Betel leaf: Life of our cultural tradition | Daily News

Betel leaf: Life of our cultural tradition

The betel leaf has been part of Asian culture for centuries. It has its own distinct value in the customs and rituals of Sri Lanka. The green leaf is always associated with the New Year, both in January and April. It is exchanged as part of ceremonial greetings, mainly during religious rituals. Giving and solemnly receiving a sheaf of betel leaves is done very respectfully and also symbolizes best wishes.

The humble green leaf is used to take oil and anoint children during the traditional Sri Lankan New Year. I have been privileged to see temple elephants being gently anointed with oil, using a betel leaf. During the New Year meal of sweets (rasa kavili) betel leaves are kept on the table, often around the oil lamp. When people assume new office the leaves are ceremonially given as a sign of welcome. This year as we have just entered into 2021 one of the traditions not fully observed in some city homes was the handing over of betel leaves, mainly due to the small logistics issues faced with the outbreak of COVID-19. I am sure the village homes had their ‘green moment’ with this beloved leaf that has stuck close to our rituals for so long.

The town that is synonymous with good quality betel leaves is the quiet town of Alawwa. I have been here on two occasions. The demand for betel leaves has created a ‘betel pola’ (open air market) held every Tuesday and Friday. I set out exactly at midnight from Colombo in search of this lesser-known trading venue. After a long, but quiet drive, we reached Alawwa at 3 am. The air was mildly cold. A few street lights offered some comfort in the deserted town. We had to sit and wait patiently for another hour. By 4 am we saw the first signs of life, a small tractor with a dim headlight slowly making its way towards the roundabout. There were a few bicycles moving in a group.

The tractor halted. We approached with a smile. The old man eyed us with curiosity, mildly alarmed at our presence at this very early hour. Another man named Aruna Shantha, boldly walked up to us. He spoke much about how the betel leaf has become the identity of this town. Betel cultivation in this town is a full-time job for many households who depend on this income, and for others like school teachers, it is an extra income-generating project. The betel is a vine belonging to the Piperaceae family. It is known as Nagavalli in ancient Sanskrit texts.

The betel is grown in plots, and thankfully, does not attract any pests such as, bats, nor are they threatened by herds of elephants that usually invade any cultivation. A mature plant can live up to almost 10 years or even 12 if it enjoys good climatic conditions. The green leaves carefully are picked by hand every 15 days and gently sorted out as per the size of leaves. Young girls often do the plucking and help each other. They told us that they encounter the odd snake or centipede concealed in the large gardens of betel. As we talked, a few other vendors joined us as the rays of sunlight pierced the cool morning. Apparently, betel production is somewhat low in January and February, but improves during May and June.

I was surprised to find that a certain kind of betel named kalu bulath – is grown and sent to China where there is much demand. This variety is popular in the Kuliyapitiya area. Aruna told me that betel sales and its demand will increase in April owing to the Aluth Avurudu (New Year) where it is customary to venerate elders and parents offering them a sheaf of fresh betel leaves. This is a busy time and the betel growers prepare with earnest expectation. The traffic was increasing and about 70 to 80 vendors began pouring into the market square. Some were old men, a few youths and a couple of women too. They used bicycles, three-wheelers and small tractors to bring their fresh produce. The betel leaves are gently packed in a large round handmade basket called a “thattuwa”. This basket is covered and cushioned with dried banana leaves to maintain freshness, and the betel leaves are sprayed with water to retain their moist appeal to customers. The thattuwa (basket) has two sections, the large one can hold around 4,000 individual leaves and the small basket contains between 1,800–2,000 leaves neatly arranged in a circle.

As we watched, the chief of the auction, called the auction to order and walked around each basket with much pomp, partly to impress us with his authority. Prices were discussed in dulcet tones, as some smiled and some seemed a bit disappointed. An individual large leaf of top quality was sold at Rs. 3 and a small leaf at Rs. 1.50. Areca nuts (puwak) are sold by lots of 100, with each lot selling at Rs. 150. Areca nut has become part of the betel tradition. On this particular day, however, there weren’t any vendors selling areca nuts.

By 6.30 a.m. the auction was over, and the cane baskets were quickly loaded into the tractors to travel to Colombo and other regions of the island. This was the fastest, public auction of any kind I have witnessed almost like a scene from a vintage Sinhalese movie. The market square was empty, with no trace of the fascinating bargaining and selling that took place here just an hour ago. As we left Alawwa, the rest of the town was now in full swing with schoolchildren and office workers.

I had asked some vendors if chewing betel causes any form of oral cancer, they remained silent. A sage-like old man, his teeth stained red by chewing betel was quick to defend the practice saying that the dried tobacco leaf eaten with the betel is the source of illness. This is another day’s deliberation. The tobacco leaf has also been deeply bonded with the chewing of betel. A pouch of betel leaves in Colombo sells at Rs. 60–Rs. 80 depending on the type of leaves. Foreign tourists also purchase betel to indulge in the ‘chewing’ experience when on holiday. The familiar sound of an old man or woman steadily pounding the cracked areca nut with tobacco leaves, and folding it into the betel leaf is an iconic snapshot of any Sri Lankan village. This humble green leaf will be with us for decades to come.