Story of the Paan Culture
Ram Pyaari, Meenakshi, Lal Pari, Panchrangi, Kasturi, Surabhi, Madhuri, Heena, Dil Kush, Mohini, Calcutta.......... et al - all names that are more colourful than the others; and very much in the veins of the die-hard connoisseurs of paan. For in these, lie the delectable, tempting, addictive and immensely popular flavours and varieties of paan. In fact, the habit of eating paan has been so popular that it has slowly crept in to become a part of our heritage and culture. Akin to a craftsman creating his craft, a paanwala creates his much beloved paan. The art of creating a perfectly mouth-watering paan truly lies in the hands of the paanwala!
Definition of Paan
A betel leaf or paan is a tropical creeper belonging to the pepper family of plants, in the division of Magnoliophyta in the plant kingdom.
Usually eaten at the end of a meal, it is understood to help in digestion and can be a substitute for a dessert. A paan-seller is found in every nook and corner of not only cities and towns but even in smaller villages in India.
The betel leaves are glossy and heart shaped. Though it is grown extensively in India; Malaysia is said to be the country of origin. At one time it covered the Far East, India and went on to Madagascar and East Africa. There are many varieties of betel leaves and the best one is called maghai or maggai from the region of Magadh, which is in Bihar, India.
History of Paan
Paan has been an important part in social life and customs for hundreds of years in India. In the courts of the Moghul kings and other medieval rulers, paan was chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener; and was offered as part of hospitality, friendship and love.
It is said that paan was invented by the scholars of Ayurveda with the help of Dhanvantari thousands of years ago. Reference of paan is also found in Shrimad Bhagavatam as Lord Krishna used to chew it.
It is said that the tradition of eating paan was popularised by Queen Noorjehan, Empress of the Mughal Dynasty. In the olden days, 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.
According to Sushrata, the patriarch of ancient Indian medicine, paan keeps the mouth clean and strengthens the voice, tongue and teeth and guards against diseases. It is also said to aid in digestion and purify blood.
Paan eating was taken to its zenith of cultural refinement in the pre-partition era in North India, mainly Lucknow, where paan eating became an elaborate cultural custom, and was seen as a ritual of the utmost sophistication.
Paan - part of tradition & culture
Paan is a vital part of Hindu life. Money is placed on it while payments are made to priests. Grooms go to the house of the bride carrying a betel nut cracker. These used to be made of silver, gold or brass and were exquisitely carved, making them a collector’s delight today. As a gesture of hospitality, all over India, paan is offered and is considered to be very holy. At one time paan served the purpose of lipstick. The pouting red lips of young women have been the theme of many folk songs as well as classical literature.
Paan has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in India and Southeast Asia. Most paan contains areca nuts as a filling. Areca nut is often mistakenly translated in the English language as ‘Betel nut’, a misnomer, for the betel vine has no nuts. This name originated with the fact that the betel leaf is chewed along with the areca nut, the seed of the tropical palm Areca catechu. Supari or adakka is the term for the nut in many Indian languages. Although paan is generally used to refer to the leaves of the betel vine, the common use of this word refers mostly to the chewing mixture wrapped in the betel leaves.
Variations of paan with both local traditions and the dominant traditions have been created by royal families in different regions of the Indian subcontinent. The tradition of giving away paan en-masse at social occasions finds its origins in the princely kingdoms of India, where paan was given along with other gifts to those in the kingdom for celebrations or holidays, or to visiting parties as a symbol of welcome and honor.
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.
In Rajasthan, paan chewing is very popular, in fact during a marriage, the bridegroom’s relatives have dinner only after the bride’s relative serve a betel leaf to every one of the bridegroom’s relatives. This ceremony is known as niyona.
Betel leaf eating has great significance in the wedding rituals of most provinces of India. Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years from India to the Pacific. It constitutes an important and popular cultural activity in many Asian and Oceanic countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Philippines, Laos and Vietnam. It is not known how and when the areca nut and the betel leaf were married together as one but archaeological evidence from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines suggests that they have been used in tandem for four thousand years or more. Considered an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism, the areca nut is still used along with betel leaf in religious ceremonies and also while honouring individuals in most of Southern Asia.
Art of Paan-Making
Preparation of paan is an art and the secret technique is passed down from generation to generation. This has been in practice for centuries and was a craze among aristocrats. There are several ways a paan can be folded and this itself is a special branch of the paan culture.
The skilled paan maker is known in India as a paanwala. In some parts of northern India, paanwalas are also known as panwaris or panwadis. Many people believe that their paanwala is the best, considering it an art that takes practice and expert touch.
The traditional way of paan making, storing and serving is interesting. The leaves are stored by wrapping them in a moist, red coloured cloth called ‘shaal-baaf’ inside a metal casket called ‘paandaani’. The paandaani has several lidded compartments, each for storing a different filling or spice. To serve, a leaf is removed from the wrapping cloth, de-veined, and kattha and lime paste is generously applied on its surface. This is topped with tiny pieces of areca nuts, cardamom saffron, coconut pieces/powder, cloves, etc., according to the eater's personal preferences. The leaf is folded in a special manner into a triangle, called ‘gilouree’ and is ready to be eaten.
On special occasions, the gilouree is wrapped in delicate silver leaf (warq). To serve, a silver pin is inserted to prevent the gilouree from unfolding, and placed inside a domed casket called ‘Khaas-daan’. Some paan makers insert the pointed end of a clove to prevent the ‘gilouree’ from unfolding. Alternatively, the gilouree is sometimes held together by a paper or foil folded into a funnel with the gilouree's pointed end inserted inside it. Voracious paan eaters do not swallow; instead, they chew it, enjoying its flavours and then spit it into a spittoon.
Omnipresent, one can find a paan shop in the markets, outside the theatres, bus stops, everywhere. Every paan seller has his special recipes. There are lots of varieties of paan but most famous are Banarasi, Calcutta, Meetha (sweet) and Sada (plain).
Once an integral part of the household, betel boxes today have become a part of Indian artefacts. The most characteristic feature was the perforation work either on the lid or in the entire case. The perforation added beauty and ornateness to the betel boxes and at the same time kept the leaves fresh for a longer period. Some betel boxes were recreated in shapes, like that of a pumpkin, a melon, a flower, a mango etc., others were shaped like peacocks and parrots. Usually there is a flat tray inside, on which betel leaves and the nut-cracker are placed. Underneath the plate there are different compartments for the various ingredients.
Much earlier, the betel boxes were made of khas grass or even terracotta which was kept wet by sprinkling water so that the leaves remained fresh.
Types of Paan Leaves
There are three different types of paan leaves; Kalkatta, Banarasi and Maghai. Kalkatta paan is dark green in colour, compared to Banarasi paan which is lighter green and Maghai is available in both shades but it's much smaller in size. Out of all the three types, Kalkatta paan preparations are very popular and sell the most.
While the normal paan leaf sells for Rs. 15 for 100, the Kalkatta sells for Rs. 300 for 100! The paan leaves are segregated into five types, namely badi kali (big leaf), choti kali (small leaf), chakli (wide leaf), kavni kali (medium leaf) and ration (waste or slightly spoilt leaves) and sold accordingly. In Hyderabad, the leaves come in from Vijayawada, Wadampa and Chiknur.
Varieties of Paan
Paan has various forms and flavours. The most commonly found include; sada paan - betel leaf filled with a mixture of a coarsely ground or chopped areca nuts and other spices; and meetha paan - betel leaf with neither tobacco nor areca nuts. The filling is made up primarily of coconut, fruit preserves, rose petal preserve (gulkand) and various spices. It is also often served with a maraschino cherry.
The delicately flavoured paan from Bengal is known as deshi mahoba. Maghai and Jagannath are the main paans of Benaras whereas paan prepared from small and fragile leaves from South India is known as chigrlayele. The thicker black paan leaves, ambadi and kariyele, are more popular and are chewed with tobacco.
All varieties of preparations are made in all three types of paans i.e., Kalkatta, Banarasi and Maghai. Mava is when all the masala (ingredients) of the paan is mixed together and had without the paan.
Common ingredients used in all the varieties of paan are chuna, belgaum, laxmi chura, gulab chutni, green gold chutney, kathha, kashmiri sugandh, mukh bilas, dilbahar chutney, preeti chain, elaichi and gulkhand. Flavours include rose, khus, pineapple, chandan, kesar, kewda, lajawab, milan, mango, rola gola and many more.
Why, you can even get a gold paan, silver paan, chocolate paan, marriage special paan! The cheapest costs Rs. 5 and the costliest is the marriage special one at Rs. 1500/- !!!
Places like PVS Paan Mahal at Paradise are as opulent as you can get when it comes to selling the humble leaf! They have their special paan masala laddu, which they claim will stay fresh for a year.
Make your own Paan
The most important thing in making a paan is the way it’s prepared, it differs from hand to hand. If the chuna and kathha is not in the right proportion it can be harmful. If one happens to put more chuna then it cuts the tongue.
After mixing the common ingredients, for meetha paan add gulkand, kharik, munakka, khopra (grated coconut), badam powder (almond), kaju powder (cashew), pista powder (pistachio), cherry, special salli supari (finely chopped supari) and gulab powder (rose).
For a sada paan, add special roasted supari, kalkatta supari, special salli supari, badam chutney on hari patti (small green leaves)
For sada meetha, add roasted supari, kharik, special salli supari, gulab powder and elaichi water (cardamom water).
Paan in Movies
Can the movies be far behind, when it comes to incorporating popular habits?!
Teesri Kasam: The song ‘paan khaye saiyaan hammar’ from this film was indeed a lyrical ode to the beauty of paan in the Indian society.
Padosan: It was Kishore Kumar throughout this film that never allowed it to go out of his mouth and adapted it in a beautiful manner.
Pakeezah: What importance paan had in the Islamic culture and civilization was underlined with great sensitivity through this film. This film also underlined an integral part of the Indian culture that when a paan is offered one should not refuse it.
Don: ‘Khaiyke paan banaras wala’ by both Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan popularized the song, and it was this song which was able to underline the importance paan has in day-to-day life.
Chashme Baddoor: Saeed Jaffrey played the role of a paanwala and was able to bring out the subtle nuances and mannerisms associated with a paanwala and the importance that he has in the social structure of a city.
According to traditional Ayurvedic medicine, chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a good remedy against bad breath. Paan is an antiseptic and also an Ayurvedic aphrodisiac medicine. Myriad are the uses of paan, for it is said that it cures headaches, joint pain and arthritis as well as toothaches. In some places it serves the purpose of an antibiotic and a digestive medicine. It cures constipation, congestion and helps in lactation. It even helps in ridding the body of worms.
Unani stream of medicine claims that paan is a sweet smelling stimulant that prevents flatulency. It stops bleeding. Applying heated paan as a foment, especially in the case of children cures stomach troubles. Drinking betel leaves boiled with black pepper cures indigestion. An application of ground paan leaves on the temples, or few drops of its juice on the nostrils, gives relief from headaches. In cases of acute constipation a well-greased stalk can be inserted in the rectum and it can give instant relief to children. Paan leaves placed on open wounds work wonders within a day or two. Greased with oils and placed on the breasts of nursing mothers, paan promotes lactation. Eating paan is good for colds and coughs. In acute cases heat the leaf and rub it with oil on the chest. Coriander and mint kept tucked in paan retain their freshness. It may be taken as a concoction of tea for good health. This eliminates body odour emanating from sweat and menstruation. Gums and teeth are kept healthy by chewing it. Betel leaves relieves nerve disorders, exhaustion and pain and in many cases a concoction with diluted sweetened milk eases urination. Mixed with honey it is a good tonic. It helps in respiratory trouble that affects the lungs of young and old. Sore throat, inflammation is cured with the local application of paan paste. Boils also can be treated with paan.
Scientists in Calcutta (Indian Institute of Chemical Biology) claim that in paan lies a potential cure for leukemia. A molecule from it has destroyed cancer cell without harmful side effects. This discovery has led to the experiment being carried out in other parts of the West and Japan. In all cases leukemia cells are totally destroyed. The same effect showed on experiments with mice. Clinical trials with humans have yet to be started. If successful, cancer treatment will become cheap and affordable. The journal of the Hematological Society of America has accepted this study for publication in its journal.
Other Uses of Paan
Paan is often used for cooking. Meat is wrapped in paan leaves and cooked. Other fillings like shrimps, shallots and peanuts are often used in South East Asia. Platters are decorated with paan leaves.
Paan wine (which I’ve seen in Coorg) is another enjoyable version of the paan and it truly compliments the local food of the region.
Back home in Hyderabad, for those who would love to have paan in any form, you can get to taste paan ice cream at one of the first-class restaurants. Then there is paan vodka also, for the adventurous!
Md. Arif, whose forefathers have been selling paan since the time of the Nizams says proudly, “My great grandfather used to sell paan secretly since it seems it was not allowed to be sold then. Generations of ours have been in this same business.”
Srinivas of PVS Paan Mahal says, “Our place is very popular because it is very neat and we get the best of ingredients and fine quality paan leaves. Ours is also the first A/c paan shop in AP.” Talking about their USP, he says, “Quality and neatness is what we are known for. Just like how you have a 3-star, 5-star restaurant, I wanted to open a proper upmarket paan shop, since there were none in Hyderabad. Many paan shops sell duplicate paan leaves, but not us. Another reason why we are so popular is because we have ladies also making the paan so that women are comfortable to come in and buy. In 15 years, many paan shops have opened up as competition but couldn’t sustain. Instead they serve chat and other stuff also. But ours is an exclusively paan store. The only other thing we sell is ice-gola, that too which is made with mineral water. We get customers from overseas like Dubai, New York and many other places who take paan in bulk.”
Another local paan dabba wala, Sharif miyan (as he is called) while popping in his favourite saada paan and making a ram pyari paan for a customer says, “Paan ke bina zindagi adhuri hain Madam. Ek baar aadat paad gayi to bas hain zindagi bhar ke liye (life without eating paan is incomplete. Once you get used to it, it is a habit for life)”. According to him, the paan culture originated in Hyderabad centuries ago! “Leou Madam, ek meetha try karo (take madam, try one meetha paan),” he adds while thrusting a sweet paan into my hand with a paan-stained toothy smile!
Every paan-lover in India has personal favourites, maghai paan being the most famous. Amitabh Bacchan's rendition of ‘khai ke paan banaras wala, khul jaye band akal ka tala', is exactly how paan-lovers praise their favourite chew. For them it refreshes the mind.
Paan shops are a part of the Indian culture and paanwalas with their makeshift dabbas (kiosks) are a source of entertainment and information. Come evening, one finds many converge at the small corner to discuss the day’s events or hold a heated discussion on the latest happenings. Business, of course, is never forgotten. Various types of paan are briskly passed around to liven up the discussion and profit.
It is these innumerable little paan dabbas that are keeping alive a culture that originated centuries ago! So, how about a paan in ode to all of them!
Month: June 2010.
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