Paan, for Indians, is more than just an assortment of betel leaf, areca nut, lime and catechu and other spices. It is a symbol of purity and prosperity. It is used in many rituals, especially those related to marriage. Guest treatment is incomplete without it. Researchers say paan is the favourite pastime of 15-20 million Indians.
Some 40 of the 100-odd betel varieties found in the world are grown in the country. More than 25,000 million leaves are produced every year on 40,000 ha of farms across the country, barring a few northern and north-eastern states.
Its use in India dates back to 400 BC. As per ancient books of Ayurveda, Charaka, Sushruta Samhitas and Kashyapa Bhojanakalpa, the practice of chewing betel leaves after meals became common between 75 AD and 300 AD. Towards the 13th century, European traveller Marco Polo recorded, betel chewing among kings and nobles in India. Over the period revenue distribution systems were introduced to support paan expenses of the royalty. French traveller Niccolao Manucci referred to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan allocating the revenue of Surat for meeting the paan expenses of his daughter. Ahom monarchs, who ruled Assam till the 19th century, created a band of specialised servants for preparing paan for kings and their visitors.
With the passing of time paan became an integral part of the Indian culture. Traditionally consumed to aid digestion and as a coolant, betel is known to have 50 medical uses. Till 2010, nine patents had been granted for its properties to treat ailments like leukaemia, diabetes and kala-azar.
Though its cultivation is confined to tropic and subtropic areas in South and Southeast Asia and Africa, its appreciators are spread all over the world. Nearly 600 million people worldwide consume paan every day.
Last year, India exported betel to 28 countries. Pakistan is the biggest importer of Indian betel. It is said a betel leaf trader in Kerala is more worried about the Indo-Pak relation than the spat between the state’s Communist Party and the Congress Party at the Centre. But in the past five years betel exports to Pakistan have dipped by half.
Tags: Cover Story
, Medicinal Plants
, Minor Forest Produce
, Traditional Knowledge