By Yashasvi Kannangara
Local myth and lore reveal the source of betel to be the realm of the Naga. Its residents, the Nagas, are believed to be celestial beings who are able to alter their appearance to that of a cobra. Legend also states that the Nagas carry betel down to earth, when they descend to the human world in order to worship the sacred foot print of Buddha atop Sri Pada, at night, when Kadupul blossoms are in bloom.
Influenced by this tale, people tweak the stem and tip of the betel leaf before using it, as it is said that the teeth of the cobra would have sunken into these parts while carrying the leaves.
Symbol of status and veneration
The betel leaf has been a part of our culture and heritage for centuries and is woven into the intricacies of indigenous custom and tradition, even today. The dawning of the Aluth Avuruddha clearly marks its significance and function as a symbol of both reverence and prosperity. “During the Avurudu season, we see the bulath atha being offered to elders as a sign of respect. By doing this we not only receive their blessings for the coming year, but ask their forgiveness for the wrongs of the previous year,” explains senior astrologer, M.M. Amugoda.
A ‘bulath atha’ is a sheaf of 40 betel leaves bent slightly along the leaves’ mid rib. While the wad of tobacco associated with the bulath atha is not an absolute necessity, the way in which one presents it is. “A bulath atha is offered in respect and in reverence of your elders, gurus, doctors and monks. It is a sign of deference and status. So, especially during the Aluth Avuruddha you must take care not to handle this offering carelessly. The leaves of the sheaf must be placed as two separate portions, without directly facing the one who is presented with it. The two portions are slanted in opposite directions. The stems of the leaves must face the receiver. And when you have offered a person the bulath atha, you cannot directly take it back from that same person. That reverses the offer of respect,” says Sirinama Thalgahagoda, a professional organizer of auspicious events.
Bulath vita, also known as betel quid or chew, is a chewable snack containing betel leaf, areca nut, slaked lime and tobacco leaf. It has a very distinctive taste that is both spicy and tangy and has been enjoyed by locals for generations. Chewing bulath vita stains your teeth in an orange-red hue. “It is said that during the time of Robert Knox’s visit to Sri Lanka, betel was hugely popular in Kandy. There wasn’t a single face that didn’t sport betel stained teeth. If someone were to have polished white teeth, they were called the teeth of dogs, or ‘dog tooth’ men. People with clear teeth were insulted and ridiculed. Chewing betel was a status symbol,” Amugoda describes.
Because betel sharpens the appetite and helps digestion, the priests and monks invited for dana and pirith are offered dehath soon after meals. Dehath is an arrangement of betel leaves, areca nut, cloves and cardamom placed in a in a small reed tray or vattiya. The fact that betel chewing was common in all strata of society is obvious when examining the use of various utensils such as the betel tray, the betel storage box or pouch and the areca nut slicer. The bulath heppuwa is a tall, brass betel tray with a six- or nine-inch stand. It was traditionally used by homeowners to welcome their visitors. People also use it to welcome a prospective marriage party into their home. The bride-to-be offers the bulath heppuwa to the potential groom as a sign of salutation.
Allusions to betel are found in abundance when referring Sri Lankan literature, such as the Mahavamsa. In the Mahawansa, the chronicle of the country’s history, one comes across the incident of poison being introduced to King Mahanama through a quid of betel. Other olden texts also reveal the tale of the bulath padaya; one of the seven puja dances in the Kohomba Kankariya, a healing ritualistic dance belonging to the genre of shanthikarma. This was first performed for King Panduwasdev in order to exorcise a dividosa.
Saddharma Ratnavaliya, a collection of famous stories written in classical Sinhalese in the 13th Century also refers to betel chewing as an after-meal activity - “Bulath dee sadaya nima karana se”. It proves that festive gatherings during the time would come to an end with the offering of a chew of betel. Olden folk songs of Sri Lankan also allude to the chewing of betel: “Bulath sada demu kata wenna rathu.”
“Notable local text and poetry also discuss the offering of sheaves of betel to native village doctors, schoolmasters and priests. It didn’t have to be a 40-leaved bulath atha every time. We know from these texts that betel was used in thovil and shanthikarma for generations and that it was a tradition to take bulath to funerals and place it upside down. The tradition of giving betel to ones immediate family as a farewell offering is also mentioned in texts and is still practiced today on the wedding poruwa. By worshipping these relatives, you thank them and receive their blessings for a successful marriage,” Amugoda says, discussing the importance of offering betel leaves, as seen in the cultural, social, religious and communal aspects of our society.
From being offered as libation with fruits, incense and panduru at the various kovil poojas to being the eyes of the fortune teller in the 'thathkala sasthra' technique of foretelling and prophesying, the role of betel in Ceylonese heritage is vast and varied. It is a vital feature of our cultural identity that is sadly disappearing from contemporary Sri Lanka, settling in the fading background of customs and traditions.
Characteristics and growth
The Betel is the leaf of a vine belonging to the Piperaceae family, which includes pepper and kava. Since it is a creeper, it needs a compatible tree or a long pole for support. Betel requires high land and especially fertile soil. Growth of the betel leaf also requires a semi-shade position. A very attractive spice, fast growing, perennial, evergreen, with creeping stem branches, dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves (15cm long) it bears a white catkin flowers that turns a greenish brown when mature. Propagation of the vine is easy through the use of root division or cuttings. It makes a good under storey plant. Regular feeding and watering will keep it growing very lush.
The nut cracker or ‘giraya' used to slice the areca nut is an iron scissor-like implement custom made and designed for its user. In rich homes the nut cracker was made of brass, and very often the head of the nut cracker was cleverly carved to resemble the head of a crocodile or garden lizard. The poor man carried a plain but effective design that was made using crude metal.