The habit of chewing betel is ingrained in many Myanmar’s
however diverse their ethnic background may be. Betel is chewed and the resulting red juice expectorated along with the remaining pulpy mass.
Although no part of the original quid is consciously swallowed, the expression ‘kun sar thi’ which literally translates as eating betel, lends emphasis to the fervor and habitual nature with which betel is used.
These betel sellers (below) with their portable stalls conduct business in the precincts of the Botataung Pagoda. Cheroots (middle) and cigarettes ‘ local and imported ‘ are also among their wares.
Betel is the fresh leaf of a vine belonging to the botanical family piperaceae and is cultivated in India, Myanmar, the Malaysian Peninsular, Indo-China and Indonesia. A quid is the triangular-shaped, leaf-wrapped form containing the required ingredients ready for consumption. It is prepared by thinly smearing a fresh betel leaf with slaked lime, adding thin slices of betel nut and some cutch, then folding the leaf so that the ingredients are wrapped and enclosed.
For a tastier and more elaborate chew, condiments like cinnamon, cardamom, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, camphor, cloves, licorice and dried coconut may be added in small quantities. Such delicious concoctions are indeed fit for the connoisseur.It is believed that the betel chewing habit originated very long ago in India as it was mentioned in the discourses of Lord Buddha. The eminent 13th Century traveler Marco Polo mentioned in his diaries that Indians were in the habit of consuming betel. It is apparent that the habit already existed in Myanmar before the Bagan period (1057-1287). In 1147 Queen Saw inscribed a stone tablet dedicated to the
Kunmi Pagoda, decreeing that paddy she donated be used as payment for betel nuts for monks in a monastery.
Other inscriptions also provide concrete evidence that both clergy and laity consumed betel in this period. During the monarchy it played an important role in administration matters, especially in connection with court rulings. Litigants gathered to consume betel together to show their satisfaction with the ruling and absence of animosity.
Rank, status and office of individuals could be distinguished by the right and privilege of using betel and related paraphernalia. It is widely claimed that betel chewing sweetens the breath and this is undeniable true, but dental health can be adversely affected.
The Myanmar pharmacology prescribes betel leaf for the treatment of phlegm, wind, fever, defective vision, gall and bladder ailments.
The case against betel chewing arises from the staining of roads, pavements, floors and walls of public buildings, offices, residents, parks and gardens. Betel habitu’ are wont to indiscriminately spit the scarlet streams of juice and there is a dearth of sand boxes and spittoons to catch the ejected juice. Notices have appeared in certain places warning of fines of 500 kyats for offenders. Newspaper articles stress the need to desist from such behavior detrimental to the state’s efforts to beautify the capital and the country.