Khai ke paan Benaras waala | art and culture | Hindustan Times
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Khai ke paan Benaras waala

Indian traders brought back the betel leaf from Indonesia 2000 years back, thanks to its medicinal properties and its usefulness as a mouth freshner, reports Damini Purkayastha.

art and culture Updated: Jan 29, 2009 19:39 IST
Damini Purkayastha

Indian traders brought back the betel leaf from Indonesia 2000 years back, thanks to its medicinal properties and its usefulness as a mouth freshner. As its popularity spread inwards from the coastal area into mainland India, it began to incorporate more and more of Indian culture. “Today, a paan has kesar from Kashmir, kaththa from the desert, lime and cardamom from other parts of India...different geographical areas come together in a paan. So when you give someone a paan today, you are giving them all of India,” says Pushpesh Pant, a professor of diplomacy at Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of Paan...Leaf of Many Delights.

Why paan is cool
“Paan is the only affordable designer product available to the masses,” says Pant. Everyone can get a custom-made paan, with less choona, or saada, or meetha, or with mughai or dry or wet supari, however they like it,” he says.

Interestingly, Pant explains, these varieties of paan also emerge from the three basic humours of medical discourse, and in older days people knew exactly which to eat when. “Earlier, the local panwaadi’s shop used to be a centre of intellectual debate, and eating paan was almost a rite of passage to adulthood. In fact, there was a poem that once said, ‘keep me forever like the colour of paan on your lips.’ Now, if you are seen at a panwaadi, it’s a sign of avaaragardi.”

The loss of the leaf
Pant says that one cannot get authentic paan anywhere but in Bareili today. “Anyway no one eats paan anymore, they eat only gutka. No one knows that tobacco used in paan in early times was in miniscule quantities and made from completely natural products that were not carcinogenic.” It was only post-1965 that chemically-treated tobacco began to be used. Pant takes a betel leaf and shows how it has dried up. Usually the veins of the leaf are removed to keep it soft and it is kept in water so the leaf is not dry. But now several paans are made beforehand and left to dry out.

“There used to be a tribe of people from Peshawar called the Chaurasias, who were experts at making paans. But unfortunately, not many panwaadis are from there anymore.” When asked what sort of paan he himself has, he laughs and say, “I only eat paan from Benaras or from a place where I know a particular patta will be available.”