The betel leaf is popularly known as paan India. It is a medicinal plant whose leaves are taken as a spice. Paan is evergreen and available all round the year. The leaves are glossy and heart shaped. It grows to about 1 metre in height. Paan belongs to the division of magnoliophyta in the plant kingdom. This slender aromatic creeper with long stalks class is magnolipsida, order is piperales, family is piperaceae, genus is piper and the species is P.betle.
It is grown extensively in India. Malaysia is said to be country of origin. At one time it covered the Far East, India and went on to Madagascar and East Africa. There are many varieties of betel leaves and the best one is called magahi from the region of Magadh, which is in Bihar, India. In Tamil it is named vetrilai.
From the leaves of paan betel oil is obtained which belong to allylbenzene group of compounds – chavibetol, chavicol, estragole, eugenol methyl eugenol and also hydroxycatechol. Also present are two monoterpenes and two monoterpenoids, together with eucalyptol as well as carvacrol. In addition two sesquiterpenes are also present.
Warm humid climate is ideal for the cultivation of paan, which is a fast growing creeper. It can tolerate some amount of drought but is too sensitive to grow in regions outside the tropical belt. The flowers are white and become greenish brown upon maturing. Root division like cuttings is used for propagation. This is done in spring and summer. The soil has to be rich and there must be sufficient shade. It requires regular caring with plenty of nourishment and water. It will thrive in winter if shifted to a warm cozy niche.
The paan leaves are generally chewed either by itself or in combination with slaked lime, betel nuts (areca variety) and other exotic stuff like aniseed and sometimes tobacco etc. Preparation of paan is an art and the secret technique is passed down from generation to generation. An entire caste is engaged in this. Chewing the leaves and nuts promotes red colored stimulating salivation. This has been in practice for thousands of years. It was a craze among aristocrats. There are several ways a paan can be folded. This it is a special branch of the paan culture. Asian history is incomplete without the paan.
Paan is a vital part of Hindu life. Money is placed on it while payments are made to priests. In Bengali weddings the bride enters the marriage podium covering her face with two palm leaves. She will remove them at the auspicious time of exchange of first glances with the groom. All through the ceremony she will keep two whole betel nuts tucked in her cheeks. A tray full of well-decorated paan is an essential part of the wedding trousseau. The fish too has an important role in the wedding. The fish is dressed as a bride with vermilion and a nose ring together with a folded paan in its mouth. Bengali grooms go to the house of bride carrying a betel nut cracker. These used to be made of silver, gold or brass and were exquisitely carved making them a collector’s delight today. As a gesture of hospitality, all over India, paan is offered and is considered to be very holy. At one time paan served the purpose of lipstick. The pouting red lips of young women have been the theme of many folk songs as well as classical literature.
The paan is also a part of Vietnamese culture. There is a saying that the betel leaf starts off the conversation. It kicks off formal gatherings and sort of breaks the ice. In South East Asia the groom, as a token of exchange, traditionally offers the parents of the bride paan. The phrase ‘matters of betel and areca’ are synonymous with marriage in Vietnam.
Paan is an antiseptic that freshens the breath and is also an ayurvedic aphrodisiac medicine. Myriad are the uses of paan. It cures headaches, joint pain and arthritis as well as toothaches. In some places it serves the purpose of an antibiotic and a digestive medicine. It cures constipation, congestion and helps in lactation. It even helps in ridding the body of worms. Unani stream of medicine claims that paan is a sweet smelling stimulant that prevents flatulency. It stops bleeding. Applying heated paan as a foment, especially in the case of children cures stomach troubles. Drinking betel leaves boiled with black pepper can cure indigestion. An application of ground paan leaves on the temples, or few drops of its juice on the nostrils, gives relief from headaches. In cases of acute constipation a well-greased stalk can be inserted in the rectum can give instant relief to children. Paan leaves placed on an open wound works wonders within a day or two. Greased with oils and placed on the breasts of nursing mothers, paan promotes lactation. Eating paan is good for colds and coughs. In acute cases heat the leaf and rub it with oil on the chest. Coriander and mint kept tucked in paan retain their freshness. It may be taken as a concoction of tea for good health. This eliminates body odour emanating from sweat and menstruation. Gums and teeth are kept healthy by chewing it. Betel leaves relieves nerve disorders, exhaustion and pain and in many cases a concoction with diluted sweetened milk eases urination. Mixed with honey it is a good tonic. It helps in respiratory trouble that affects the lungs of young and old. Sore throat, inflammation is cured with the local application of paan paste. Boils can be treated with paan.
Scientists in Calcutta (Indian Institute of Chemical Biology) claim that in paan lies a potential cure for leukemia. A molecule from it has destroyed cancer cell without harmful side effects. This discovery has led to the experiment being carried out in other parts of the West and Japan. In all cases leukemia cells are totally destroyed. The same effect showed on experiments with mice. Clinical trials with humans have yet to be started. If successful, cancer treatment will become cheap and affordable. The journal of the Hematological Society of America has accepted this study for publication in its journal. There is a growing fear about the connection between paan and oral cancer but this has not been conclusively established
Paan is often used for cooking. Meat is cooked wrapped in paan leaves and cooked. Other fillings like shrimps, shallots and peanuts are often used in South East Asia. Platters are decorated with paan leaves.
Reference to the use of betel leaf goes back more than two thousand years, in an ancient Pli book of Srilanka, ‘Mahawamsa’. In the Vedas too there is reference to paan being the first offering to the guru. Bulath Pdhaya is a special dance mentioned in the Kohomba Kankariya of Srilanka. According to legend a king was troubled by divodasa – a recurring nightmare that made him ill. But a dance carrying paan leaves performed before the king cured him. Here the sacred and practical are entwined in poetic beauty excellence. The West too has taken up the paan culture with gusto.