Matters of Areca and Betel

25 Nov

It depends on who you ask. They are said to be symbols of love and respect; symbols of fertility, of beauty, health and all things auspicious. Then again, they are known as symbols of substance abuse, of bad hygiene and oral cancer. The arecanut and the betel leaf – a tale as old as time. Some might say, a tale that keeps reinventing itself.

Guess which psychoactive substance comes 4th in world usage after the notorious three of Nicotine, Alcohol and caffeine? None of the hard drugs, as some might imagine. It is the relatively milder stimulants of arecanuts and betel, combined together. They are only mild stimulants, in of themselves and even together. Yet many people in South and South East Asia are addicted to them, and used over a long time, they have been established to cause oral lesions and ultimately oral cancer.

Yet in many cultures, including the Sinhala and Tamil ones, both of them are symbols of auspiciousness. To hand over gifts of money to priests, to invite people for weddings, to honour guests to the house, the heart shaped ever-green betel leaf and the slim, neatly sliced slivers of arecanuts are of vital importance. Even if many people these days don’t chew them, these two still retain their cultural significance and hold on the public imagination.


“We use them at both weddings and at funerals” says Sanmugan (73), a resident of Jaffna. At weddings, while the betel topped with the arecanuts (vethilai pakku) is offered to the guest with the leaf tip facing outwards, at funerals it’s the other way round – the tips face inwards and the stems outwards. That’s the only way we differentiate. But either way, they are very auspicious items.”

Dr. Logini Jeevanantham, a local ayurvedic physician agrees. “The betel leaf is said by Tamils to be representative of the Goddess Lakshmi. In itself the leaf is not harmful, we do have ayurvedic uses for it. It is only when combined with the arecanut and the slaked lime, that it becomes a harmful substance.”
According to her, arecanuts too do have some mildly herbal healing properties such as in aiding digestion but is not used much for healing in Jaffna as there are other medications which can do the job more effectively. In India however, both arecanuts and betel leaves are used in Ayurvedic preparations. The betel leaves the doctor says has properties to prep a person’s spirits as well as aid in inducing salivation, which again aids digestion. One of the reasons, she speculates, for its being given to people attending funerals.
It is this idea that ‘vethilai pakku’ aids in digestion that made many elders bring out their trays of these coveted items after a meal. In parts of India, it is still offered to guests after a meal, as a gesture of hospitality.
Youngsters though were not encouraged to chew them.

“We were told we could eat them after marriage,” says Sanmugan. He does not seem aware of the cultural significance of this although there is one. Recently CNN carried an article on the phenomenon titled, “Nothing to smile about: Asia’s deadly addictions to betel quids” which featured a picture of a man smiling widely, thus displaying rotting, reddened teeth. It drew comments about how revolting it must be for the man’s romantic partner.
Ironically, in many South Asian cultures, young wedded couples were given betel and areacanuts to chew, in the belief that they helped freshen breath in addition to acting as a mild aphrodisiac. Local medicine preparations across South Asia have been known to use arecanuts for this reason in toothpowders and the Kama Sutra itself recommends that lovers chew betel to freshen their mouths.

Arecanut cracker with Kama Sutra motif

Arecanut cracker with Kama Sutra motif

The key though, as in everything else could be moderation. “I am used to having the vethilai-pakku after my dinner. It warms the blood and aids in digestion, while also removing the fumes of fish and meat from my mouth” says Shobana (56), a lady from Kilinochchi. She however disapproves of the habit in youngsters. “These days many school children in this area are picking up the habit too. It can become addictive and it is a bad habit to be addicted to. I wish they wouldn’t indulge in it as they are too young.”

Arecanut palm and fruit

Arecanut palm and fruit

Studies have been repeatedly conducted in many Asian countries to determine the epidemiology of betel quid usage with varied results. Depending on the country and the demographics surveyed, some studies maintain that the usage is decreasing while others say it is dramatically increasing. In Sri Lanka for example, the use seems to be reducing over time, with a marked discrepancy between urban users (1.7 %) and rural users (17.6 %) as per a 2009 study published in the Journal of the college of community physicians of Sri Lanka. The study also established that there was a higher prevalence of the phenomenon among low income groups as opposed to middle or high income groups.

Thus Colombo does have the arecanut and the betel leaves widely available in order to be used in events of cultural significance but its roads are not splotched with the tell-tale splat of the red betel juice. That becomes a more common sight only as one travels away from the cities to the villages. Many a villager still sport reddened mouths and spit out the juice as they please while walking or even traveling by bus. “I am glad the habit is reducing, people had the disgusting habit of spitting even from moving buses without looking and it was not uncommon to have it land on one’s shirt while walking,” says Sanmugan.

In countries like India and Pakistan though, the betel quid or paan as it is known is a thriving business with an increasing market, thanks to advertising and marketing which has even gone online. It is no longer just the humble betel leaf, arecanuts and lime (calcium hydroxide) which together give an astringent bitter taste, but nevertheless equals caffeine as a pick-me-up – for which reason it is popular among truck and bus drivers. In olden days it is said, the betel and nuts were the prerogative of royalty. Kings had special attendants (in the Tamil culture he was known of as an adappakaran), who carried boxes of elaborate condiments to be used in the betel quids for their majesties’ pleasure. In India now, these can be had at roadside stalls by any ordinary user. Regular customers pick and choose their condiment mixtures while the others go for whatever staple the paan wallah has – which usually consists of the betel leaf being sprinkled with cloves, nutmeg, cumin seeds, sweeteners etc along with the arecanuts and the slaked lime before being neatly folded and rolled up into a tasty green edible package.


There are also different versions of processed areca nuts and betel quids to appeal to the younger, more modern generation, in these countries. Thus, while reddened lips or uncouth spitting is associated with an older generation or the working classes, there are now packeted supari (processed arecanuts), and packeted betel quids that do not redden the lips and can be stored over a longer period of time.


Nobody knows who first combined the arecanut and the betel but chewing them together is a habit that goes back at least 4000 years, according to archaeological excavations that have taken place in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Ever since the 1950s, when it was noted that Asian populations have a wide prevalence of oral cancers, there has been caution against their usage. It seems at times that they might die out, but they are far too versatile for that. They didn’t last for 4000 years and become symbols of love, fertility and endurance for nothing.



4 Responses to “Matters of Areca and Betel”

  1. Saba-Thambi November 27, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    a very informative article which brings the memory of “beeda” made out of young betel leaves.

    I was under the impression that “naaral paaku” was the stimulant ?

    • Tulie November 29, 2013 at 3:53 am #

      Hello Saba,

      I am not too sure what ‘naaral’ means – but in any case, both the betel leaves and the arecanuts have mild stimulant properties.

      Or so the Ayurvedic doctors say – and the users agree.

    • Tulie December 2, 2013 at 7:49 am #

      Ah, so just found out! Naaral paaku means the fresh arecanut? 😀

      Well no, even the dried version retains its properties. I grew up in the Maldives which is big on arecanut chewing. They even had child-friendly versions which were powdered and sweetened.

      Remember getting a rush from them akin to a sugar-rush – but unlikely to have been only the sugar 😀

  2. ދޫވެރިހިކަނދާ December 20, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Reblogged this on ހުދުގެކަޅުކަން and commented:

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