Betel leaf or paan plays a prominent role in the socio-religious life of the Hindus. No auspicious Vedic occasion moves ahead without a ritual involving paan in it. A popular folk marriage song of Eastern India describes the Himalayas as the birth-place of paan. It is believed that Lord Shiva and Parvati themselves had sown the seeds of paan in the Himalayan ranges.
In the Hindu marriage ceremony, a ritual called Briddhi-Sraddha is performed. As part of the ritual, the bride-groom invokes the resting souls of his ancestors; and in the presence of them all, he accepts the bride as his wife.
At this instant, during the ancestral worship, thirty-two betel leaves or paan are compulsorily required.
A senior authority on the sacred trees, S. Sengupta says, “Betel leaf is considered sacramental in Hindu religion. Betel leaf or Paan holds equal gravity with other Hindu sacred trees and plants including Durba Grass, Soma, Karpura, etc.”
Seat of Goddess Lakshmi
A number of paan, when arranged in different layouts, implies different meanings in Vedic culture. Paan is also said to be the seat of Goddess Lakshmi, the famous Goddess of Wealth in Hindu religion.
It is mentioned in Rajnirghantha that the tip of the leaf stands for longevity the basal portion is for fame while the middle portion is the seat of Goddess Lakshmi. So, chewing the middle portion of paan is a taboo to the Hindus.
According to Ayurvedic science, betel leaf or paan is very useful in curing of diseases which are caused by air, phlegm and bile. Physicians, Vaidyas in Sanskrit, often prescribe betel leaf’s juice as a remedy for various illnesses. Systematic application of betel leaves on the forehead helps in curing serious headaches.
The heated paan-juice, if poured in the infected ear, prevents pus formation. Additionally, paan is also good in curing cough, cold, etc.
Furthermore, ancient scriptures opine that paan or betel leaf increases passion, freshens the breath, and cures oral diseases. Thus, paan has become a crucial part of Hindu life and remains a symbol of divine veneration, as well.
Paan Culture in India
The age-old Indian tradition or custom of chewing areca nut and betel leaf has significant medicinal benefits. As described by Ibn Battuta who visited India during the early 14th century, “The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the same manner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruit and is grown only for the sake of its leaves … The manner of its use is that before eating it one takes areca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel.”
In ancient India, there was a trend amongst women of chewing paan and acquiring redness on their lips and mouth, as it serves the purpose of lipstick.
Even today, in northern India, there is a tradition of chewing paan after Deepawali puja for blessings.
Paan dukan (Paan shop) can be found at almost every other lane in India. A professional paan maker is popularly known as paanwala all across Northern India. While in the rest of India, they are either known as panwadis or panwaris.
Every-year, around April-May, the sacred betel leaf is worshipped by the Baruis – a group of paan cultivators in Bengal.
But recently, in the Indian state of Maharashtra the paan culture has been severely criticized owing to the prevailing hygiene problems led by the irresponsible paan eaters who spit in the public places.
Besides, paan is also losing its appeal to the farmers because of falling demand. Consumers prefer cheaper and unhealthy alternatives, for instance chewing tobacco formulations such as gutka, over paan. Finally, in the recent scenario, higher costs, water scarcity and unpredictable weather have made betel gardens much less lucrative.