisiacal or medicinal.

Further,  the Paan, without its ingredients, plays a vital role in the religious rites.  At every havan or pooja, the deities are offered a pair of Paans, with no  trimming, but topped with a whole betel nut and some money. This combination is  also used to complete a gift given to guests or relatives on auspicious  occasions. Giving twin Paans with a betel nut and money is the completion of  the gift and a symbol of goodwill. In many states, the Paan plays a romantic  role in weddings. In Bengal, the bride enters the wedding mandap covering her  eyes with two Paans and takes them away only to see her bridegroom in a Shubh  Drishti ritual which means ‘auspicious glimpse’. In Maharashtra, after the  sacraments of marriage are over, the bride and groom share a meal at the end of  which, the bridegroom holds a bida in his mouth and invites his new bride to  bite off half of it, much to the entertainment of the onlookers. Paan bidas are  also served to all invitees, sometimes with a coconut to take away. Paan is  also an ever-present motif in temples where rituals of worship go on all day.

Finally,  growing Paan and selling to millions across India is truly a big industry.  Daily, the vast train network of India carries basket loads of Paans of all  varieties to different cities for vendors to buy wholesale and then to offer to  their customers. Every village or city in India has literally thousands of  vending stalls which supply all varieties of Paan bidas to their regular  clientele. It is customary for such people to buy the day’s quota from their  favourite Paan maker and carry it with them through the day to eat whenever the  urge to eat one comes upon them.

There  is a belief that Paan eating originated in Malaysia and then went to Africa  too. But today, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the major consumers of this  exotic parcel of a heart-shaped leaf containing fragrant spice mixtures and  often, a sharp touch of tobacco! The Paan is said to be also a part of  Vietnamese culture. There is a saying that the betel leaf starts off the  conversation in many cultures. It kicks off formal gatherings and breaks the  ice. In South East Asia the groom, as a token of exchange, traditionally offers  the parents of the bride Paan. For example, the phrase ‘subject of betel and  areca’ is synonymous with marriage in Vietnam.

The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among  India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle  pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces  about India.


Paan beeda in south India

Paan creeper

Paan Noor Jehan eating paan

Paan Krishna offers bida to Radha

Paan screen for Bengali bride

Paan sorting out

Paan daan in silver

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