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
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.