There are numerous things that unite India, food being an obvious unifier. There’s one edible item that has been a part of our culture for thousands of years. In the courts of the Mughal kings and other medieval rulers, this chewy mouth freshener was offered as part of hospitality and friendship.
The Betel leaf, popularly known as our beloved ‘Paan’, has not just been any food item that people have and forget. It is heritage, a cultural aspect of India that has its connoisseurs in every nook and corner – quite literally!
It is said that paan was invented by the scholars of Ayurveda with the help of Dhanvantari thousands of years ago. In Bhagawad Geeta as well, it is mentioned that Lord Krishna used to chew it.
The tradition of eating paan was popularised by Queen Noorjehan, Empress of the Mughal Dynasty. Back then, women used natural ingredients for makeup and cosmetics. Queen Noorjehan discovered that by adding some ingredients to the paan and eating it gives a beautiful natural red colour to the lips. So apart from its taste, the paan was eaten by women for reddening the lips.
The Bollywood Touch
Paan reached its zenith of cultural refinement in the pre-partition era in North India. In parts of central India, mainly Lucknow, where eating paan became a custom, and was seen as a ritual of the utmost sophistication, considered as an attractive trait in a pre-90s Bollywood era where ‘Paan khaaye saiyaan humaaro’ was a woman expressing admiration for a man wearing mulmul kurta and flaunting paan-stained red lips.
It is not just admiration of the males, but also signified machismo and heroism in several songs, one of which is the immortal ‘Khai ke paan Benaras waala’ with Amitbah Bachchan and Zeenat Amaan setting the screen on fire in the 1978 hit Don.
Several legendary actors made eating paan on screen a perpetually ‘cool’ statement – right from Kishore Kumar in the iconic 1968 comedy Padosan playing ‘Guru’ to Sunil Dutt with a perennial red drool line from chewing paan playing at one corner of his lips – to Govinda in Raja Babu singing ‘Paan ka ek beeda’ playfully – and even Shah Rukh Khan imitating Sr. Bachchan in the remake of Don – references can take up the time of an entire slumber party. Even Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan in Silsila could not stop drunk singing ‘Niche paan ki dukaan upar gori ka makaan’ displaying their undying bond of friendship.
Having paan is basically chewing mixture wrapped in the betel leaves. Early Sanskrit text mentions paan among the eight enjoyments of life. Not just refreshment, but paan i.e betel leaves have a lot more significance in cultural context as well. In India, some actually place it in the mouth of a dead person representing the man’s last opportunity for worldly pleasure. In some parts of India, grooms go to the house of the bride carrying a betel nut cracker. As a gesture of hospitality, all over India, paan is offered and is considered holy. The leaves are used to embellish the Kalash (pot) used for performing various religious rituals as it purifies the water.
In the temple of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati, the butter from the forehead of the Lord, wrapped inside a paan leaf, is given to devotees as a special blessing from the Lord. Up northwest in Rajasthan, paan is served to everyone of the bridegroom’s relatives as a part of a ceremony called ‘Niyona’.
According to the traditions in many South-East Asian countries, a combination of Betel leaf and Areca nuts is inseparable as they symbolize loyalty in love and a strong bond, making it a tradition to chew a betel leaf and Areca nut when the bride and groom’s parents talk about their wedding plans.
This doesn’t only carries history in India but also in many other Asian countries and elsewhere in the world including Mayanmar, Combodia, The Solomon Islands, Thailand, The Philippines, Laos and Vietnam.
Ages Of Hanging Out
The paan ki dukaan has perhaps been in existence for the longest time. It is what has unified people – men from all walks of life and ages. There’s something about the fragrance of the gulkand, the sharp freshness of the paan being dipped in ice cold water and the unique flavours blending in the mouth, each with it’s own uniqueness.
It is rather fascinating to still see people hanging out at a paan shop. Of course, they now sell more cigarettes than paan itself, but the refreshment has not lost all its charm just yet. Just like there has been a relationship of sitting with a chai and cigarette and chatting over it, there is an generations of fan-following here as well. Even now, family gatherings remain unfinished without the classic ‘meetha paan’ being distributed after a hearty meal, or just a couple of friends out for a late night drive having a good old Calcutta sada.
And if there is one unpleasant characteristic associated with paan – it would be the story of almost any white wall in a public place stained red, treated like a spitoon or garbage can. And obviously, the disturbingly red walls with may be some white patches remaining on them will always remain the biggest point of contention with anyone and everyone – regardless of the campaigns launched to minimize it.
So be it a Banarasi, Lucknowi, Calcutta or any other kind of paan that’s a favourite – the betel leaf will always remain a part of Indian culture – sans the terribly stained walls, of course – that is an offence.