It’s the pride of Nawabs and Begums, it is the sweet aftertaste, after meals. What more can I sing in its praise? This treasure wrapped around in a leaf is none other than Paan. As soon as we speak about katha, chuna and supari (catechu, limestone and betel nut) the image which comes to our mind is Paan. Have you seen a shopkeeper at the corner making a paan? He is noless than an artist. First, limestone is spread over a fresh leaf, then a layer of catechu. Along with small pieces of areca nut, adding in cardamom seeds, cherry, fennel seeds, grated coconut or rose petal preserve. Many people like it covered in a silver foil. Banarsi, Culcatta and Hyderabadi are the most famous paans eaten in Inida. You just need to know, what your taste is.
The betel leaf creeper and the areca nut tree were both originated from south-western Asia. The areca nut trees were discovered around 10,000-7000 BC, in the caves of Thailand. But the birth place of areca nut is middle Malaysia, as there are many records in history, and also the use of other kinds of areca nuts by the locals. Some skeletons found in Philippians had red colour from paan on their jaws. These skeletons were dated around 3000 BC. One can guess the tradition and the fondness of paan through this. If we trace the journey of paan on Indian soil. Then betel leaf and areca nut came through south India at the same time. The English name of paan is Betel. The Portuguese derived it from the Malayalam and the Tamil word, Vettile. Whereas the English name of Supari, which is Areca was derived from the Malayalam word, Adakka. This is also given by the Portuguese.
There is no mention of chewing Betel leaf in the ancient Indian scriptures. Whereas this was pointed out the first time, in the Jataka tales that the paan was included in the daily meal of the tribes, in those days. There’s a mention of a very important incident associated with paan, during the Mahabharata. After the victory over demons, when the great Rajsayu oblation was performed the sages demanded betel leaves to begin the veneration. But, when they couldn’t find the betel leaves, Arjun was chosen to acquire them. Arjun had to get this leaf from Vasuki Naag, the princess of Naaglok. The princess on seeing Arjun sacrificed one of her fingers in order to please him. And asked him to plant it and it would sprout a leafy creeper. Since the creeper sprout from a human finger, it does not bloom any flowers or fruits. The betel leaf is also called as Nagarbel or Nagvalli because of the snake princess.
In 1350 AD. According to Arabian traveller, Ibn Batuta there was a tradition of serving paan after meals in Delhi. During this time, when Mohammad-Bin Tuglaq set up his camp in Delhi any stranger or friend in his camp could relish paan or sherbet (without paying a penny). It is said that along with being fans of paan, the Mughals were also connoisseurs. The paan was believed to be one of their most expensive hobbies. In fact the entire royal wealth of the city of Surat was spent on Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara’s paan expenses. Paan has also been a big part of Mughal diplomacy. Scared of Persian Shah’s advancement towards Inida, Aurangzeb offered him best quality of paan and spittoons.
After the Mughals, the Europeans came to India. They couldn’t overlook the paan either. In 1560 AD, a Portuguese physician and naturalist Garcia-Da-Orta mentioned about the rich men of Kerala, who added camphor in their paan. A stimulating aphrodisiac like camphor is still used in Banarsi Paans. There’s no doubt, the Kamasutra mentioned that eating paan during intimacy, as part of the process. Sometimes allied with religious purposes, sometimes with medicinal properties. Sometimes ate it with pride, sometimes in secrecy. The kings and nawabs are no more, but Paan is still there. Wrapped around in leaves, paan is narrating royal history.