Betel Chewing and its Paradigm as an Intangible Culture

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Maung Phyo (WYU)

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Betel-chewing is a deep-rooted tradition in Myanmar. The evidences for the statement could be traced back in many of the textual references on Myanmar history and culture and epigraphic evidences like stone inscriptions all over Myanmar. Since ancient days, betel has been used on most of the formal occasions within Myanmar society, high and low. However, due largely to recession, declining economy and deteriorating socio-economic conditions of the citizenry throughout the incumbencies of the successive Myanmar Governments, a new tradition of betel-chewing ensued, i.e. mushrooming of the betel-shops at almost every corner of the streets all over Myanmar.
In general, the origin of betel-chewing custom may go back to Bagan Era. King Kwunsaw Kyaung Phyu (1002 AD?) was so named because he is thought to have served the King under the capacity of Kwunsaw rank (A royal courtier who is tasked with levying tax on betel growers and betel merchants). Thus, betel is chewed all over Myanmar especially in rural area and outskirts of the towns and cities. It has been one of the offertories to the Lord Buddha and his Order of Monks as well as one of the royal delicacies. The importance of betel chewing can be traced back into the days of the successive Myanmar Dynasties. Betel is believed to have played a pivotal part in settling the court cases since the olden times. Betel fine was usually borne by the disputants who had lost at a trial. However, Myanmar people were accustomed to chewing betel at home with a betel casket. Wherever a gentleman or an old-age royal courtier goes, it is customary that his followers or attendants accompany him with the betel casket. The caskets were usually studded with gems and jewels or gilded in accordance with the social status and rank of the betel chewer. In this respect, the royal betel caskets turned out to be the most beautiful and grand of all. However, after the annexation of Burma by the British, there was a series of influx of Indian labors into Myanmar at the biddings of the British Government to meet the manpower shortage. As a side effect of these labor migrations, the Indian habit of betel chewing might have started to take root in Burma. Probably these Indian labors as well as educated Indian who moved to Myanmar in pursuit of a greener pasture had introduced Indian tobacco leaf and intoxicants into the country.
The betel is a kind of vine that belongs to the Piperaceae family. It is binomially termed as Piper betel L. Betel or betele (Portuguese) derived from the Tamil word vettila in which “vetel” means “betel” and “ila”, “leaf”. In other word, it is also called “vetrilai” in Tamil, i.e. “vettri” for “victory” and “ilai” for “leaf” . It is also known as “Paan” in Hindi and Bengali. In Myanmar, it is called “kum” or “kwun”. In Mon and Thai, it is called “Plu”.
Areca is a genus of approximately 50 species of palms in the family Arecaceae. Its name is actually derived from a name locally used on the Malabar Coast of India.
According to Rumphius, betel originates in Java, all of East India, Old India, on the Islands as well as in Quantung, the southernmost province of China. In addition, if chewing betel and areca nut is primarily accepted as Indian culture, it is convincing that the betel chewing custom may have spread over the countries or ancient city states that received or adopted the Indian culture. Myanmar is the country that followed the Indian culture in many aspects. Therefore, it is speculated that the culture of betel chewing in Myanmar is also the adopted one from the Southern India.
In the “Anandapanna” stone inscription that was inscribed in 610 ME, it is described as “လယ္ကိုတက္ေသာသခင္တို႔ကား ဆြမ္းႏွစ္အိုး ကြမ္းသီးႏွစ္လံုး ကြမ္း အမဲသားေၾကး တပိသာ အစိတ္ တန္သာ ျပဳသတည္း” which can be translated into English like “Two pots of alms-food, two pots of areca nut and one viss and two and a half tical of betel are donated to the monks who are entitled to this paddy field by donation”.
In the life account of King Kwunsaw Kyaung Phyu, it can be deduced that the name itself reflected the rank relating to the royal task of the betel tax collection. Furthermore, Queen Phwar Saw stone inscription (603 ME) makes mention about betel and betel caskets about twice in line (14) and line (23) respectively. Again in the Lay Hmyat Hna Pagoda (585 ME) Stone Inscriptions described in the last lines as in “ပုရွာတရား ႏိႈက္ သင္ပုတ္ကြမ္းပန္းမျပတ္ ၀တ္လုပ္ေကၽြး တင္စိမ့္ေသာငွာ” which is in English as “In order for the (lay people) to offer alms-food and betel to the Lord Buddha.”
In the Kawiletkhana Thet Pone Than Pauk (a Myanmar literary genre in the form of verse for easy reference of correct spelling),
“နီနီျမန္းျမန္း တလန္းလန္း ကြမ္း ပန္းစားပါေလ”  (which stands roughly for “Chew betel to redden your lips and refresh your mind”) vouches for the use of betel since the ancient time in Myanmar. In the last verse of Thanwara Pyo (a kind of long verse that virtually depicts one of the Jataka stories), the stanza “စာေပသင္ကာ ေနလွည့္ရာတြင္ ထည့္လာကြမ္းပန္း သိမ္းျမန္း ေက်ာင္း ကန္” (which can be translated into English as “During his stay at the monastery for studies, he has had to attend to the venerable Monks on any errand such as offering betel and keeping the precinct clean) hints at the use of betel at the monastery.
In the “Ava Tantar-u ti Hmaw Kun” (A Royal Record of Ava Bridge”) written by Shin Maharahtathara, there was a description about betel-chewing like “သတ္ျပန္ရနံ႕ထြားညံ့ႏုတ္ခမ္း ကြမ္းလည္း တပ္ေမာင္း အဲသံေညာင္းျဖင့္” which means in English “with fragrance exhaled from a pair of red stained lips (resulted from betel-chewing) that sing sweetly”.
Again in “NayMi Bon Khan Pyo” (Epic or Long Verse on King Nay-Mi in Celestial Abode“), Shin Aggathamadi wrote in one of his verses as “အလွဴဆယ္မည္ တံခ်ဴရွည္ႏွင့္ နတ္ျပည္ဘံုႀကီး အၿမိဳက္ သီးကို လက္ႏွီးရမွတ္ ေျမကဆြတ္လ်က္ ျပသာဒ္နန္းေဆာင္ မိန္းမူးေယာင္မွ် မိုးေခါင္ထက္ျပည့္ စံရလွည့္သည္ ကြမ္း ထည့္ၾကမၼာ စီရင္တည္း” which in English stands for “When one holds a great donation commenced with Betel-invitation (towards a Venerable Monk or the Buddhist Order), it is for sure that one can enjoy great luxuries in multi-tiered celestial halls in the next existences before attaining the Nirvana, the Ultimate Goal. Such are the benefits of Betel donation.”
Betel is chewed all over Myanmar by people of various walks of life, high and low. Betel is chewed with slaked lime and areca nut, with slaked lime, areca nut and tobacco, with slaked lime, areca nut, tobacco and some aromatic like licorice, cardamom for flavor and stimulation, and in the olden days with catechu and sweetening agents. However, today, no one is found chewing betel with catechu. It is very likely that every betel chewer falls in the habit of taking betel quid with fermented or alcoholic tobacco called Sey Baung or Hnat Sey (Tobacco Soaked in the Alcoholic Drinks) in Myanmar or with intoxicants imported from India.
Approximately before 1990, there were only a few betel shops in each quarter in the outskirts of Yangon. The Indian-blooded Myanmar citizens mostly ran these shops. In those days, one of the significant characteristics of these betel shops seemed to be a coil of coconut-fiber rope with one tip catching fire. The coil was always seen hanging down at one outer corner of the shop for the customers to light their cheroot or cigarette as the shopkeepers could not afford to offer matchboxes and the gas lighters were also not in vogue at that time. There were two pots: one for slaked lime and the other for catechu in any typical betel shop in those days. Most of the intoxicants and other aromatic covered tobacco, licorice, clove, aniseed, cardamom, turmeric and a few imported brands from India like Signal, Saga and Muski.
As for intoxicants as ingredients to a quid of betel, tobaccos like Sey Me (Dark brownish tobacco) and Sey War (Yellowisg tobacco) are very common with Myanmar betel chewers in addition to Sey Baung and Hnat Sey. Furthermore, flavored tobacco imported from India or locally produced are also available such as No (92), (45), (100), Signal, Saga, etc. There is also Gutkha that is a dry, relatively non-perishable, containing areca nut, slaked lime, catechu, condiments and powdered tobacco. The same mixture without tobacco is called Pan masala. Both come in foil sachets or packets. However, they are available only in downtown Yangon, but not in the outskirts.
As a cultural aspect, the day before the Buddhist Sabbath is known to Myanmar as Aphate Nay (Aphate Day). However, the day before Aphate Day was once termed as Kwam Phate Nay (the day on which oral invitation to a particular charity or donation is carried out by distributing betel to every household in a particular neighborhood). This custom has already been extinct in Myanmar both rural and urban. Besides, “Kwam-hte” culture is almost unknown to all. In fact, it is nothing but an act of regarding the presiding monk and the newly ordained monks as teachers by offering them with betel already brought in inside the betel-casket by the most beautiful damsel in the neighborhood called “Kwam-taung-kai” in Myanmar.
Now with the availability of the betel shops at every corner of the streets in downtown Yangon, the intangible culture like keeping the betel casket and serving the guests is brought on the brink of extinction. There is none that bothers to keep the betel casket at home both in downtown Yangon and the outskirts apart from the old-aged people who continue to preserve the culture knowingly or unknowingly.
The betel shops are penetrating and replacing the previous culture with momentum. Bronze or iron areca nut cutter, (Kwam Hnyat) beautifully cast with mythical figures, are very likely to have sunk into oblivion in the similar manner with the disappearance of the bronze or golden or lacquer baskets. At the festivals of Ordination and the like, the term Kwam Taung (betel casket) has become corrupted into Kwam Taun (in Myanmar, (ကြမ္းေတာင္းကိုင္ မွ ကြမ္းေတာင္ကိုင္) which corresponds to Betel-casket bearer). On the occasion, the betel casket bearer (they are very likely to be the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood) does not actually hold the betel casket. Instead, they carry the aluminum casket filled with the yellow robe. Actually, the term /Kwam Taung/ and the term /kwam hte/ are very important for the ordination ceremony. /kwam the/ or /kwam phait/ stands for the act of offering to the preceptor (the master monk at the ordination ceremony) with the offertory (betel) by which it means a request put forward to the presiding monk in order to accept the novice as his pupil. As regards betel as an offertory to the Lord Buddha, Myanmar people no longer regard betel as a flower to offer. It may be because there is a lack of knowledge on the etymology of the word “betel” (Kwam in Myanmar) which in its original sense stands for “something to adore, admire or worship”) in Myanmar. Therefore, betel as an offertory can be found only on some of the Nat (Spirit) worshipping occasions like U Shin Gyi Worship). As for spreading culture of betel chewing among Myanmar youths, many of their reasons go to making themselves feel like a man, behaving the same way as their elders do or to entertain a feeling of importance among their interlocutors or in front of their different sex and getting rid of their bad breath. Remedial activity may be nothing but raising public awareness on the effects of intoxicants and aromatics in a betel quid.
All in all, by establishing the modern trend of betel-chewing culture, it does not simply mean that the extinction of the said culture is subject only to the replacement of the modern trend. There may be other factors remaining to be explored. The article is merely a humble attempt to highlight the importance of conservation of an intangible culture in Myanmar. It is hoped that at the biddings hopefully stemmed from the present article, other researchers also explore these factors to the extent that there is no stone unturned in terms of the betel chewing culture in Myanmar.
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Maharahtathara, Shin,“Tatar-U-Ti Hamw Kun”, Myanmar Anthology Vol-V, the Government Press, 1992.
Maung, Nyein, “Ancient Burmese Stone Inscription (Part.II)”, Department of Archaeological Research, Yangon, 1982.
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Tin, Pe Maung and Luce, G.H. “Selection from the Inscriptions of Pagan”, Rangoon, British Burma Press, 1928.
Yi Yi, Dr, “Selected Writings of Dr.Yi Yi (Part.2)”, Department of Historical Research and National Library (2014).
Zumbroich, Thomas J. “The origin and diffusion of betel chewing: a synthesis of evidence from South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond”, Ejournal of Indian Medicine Vol.1 (2007-2008).

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