Monday, January 19, 2009

Pan chewing: Green leaves and crimson lips

Manusmriti states that one of the duties of a wife is to provide pan to her spouse after every meal. The intention was basically to freshen the mouth and to help digestion. But women also used pan mixed with aphrodisiacs to seduce the men they were interested in. The ladies themselves chomped pan to enhance the redness of their lips and make them attractive to the men. No lipstick was required.

Ashtangahrudaya gives the recipe for pan – betel leaf, slaked lime, areca nut (betel nut), camphor, copra, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Good for health? The doctors may not agree.

Research has proved a link between pan chewing and oral cancer. The culprit here could be tobacco. That was introduced into the pan by the Portuguese in the 16c. They obviously had a commercial interest in that as well.

The regular Kerala murukkan (pan) is different from what is prescribed in the Ashtangahrudaya. It does not include the spices, camphor and copra, and has only betel leaf, slaked lime, areca nut and tobacco.

Preparing the pan is kind of a ritual, like cleaning, filling and lighting a pipe. A procedure that I have noticed is something like this. Some people wipe the betel leaf on their hair. This is supposed to remove any poison that might be on it. The death of my grandmother due to a heart attack soon after chewing pan in 1938, was attributed by the local people to vettila pampu’ (betel leaf snake). It was a maid who prepared the pan and she would not have dared to wipe the leaf on her hair.

What about bald men? I suppose they take the risk of vettila pampu.

Some people carefully remove the embossed portion of the veins on the leaf. Then lime is applied to the underneath part of leaf usually with the middle finger of the right hand, holding the leaf in the left. The other ingredients are placed over the coating of lime, rolled into a quid and placed in the mouth.

From that point, till the first collection of red juices in the mouth is spat out the person keeps silent. This gives him time to think during an important discussion. I have noticed people using this technique effectively.

Pan chewing cuts across barriers of religion, caste and gender. In India this practice has been a symbol of love, friendship and hospitality for millenniums. In some temples it is given as prasada. Murukkan is also normally a part of Dakshina (offering to peers) in Kerala.

This habit is on the decrease now.

Photos: 1. A tray of ingredients for pan. 2. Areca palm and its parts. 3. Text and picture of pan in the Mogul era. All from Creative Commons. Last one of lime container from Olavipe by me (copyright reserved). Click on photos to enlarge.

Also see:

Pan leaves

Sadhya - a sumptuous Kerala meal


Happy Kitten said...

Think this is an addiction just like smoking.

My FIL is supposed to have stopped smoking but took up "Murrukkan" instead and all the threats of "it is bad for health" still falls on not so deaf ears that are 80 years old!

But this habit gets tough when one has to travel long distance.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Happy Kitten, at 80, let him have his small pleasure.

Happy Kitten said...

Sure.. but MIL and me do like to nag him a little and he is happy being nagged!

Kariyachan said...

I have tried murukkan only two times.

First time was during my school days on the occasion of my grandfathers death anniversary, and the second during the house warming of a relative during my Pre-Degree days.

Both times I got drowsy ("chorukku") due to 'Adakka' (Arecanut). Not at all a pleasant experience if you ever get drowsy due to Arecanut.

Binoj (somettan) said...

Dear Sir,
As usual, your narration is nostalgic, not that I have the pan habit.

However, frankly, I like your stories more than your articles.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Binoj. Sorry for not writing to you yet; shall do that as soon as possible.

lal said...

good article.