A Journey from Parna to Paan

About 5,000 years back, there came about a remarkable innovation created from simple green heart-shaped leaves which imbibed itself so strongly in the Indian culture and life that its presence in even the 21st century remains as steadfast as ever. Popularly known as ‘Paan’, these leaves are most popular and economical in the Indian subcontinent than any other.

Paan through Ancient Texts

Earlier understood as ‘Parna’ or ‘betel leaf’, this herb from antiquity has been mentioned several times in the mythological and religious texts. Its mention can be first found in the sixth-century book Skanda Purana, named after the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, which mentions that paan was obtained by the Gods during the churning of the ocean as nectar for immortality or Amrit. It is also assumed that Lord Shiva along with his wife had himself sown betel leaves in the Himalayas.

Further, Paan has its roots sown deep into the legendary tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Lady Sita with nothing else to offer, gifted Hanuman a garland of betel leaves when he came to visit her in Lanka where she was subject to imprisonment while Arjun was asked to acquire betel leaves in order to complete a significant yajna and overcome evil forces.

A 16th-century cookbook, Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi also includes the spread out of Paan leaves with rosewater and saffron sprinkled over it, while the Sultan of Mandu overlooked the entire ordeal.

Renowned explore Marco Polo has commented amusingly on this Indian custom “All the people of this city, as well as of the rest of India, have a custom of perpetually keeping in the mouth a certain leaf called Tembul (paan), continually chewing it and spitting out the saliva that it excites. The lords and gentlefolks and the King have these leaves prepared with camphor and other aromatic spices and also mixed with quicklime. This practice was said to be very good for the health.”

Ayurvedic Benefits

Ayurvedic texts like Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Astanga Hridayam, include several therapeutic and medicinal uses of Paan. A herb for infected ears, blood purification and throat clearance, these betel leaves were also used to colour a woman’s lips in ancient times.

Threefold Usage

That is definitely not all! It is most popularly digested as a mouth freshener after a meal, especially in the regions of Northern and Eastern India.

The chewing manner of the betel leaves has largely transformed over the years. As of the 21st century, instead of being consumed plainly with areca nuts, ingredients like slaked lime, catechu, tobacco and many other flavouring substances are also added.

The addition of tobacco in these paan leaves often proves to be addictive for thousands of people who consume betel leaves daily to quench their need.

In the state of Mysore, Paan is gifted on special occasions as an auspicious sign of good fortune, while in Assam it is used to welcome guests. Especially chewing Paan during the festival of Diwali in Maharashtra and Durga Puja in West Bengal is found to be quite common.

With its raging demand, the trade of betel leaves with foreign countries along with the domestic sale of Paan provides the country with a great economic return, even though there has recently been witnessed a dip in this sale with the introduction and popularity of ‘gutka’.

Talks About Cancer

When exemplifying its nutritious and rousing qualities, one can not forgo Paan’s health deficits when it comes to harming the teeth, causing oral sepsis, alveolaris, palpitation and oral cancer. When mixed with tobacco and similar additives, it can cause more harm than not, which is also affirmed by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and WHO (World Health Organisation). Betel leaves alone cause no harm which is proven by the insistent consumption of paan by people of the earlier era though it is recommended by specialists at present to devour these leaves occasionally.

Irrespective and including of these many features, Paan is an irreplaceable eatable for the people of India and hardly anyone in the country remains unaware of its presence, even during these dynamic times.

Reference :

  1. Guha, P.. “Betel Leaf: The Neglected Green Gold of India.” Journal of Human Ecology 19 (2006): 87–93.
  2. “What Makes ‘Paan’ A Favourite Of Indian Food Culture?”, Times of India, Entertainment Times, (2019)
  3. Jain, Srishti, “The Story of Paan”, Karwaan Heritage (2020)
  4. Gupta, SaanviCultural significance and health benefits of the Paan Patta”, The Pioneer (2020)
  5. Bajaj, Gunjan “Why is the Betel Leaf (Paan Patta) So Significant in Hindu Traditions?”, NDTV Food (2018)
  6. Toprani, Rajendra and Patel, Daxesh “Betel leaf: Revisiting the benefits of an ancient Indian herb”, South Asian Journal of Cancer (2013)