Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Introduction to the tradition of Betel-chewing

The Ocean of Story contains several references to betel and customs connected with betel-chewing. Thus, in Volume I, p. 100, when Udayana has rescued the snake from the hands of the Savara, we find that among the priceless rewards given by the snake is betel leaf.

At the commencement of the long story of Mṛgāṅkadatta (Vol. VI, p. 23) we read that the hero, while walking about on the top of his palace, “spat down some betel-juice.”

In the 1st Vetāla story (id., p. 174) we learn that betel is regarded as a luxury, and in the 4th Vetāla story (id., p. 192) we read of Vīravara, the faithful attendant, who spends part of his daily salary on unguents and betel.

An interesting reference is found in the 18th Vetāla story (Vol. VII, p. 74), where the chief of the beauties, conjured up by the science of the hospitable hermit, entertains Candrasvāmin with “betel-nut, flavoured with five fruits.”

Now, in the present volume (p. 4), one of the Brāhmans relates how he was given betel “together with camphor and the five fruits.”

These two latter references are important, and we shall return to them presently.

Apart from this, Somadeva tells us nothing. This is, indeed, not to be wondered at, for such a well-known and long-established custom as betel-chewing would call for no expatiation on the part of a native author. But what is surprising is the comparative lack of interest the custom has stimulated in the West.

As far as I can discover there is no comprehensive article on the subject,[1] but merely a host of references or short accounts in the works of travellers and government officials from about the beginning of the fifteenth century to date. Yet here we have a custom which enters into the daily life of over a hundred millions of the human race!

To the Indian, the Malay and the Indonesian it is~not only his constant companion throughout life, but is there to welcome him into the world, to see him safely married, and to accompany him into the next world. What other object in existence can boast of such devoted service to man?

In the present Appendix, therefore, I shall attempt to gather together what data I can, with the object of ascertaining, as clearly as possible, the extent of the custom, its exact nature, the numerous ceremonies in which betel plays a part, and the significance of the custom from a linguistic and anthropological point of view.


Etymological Evidence

Before surveying the area covered by the custom, it will be as well to get some idea as to the numerous words used in its connection. In order to chew betel in the most widely prescribed form, three distinct things are necessary:

1. The seed, popularly called the nut, of the Areca catechu, or Areca-nut Palm. The expressions “betel-nut” and “betel-nut palm” are both incorrect.

2. The leaf of the Piper hetle, Linn.,[2] commonly known by the vernacular pān and tāmbuli.

3. A small portion of lime (Sans., sudhā, chūrṇa), often made from pounded shells.

If a small piece of the “nut,” together with a pinch of the lime, is wrapped round by the leaf it forms a “chew”—known in modern India as pān-supārī. As we shall see later, all other forms of the “chew” are merely different “improvements,” varying with local custom, available ingredients, or the wealth of the person concerned.

In Sanskrit the usual word to denote betel is tāmbūla, but if the leaf is particularly mentioned the word nāgavallī is employed. This is the case in Somadeva. He uses the former word in all cases except in the present volume (see p. 4), where nāgavallī means “leaves of the betel,” and, two or three lines lower, tāmbūla is the “chew” which the young Brāhman puts in his mouth. The usual Sanskrit words for the “nut”—pūga-phalam and guvāka —do not occur in the Ocean at all. It is, however, from the former of these words that most of the vernacular names have been derived. Thus the Tamil is pākku; the Telugu is pōka-vakka, or simply vakka; the Singhalese is puvak or puvakka; the Gujarati is phophal; which leads to the Persian and Balochistān pōpal, and the Arabic faufal, fōfal and foufal.

We are still a long way from the word areca. This, I believe, we can trace to the Canarese aḍake, or aḍike, and the Malayalam aḍakka, aḍekka.

We have already seen that the modern term for the “chew” is pān-supārīpan being the leaf, and supārī the areca-nut. In nearly all vernaculars—Hindustani, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, etc.—the words supāri, supyārī, sopāri, hopāri refer to the “nut,” and are nearly always used in conjunction with pān to indicate the two chief ingredients used in conjunction.

Turning to the leaf of Viper betle, we find that the Sanskrit tāmbūla and nāgavallī both appear in the vernaculars. The more usual term, however, is pān, from which the Anglo-Indian pawn is derived, meaning a leaf.

The Malayalam vettila (i.e. veṛu+ila= “simple leaf”) is also used. Hence in Hindustani we find pān and tāmbuli; in Bengali, pān; in Marathi, vīḍē-chā pān; in Gujarati, pān, nāgur-vel; in Deccani, pān; in Tamil, veṯṯilai. Then follows the Arabic tanbōl and the Persian tambōl, tambūl. The Portuguese favoured the derivates of veṯṯila, which became betre and betle. From this the English betel gradually became the recognised form.[3]

It remains but to say a few words about tāmbūla. The root-word is būla, with tam as a prefix. It has been shown recently by Przyluski that būla corresponds to what he calls the Austro-Asiatic (i.e. non-Indo-Aryan) bālu, and signifies “something that is rolled”; hence all Austro-Asiatic languages use such words as balu, mluv, bölön, mĕlu, mlu, blu, plu to mean betel. Some have a prefix, such as la-mlu, ja-blu, etc. In modern times it is only the direct Sanskrit derivates that keep the prefix. For further details see Przyluski’s paper as cited below.[4]


Garcia da Orta

One of the earliest and most important descriptions of betel-chewing, and one in which words connected with the custom are discussed, is undoubtedly that given by the famous Portuguese botanist, Garcia da Orta (1563).

In the twenty-second colloquy he deals with the “fautel,” while further remarks on betel occur at the end of the work. As most readers are aware, it first appeared in the form of a dialogue, which has thus been described by Count Ficalho, Garcia da Orta e o seu Tempo:

“The two interlocutors are the two characters united in Garcia da Orta, the two sides of his spirit placed in front one of the other. Dr Ruano, the man of the schools, the former student of Salamanca, erudite, ready with quotations, with Dioscorides and Pliny at his finger-ends. Dr Orta, the traveller and observer, who, in the face of all the quotations, says tranquilly, ‘I have seen it.’ It is enough for us to note to which of these two entities Orta attaches his own name for evidence as to which of the two he prefers. From this situation, admirably conceived and maintained with much talent, the most interesting controversies result, which bring out, in the clearest light, the spirit of the work.”

The following extract is taken from the translation made by Sir Clements Markham in 1913,[5] p. 192 et seq.:

Ruano. We speak in Portugal of what is called “nuts of India.” You tell me that the betre is much used by everybody here. We use it very little. Speaking the truth with you, I have never seen it, for we put in its place the vermilion sandal.

Orta. Here it is a common thing to mix the food with the betre, and in countries where they have no betre they also use it for chewing with cravo.[6] What you say about using vermilion sandal in its place does not appear right, for in its place they have a medicine which is often falsified, and they give a vermilion stick for it; for as the vermilion sandal wants the smell, and is not in Timor whence the other comes, as I will tell you in speaking of it, there is difficulty in knowing one from the other. This ARECA is more valuable and is less perishable. The reason it is not sent to Portugal is that the apothecaries do not ask for it, for neither they nor the physicians are sufficiently curious to trouble about it. I will now tell you the names it has in the countries where it grows. Among the Arabs it is FAUFEL. Avicenna calls it corruptly FILFEL. It has the same name in Dofar and Xael, Arabian lands. The FAUFEL is very good. In Malabar they call it PAC, and the word for it among the Naires, who are the knights, is areca, whence the Portuguese have taken the name, being the land first known to us, and where it abounds. In Guzerat and the Deccan they call it ÇUPARI, but they have very little, and only on the skirts of the sea. There is a better supply at Chaul because of the trade with Ormuz, and still better at Mombaim, land and island, where the King our Lord has made me a grant, a long lease (emfatiota). In all that land of Baçaim they are very good, and they are taken thence to the Deccan; and also to Cochin they take a small kind called CHACANI, which are very hard after they are dried. In Malacca there are not so many, and they are called PINAM. In Ceylon they are in greater quantity, and they are sent to parts of the Deccan—namely, to Golconda and Bisnaga—also to Ormuz, Cambaya, and the Maldive Islands. The name in Ceylon is poaz.

Ruano. Serapio says that this areca is wanting in Arabia.

Orta. That is true to a great extent, for Arabia is a vast region, and there is areca only at Xael and Dofar seaports. For this tree loves the sea and will not thrive at a distance from it. Where it will grow they do not fail to plant it, for the Moors and Gentios do not let a day pass without eating it. The Moors and Moalis (who are those that follow the law against Mafamede[7]) keep a feast or fast of ten days, when they say that the sons of Ali, son-in-law of Mafamede, were besieged in a fortress and died. During the ten days that they were besieged, they sleep on the ground, and do not partake of betre. In these days they chew cardamom and areca, which is much used to chew, as it clears the stomach and the brain.

Ruano. Now tell me how the betre is used, how it is administered, whether to help or to rectify.

Orta. The betre is warm, and the areca is cold and temperate. The lime they use with the betre is much warmer. They do not use our lime from stone, but a lime made from oyster shells which is not so strong. With the areca they mix the medicines, you see, because they are cold and dry, and much drier when not dried in the sun. Then they add the cate,[8] which is a medicine I have mentioned before; because with the cate it is a good medicine to open the gums, fortify the teeth, and compose the stomach, as well as an emetic, and a cure for diarrhoea. The tree from which it is collected is straight and very spongy, and the leaves like those of our palm-trees. Its fruit is like that of the nutmeg, but not so large, and very hard inside, with veins white and vermilion. It is the size of the small round nuts with which the boys play. It is not exactly round, for it has a band round it, though this is not the case with every kind of catechu, for I must not deceive you. This fruit is covered with a very woolly husk, yellow outside, so that it is very like the fruit of the date-palm when it is ripe and before it becomes dry. When this areca is green it is stupefying and intoxicating, for those who eat it feel tipsy, and they eat it to deaden any great pain they have.

Ruano. How do these Indians eat it, and how do they prepare the medicine?

Orta. It is usual to cut the areca into small pieces with some large scissors they have for the purpose, and then they chew them, jointly with the cate. Presently they take the leaves of the betre, first pulling out the veins with their thumb-nails, which for this are cut to a fine point, and they do this that it may be more tender, and then they chew it all together. They spit out the first, after the first chewing, and then take more betre leaf and begin another chewing, expectorating what looks like blood. In this way the head and stomach are cleared, and the gums and teeth strengthened. They are always chewing this betre, and the women worse than the men. The lords make small pills of the areca, mixing it with cate, camphor,[9] powder of linaloes,[10] and some amber, and this is made for the areca of the lords. Serapio says that in the taste with the warmth there is some bitterness. I tried this and found it with scarcely any taste. Serapio did not know this areca and could not ascertain the taste.

Ruano. Silvatico says that he has seen it, and that it was mixed with the cinnamon of Calicut.

Orta. It may be that the Moors of Calicut take it to the Strait, and that it may come mixed with cinnamon, but it was not the cinnamon of Ceylon. That of Calicut is much more black, and is called checani. That of Ceylon is whiter, and once seen is easily known.

This is all Garcia has to tell us about betel-chewing in the twenty-second colloquy. But in “The Last Colloquy,” which is really a kind of Addenda et Corrigenda, he deals further with betel, repeating, however, much of what he has already said.

It seems to me that this is partly why the Latin versions of the works differ so much from the original edition. I notice that in the 1872 Portuguese reprint[11] the two sections on betel are put together. A few extracts from this “last colloquy” will, therefore, be quite sufficient for our purpose.

Ruano asks if they mix anything else with the “chew” besides what has already been mentioned.

Garcia replies:

“They mix cate with it, and important persons add camphor of Borneo, some linaloes, and almisquere, or ambre.”

Here we have a new ingredient—almisquere, also written almiscre, almisere and almisque, in which we recognise the salip misri of Egypt, Persia and India, the Arabic saḥleb, the Greek “ὄρχις” and our salep. It consists of the tuberous roots of various species of Orchis and Eulophia. They are stripped of their bark, heated until they assume a horny appearance, and then allowed to dry slowly. The use of salep in betel-chewing seems to have been of very rare occurrence. Orta goes on to say that Bahadur, King of Cambay, declared camphor to be an anti-aphrodisiac, but that if used in small quantities, mixed with other ingredients, it had not that effect. On some occasions the king presents betel with his own hands, “or else by others called Xarabdar or Tambuldar.”

After again describing the method of preparing and chewing betel, he returns to the etymology of betel:

Orta. The name in Malabar is BETRE, and in the Deccan, Guzerat and Canara, PAM. The Malays call it CIRI.

Ruano. Why is the Malabar name adopted rather than the others? It would be more reasonable to call it folium INDUM,[12] or we might call it PAM, as it is called in Goa.

Orta. We call it betel because Malabar was the first part of India known to the Portuguese, and I remember in Portugal that they did not say they came to India, but to Calicut. This was because Calicut was the place whence all the drugs and spices were taken up the Strait of Mecca. It was a very rich place, and now, in revenge for what we did in Calicut, all that business is lost. Although the King of Calicut is emperor, he has less power than he of Cochin, because we helped him at first. This is why all the names you see that are not Portuguese are Malayalim. For instance, BETRE and CHUNE, which is lime; MAYNATO, washerman; PATAMAR, a runner; and many others. As for calling it Folium Indum, as you suggest, it is not so called in any language; besides, the Folium Indum is quite different. Avicenna gives chapters for one and the other separately.

After speaking of the confusion between Folium Indum and betre Garcia concludes by thus describing “the shape of the leaf and the seed”:

“The shape of the leaf, as you see, is more compressed and narrow towards the point than the orange leaf, and when it is ripe it is nearly yellow. Some women like it best when it is not so ripe, because it excites and then settles well in the mouth. In Maluco this betre has seeds like the tail of a newt, and they eat them, finding them good to the taste. This seed was brought to Malacca, where they eat it and find it very good. They plant it and have a place for it to climb over. Some people, to secure more profit, do the same with pepper and with areca, making very graceful arbours of the climbing plants. It should be well cared for, kept very clean and well irrigated.”

Garcia da Orta thus not only gives us interesting etymological and botanical details, but mentions several other ingredients used in a “chew.” Before discussing the “five fruits” mentioned by Somadeva I would say a word about the texts of Garcia da Orta, as the question has an important bearing on the spices or condiments used in betel-chewing.

The first edition of the work appeared at Goa in 1563, and was reprinted by F. A. de Varnhagen, Lisbon, 1872. Clusius (Charles de l’Escluse or Lécluse, 1526-1609) made a Latin résumé of it in 1567, and on it the Italian translation of Briganti (Venice, 1576, 1582, 1589, etc.) and the subsequent French translation of Colin (Lyons, 1619) were founded.

The work of Clusius, however, was very different from that of Garcia da Orta. Now, in his notes on betel to Marco Polo, Yule used the Venice 1589 edition of Briganti. Thus in vol. ii, p.374n4, the contents of a “chew” are really those given by Clusius and not by Garcia da Orta. We shall revert to this presently.

The standard edition of Orta’s Coloquios is that by Count Ficalho,[13] 2 vols., 1891, 1895, and it is from the translation of this that I have quoted above.

We can now return to the two references in Somadeva which speak of the “five fruits” and see to what extent the twenty-second colloquy of Orta can help in identifying them.


The Five Fruits

As already mentioned, Somadeva speaks of “areca-nut,[14] flavoured with the five fruits”; and later of “leaves of the betel, together with camphor and the five fruits.” Now, although Garcia da Orta mentions several condiments used in a “chew,” we are unable to select five which could be called “fruits,” even in the widest sense of the word.

The best list we can get is areca-nut, cloves, lign-aloes, ambergris and catechu. Of these only the first could possibly be called a fruit—cloves are only flower-buds. Thus Orta is not much help in the search for our five fruits. Furthermore, lign-aloes seems to have been only rarely used, while ambergris would have been entirely restricted to the rich.

It looks, then, as if we must allow “fruit” to include every kind of spice or “flavour.”

Now in the Vaidyaka-śabda-sindhu (revised by K. N. N. Sen, Calcutta, 1913-1914), a Hindu medical dictionary, under the word “Pañcasugandhika,” which means the “five flavours” used in betel-chewing, we find the following list:

  1. Karpūra;
  2. Karikāla;
  3. Lavaṅga;
  4. Jātiphala;
  5. Pūga.

We will take each one separately.

(1) Karpūra is, of course, camphor, and is mentioned in our text quite distinct from the “five fruits.” An alternative Sanskrit name is candra-bhasma, a term which refers to its moonlike coolness. The form karpūra, and the vernacular kāpūr, kappīn, etc., in all probability have their origin in the name of the Sumatran camphor-tree, gābū or gāmbū, whence the Indian supplies were derived. For further details see Schoff’s article on camphor.[15] As we shall see later, Ramusio’s recension of Marco Polo mentions “Camphor and other aromatic spices” in connection with betel-chewing. Marsden (in his edition of Marco Polo) expressed his opinion that “camphor” was a wrong translation for “quicklime.”

Yule[16] quotes Garcia da Orta as saying:

“In chewing bāre... they mix areca with it and a little lime.... Some add Licio (i.e. catechu), but the rich and grandees add some Borneo camphor, and some lign-aloes, musk and ambergris.”

This is, however, from the Italian edition of 1589, and represents what Clusius said, not Garcia da Orta.

We have already seen (p. 243) exactly what he did say on the subject. It does not alter Yule’s contention about camphor being used in a “chew,” but the “musk” must be an addition of Clusius.[17] As we shall shortly see, Linschoten (or rather Paludanus) copies the list almost verbatim.

Yule correctly quotes ‘Abdu-r Razzāq (1443) and Abū-1-Faẓl (1596) as stating that camphor is an ingredient of pān - supārī. But as antedating Polo, he might have mentioned Somadeva, and also the Chinese writer Chau Ju-Kua (c. 1250), for whom see later, p. 256.

(2) Kaṅkāla is given by Watt (op. cit., vol. vi, pt. 1, p. 256) as the Bombay vernacular of Piper chaba, commonly known as Bakek. Ridley (Spices, p. 320) says it is especially used as a substitute for betel leaves when travelling in places where the fresh leaves are not procurable. It seems, therefore, that pān would not be needed in a “chew” that already included kaṅkāla. It should not be confused with kankola, the Marathi for Piper cubeba, or cubebs.

(3) Lavaṅga is the cravo of Garcia da Orta—i.e. cloves: Caryophyllus aromaticus, Linn. See Watt, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 205, who says “... they are also chewed in pān.”

(4) Jātiphala is the nutmeg, and (5) Pūga is, of course, the areca-nut (cf. the Sanskrit pūga-phalam).

As a comparison with the above list it is interesting to cite another set of five “fruits” sent me by a native student of Indian sociology:

  1. Cutch= extract of catechu—Hind., kat, kath; Sans., kha - dira.
  2. Chūnā=lime —Sans., sudhā, chūrṇa, etc.
  3. Supārī= the areca-nut.
  4. Lavaṅga= cloves.
  5. Ilāchi =cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum —Sans., elā, candrabālā, etc.

The Singhalese chew the rhizomes of A. masticatorium with their betel. See Watt, op. cit., vol. i, p. 222.

This is, I think, as far as we shall get in identifying the five “fruits”!

But why five? May not the number be merely conventional, because it is a “lucky number”? Surely Hindu and Buddhist literature, both secular and religious, justifies such a contention. Five is continually occurring without any apparent reason.[18]

Thus, I do not see why we need assume that the betel-chew de luxe must of necessity[19] contain five “fruits,” which are so hard to identify. From the list of ingredients we have obtained from Garcia da Orta, and any additional ones we may find in the works of other early writers, it is easy to select five, or even more, “flavours” which would satisfy the palate of the most inveterate epicure of betel-chewing. We are entitled, therefore, to regard the one recognised form of a “chew” as consisting simply of a portion of an areca-nut wrapped in a betel leaf, and flavoured with a pinch of shell-lime.

In places where these ingredients were obtainable, we must regard all added “flavours” as restricted to the houses of the rich—to be produced chiefly as a special honour to a distinguished guest.


The Area of the Custom

The geographical area covered by the custom of betel-chewing may be roughly taken as lying between long. 60° and 170° east; and lat. 40° north and 15° south. Outside this area the custom occurs only where the existence of an Asiatic colony has warranted the importation of the necessary ingredients.

The area in question includes the whole of the Indian Empire, Southern Tibet, Southern China, Siam, Indo-China, Malaya, all the East Indian Archipelago, Micronesia, New Guinea and the remainder of Melanesia as far as the tiny volcanic island of Tikopia. It is just about here that one can observe the drinking of kava taking the place of betel-chewing. In both Polynesia and Australia pān-supārī can be regarded as unknown. Although areca-nuts have been exported to Fiji, and possibly to other islands, betel-chewing rarely occurs in kava -drinking areas.

The question that at once presents itself is—where did the custom originate? It is impossible to say. Etymological evidence seems to favour an Austro-Asiatic, rather than an Indo-Aryan home. Thus we should look for its origin in the Philippines, Celebes, Borneo, Java or Sumatra.

Botanical evidence is very non-committal and uncertain, owing largely to the length of time the Areca catechu and Piper betle have been cultivated in the East. The former has been described as a native of Cambodia and Indonesia, and as being cultivated throughout tropical India. The latter is specified in Watt (op. cit., vol. vi, pt. 1, p. 248) as “probably a native of Java.” The evidence for such statements seems to be distinctly weak. The problem is increased by the fact that it is often hard to determine whether a certain tree or shrub is really “native” or whether it is the result of seeds planted, or accidentally left, by natives who have long since departed from the region in question, leaving no trace of their former presence.

Thus, in the Philippines, there is a variety of Areca catechu known as silvatica as well as several other varieties, which has led botanists to think that the wild plant originated here. “In support of this opinion,” says Beccari,[20] “I would observe that in no other part of Southern and Eastern Asia or Malaya is any species of Areca to be found which in any way approaches Areca catechu in specific characters, whereas in the Philippines an entire group of species exists closely related to it.”

But later in the paper, Mr Merrill, who discovered the plants in question, is quoted as saying:

“At the place where found, the plants, few in number, were growing in a forested ravine along a small stream at a place where an old and apparently much-travelled native trail crossed the stream. I strongly suspect that the trees that I found in this place originated from seeds accidentally left there by natives.”

There appears to be no satisfactory evidence on the question. All we can say is, that if the custom did not originate on the coasts of Southern India, it was imported from the East Indian Archipelago at a very early date.


Appliances of Betel-Chewing

The two chief objects used in connection with betel-chewing are the areca-nut cutter and the lime-box, to which is attached a spatula, or small spoon, for applying the lime. There is also the brass box used for storing areca-nuts, and various trays and bowls for holding the leaves and passing round the “chew,” when entertaining a guest. Then there is the mortar used by the toothless for grinding the nut into a kind of paste.

Although they are rarely used to-day, there is the elaborately embroidered betel-bag (for which see below), and the bowls for expectorating, used in the houses of the rich. As can be well imagined, such a list of articles used in betel-chewing makes a distinct call upon the artistic genius of the particular country concerned, and accordingly our museums contain numerous specimens of cutters, lime-boxes, etc., which are objects of great beauty and interest.

The best collection in London is to be seen at the (much too little known) Indian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The specimens are all to be found in “Room 8—metal-work.” Case 5 contains several examples of brass “Sireh”-boxes from Sumatra. Some have a design of swastikas carved on their sides. Case 13 has a very curious specimen of a nineteenth-century comb and areca-nut cutter combined—from Tan j ore. The portion forming the cutter represents a man and a diminutive woman. It is of brass, and decorated with incised ornament. In the same case is a pestle and a mortar of brass, cast and turned. Cases 14 and 17 contain a collection of Singhalese cutters and lime-boxes. The cutters vary in size from about 41/2 to 111/2 inches in length. They are mostly of steel, often inlaid with silver, and partially encrusted with brass. One is carved in the shape of a dragon, and another terminates in the head of a bird.

The cases for chunam represent, in shape and average size, an old English watch-case. They are usually of brass and copper, inlaid with silver and enriched with floral and other designs. They all have a chain of brass or copper, varying from four inches to a foot in length, to which is attached a spatula. The spatula is usually about the size of an English saltspoon, the head of which is flat and averages half-an-inch in breadth and a quarter of an inch in depth. One specimen, however (in Case 15), has a head larger than a five-shilling piece.

Another good collection of cutters will be found in Wall Cases 25 and 27. Some of these are inlaid with coloured glass, and have handles of ivory, bone or pearl. One specimen is of gilt metal set with green and red glass, while another is of steel, with double joints containing knives. Some are carved in the shape of animals—one is a grotesque horse, another a peacock.

Excellent illustrations of smaller specimens will be found on Plate XLVI, with descriptions on pages 336 and 337, of Coomaraswamy’s Mediæval Siṃhalese Art. The chief interest in this work, however, from our point of view, is the author’s excellent description of the betel-bag (pp. 238-239). This article has now almost entirely given place to the box, but is of high antiquity, and has been found represented on very early sculptures (see later, p.254n4). Owing to the fact that Coomaraswamy’s work was limited to 425 copies, and is consequently exceedingly rare, the following description of the betel-bag is given in full:

“The betel-bags (Plates XXX-XXXIII) vary in size from small ones carried in the waist-belt to very large ones, four feet or more in length. The latter were carried by a servant in processions or on journeys, hung over the shoulder. Noblemen were never without an attendant carrying their betel-bags (pp. 33-34) and lime-box; less important personages carried their own. The large bags are exactly the same in construction as the small ones—a bag of oval shape made of blue cloth lined with undyed cotton cloth, which opens nearly half-way down the whole length at the sides; the inner part is separated into two divisions. The inner division, again consisting of a double piece of cloth, is also used as a pocket, called hora payiya, ‘hidden pocket’; it has a very small opening at the upper end, through which spices, money and other valuables are put. Larger things are carried in the two outer pockets. The handle is made of embroidered cloth, or of a band of plaited cord, and is finished off at the end with a beautiful and ingeniously worked and very hard ball (vēgeḍibōrale) and tassel (pohoṭṭuva). The outside of the bag is embroidered on both sides in red and white cotton with conventional designs, sometimes very elaborately. Bags of later make are often done in red cloth, probably because the blue hand-made cloth could no longer be obtained; some of these are equally good, the tradition both in design and stitches being for some time well maintained. Few or no good bags are now made, partly owing to the lack of proper materials. One of the most perfect small bags I have seen was of red hand-made cloth embroidered entirely with silk, the use of which is very exceptional. I have referred to the plaited cord of which the handles are sometimes made; for this, cotton cord of two colours is plaited into a thick, stout, flat braid, which is very handsome and durable. It may be mentioned that similar plaited cord strings, but round, of two or three colours are made by priests for ola book strings (potlanu).[21]

“The embroidery of bags consists generally of a centre design, floral or otherwise, framed by three or more borders parallel to the edge of the bag. Of these borders the innermost is always palā-peti,[22] the largest liya-vela,[23] the others a variety of havaḍiya[24] or galbindu[25] pattern. A limited amount of coloured silk is sometimes used; the small bag of PL XXX, No. 1, is exceptional in having embroidery entirely in silk. It may be noted that silk is frequently mentioned in the Mahāvaṃsa, but never with any suggestion of its being an indigenous product. The edges of bags are either bound with woven braid, which was made in a great variety of designs, or stitched with the peculiar ‘centipede’ binding stitch.[26]

“Less common than the oval bags are the square ones. They are made from a square piece of material, the four corners of which are drawn together for the attachment of the handle, consisting of four cords instead of the two of oval bags.”

Turning to Malaya we find the betel-boxes exhibit beautiful specimens of the gold- and silversmiths’ art. Every Malay house has a betel-box or betel-tray fitted with the requisites for chewing. The more humble article is made of wood or brass. It is generally about eight inches in diameter, shaped like the frustrum of a pyramid reversed, uncovered and fitted with several brass or silver boxes, one without a cover to hold accessories such as cardamoms and cloves, and three covered for the essentials—catechu, lime and tobacco. There is also a small case, open at each end, to hold the betel leaves, a metal spatula for spreading the lime on them, and a curiously shaped scissors for cutting the dried areca-nut into small pieces. A complete set in old Malay silverwork is a much-prized possession.

In Malayan fairy stories the beauty and value of the betel sets is naturally exaggerated, and we read of boxes of solid gold studded with jewels (Overbeck, Malay. Roy. As. Soc., vol. iii, 1925, pp. 22, 28).

Many illustrations of bowls to hold areca-nuts, lime-boxes (Bekas kapor), areca-nut boxes (Chimbul), and betel-leaf holders (Bekas sirih) will be found in Ling Roth’s beautiful book on Malay silverwork.[27]

The betel-leaf holder is a flat tapering hexagonal vessel, with a vandyked upper rim. It is made out of one piece of silver soldered together at the back down to the middle. Another piece of silver is soldered on to form the base (see Fig. 57 et seq. in Roth’s work).

In his work on the natives of Sarawak and Borneo,[28] Roth quotes a passage describing the betel-basket worn by the Land Dyak:

“On the right side the Land Dyak suspends a small basket, often very prettily plaited, to which is attached a knife in a bamboo sheath, the latter sometimes tastefully carved and coloured. The basket, knives and fittings are called the tunkin, the basket itself is the tambuk and holds the siri leaf and is made to contain round little cases for lime and tobacco called dekan, and a piece of the inner bark of the bayu tree, while the knife in its sheath hanging on the outside of the tunkin is called the suida.”

Farther East, among the Micronesians and Melanesians, the spatulæ are almost always of wood, often with elaborately carved handles. The lime-boxes are for the most part made from gourds. Several good examples can be seen in the ethnographical galleries at the British Museum. In the last edition of the Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections will be found several illustrations of betel-chewing accessories.[29] Thus on page 22 are specimens of lime spatulæ from the Anchorite Islands, off the north coast of New Guinea. The ornament is derived from the tail of a lizard. Several other examples from the south-eastern portion of the New Guinea Archipelago will be found on p. 121. The handle of one is rudely carved in the shape of a human figure, while another is a small grotesque crocodile. The end of all these spatulæ, which is dipped into the lime gourd, is several inches in length, thus differing considerably in appearance from the very much smaller and differently shaped end of the Indian and Singhalese spatulæ. The reason, of course, is due to the different shape and dimension of the lime-boxes used in the two localities.

On p. 72 of the Handbook are illustrations of the complete apparatus for betel-chewing from Ceylon, with the exception of the betel-bag described above.

Having thus acquainted ourselves with the ingredients that form a “chew,” some etymological evidence, the extent of the custom, and the appliances used in its observance, we can proceed to the actual accounts found either in Sanskrit literature, or given by early travellers to India and Indonesia.

Footnotes and references:


Except L. Lewin’s Ueber Areca Catechu, Chavica Betle und das Betelkauen. Stuttgart, 1889.


Not Piper Betel, as so often misquoted. Linnaeus used the Latin “Piper” and the Portuguese “Betle” in conjunction.


In the sixteenth century the English word was spelt betola, bettle and bettele; in the seventeenth century numerous forms are found—e.g. betele, betell, bethel, betre, bettaile, bettle and betel; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries betle, beetle, betelle and betel were the usual forms. Thus the now accepted betel did not become the only recognised form till early in the twentieth century.


“Emprunts Anaryens en Indo-Aryen,” Bull, de la Soc. de Linguistique de Paris, vol. xxiv, 3rd fasc. (No. 75), 1924, pp. 255-258.


Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India by Garcia da Orta. The first part of the title of the original edition was:

Coloquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India, e assi dalgūas f rutas achadas nella onde se tratam algūas cousas tocantes amediçina, pratica, e outras cousas boas, pera saber cōpostos pello Doutor garçia dorta... ”

Being the third work ever printed in India the typography is far from perfect, and the pagination is hopeless. In fact, we must really go by signatures rather than the page numbers. Those of the twenty-second colloquy are: M, Mij, Miij, Miiij, of which the corresponding page numbers are: 101, 90, 101, 92 and 103 (which has no signature). The section on betel at the end of the work is on li, liij, liiij and liiiij, and four more pages without signature. These correspond to pages 210, 211, 210, 210, 212 (three times) and 217. The pages are numbered on only one side. I follow the first edition in the British Museum. Until January 1927 the Museum Library possessed a duplicate copy of this exceedingly rare work, but it has since been exchanged for another book altogether. There are, I understand, not more than fifteen copies in the world. An additional feature of great interest and value about this first edition is that it contains the earliest verse of Camöens. See Burton’s Camöens, Lyricks, 389-391.


I.e. cloves.


Muhammed. They did not follow any law against Muhammed, but were of the Shiah sect. [Markham.]


I.e. catechu. See later, p. 247; and p. 264 et seq. of Orta.


Here Markham has omitted a comma, which makes all the difference to the meaning.

The original 1 563 Portuguese edition reads:

“... e cō ellas misturá cate, e cáfora, e podelinaloes, e algú ábre...”

The words translated as “small pills” are “pirollas pequenas.” These undoubtedly correspond, says Mr Ridley in a letter to me on the subject, to the round flat discs which the Malays make of chewing-gambier, etc.


Lign-Aloes, Agallochum, “Eaglewood,” or Calambac, the fragrant wood of Aquilaria Agallocha, Roxb. (Thumelæaceæ), of Assam, Bhutan and Burmah. [Markham] The podelinaloes of Garcia is the powdered resinous wood. Like ambergris, it must have been used only by the rich. See further Watt, op. cit., vol. i, p. 278 et seq.


Edited by F. A. de Varnhagen.


This is the malobathrum of Pliny, to be identified with various species, of Cinnamomum, of which the chief are C. tainala (the Cassia lignea) and C. zeylanicum (true cinnamon).


Strange to say, I can find this work in none of the big London libraries, including the British Museum.


Tawney calls it betel-nut.


Journ. Amer. Orient. Soc., vol. xlii, 1922, pp. 355-370.


Marco Polo, vol. ii, p.374n4.


Or perhaps a substitute for “almisquere.”


Thus, apart from the uses mentioned in Vol. I, p.255n2, we find references to the five nectars (milk, curds, ghī, honey and sugar); the five leaves of trees (mango, pipal, pipalo, jam bu and udumbara); the five jewels (ruby, sapphire, pearl, emerald and topaz), and five beauties of woman (hair, flesh, bone, skin and youth). So also are there five trees of paradise, five arrows of Kāma, five products of the cow, five great sacrifices, five sacred flowers, five emblems of royalty. Somadeva (Vol. V, p. 121, and Vol. VI, p. 157) speaks of flowers of “five colours” and “five hues.” See further, W. E. Geil, The Sacred 5 of China, London, 1926.


Yet cf. the “five brothers” of the Sumatran section (p. 294).


“Palms of the Philippine Is,” Philippine Journ. Sci., vol. xiv, p. 301.


Olai.e. the leaf of Corypha umbraculifera, used for MSS.


Lotus-petal border.








Pattēyā, “centipede,” or mudum mesma (backbone stitch), appears to be peculiar to Singhalese embroidery. It is an elaborated herring-bone. Two needles are used in conjunction. For a detailed description of the work see Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 241.


H. Ling Roth, Oriental Silverwork, Malay and Chinese, London, 1910. See Figs. 3, 4, 5, 30-34, 38-47, 50-53 and 57-62.


The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo, vol. ii, p. 39.


See also Moseley, Journ. Anth. List., vol. vii, 1878, pp. 379-420.

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